Sunday, April 19, 2015

Game of Thrones 5.2: The House of Black and White

Welcome back to week 2 of our season 5 Game of Thrones recaps. And if I'm ever part of a road trip comedy duo, my other half would be Christopher Lockett, who joins me once again to fill us in on the links between HBO and GRRM. This week we manage to reference LostThe Odd Couple, Deep Space Nine, Downton Abbey, and even Sherlock, because that's the way we roll in Westeros. This week, I'll let Chris begin things. 

Christopher: I just want to begin by saying: wow, they weren’t kidding when they said this season was going to diverge far more significantly from the books. We have a number of crucial changes here, ones that very likely can’t be mere narrative side-trips that then link up with the main story again (such as Jon Snow’s raid on Craster’s last season). Sansa and Littlefinger’s departure from the Vale, their encounter with Brienne at the inn—which effectively obviates Brienne’s narrative through A Feast for Crows, as she now has no mission—Jaime’s mission to Dorne with Bronn in tow, all of these plot points open up uncharted territory for anyone who has read the books.

I think it’s safe to say that the message boards and discussion threads will become very heated as fans argue themselves hoarse. For myself, I am cautiously optimistic, but also somewhat realistic about where we’ve arrived in the show versus the novels. When A Dance With Dragons first came out, I tore through it in a day and a half, reading it like a starving man at a Vegas buffet. When I reread it some time later, taking my time, it was a much more ambivalent experience: it became, as a friend of mine said, like pulling taffy. There were still a lot of amazing sequences, but the overall feeling was that GRRM had let the story get away from him. ADwD boasts no fewer that sixteen POV characters, which is double that of A Game of Thrones. So I think it’s not just fair, but necessary, that Weiss and Benioff venture off on their own, presumably with GRRM’s blessing.

But I’ll speak more to the divergences as they come up in this post. For now, let’s begin at the beginning with something that, until its final moment, falls out roughly in line with the novels: Arya’s arrival in Braavos, and her induction into the House of Black and White. We’ve seen Braavos before, though mostly from the perspective of the inside of Mycroft’s Tycho Nestoris’ impressive bank. Now we get something more of a street—or canal—view, and see more clearly the specifically Venice-like quality with which GRRM has imbued this city. I halfway expect to see Salerio and Salanio hailing Arya with “What news on the Rialto?”

Arya, in spite of her assertion that she’s not afraid, is obviously at the least rather trepidatious, startling when the Titan hails her ship’s arrival with a massive horn blast. The ship captain ferries her to the House of Black and White, waving off Arya’s thanks with “Any man of Braavos would have done the same.” That being said, he is by no means inclined to hang around and make sure everything works out for her, immediately rowing off as soon as he’s said his goodbyes. It’s made a little clearer in the book that the captain has fulfilled something resembling a sacred obligation, but that, his duty done, wants nothing more to do with Arya or her destination. Which makes sense: if this is indeed a house of assassins, I certainly wouldn’t want to linger.

And … Arya is rather coldly turned away. “I have nowhere else to go!” she protests to creepy robed man. “You have everywhere else to go,” he responds cryptically, and closes the door in her face.

What is Arya to do? Well, besides camp out in front of the House of Black and White, fingering Jaqen’s coin and reciting her kill list? After an indeterminate amount of time, which seems to be at least a day or two, she despairs and throws the coin in the canal. Exit, stage left … and when we next see her, she is quite deftly decapitating pigeons in the narrow streets of Braavos because, well, holding a several day vigil culminating in despair makes a girl hungry. But she runs afoul of a bunch of local thugs—and we see just how fearless Arya has become, telling them to walk away without flinching or any hint of nervousness. Traveling across half of Westeros in the company of the Hound makes a few street louts small beer, apparently. It would have been interesting to see how the fight proceeded, and whether Arya was justified in her bravado; but she is saved by the reappearance of creepy robed guy, whose very presence makes the thugs run away (not like little girls though, as it’s the little girl who has the stones to hold her ground).

She follows him back to the House, and gets back her coin—which considering that it was last seen sinking to the silt of the canal, is an impressive piece of prestidigitation. And then comes the moment that, as I watched it, the disturbance I felt in the Force was presumably Nikki squeezing.

What do you think of the return of your favourite assassin, Nikki?

Nikki: Your premonition was correct, sir. My notes reflect it with the “JAQEN!!!!!!” that’s written in huge letters across the bottom of one page. Oh, how I have missed him. Or, should I say, oh how a woman has missed a man.

I must add that the Lostie in me couldn’t help but snicker when Arya walked up to the doorway. Watching with a group of friends, I said, “Two doors, two sides: one is white, one is black.” I was convinced John Locke was going to be on the other side of that door.

The special effects they used to show us Braavos were magnificent. I did wonder why, in Arya’s kill list, she’d left off Ilyn Payne. He was always one of the ones she was after. Or why she hasn’t added Roose Bolton to the list. Joffrey’s gone, so clearly word has leaked to her that he’s dead, so one would think that she’d hear little voices giving her other updates.

Meanwhile, in the north, Brienne has caught up with Sansa and Baelish, as you pointed out, and she is totally badass, as I love my Brienne being. She has lost her purpose when Arya turned down her offer of protection, and now she’s two for two with being rejected by Stark girls. Unlike with Arya, however, Brienne intuits that Sansa isn’t acting of her own volition, and she cuts loose the horses of Baelish’s men, races through the forest with them on her heels, gets separated from poor Pod, turns around, and still manages to save Pod, take out a knight or two, and get back on the trail of Baelish’s men. She is amazing. Gwendoline Christie continues to up her game every year with this character. She’s meant to be this lumbering giant of a woman, who is unattractive yet exceedingly loyal, and Christie — who is gorgeous outside of the character — pulls it off, giving Brienne this stubborn resolution that when she makes a promise, she damn well keeps it. Her loyalty to Catelyn Stark is unyielding, and in a show where every character switches sides several times an episode, Brienne’s allegiance never wavers. It’s hard to tell if Sansa is scared of Baelish, as Brienne believes she is, or if she’s just made yet another wrong decision in a long line of wrong decisions by turning her down, but in any case, Brienne isn’t giving up this mission.

Meanwhile, way over in Dorne, Ellaria, Oberyn’s lover, is super pissed at what has happened to him. She appeals to the Prince of Dorne that they torture Myrcella in retaliation, and she is clearly the one behind the threatening pendant that gets sent to Cersei. Also, she mentions the Sand Snakes; thanks to Entertainment Weekly, I not only know who they are, but I’m ca-RAY-zee excited to see their debut. What did you think of our glimpse of Dorne?

Christopher: As with Braavos, they’re not scrimping on the sets and effects budgets. The Water Gardens, Prince Doran Martell’s favourite place to hang, has been rendered in nothing less than exquisite detail. Dorne is one of the more interesting places in the Seven Kingdoms, not least because it is the one region that does not conform to the typical fantasy convention, bequeathed by Tolkien, of an alternative world that bears a striking resemblance to medieval northern Europe. Sad to say that GRRM does indulge in some typical clichés: the hotter climes are inhabited by similarly hot people, both in terms of their looks and temperaments, but even so it makes for a welcome change from the usual mail-clad Saxons that have pervaded the story so far. Oberyn and Ellaria added depth and complexity to season four—I look forward to seeing what their broader families bring to season five.

I’m delighted that Indira Varma is reprising her role as Oberyn’s paramour, and not just because I think she’s one of the most beautiful women ever. Her rage and intensity in her scene with Prince Doran was a great bit of almost-but-not-quite scenery chewing, and wonderfully offset by the prince’s steely calm.

And if I may nerd out for a moment: GoT continues with its spectacular casting with Alexander Siddig as Doran Martell. The all-caps in my notes when he first appears are “DR. BASHIR!” I was a big fan of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which I think is my sentimental favourite of all the Star Treks, and I always loved his character on that show.

He is himself a pretty extraordinary actor, and you see that in his understated performance in this brief scene, playing against the cliché: he is all icy restraint in the face of Ellaria’s simmering rage, and his expression communicates to the audience that which Ellaria is apparently, in her rage, blind to: that he too desires revenge against the Lannisters, but is too smart to take his vengeance in the most obvious and immediate way. “We do not mutilate little girls for vengeance,” he says, “Not here. Not while I rule.” When he said this, I immediately remembered Oberyn’s conversation with Cersei in the previous season, when he assured her that in Dorne they do not hurt little girls. “Everywhere in the world,” Cersei replied bitterly, “they hurt little girls.” But not, apparently, on Prince Doran’s watch; and his admonition to Ellaria is just one of the myriad little signals of the similarities between brothers.

I too am excited to see the Sand Snakes. I think the only thing I’ve ever seen Keisha Castle-Hughes in was her Oscar-winning performance in Whale Rider; I loved that film, and was utterly blown away that a thirteen-year-old girl could pull off such a powerful performance. And her she is, all grown up, and the publicity shots HBO has circulated make it clear she is every inch her father’s daughter and the undisputed leader of the Sand Snakes.

There is a lot more I could say about these characters apropos of the novels, but I will resist until they have actually appeared on the show. But wow, do I want to talk about them.

If I can just return for a moment to Brienne’s encounter with Sansa: I can’t emphasize how much of a change this is from the novels, not least because it completely obviates her entire storyline in A Feast for Crows. She’s now found and been rejected by both of the girls she was sworn to protect. In the novels so far she finds neither of them, but has a road-trip tragicomedy with Pod. Now … what? presumably she tries to follow Sansa, as seems to be her intention at the end of this episode, but that doesn’t seem wise. I think I know where she’s heading, however, based on a split second image in one of the trailers. Speculating might seem a bit spoilery, so I’ll just show you the screen cap.

From Dorne … wait, one more point. We went to Dorne in this episode, but it wasn’t in the credits! What’s up with that?

Ahem. From Dorne, we go to Mereen, where Daario schools Grey Worm on the finer points of undercover investigation. And what transpires can really only be called a clusterfuck. What do you make of the Mother of Dragons’ increasing difficulties in managing her provisional kingdom, Nikki?

Nikki: I was surprised not only that Dorne wasn’t in the credits, as you point out, but that the golden harpy continues to be on the top of the palace of Meereen in the opening credits, despite it being taken out in quite astonishing fashion in the previous episode. Usually they’re really good with keeping the credits in line with the episodes themselves. Maybe that’ll be corrected before the end of the season.

But oh, Daenerys. I said in last week’s post that Tyrion could be the perfect advisor for her, but at this point, the problem isn’t who advises her — it’s how she interprets that advice. Earlier in the episode Ser Barristan tells her about the Mad King — her father — who was so ruthless, so brutal, that he more than earned the negative name by which he’s now known. After listing off the tortures that Aerys imposed on people — and the pleasure he derived from it — Ser Barristan says, “His efforts to stem dissent led to a rebellion that killed every Targaryen... except two.” Daenerys listens to every word, her chin falling as her eyes remain on Ser Barristan, almost looking like a little girl again for a moment, and you see her take a nervous swallow at one point as she processes everything he’s telling her. “I’m not my father,” she says. He agrees, but adds that the Mad King “gave his enemies the justice he thought they deserved,” and despite it making him feel more powerful, his reign came to a bloody end.

Ser Barristan delivers his speech immediately following a Council session, where Daenerys and her advisors discuss what to do with the man who killed White Rat. The table is split down the middle between those who want him killed, and those who want a fair trial. Mossador, the former slave, argues that this is Meereen, and here, when he was a slave, he worked under people who showed no mercy. Anyone who kills should be shown the same, he says. This man does not deserve a trial, and should be killed to teach a lesson.

Oh, how prophetic his words will become.

In the previous episode, when Mossador asked why Daenerys would annoy the nobility to search out who had killed White Rat, she replied that when angry snakes are bothered and lash out, it’s easier to cut off their heads. And so, in this episode, even when he finds out that Daenerys has decided to offer a fair trial to the murderer, Mossador goes down to his jail cell. The man is rude, tells him Daenerys doesn’t deserve to be there, that she will never be his mother no matter how many times they call her “Mhysa.” With the help of the Unsullied, Mossador kills him and stands him up in the street for all to see. He believes that he’s doing what Daenerys wants, that she’s being pushed to offer a fair trial when what she really wants is justice for her children.

But Daenerys is furious. He tells her that he did it for her, that the masters will never allow the slaves to rise up into positions of power. Daenerys, naive as always, says there are no more masters or slaves, as if people’s very ideology can be changed overnight. He argues that the Golden Harpy is killing her children. We cannot forget that when Daenerys first came to Meereen, Mossador was the slave who stood up and argued for the other slaves to join her, to rise up against their masters and fight. He reminds her of this, and that he lost his own father in the fight that he helped lead to allow Daenerys her victory. But despite everything he says, despite his pleas, she resolutely states, “The law is the law.” The look on Mossador’s face is one of utter disbelief: how could the woman who was there to free him offer a trial to the murderer, but execute one of her “children” in front of all the others?

The Mad King acted out of sadism; Daenerys acts out of a sense of teaching discipline. Despite their different intentions, the end result is the same. Daenerys stands as the mother before her children, explaining that Mossador acted wrongly. The people have accepted her as their Mhysa, and they call Mossador their “Brother” as he kneels before Daenerys. They assume they’re here to see a whoopin’, but when Daarios pulls out a scythe dagger and holds it next to Mossador’s neck, their adoration suddenly turns to horror. They beg her, they cry, they hold out their arms and plead with her. Mossador quietly pleads for his own life, but it’s too late. With one swipe, Daenerys commits infanticide in the eyes of her people, and they begin hissing at her.

She’s provoked the angry snakes, all right, but they turned out to be her own children.

The Unsullied are no longer there to protect her people against those who would oppress them, but are now there to protect her against her people, who see her as a turncoat who promised one thing and turned out to be quite another. Just as her two dragons — her other children — attacked her when she went to check on them in the previous episode, now these people who see her as their mother have turned on her. As their Mhysa, she freed them from their chains. In order to keep them safe, she had to chain up her other children. But in trying to teach them a lesson, she’s taken things too far. At the end of the episode, when Drogon returns and leans down to her, she smiles in surprise, and reaches up — tentatively — to his face. Drogon was always her favourite dragon, but he’s also the most dangerous. He’s wreaked more havoc than anything or anyone else who has pledged fealty to her. Will he turn out to be an asset, or more of a detriment? Can she get out of this one?

Meanwhile, up in the land of the ice and snow, Gilly is learning to read thanks to Shireen, and the Happy Lords of the Night’s Watch are choosing a new leader. Was the vote for Jon (which is, no doubt, a Vote for Change) consistent with the novels, Chris?

Christopher: Vaguely consistent, but carried out (mercifully) with far more brevity. In A Storm of Swords, the voting is a protracted affair that proceeds like a presidential primary: a multitude of candidates, some popular and some not, an interminable series of ballots, some candidates pulling out of the running and throwing their support behind someone else, and so forth … all while Stannis fumes at how long it’s taking.

One of the key differences is that Janos Slynt is the key antagonist here, with Ser Alliser backing him, as opposed to vice versa as they have it on the show. In terms of differences from the novels, I should point out here that Janos was actually a much bigger antagonist in the book: he arrived at Castle Black just as Jon made his way back from his sojourn with the Wildlings. Taking provisional command of the Night Watch, Janos threw Jon in a cell, branding him a traitor. And he remained Jon’s implacable enemy from that day forward, even after Jon was exonerated and released.

The whole voting process (which, though protracted, wasn’t actually that tedious) unfolds mostly from Sam’s perspective, and he manages to work behind the scenes to convince some of the major players to endorse Jon Snow. When the final vote happens, it is overwhelmingly in his favour.

That being said, I appreciate how they’ve tightened it up here; I loved Sam’s speech about Jon; and I loved even more that it was Maester Aemon who cast the deciding vote.

All of which takes place while Jon has to decide whether or not to accept Stannis’ offer to legitimize him as a Stark and give him Winterfell. Which on one hand is of course a betrayal of his vows; on the other, it’s everything he’s ever wanted. His decision in the novel is more agonized, and effectively decided by his elevation to Lord Commander. There’s also the added dimension that, in the novels, Mance Rayder has a wife and a sister-in-law. His wife dies in childbirth as Stannis’ forces descend on the Wildlings, but the child lives. Gilly becomes wet nurse to the King-Beyond-the-Wall’s heir. And the sister-in-law is a strikingly beautiful blonde woman named Val. Given that she is Wildling “nobility” (and gorgeous besides), a not-insignificant number of Stannis’ knights start to imagine that she would make a good and profitable marriage. But to sweeten his offer to Jon Snow, Stannis says that he would give him Val as a wife, thus cementing by marriage an alliance between the North and the Farther North.

Of course, Jon turns Stannis down. He is his father’s son, after all (or is he?). Honour and duty define his actions, whatever his previous dreams and desires.

Which I believe brings us to Tyrion and Varys, who have wasted no time in getting on the road to Volantis. And at the risk of repeating myself: thank the gods. Way too much time was spent in A Dance with Dragons with Tyrion moping about Illyrio’s mansion, getting really drunk and feeling sorry for himself. He’s still feeling sorry for himself, but at least he’s doing it on the road, and being quite funny at the same time. One of the things I’ve loved about this series is the way it always manages to give us at least one odd couple per season, paired characters whose personalities provide tension comic, dramatic, or both: Varys and Littlefinger, Jaime and Brienne, Brienne and Podrick, Arya and the Hound, Tyrion and Bronn.

What do you think of the comic potential for the Varys and Tyrion roadshow, Nikki?

Nikki: Every season I’ve said I would absolutely watch a spinoff of one of the roadshows, all ones that you’ve mentioned above. And Varys and Tyrion are no different. You have Varys, who always remains eerily calm — we have never seen him lose him temper or even raise his voice — even when prying the lid off a box containing the whimpering man who had castrated him so long ago. Tyrion, on the other hand — much like his sister — is looking for some sort of solace at the bottom of a bottle, and he’s a mess. Put them together, and you have the Imp being as obnoxious as he possibly can be, whining and stomping his feet that he wants out of the box (and, by the way, understandably so, since he just crossed the sea while crammed into one), and Varys, rolling his eyes and putting up with everything Tyrion does; the Felix to Tyrion’s Oscar. You mentioned last week that Tyrion spends far too long in the books feeling sorry for himself, and it seems they’ll definitely be truncating that for the show, though what we’ve seen is no doubt entertaining.

Also entertaining is the new Bronn/Jaime pairing, which as you’ve said above, doesn’t take place in the books. As viewers will recall, in season 4 Bronn was going to be Tyrion’s champion against the Mountain, but Cersei bribed him with a marriage offer that would raise his station. The price? He wasn’t allowed to help Tyrion. He took the bribe, but was up front with Tyrion that he did so. Tyrion, sitting in his cell, assured Bronn that there were no hard feelings, because Bronn had never hidden the fact that he was an opportunist, and that that quality is what Tyrion liked about him.

And so now we see Bronn with his new lady love, Lollys Stokeworth, or as I like to think of her, the Lady Edith of Stokeworth Abbey. She’s plain, and the barely-thought-of second daughter, though this one seems to be a bit of an idiot, blubbering about how her sister is so mean to her but that she’ll never inherit the castle (which seems to come as some surprise to Bronn, since Cersei had reassured him the sister would never lay claim to the castle and instead it would fall to him). When Jaime shows up, she’s like a 12-year-old at a One Direction meet and greet, fawning all over him, flirting, giggling, and generally acting like even more of an idiot than she had been before. Jaime tells him that Bronn is coming on a mission with him to rescue Myrcella from Dorne, and in return he’ll give him an even better marriage. Like the guy selling Christmas trees in A Christmas Story, who, after praising the virtues of a scrawny tree suddenly looks at it, says, “Hell, this ain’t no tree!” and tosses it aside, Bronn leaves without a second thought. And, just like her poor Downton counterpart, Lady Lollys is left alone once again, dealing with her awful sister.

Next week: Jon Snow is the new commander, Jaime and Bronn begin their own road trip, Tyrion continues his journey inside a box (or goes crazy enough that he finally breaks out of it), and Daenerys deals with the fallout of the execution of Mossandor. Or, as we like to think of it, just another day in Westeros!


Anonymous said...

Thank you for another great recap.

The show is doing just what I hoped in would in streamlining the show as I agree that after Tywin's death the books started to spin out of control with far too many minor characters receiving too much attention. I almost liken it to the Season 3 finale of Lost (pls don't be mad Nikki).

As soon as Jamie tells Cersei that he won't be going to Dorne alone I thought BRONN! He's easily one of my show favs and I'm thrilled that unlike in the novels he's back in the mix. They're a great team.

Here's hoping that we get to see the meeting between Tyrion & Dany in a week or two and that they don't make us wait for the Season Finale.

-Tim Alan

Austin 'Teebore' Gorton said...

The ship captain ferries her to the House of Black and White, waving off Arya’s thanks with “Any man of Braavos would have done the same.”

I realized watching this episode while Braavos has always struck me as a comforting place, where I want Arya to end up: it's seemingly the only place in the entire series where someone can honestly say "any man would have done the same".

Everywhere else, nothing can be taken for certain. Guests invited into the home can be slain, a promise from a king can be broken, but give a Braavosi that coin and say the magic words, and he will deliver you to the House of Black and White NO MATTER WHAT.

I find that comforting.

I was surprised not only that Dorne wasn’t in the credits, as you point out, but that the golden harpy continues to be on the top of the palace of Meereen in the opening credits, despite it being taken out in quite astonishing fashion in the previous episode.

Last season, the show was annoyingly lax about not showing the Eyrie despite all the scenes of Littlefinger and Sansa set there, so they seem to be less diligent about updating it. Then again, they go and do something random like adding Pentos back in for one episode, so who knows?

The Question Mark said...

I thought I must have just missed Dorne in the credits. I'm glad that's not the case and I'm not the only one who was anxious to see it!
Chris, I'm really digging the new directions the show is taking. The deviations are kind of exhilarating because now we readers have no clue what to expect next. If I remember right, I think the show runners said they're leaving out all the stuff with Theon Greyjoy's uncles, which is fine by me. But at the same time, all these changes leave me with one big burning question:
As a writer, I can't help but put myself into GRRM's shoes and think: what do I do if the choices the show makes end up being better received than the ones I make in my own books? Do you guys (as writers yourselves) think Martin might start shaking things up on the page now to get his ducks in a row with the series? Or is it too far along now to make any big changes?

Nikki Stafford said...

Question Mark: I've actually wondered the same thing, to be honest: what are the chances that the show begins to influence the direction of the books? It's a bit of a scary thought, since the two are diverging quite a bit at this point and I'd kind of like to see GRRM do his thing and show do its thing. One thing's for certain: I really hope he finishes before the show does, or else they'll use the ending he has planned and then it's rather sullied for the books, isn't it? (Unless, of course, he's given them a fake ending, ha!)