Game of Thrones Revisited: 5.02 The House of Black and White
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Game of Thrones, the critically acclaimed TV series by David Benioff and DB Weiss and developed from the best-selling series of novels by George RR Martin, has become a cultural icon. The tentpole of HBO's programming with a stellar cast and mix of medieval-style political drama and war with a healthy dash of fantasy, Game of Thrones has enthralled audiences worldwide. And this year, the show will come to a dramatic end in its final run of feature length episodes. In the lead up to season eight, I explore every episode leading up to the final battle for Westeros and the rest of the world, continuing with season five's The House of Black and White.
Warning: There may be spoilers for seasons one to seven...
As much as there is a sense that Daenerys' storyline stumbled after she liberated the slaves and conquered Mereen at the start of season four, the events that followed deliver a fascinating exploration of the challenges of ruling people fairly and justly. When she is liberating people from chains, Daenerys can play the hero and saviour, but it is much harder to rule in relative peacetime, when you have made sweeping reforms and now need to uphold them. In this sense, the Mereen storyline that dominates the second half of season four through five is about proving to the audience as much as this world that she is fit to sit on the Iron Throne.
After all, family legacy and title is not enough. She is reminded by Barristan Selmy that her mad father would murder with impunity anyone who opposed him and his laws; Daenerys is not like that. When the Son of the Harpy that murdered her Unsullied is caught she chose not to exact bloody vengeance but imprison him and put him on trial. It's a just, righteous course of action but also one that is her undoing. When the former slave that blindly followed her kills the prisoner, he in turn faces her 'justice.'
Mereen is a powder cake waiting to explode and you could feel the tension as the slaves pleaded for mercy and she had Daario execute the slave anyway. The slaves turning on her, first with hisses and then rocks and furious violence shows that even good beliefs might not always have the intended outcomes. She fails to understand the desperation and horror and uncertainty that came out of the fall of Mereen. She says there are no slaves and yet the slave asks who sits in the great Pyramid. She might not have the people in chains, but she still lives in both luxury and power and her actions in Breaker of Chains last season only carry her so far, By the episode's end she not only has the Sons of the Harpy out to destroy her and two rebellious cities to face but her own people swearing violence against her. It is a hopeless and sad situation, summed up by the timely arrival of Drogon who appears momentarily and then abandons her...for a while...
Talking of rule, this is the episode that sees Jon Snow rise to power as the new Commander of the Night's Watch. It's a great scene; no one is really able to oppose Alliser Thorne until Sam makes an impassioned speech about how brave and skilled a leader Jon is, resulting in a tie broken by the wise, delightful choice of Maester Aemon picking Jon and setting him up as the new commander. It's a great pay off on his actions last season but one that will take him down a treacherous path for the remainder of this one. Ironically, in refusing Stannis's offer of Lord of Winterfell, his path will still lead him to becoming King of the North before the end.
Other storylines are less eventful, designed more to move pieces around the board and continue the set up of the last episode. Varys and Tyrion continue their journey to Mereen on the road to Volantis while Jamie teams up with Bronn to bring his daughter Myrcella home from Dorne. This is a great partnership that will elevate the otherwise frustratingly dull Dorne storyline. We get our first glimpse of a wasted Alexander Siddig as Lord Doran Martell, who refuses to heed the call of vengeance by Elleria Sand for the death of his brother Oberyn last season.
In King's Landing there are more power plays as Cersei, free of her father, asserts her rule as acting Hand to her son, against the wishes of uncles Kevan who quickly leaves for Casterly Rock as quickly as he arrived. There is also an abrupt end to Brienne's quest to find Sansa as she encounters the Stark Daughter and Littlefinger in an inn and is immediately called out for her inability to save previous charges Renly and Catelyn. The thrilling escape, pursued by Littlefinger's knights is a great little bit of action in an otherwise 'talky' episode.
And finally Arya arrives at the city of Bravos and the titular House of Black and White. The episode however shows us very little; she spends most of the episode waiting and fighting off street brats before Jaqen H'ghar reveals himself and leads her inside. Again, this was a story with great potential that never quite delivered, a symptom levied at season five in general. Whether that will feel the same on re-watch remains to be seen.
Like the season five opener, this is a much more introspective episode, exploring the challenges of ruling while introducing the frustrating Dorne and Braavos storylines that will waste good characters like Jamie, Bronn and Arya. It's not a bad episode by any means, by in the high standards that Game of Thrones set in season four, it fills, yet again, like some of the momentum has been lost...