A TALE OF TWO EPISODES
Having been on vacation recently I had to miss the season’s second episode live, however, this presented a rare opportunity to watch two episodes back-to-back. An unfortunate side effect of binge watching (even if its only two episodes) is that events tend to blend together, especially with Game of Thrones jumping between different characters so often. So I thought I would combine recaps as well and see if it anything coherent comes out, albeit MUCH later than I would like.
Arya was excluded from the first episode and by consequence is featured largely in these two, which is more than welcome as hers is one of the more intriguing story lines right now and we have no clue what she is doing or where she is going. “The House of Black and White” opens with Arya’s introduction to Braavos and the house itself, however, she is denied entrance by an exceptionally angry-looking man and spends a couple days, it seems, reciting her prayer on the stairs (Only four names left). After returning to her pigeon hunting days and fending off some would-be robbers Arya is accepted within the House of Black and White, though, again we are left with more questions than answers. Turns out the angry priest was actually Jaqen H’ghar in a different face… why didn’t he let her in in the first place? What did she do to earn acceptance? The High Sparrow picks up with Arya in the house of black and white sweeping the floor and surrounded by various religious figures. The room is filled with a sense of somberness and mystery, its only occupants are devotees lost in prayer around a well and Arya, who at this point is as confused as the audience and has been sweeping idly for days. After witnessing Jaqen H’ghar provide a worshipper with a drink from the well Arya confronts him, but is met only with more cryptic words and apathy. Combining this with Arya’s later scenes forces the audience to feel her frustration and bewilderment… not the way we want to feel watching Game of Thrones but it means they’re doing a good job well. Later Arya petitions Jaqen only to be disappointed again, Jaqen tells her that she can never truly be nobody if she continues to surround herself with remnants of who she used to be. In order to move on Arya must abandon her old identity completely, she tosses her clothes, silver and even her Braavosi coin into a canal, but when it comes to Needle Arya simply cannot let go. The only vestige of Arya Stark is a simple sword hidden in a pile of rocks, while this act grants her acceptance into the cult of the Faceless Men she still hasn’t completely forsaken her family and home, which hopefully means there will be a reckoning in her future. Other than this one scene, which contains some cool shots and tangible emotion the rest of Arya’s stuff is fairly boring; later on she finds out that they strip and wash the dead bodies… There’s no shame in being frustrated at this point, all of Arya’s scenes end with viewers thinking “K wait, what?”
Brienne and Pod stop for a meal in what we can assume is still the Vale of Arryn, coincidentally, Sansa and Littlefinger are also grabbing a bite. I suppose both groups are coming from the same area so it’s somewhat believable that they would find themselves in the same pub. Pod spots Sansa and warns Brienne that they are outnumbered but Brienne won’t accept another failure when she’s this close to her objective. While Pod readies the horses Brienne approaches Sansa, takes a knee and swears her loyalty and protection. Brienne is an unfortunate example of the way we wish the world worked, much like the late Starks and the old Sansa, Brienne still values honour, justice and chivalry… Any successful player in the Game of Thrones knows that these ideals are naïve and debilitating. Littlefinger is much too smart for Brienne and Sansa has grown too cynical and untrusting, Brienne’s help is refused but she still knows too much about Sansa. As much as her diplomatic instincts are way off Brienne can sense a fight coming and scatters her enemies’ horses before fleeing with Pod. Despite Pod’s observation that Brienne has found both Stark girls and both refused her help, the two decide to trail Sansa and Littlefinger all the way to Moat Cailin. While Pod makes the fire and tells Brienne his story she realizes she, like everyone before her, has been too harsh on poor little Podrick. Brienne reveals a bit of her backstory and why she loved Renly so much, it was never a romantic dream; he was the only boy to treat her like a person while all the rest treated her like a freak. Backstory is always enjoyable, even if Brienne isn’t my favourite character; any new layer of context is more than welcome.
In Winterfell, Ramsay and his father sit down to a meal with Theon meekly serving them. Ramsay, surprising no one, has been senselessly flaying northerners and exercising his family’s new power. Roose, however evil, is still the head (read: brains) of his house and the only person who can bring Ramsay to heel, the new Warden of the North explains how tenuous their rule is and that fear alone will not solidify it. Only by marrying into a respected house will the Bolton’s legacy be secured, cue one of the most beautiful transitions of the series: Roose suggests he already has the “perfect girl” for Ramsay, the music picks up, slow and sad, as we see Sansa riding towards Moat Cailin, misery, and a bitter fate. The room is mostly gasps, a couple expletives, and I shaking my head. I love this genius deviation from the books, which will save some time, tedium, and confusion, while also keeping Sansa relevant (At this point in the books she’s basically just moping around the Eyrie anyway). When Sansa recognizes Moat Cailin she questions Littlefinger’s intentions, her time with him has made her understandably cautious, and her skepticism is not misplaced. Even if Baelish truly wants vengeance for Sansa, even if he doesn’t know the extent of Ramsay’s malevolence, this deal has to benefit him more than anyone else. Roose also doesn’t trust Littlefinger and Ramsay is on his best behavior, for now. Not much else to say about these scenes… god damn I loved that transition.
Cersei has been sent a gift from the Dornish (who are finally becoming players): a box with a viper statue holding Myrcella’s necklace. While this warning is less than subtle it has the desired effect on the queen; Cersei is enraged and losing her control while Jaime is surprisingly the more level headed and rational one. Jaime vows to go to Dorne and bring their daughter back, his plan is unclear but if he’s including Bronn it won’t be a diplomatic mission. I love that the show is actively finding excuses to keep Bronn relevant and included. From here we jump to Dorne and finally get our first look at Prince Doran Martell sitting in his chair and watching over the Water Gardens. Ellaria is still mourning Oberyn’s death and has passed from grief to rage, she would have Dorne go to war with the Lannisters and would torture the innocent Myrcella just to get back at Cersei. Thankfully, Doran is above mutilating small children, as Oberyn stated last season, and refuses to act on his brother’s death. Ellaria and the rest of Dorne, she says, are against him and mistake his inaction for incompetence. At last we get a glimpse of Dorne and its inner politics; Doran has been ruling since the fall of the dragons, during which time his father was killed fighting for Rhaegar, and his sister was brutalized and murdered by the Mountain along with her children. Doran made peace and did not retaliate. Last season Oberyn went to King’s Landing to avenge their sister’s death and was in turn killed, and now Doran again sits idle. It’s not hard to see why Ellaria is so frustrated.
In Meereen Daario’s Second Sons have succeeded where the Unsullied failed and discovered one of the Sons of the Harpy loyalists. Daenerys, and her council members are conflicted over how to proceed, with Ser Barristan advising restraint and a fair trial and Mossador begging for an example to be made. After their meeting Ser Barristan offers us another piece of Westeros history and warns Dany of the path she may find herself on should she react as her father did to various threats. Dany chooses the path of honour, something the people of the Seven Kingdoms would love in her, however these are not the Seven Kingdoms and Dany still doesn’t understand the slaver’s culture. Mossador decides to release Daenerys from the burden of decision; he murders the prisoner and leaves the body on the streets as a message to the Sons of the Harpy. Now Dany is faced with a more difficult task, she opted to show mercy to her enemy, but how will she react to a betrayal from one of her own? Despite Mossador’s impassioned speech Dany sentences him to a public execution, hoping to appease the Masters and cement her authority with both factions. I truly don’t know what Daenerys expected from the former slaves, the people who view her as their savior, when she executed one of their own. The slave culture is so ingrained that everything less about equality and always about slaves versus masters; it was a hard decision, and one Dany may come to regret, as she only sowed animosity with the commoners and contempt from the masters. Dany has been lost and conflicted in recent weeks, she wants to do the right thing but is having a difficult time deciding what that is, this is a stark contrast to the Daenerys we’re used to seeing; the conqueror Daenerys acted with conviction and self-assurance, she controlled her dragons and armies through sheer will. She has lost that part of herself and by consequence lost her dragons; Drogon returns to her but doesn’t like what he sees, whatever it was within her that bound him is no longer there and he leaves her again.
Stannis is not happy with Jon’s act of mercy yet; Stannis admires Jon’s honour, even if he won’t admit it. After berating him on the purpose of the execution Stannis shows Jon a letter from the young Lady of Bear Island who refuses to follow any King in the North who is not named Stark. Jon smiles, already knowing what Stannis is beginning to realize: The North will not follow an outsider, regardless of what’s in their best interests. The world would be a simpler place if the Northern lords would rally to Stannis’ banner and take back the realm, it would be simpler if the Wildlings could see the reason and purpose behind kneeling, unfortunately both parties are as stubborn as the king himself and no compromise can be made… I’m sure there’s some sort of lesson there. Though not technically a Stark Jon could rally the northerners to Stannis’ cause and the king recognizes this chance; he offers to royally acknowledge Jon as a true Stark and Warden of the North should he pledge himself to Stannis’ campaign. The one thing that Jon has desired above all else, the one thing that he has dreamt about all his life, has now been placed right in front of him, almost free of charge. While contemplating the offer (he already knows he will refuse) Jon is surprised to hear Sam speak up. Sam’s newfound confidence allows his to not only shut Janos Slynt up, but also sway many of his brothers into voting for Jon as Lord Commander. Stannis and Sam aren’t the only ones who “see something” in Jon and he is elected the nine-hundred and ninety-eighth Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. Stannis and his fledgling campaign receive another disappointment after Jon refuses the offer, as Stannis notes; Jon is as stubborn as his father, and as honourable; another thing Jon has dreamed of hearing all his life, however, we all know where that path leads in this world. Jon’s first act as Lord Commander is dispatching a captain to oversee latrine digging, his gaze lingers on Thorne but instead he gives the “duty” to another. Jon actually chooses to honour Thorne despite their rivalry; Ser Alliser is one of the few knights in the Night’s Watch and a seasoned warrior, Jon appoints him as First Ranger, hoping to bury the hatchet. Janos Slynt does not appreciate his command as much and goes as far as to blatantly, and publicly, insult Jon in his refusal. Jon orders the defector be brought outside, calls for his sword and downs his ale. As a vociferous Slynt is placed on a chopping block Stannis watches Jon carry out his sentence. Jon hesitates for a moment as Janos breaks down and begs mercy; as despised as Janos Slynt is, and rightfully so, I couldn’t help but pity him in this moment, but he crossed a line and Jon’s authority cannot be in question. Jon takes Slynt’s head in one stroke, Stannis nods in approval as Jon proves to be his father's son in action as well as words. The penultimate scene of each episode feature a commander handling insubordination in their own way, neither Jon nor Daenerys want to be this type of leader, but examples must be made and the executions send distinct messages, with different results. While Jon knows the Night’s Watch and that a harsh lesson was needed, Dany still doesn’t understand “her people” and putting Mossador to death only weakened her rule.
On the road to Volantis, which leads to the road to Meereen, Tyrion is bored to tears in the cart with Varys. Rolling around at rock bottom Tyrion is done with Westeros and all its politics, but he can’t quite get away. Varys, Tyrion and Littlefinger have always been the characters to succinctly and powerfully summarize the world as we see it through beautiful allegory, and here Varys gives us a small taste of that talent. Varys knows his place in the world and knows that he and Tyrion will never be leaders of men; they find the world repulsive and vice-versa. However, they are not incapable, and in fact are in the best position to enact change… if they only step out of their box for a while. While crossing the Long Bridge of Volantis Tyrion at last is fed up and leaves the cart to find a brothel and another drink. In our first glimpse of Volantis we get a quick introduction to their slave culture, before Tyrion stops to observe a red priestess addressing the crowd. Unlike Melisandre this priestess believes Daenerys is the champion of R’hollor and the savior of the world, abruptly the sermon ends and the priestess stares into Tyrion who cannot endure her gaze for long. It is unclear at this point what exactly she saw in Tyrion, but it wasn't just the fact that he's a dwarf that drew her stare. In the brothel Tyrion solicits a prostitute only to find that he is unable to perform, so to speak, hoping that relieving his bladder will help Tyrion exits the brothel only to be set upon by Jorah Mormont who ties him up and gags him, Mormont’s only words are “I’m taking you to the Queen.”
Overall these two episodes end up complementing each other nicely; it felt like one long story wherein characters like Jon and Arya got a lot of screen time and were able to move the plot along. Although Arya’s story is constantly esoteric and a little maddening, hopefully the answers are coming soon. Brienne and Pod don’t really know what they’re doing and Sansa is still very much a pawn in someone else’s game, but she’s starting to gain some agency… finally. Much like the Starks need their wolves Dany needs her dragons, unfortunately for her the animals only follow the pure, and Daenerys is becoming more and more muddied. Next episode's title "The Sons of the Harpy" doesn't bode well for Dany either.