The game in Game of Thrones has always been a long one. Long-standing grudges animate contemporary scuffles; ancient prophecies fuel current obsessions. Individual character arcs have a massive, historic sweep. Even if you haven’t read the books, you watch the show at least half-aware that there are 4,000-plus pages of novel out there, tracing out the past and future of these complex, protracted journeys.
But we’ve also reached a kind of crossroads in that meta-story, in that we know the show is diverging from the books and will eventually outpace its own source material, like some kind of strange, semi-sentient plot contraption Christopher Nolan might have dreamed up.
For me, this backstory gave a little extra jolt to “The House of Black and White,” which was written by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss and directed, like the season premiere, by Michael Slovis. There’s something exciting — and I’d guess unnerving, for many book readers — about the uncertainty of what lies ahead now in Game of Thrones. And in tonight’s episode, many of the main story lines circled back to this question: What do you do when all your plans fall apart — when you, in essence, run out of script?
Brienne, Arya, and Daenerys each face this challenge in their own way. (We do indeed seem to be embarking on a female-centric season.)
Brienne, for her part, tackles the problem the only way she knows how: steadfastly. Many characters in this episode reiterate or enact vows that bind them to particular courses of action. Jaime promises to “make things better” by going to Dorne to bring back Myrcella; Jon Snow rejects Stannis’s offer to make him a Stark by fiat, and thus Lord of Winterfell, because of his oath to the Night’s Watch. (In a circular bit of logic, it’s that very rejection that proves he is lord material.) Brienne’s vow to Catelyn, that she would protect her two daughters, has been the warrior woman’s lodestar for three seasons now. That vow was doubly bound when she promised Jaime that she would find Sansa after the girl escaped King’s Landing following Joffrey’s death — she named the sword he gave her, forged from Ned Stark’s blade, “Oathkeeper.”
Brienne is not a true knight, as she reminded Podrick last week. But like many people who set their heart on an identity that society doesn’t mean for them to inhabit, she distinguishes herself by the ardency with which she adheres to the principles of knighthood. In last season’s finale, Daughter No. 1 rejected her protection, and in tonight’s episode, Daughter No. 2 does as well. After running into Sansa and Littlefinger in an inn (don’t think we didn’t see you making eyes at that tavern wench, Pod; we haven’t forgotten your secret seduction skills) and being dismissed by Sansa as a Lannister-lover, Podrick suggests that maybe, just maybe, this means Brienne is released from her vow.
Brienne insists that her oath remains in effect because the girl isn’t safe with Littlefinger. (Though as Sansa grows ever darker and cannier and continues to experiment with symbolic neckwear, we’ll see how true that remains.) But then, what is a knight without a vow? What would Brienne even do without the Stark girls charting her course? Brienne’s debut on the show saw her winning a tournament to enter Renly’s Kingsguard; her entire life is shaped by service. Would she open a tavern? Become a professional bear-fighter? Her only option, it seems, is to stick to the original script.
Arya takes the opposite tack. The other Stark sister arrives at the Free City of Braavos, having won passage there by giving a Braavosi ship captain Jaqen H’gar’s iron coin — which she received way back in season two — and the magic password: “valar morghulis.” They sail into the city under the legs of the colossal Titan of Braavos, which the captain tells her has guarded the city since olden times, when it would wade into the sea and smash Braavos’s enemies. However, having seen another giant, classical statue come crashing down in Meereen last week, we may be more skeptical about the longevity of such protective city symbols.
The captain tells her that she will find what she seeks in “the House of Black and White” and rows her there himself. She thanks him, and he replies that any man of Braavos would have done the same (another vow in an episode studded with them). The scene also introduces us to one of the episode’s primary visual motifs: people looking very, very tiny while standing next to giant edifices. Arya knocks on the huge black-and-white door and says to the old, robed man who comes to it that she’s looking for Jaqen H’gar. The man replies that there’s no one by that name. She insists that she’s crossed the Narrow Sea and has nowhere else to go — and the man replies, cryptically, “You have everywhere else to go,” before shutting the door on her.
So here’s poor Arya, having spent three seasons alternately in disguise, in captivity, on the lam, or on the way to being ransomed, coming up to the threshold of a breakthrough — having finally positioned herself as the agent of her own story — and having that figurative door shut in the plainest, most unceremonious way possible. She isn’t given a test or a challenge or a riddle to solve; the door literally shuts in her face. She’s already abandoned the world she knew. She had no plans beyond this one. What else is there for her to do now other than sit there, in the dark and the rain, incessantly mumbling her murder litany?
Eventually, Arya’s reaction to running out of script is to toss the script — in the form of Jaqen’s coin — into the water and walk off. And I wonder if this is the real test she needed to pass in order to gain admission to Faceless Man HQ: to give up, to surrender, to abandon the very notion of a path. I’m assuming it wasn’t her admittedly impressive act of pigeon decapitation. Because clearly, she passes something, as very soon she meets and is brought back by the old robed man — who turns out to be (hooray!) Jaqen H’gar. Or more properly, not–Jaqen H’gar. He is “no one,” he/not-he tells her, “and that is who a girl must become.” The Stark name is a great prize, as the Jon story line reminds us, but it can also be a heavy burden, yoking you to a difficult legacy and likely to get you killed. Seasons ago, when Jaqen H’gar first offered her tutelage with the Faceless Men, Arya turned it down because she needed to find her family. After so many seasons of being ground down and hardened by circumstance, you can imagine why shedding her family name, and her self, might be appealing.
So Brienne moves forward by doubling down on her identity while Arya must abnegate hers. Daenerys’s next steps are not so clear. We’ve been watching Dany’s triumphant “liberation” campaign in Slaver’s Bay curdle for many episodes now, as her naïve ideals and performance-oriented brand of statecraft keep rubbing up against the grim, complicated reality of ruling a fragile nation. Tonight’s scenes provided the plot rush I feel this story line has been needing for a while. Just as Cersei is having trouble getting her all-male council in line (her uncle Kevan refuses to accept the notion that she’s acting purely on Tommen’s behalf and storms back to Casterly Rock), Daenerys deals with dissension among her advisers. The former slave Mossador assassinates the Son of the Harpy who killed White Rat last week, then compounds his crime by mansplaining to Mhysa that he set her free, by doing what she really wanted to do all along but couldn’t.
Like Robb Stark and Rickard Karstark in the third season, Daenerys is faced with the unpleasant task of having to execute a loyalist who has committed a passionate, if ultimately illegal, act of vengeance. Like Robb, she tries to leverage the performative value of the act to establish her authority, but in classic Daenerys Stormborn fashion, she does it in the most maximalist, bombastic way possible. Everyone in Meereen, it seems, has turned out for show. The commoners call Mossador “brother”; they name Daenerys “mother.” But intra-family drama never turns out well on Game of Thrones. When the blade comes down, there is a moment of silence, and then the world turns on a hiss.
As the guards snap into formation around her, the black shields create a box around white-clad Daenerys — echoing the “large, comfortable box” that Varys describes, which keeps him away from those who repulse and are repulsed by him. Daenerys tried to tell the story of her as a loving, protective all-mother — she planned to become Meereen’s new harpy, in a sense. But in an episode full of shots that emphasized just how large certain structures were (the Titan, the House of Black and White, Lollys’s family castle) the shot of the pyramid immediately after the riot was the most eloquent. It is simply too large, too difficult for a single person to move. Earlier, when Daenerys told Mossador that there are no more masters, he responded, “Then who lives in the pyramids?” Well, Daenerys lives in the largest one now, and its freighted symbolism finally seems poised to crush her. When she encounters her prodigal son Drogon on the roof, he looms as large as a pyramid, and though she manages a somewhat more loving encounter with him than she did with his brothers last week, he still flies away before she can touch him. Daenerys’s plot may have finally escaped her grasp, too. Whether she will take the Brienne route and clutch it harder, or take a page from Arya’s book and release it, remains to be seen.
Some final thoughts:
- A friend pointed out that the scene with Gilly, Shireen, and Selyse is the first we’ve seen with so many women at Castle Black. The script here spent an awfully long time discussing greyscale, touching on the way it turned Gilly’s sisters into something strange and non-human and how Maester Cressen “cured” Shireen, without going into much detail on either. Exposition for a future plotline?
- There’s a funny recent episode of Black-ish where Dre teaches Junior about the dozens. It seems Sam has been taking similar lessons, judging by the way he flung the zingers at Janos Slynt, clearing the way for Jon Snow to be elected Lord Commander despite Slynt and Alliser Thorne’s xenophobic assertions that Jon’s “wilding-loving” ways render him unfit for the post. Incidentally, the election-by-children’s-stacking-toy seems to be the first democratic activity we’ve seen so far in Westeros.
- Dr. Julian Bashir!!! My seventh-grade self is so, so happy to see Alexander Siddig on this show. Note the way that Prince Doran admonishes a grief-incensed Ellaria that they won’t be mutilating young girls for vengeance so long as he is on the throne — echoing Oberyn’s claim to Cersei that Myrcella would be safe with his family because they don’t hurt little girls in Dorne. But as Cersei retorted, everywhere in the world, they hurt little girls. Ellaria’s mention of the Sand Snakes does not bode well for the blonde girl wandering the Dornish gardens.
- Do yellow and blue have some kind of significance? The color combination seemed to be everywhere tonight, from the robes of the former masters in Meereen to Lollys and Bronn’s clothing to the tile work in Dorne.