20th Apr2015

‘Game of Thrones 5×02: The House of Black and White’ Review

by Gretchen Felker-Martin

“Now matter how many times you call her “mhysa,” she is nobody’s mother.”

Being a woman in Westeros is a raw deal.  Whether you’re a lowly wildling or a queen you’re going to live under the constant threat of abuse, war, kidnapping, and worse.  No matter how high women climb, no matter how hard they fight or how loud they scream, they will always be women in a world that(like our own) treats being female as some kind of unsolvable problem.

Watching those same women flat-out refuse to give up, no matter what shit they have to wade through, occupies most of ‘The House of Black and White.’  From princess Shireen, defiantly optimistic despite a life of abuse and seclusion, teaching the tough-as-nails survivor Gilly to read to Brienne of Tarth deciding with mulish stubbornness that Sansa Stark is getting a bodyguard whether she wants one or not, everybody’s grinning through the pain. The episode opens with Arya Stark staring up at the Titan of Braavos like she’s trying to figure out how to scale the bastard and get a pencil into his jugular.  The statue is a stand-in for men, a grossly outsized reminder that they bestride the world women have to live in.

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Even Cersei, finally power-tripping it up in Tywin’s office and council seat, gets a face full of shit from her uncle Kevan(hats off to veteran actor Ian Gelder for bringing his A-game lemon-eating scowl) for trying to rule on her own.  Granted, he’s right to be suspicious of any action his niece takes, but that he’d rather get his marching orders from a big-eyed teenager is a real slap in the face for a woman who’s spent her life waiting for a seat at the table.  Kevan cuts her off at the knees with a scathing, “you’re the queen mother, nothing more.”  Endure a brutal marriage to one king, give birth to two, and you’re still just a womb with legs to the Old Boys’ Club.

In Dorne there’s a very different showdown going on.  The stunning Indira Varma’s Ellaria Sand, whose equally stunning paramour prince Oberyn lost his life when his feud with the Lannisters came to a head-

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-is haunting the water gardens(also stunning) like a ghost in black, and her belief that one should get both mad and even has left her fixated on chopping the innocent princess Myrcella into pieces and shipping her finger by finger back to King’s Landing.  The serpent jewelry the camera dwells on in her introductory shot is a clear link to the viper the super-sleuth Lannister Twins correctly deduce is a threat on their daughter’s life.  That it’s Ellaria and not Doran who wants revenge, and a particularly ugly and pointless kind of revenge, allows the show to defer action in favor of developing the Dornish characters.  But violence, the Viper’s widow promises the prince, is coming.

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Speaking of violence, it’s rare that a show paces it believably.  Characters mouth off between blows, bragging about their ancient kung fu techniques, revealing key plot details: it’s terrible, and it saps the tension and energy out of even the best-choreographed exchange.  Game of Thrones does it better than most, but the kinetic, heart-stopping fight between a desperate Brienne and Littlefinger’s knights still stands apart as some of the best short-form televised violence I’ve seen.  When Brienne screams at Podrick to get down there’s a real sense that everything will be decided in seconds, that the processes of bloodshed she set in motion by elbowing some rando retainer in the face could kill this bumbling kid in a heartbeat if she misses her shot.

That Brienne is turned away from Sansa’s service and scorned as a failure for losing those she swore to protect is especially cutting because A: it’s Petyr Baelish saying it while smirking through his ‘stache and B: Ser Barristan dropped the ball on keeping his charges alive with two kings and a prince, got fired from the Kingsguard, and now serves as a trusted adviser to one of the most powerful women in the world.  The real reason nobody trusts Brienne is that she has committed the crime of being a woman without the qualities piggish Westerosi culture values(beauty, shyness, inexplicably hairless legs in a medieval setting) at that.  She doesn’t care.  Like Arya, Cersei, Dany, Shireen, and Ellaria, Brienne just puts her head down and charges.

The Wall, as ever, feels perhaps unavoidably like its own thing. Jon Snow’s election to Lord Commander is kind of rushed, but the whole seven-minute scene (which introduces a new character, contains three stump speeches, and explains an entire democratic process) is worth it to hear Ser Alliser Thorne’s “if he wants to run then let’s see his long-form birth certificate” speech about Jon.  Owen Teale is a gift.  Arya’s material with the titular House, a monolithic temple on an isolated island in the center of Braavos, feels the weight of a similar disconnect and a sharply limited amount of screentime.  The House itself is a striking image, Braavos is pure fantasy double stuf, and actress Maisie Williams really sells “dead-eyed child soldier” when she tells a bunch of muggers that “nothing’s worth anything to dead men,” but the rest is just dancing around a foregone conclusion.  We know the minute she stands in front of that place, dwarfed by its immensity, framed by one snowy door and one dark, that it’s going to swallow her.

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In the end it’s Dany who most comprehensively embodies everything going on in ‘The House of Black and White.’  Having conquered a city and become its queen she now finds herself every bit as trapped by the expectations of those around her as Cersei is across the Narrow Sea.  Counseled to mercy after hearing horror stories about her late father’s ideas about justice, she finds herself in an impossible situation when her ex-slave advisor Mossador kills a Son of the Harpy awaiting trial in her dungeons.  Reece Noi brings a damaged, febrile heat to Mossador as he pleads with a woman who can’t possibly understand the life he led as a slave, but in the end Dany’s vision of justice takes his head.  The onlooking mob of slaves ceases its pleas for mercy and begins to hiss like one enormous serpent, a cultural display of scorn and disapproval to which Dany reacts with perplexion and unease.  She knows in that moment just how far from home she is in Meereen.

The episode ties everything together with a moment set later that night on the balcony of the great pyramid.  Dany receives a visitation from Drogon, the largest and wildest of her scaly children.  They nearly touch, Drogon sniffing at his mother, Dany holding out a trembling hand, and then the dragon recoils and lofts himself out over the city, soaring away into the dark.  For Dany, trapped in a city that craved her mercy and love but disdains her alien sense of justice, a city that has frustrated her with its bloody traditions and frustrating populace,  it is the first bar of that ol’ Targaryen rag that always ends so well:

Fire and Blood.

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