The House of Black and White: Arya arrives in Braavos. Pod and Brienne run into trouble on the road. Cersei fears for her daughter’s safety in Dorne as Ellaria Sand seeks revenge for Oberyn’s death. Stannis tempts Jon. An adviser tempts Dany.
“The House of Black and White” continues from the season premiere with an episode that does not feel propulsive, and indeed feels more like an introductory episode. Perhaps this is not so very strange, given that it has the heavy task of reintroducing one of the major characters left out in the previous episode, reintroducing a more minor character who has been ax regular, and then introducing an entire new area in Dorne and (some of) the new characters that come with it.
Combined, these introductions means that the narrative sometimes needs to pause, to stop advancing forward parts of the story introduced in the first episode to make room for the new areas of narrative opening up in the second. There’s nothing particularly extraordinary in this episode, and certainly nothing that has quite the turn of the end of “The Wars to Come” when Mance Rayder is given a merciful end by the choice of Jon Snow. In fact, some of the events here are very much diluted from their more memorable novel counterparts—a shame, as always—and to the point where if we were asked for what was the best area or story in this episode, we’d have to pick a story that depends heavily on invention by the writers in the name of necessary cuts.
The thing about Game of Thrones is that it’s trying to tell a very big story, squeezed into a 10 hour per season package. This is very much a limitation caused by the reality of just how large a production it is, and just how long the post-production process is—they simply can’t make more episodes under the constraint of fitting into a regular schedule. When the show was first announced as being optioned, the plan was for there to be twelve episode seasons, after all, presumably something that changed when HBO looked at the proposed budget and pointed out the difficulties of managing so many episodes a season (both fiscally and practically,—given the multinational production, the very large cast, and the high level of VFX).
Back when I interviewed them in 2012, Benioff and Weiss spoke of the show running 80 or 90 hours of story—8 or 9 seasons in total—and one could imagine that back then they thought it’d be possible to give the show more room to breath that way, if they weren’t able to do 12 episodes a season. Now the picture seems less optimistic, with the producers talking of the show running somewhere between 70 and 80 episodes. Realistically speaking, those familiar with how television works—such as James Hibberd of EW—speculate that the show will have a 7th season split in two, with a few additional episodes made. How many? A 20 episode 7th season is unlikely, but 14-16 episodes? Not impossible. But still a short fall, compared to how they once saw things.
So this causes a pang when one realizes that even with all the cuts they’ve made, it takes the better part of two episodes to properly feel as if the new season has finished its introductory phase. The knowledge of more seasons and more episodes—as many as ninety, as Benioff speculated three years ago—might have made these introductory episodes feel less of a necessary compromise to deal with the show’s Wall-sized sprawling scope, but as it stands almost 20% of the season has come and gone and a number of storylines have genuinely only just now really started.
There are positives in the episode, such as the pleasingly-arranged action sequence when Brienne and Podrick flee the inn after Brienne improbably (but in a manner very much in keeping with the way inns in the novels seem to be a locus for improbable crossings of paths) stumbles on Sansa Stark when all seemed lost. While one could question her approach of bulling her way into Littlefinger’s presence when she knows she and Pod are outnumbered five-to-one and when there’s always the possibility of seeing if there’ll be a way to have a private talk with Sansa one way or another (or at least improve the odds by arranging a distraction to draw away some of those knights), the sequence is certainly exciting. Podrick’s exaggerated bad riding—to the point where it becomes obvious that a stunt rider has to conduct the badly-riding-at-a-gallop shots because it actually takes some skill to flop around on a saddle like that without breaking your neck—remains a trivially silly point, but it allows a fine moment for Brienne to come in to save the day. Seeing Oathkeeper in full swing is especially pleasing when we see it break a knight’s sword with a single blow, the first really clear example on the show of just how deadly Valyrian steel is.
More substantially, the Wall is one again one of the more solid places in the narrative, although perhaps a little less so than in the premiere; time is taken with a fairly light-weight library scene when we can see that the complexities of the Night’s Watch election (and, in particular, Samwell’s critical role in it) have been several compressed. Yet Jon’s meeting with Stannis, including one of the more memorable examples of northern loyalty to the Starks from A Dance with Dragons (a book filled with them, as it happens), works quite well. Harington and Dillane again have something that lets them bring their skill and talent to bear, and it seems like Harington holds his own quite well. His Jon Snow is a character who has shouldered great responsibility, who has suffered in the name of honor and duty, and who stands—truly—as a man of the Night’s Watch; Stannis’s advice to him shows signs of not necessarily being taken uncritically by the young steward, and that’s right enough as Jon understands he needs to stand on his own feet.
Better still, we think, is Meereen. Here Benioff & Weiss are able to construct a complete narrative, beginning with the apprehension of a Son of the Harpy—something that never happens in the novels, as it happens—and then the subsequent debate about how to proceed, followed by Mossador’s fatal decision and the aftermath of it. The show has clearly pulled away from Martin’s grander, geopolitical approach—the Sons of the Harpy are an issue, but more pressing for Daenerys in the novels are the powers outside of her city that want to bring her down—and built the secretive, rebellious movement into the primary danger because it exploits the deep divide in Daenerys’s new subjects and presents her with quandries that simply have no good answer.
The council scene especially stands out as it economically presents not just that divide, but allows the scene to shed light on those involved by revealing something of their agendas and viewpoints. Mossador’s clear fear of the Sons of the Harpy and his curt, broken tale of his father’s liberation and death is told with skill by actor Reece Noi, while Hizdahr’s probing demands for proof of his fears presents a picture of a man of reason seemingly only interested in the truth and not the emotional weight of perhaps-exaggerated fear. It all wraps up nicely with Barristan’s words to Daenerys, pulling her away from the brink of giving in to Mossador’s belief that the Sons of the Harpy do not understand justice and that a trial will be detrimental… but that, of course, leads to tragedy and a riot that reveals that the show’s freedmen are not absolute in their loyalty to their Mhysa regardless of her actions. The final scene with Drogon’s appearance and sudden departure as Daenerys reaches out to him—a magnificent example of the show’s unprecedented VFX quality—seems appropriately portentuous in this context: abandonment by one who loved her once, on the one hand, and perhaps the sense that she has lost her way.
Other areas of the episode cause more ambivalence. Seeing Braavos again, and a monolithic depiction of the House of Black and White, is always pleasing. Seeing Arya’s story there artificially spread out for no particular reason other than the needs of television structure, however, was not. So, too, was the finely-acted scene between Tyrion and Varys—Dinklage and Hill are a great pairing, but we knew this already—because it revealed… what? That Tyrion was still depressed, still drinking his way across Essos, and someone who loved the feeling of having power and influence and importance? None of these things required a 2:30 minute scene, 2:30 that could have helped to flesh out one or two areas.
And if I’m honest, the introduction of Lollys was an amusing bit of fluff, managing to correct last season’s deviation where Lord Stokeworth was said to rule when in the books (and now the show) it’s Lady Stokeworth, but otherwise a bit of light-hearted nothing. Bronn skipping rocks and admiring “his” castle when Jaime arrives would have saved a good minute, I expect. The library scene in Winterfell, for that matter, seemed to be there for a bit of humor again, and perhaps to foreground Shireen’s greyscale (we’ve a suspicion as to why that might be, but that’s for a later review). Samwell’s non sequitor about Osric Stark—a detail from the novels—doesn’t follow through with the reason as to why he was exploring the Night’s Watch election history (in which Samwell finds that the four youngest Lord Commanders were all Starks ... or bastard sons of House Stark ...), and so it’s just an example of Samwell’s bookishness and not anything that actually matters.
Why harp on this? Because we have a significant bone to pick with the fact that the introductory aspect of this episode seems to have still left an entire new area, and a significant new character, with short shrift. The area? Dorne. We have heard in recent interviews—and have known for quite a long while, truth be told—that David Benioff and Dan Weiss were fond of Martin’s Dorne, and had hoped to find a way to work it into the series. And that they managed it—and were able to film in Andalusia, in the Real Alcazár of Seville no less, to beautifully capture the Water Gardens—is certainly a nice thing. But the introduction—a single scene, largely focused on Indira Varma chewing up the scenery with lines borrowed from other characters in the novels—was so brief as to be painful to watch.
Viewers of the show who have not read the books won’t know, for example, that the introduction to Dorne in the novels features one of the most beautiful opening chapters in the entirety of the books as George R.R. Martin used all of his considerable talents to evoke the pathos and melancholy of the tragedy that had befallen Prince Doran. With less time spent on scenes that were, at best, aesthetically pleasant but largely empty of new insight into characters, themes, or plot action, Dorne might have had the time to give us a lingering, melancholic introduction befitting the effort Martin himself had put into it…
... and maybe, just maybe, they might then have reconsidered their complete twisting around of Ellaria Sand. Look, it’s very easy to complain when we harp on about the novels, but the fact is that when a change happens, it’s worth considering why they changed it, and what it may say about the way the writers took their source material. In the novel, far from being hungry for vengeance and wishing to mutilate an innocent child to provoke a war, Ellaria Sand is a voice for peace. Vengeance? Vengeance is a bloody cycle, she argues, one that could claim the life of a Sand Snake, and then the others will murder a Lannister, and then perhaps the Lannisters will retaliate and perhaps one day it will be her daughters, presently too young to seek revenge, who will go out to avenge a half-sister or will die a bloody death.
What’s worse, this isn’t an isolated thing. Another, much more central character, was transformed from someone who argued for abandoning vengeance into the exact opposite: Catelyn Stark. Michelle Fairley’s stern performance as she promises Robb will “kill them all” was a memorable performance, but it undercut a fundamental part of the character as we discussed in our analysis of “Fire and Blood”. It bothered us then, and seemed part and parcel with the writers’ general handling of the character as the most malleable of the POVs in the first three characters, the one most readily shunted aside, strip-mined for details given to other characters, or turned to serve their purpose.
And now, again, with Ellaria. From a woman abhoring vengeance, to a woman who craves it above all things, who will contemplate monstrosities to achieve. And the thing is, with a few extra minutes by dropping or cutting some of the extraneous material present in this episode, they could just as easily have given the role of demanding revenge to Oberyn’s daughters the Sand Snakes—the new characters, the ones we haven’t met before (but have heard of, in the previous season), the ones who need more time to be established compared to an already-established character—and so allowed us a chance at learning something about them, about how they work together (or not), about how they relate to their uncle. And then Ellaria—because Indira Varma’s a fine actress, in my eyes—could come in later, in some fashion, could perhaps even still be given the role of vengeance-seeking harpy if the writers insisted but as an ally to the Sand Snakes. The main thing is that we know her already, and we don’t know the Sand Snakes, and given all the fraught issues with them (“Fox Force Five”, “B-movie bad girls”, etc. reinforced by similar costumes as witnessed in released stills) it seems like it would be soundest if they were given room to be introduced and differentiated early. But more on them in a future review…
One other area of the story was a bother, and again, it was Cersei and Jaime. The behavior of the characters seems so wildly back and forth, and Jaime’s under-handed mission to Dorne (couldn’t help myself) in particular is one of the clumsier shortcuts the writers have ever constructed. Yes, he feels guilt over the death of his father, a guilt he feels he needs to expiate. But to personally be part of a mission to (almost) single-handedly (sorry, sorry) make off with Myrcella is asinine, belying Jaime’s acknowledgment of just how incapable he is in a fight with just the one hand… and yet, he has to expect a fight. And in the previous episode he spoke of “they”, everyone who would want to tear the Lannisters down, so surely his decamping for Sunspear means he’s abandoning his duty to protect Tommen, to protect the Lannister control of the Iron Throne, to protect the Lannister legacy…. ? Truth be told, examining the scene with a certain suspicion, mainly what we get out of it is that by giving Jaime the choice of departing—contrary to his desires at a similar point in the novels—means mitigating Cersei still further. After all, in the books she is the one who rather meanly sends Jaime away on a mission, a mission he doesn’t want to go on but which he has no choice but to take. By having her simply scoff at him, by letting him decide for himself, Cersei’s inaction leaves her seeming (again) rather less rough around the edges than the magnificently ferocious, petty, ambitious, proud character of the novel.
For us, it just makes her more boring, and it’s Jaime who pays the price for the writer’s apparent need to keep Cersei “relatable” for the widest amount of the audience as possible. She may be a villain on Game of Thrones, but so far she’s a very safe villain.
The episode covers the following chapters: Arya I (AFfC), The Captain of Guards (AFfC), Tyrion II (ADwD), Cersei IV (AFfC) with elements of Cersei II (AFfC), Jon XI (ASoS), and Jon XII ASoS).
Changes of note, chapter-by-chapter: