Game of Thrones

HBO's 'A Song of Ice and Fire' TV Show


EP502: The House of Black and White

Written by David Benioff & D. B. Weiss
Directed by Michael Slovis

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.

Book to Screen

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:

  • Arya I (AFfC): The show omits the fact that the crew make a point of giving Arya small gifts and repeating their names to her. In the novel, it is the captain’s son who rows her through the canals of Braavos through various quarters until they come to the House of Black and White. The most notable difference, however, comes in what follows: in the books Arya gains easy admittance into the temple, and there a priest she comes to know as the Kindly Man speaks to her and gently starts to turn her away when she begs to stay. He proceeds to lower his hood and reveals his face: a skull with graveworms crawling in it. Asking for a kiss, Arya plucks at a worm to eat it, but it dissipates into shadows, and then the priest shows himself to have the kindliest, old man’s face she has known with which he welcomes her and offers her food. It is also worth noting that the Kindly Man is not Jaqen H’ghar in the novels.
  • The Captain of Guards (AFfC): a number of notable differences stand out from the novels, such as the fact that the chapter starts in the Water Gardens—a palatial pleasure garden built by the Martells—and then moves on to Sunspear, the seat of the Princes of Dorne; the Water Gardens also does not feature the many children,from across Dorne and even beyond, coming from all classes of society, whom the Martells have customarily fostered. First, it omits Doran’s learning of the news of his brother’s death, a scene which is one of the more evocative chapter openings in the series, as well as omitting the character of Maester Caleotte. Second, in the novels, it is the three eldest Sand Snakes who come, each in turn, to ask Prince Doran to allow them the revenge they want for the deaths of their fathers. Related to this, the depiction of Ellaria as vengeance-seeking—using words largely taken from Obara Sand, the eldest of the Sand Snakes—is the exact opposite of the character in the novels, who believes that vengeance is futile and breeds an endless circle of violence. For that matter, in the corresponding chapter, Ellaria is still on the Boneway, travelling with Oberyn’s remains. Fourth, the specific demand Ellaria makes after Doran rejects the call to go to war immediately—that he give her Myrcella, to cut to pieces and send them to her mother—is nothing proposed by any of the Sand Snakes in the novels; only the third, Tyene, has any thoughts on Myrcella, and those are to see her crowned as a means of provoking a war. It is true that in a later chapter, there is a proposal put forward to kill Myrcella to create a war, but it does not originate with the Sand Snakes. Fifth, and finally, Doran’s response in the novels to the Sand Snakes’s demands and the implicit threat that they will carry out some form of vengeance even without his support is to have them all seized and arrested, whereas on the show it seems he lets Ellaria go for no obvious reason.
  • Tyrion II (ADwD): The corresponding chapter features Illyrio and Tyrion traveling from Pentos in an enormous litter on a Valyrian road (a black stone road with magical properties that prevent it becoming weathered or ruinous, omitted on the show), and Tyrion spends a deal of time eating (rather than subsisting solely on wine) and speaking with Illyrio about the history of the region, Illyrio’s knowledge of Daenerys, and more. The tenor of the journey is rather different on the show.
  • Cersei IV (AFfC) + Cersei II (AFfC): As in the show, Cersei does offer a lordship for Tyrion’s head, which leads to zealous men occasionally killing the wrong dwarf. In the novels, three men (instead of two) present the head of a dwarf that Cersei rules out as Tyrion (in fact, it belongs to a poor septon whom Brienne meets in one of her chapters. Just as in the show, Cersei accepts it as a mistake and does not wish to see the hunt lessen for fear of retribution for such mistakes. Qyburn does not, however, ask for the head as shown on the TV series. Later, Qyburn follows Cersei to the small council as shown, where she does name him master of whisperers to the annoyance of Grand Maester Pycelle.

    However, the small council is very differently constituted on the show than it is in the novels, as Cersei packs it with a number of sycophants—Orton Merryweather, Aurane Waters, and Harys Swyft—rather than offering Ser Kevan a council position or giving Mace Tyrell two positions (in the novel, Lord Mace does try to secure the master of coin office for his uncle Garth the Gross, and Cersei claims that Lord Rosby had already been appointed—followed by her informing Rosby that he was appointed a day earlier). Particularly notable is the fact that Ser Harys (father-in-law, or good-father as it’s named in the books, to Ser Kevan) is also named Hand of the King by Cersei; he is chosen as a deliberate means of keeping Kevan in check following his earlier refusal to accept the office of Hand and his strong critical views on Cersei’s rule and his belief that she should recuse herself to Casterly Rock and let him and others rule the realm for Tommen. That scene, however, was in private, while on the show a take on this—with his refusing the office of master of war and, as in the novel, ultimately determining to leave King’s Landing, where he has been present since the Blackwater in the books—is before the other councillors.
  • Jon XI (ASoS) + Jon I (ADwD): Stannis does offer Jon legitimization and Winterfell, but in the novels it includes the requirement that Jon accept R’hllor and burn the heart tree in Winterfell as proof of his loyalty. As in the books, Jon does argue that the wildlings do not follow so easily, although Stannis’s plans there also include their submitting to him by burning weirwood branches to show their loyalty and their taking up R’hllor. Lyanna Mormont’s message to Stannis is almost the same as in Jon I (ADwD)—the TV show dropped the emphasis on “STARK”—although it’s noted in Jon’s thoughts that she is not, in fact, Lady of Bear Island; she has older sisters, and in fact Jon wonders why she is the one sending the message given this fact. Unlike on the show, Jon does not show visible amusement at her bold effrontery.
  • Jon XII (ASoS): Jon does determine to turn down Stannis’s offer to become Lord of Winterfell, although he determines to do it in the novels when Ghost—from whom he has been separated since he scaled the Wall—arrives at Castle Black, and his white fur and red eyes acts as a reminder to Jon that he cannot give up his father’s gods or burn the heart tree of Winterfell as Stannis requires of him. Jon’s election is extremely compressed on the show, when it is a more drawn-out matter in the novels, and only at the very end of the long process does Jon Snow’s name enter into consideration. In the novels, there are multiple candidates, and multiple choosings that end in deadlock because the three primary candidates are unable to gain sufficient support. In the book, as in the show, Ser Denys Mallister, who commands the Shadow Tower in the west of the Wall, is a candidate, as is Cotter Pyke, commander of Eastwatch-by-the-Sea. The two men hate each other, however, and refuse to withdraw despite splitting the vote and giving the third main candidate, Lord Janos Slynt (not Ser Alliser Thorne), an opening to become Lord Commander. It is only through the effort of Samwell Tarly—who, in turn, receives some suggestive advice from Maester Aemon—that both men are convinced to instead throw their support to Jon Snow. The result of the election becomes even more certain when the cauldron used to receive the tokens representing votes is opened… and Lord Mormont’s ravens flaps out, quorks, “Snow, Snow, Snow” and ends up flying to land on Jon’s shoulder.
  • Other scenes of note: Brienne and Podrick: In the novels, Brienne and Podrick continue their hunt for the Stark girls, remaining the riverlands all the while, and never actually come across either of them, much less find Sansa with Littlefinger and become hunted by Vale knights at Baelish’s command. Sansa and Littlefinger: The two characters remain in the Vale during the period covered in A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, and so never encounter Brienne and Podrick. Jaime and Cersei: This scene continues the course of having Jaime and Cersei act in ways deliberately contrary from their counterparts in the novels: Jaime is terrified of the truth of the incest coming out on the show, whereas even late in A Storm of Swords he was urging Cersei to tell the world the truth and let them come, while here it’s Cersei who is reckless with the secret. More notably still, the secret mission to Dorne is a complete invention, and requires Ser Jaime to act in an incredibly unlikely fashion given his recent characterization: throwing himself into a dangerous mission despite being fully aware of how unsuitable he is for the task. All of this exists to cut his actual journey into the Riverlands as shown in A Feast for Crows, and combine together certain storylines in Dorne, but it eschews the fact that in the novels it’s Cersei who orders Jaime away from King’s Landing, while Jaime feels that his duty is by Tommen’s side. His speech in the previous episode, suggesting paranoia that the enemies of the Lannisters wish to tear down what their father had made, might also have implied that Jaime would prefer to stay in King’s Landing. Bronn and Lollys: Notably, a deviation from the novels introduced in season 4—namely that Lolly’s father ruled Stokeworth—was corrected in this invented scene, as the ruler of Stokeworth is now identified as Lolly’s mother. The Lollys seen here may in herself be a slight deviation from the fourth season, where Tyrion described her as “dimwitted”, perhaps keeping in line with the novel’s depiction of the character as mentally challenged. Lollys, as seen here, seems more vapid than dimwitted, but perhaps there’s little difference in the mind of the show’s Tyrion. Stokeworth castle as depicted is extremely large, probably rather larger than the actual castle. At this point in time, Bronn is wed and in Stokeworth in the novels, and has yet to depart from there; the Dornish mission is an invention of the show. The Son of the Harpy: All the details of this scene—Grey Worm and Daario finding a Son of the Harpy, the council meeting to decide what to do with him, Mossador’s killing of the prisoner, Mossador’s subsequent execution, and the riot—are creations of the show, although very loosely inspired by elements present in Daenerys’s early A Dance with Dragons chapters. The Sons of the Harpy are a significant threat to Daenerys’s rule in A Dance with Dragons, increasing the turmoil (including an incipient displeasure with Daenerys among the freedmen) appears largely aimed to replace certain parts of the A Dance with Dragons Meereen storyline, namely the external threats that are as large a threat as the internal threats. Samwell, Gilly, Shireen, and Selyse: Other than Samwell’s passing remark about Osric Stark, taken from Line from Samwell I (AFfC), these are wholly invented scenes. Gilly and Shireen never interact in the novels, and certainly she does not assist her in learning to read. Gilly’s lack of a name for greyscale is curious, as in the novels the wildlings fear the disease greatly and call it the grey death.