A review of “The House of Black and White,” the second episode of the fifth season of “Game of Thrones”
by Miodrag Zarković
Let’s take a somewhat different approach this time. Let’s critique “Game of Thrones” by actually praising something they’ve done.
The first episode of Season 5 introduced flashbacks, but the second episode started with an even bigger precedent: a scene without burping, farting, cursing, whoring, lusting, humiliating, ridiculing, castrating, mutilating, insulting, chastising, tutoring, delivering quasi-philosophies . . . In short, it was a scene in which nobody was making a misery out of someone else’s life to any extent.
“The House of Black and White” opens with Arya on a ship entering the port of Braavos while the captain briefs her on the city, and then he takes the girl to her final destination, from which the episode borrowed its title. It is the same ship Arya embarked at the end of previous season, and the captain is apparently the same person as last year, which could indicate David Benioff and Dan Weiss, the two showrunners, finally resolved their recurring problems with continuity. But that’s not the point. The point is that the captain was not only helpful but also nice to Arya, and she was visibly grateful for that.
Trying to remember the last time two characters in the show had a decent, good-natured exchange, one might have to go back to the first season. And even then, those were the characters already bonded by family or friendship ties (for example, Ned’s respective scenes with Cat, Robert and Arya), or characters directed at each other by their positions (Ned/Barristan). Two persons that are almost complete strangers to one another? Yeah, Arya/Captain could very well be the first ever in the show.
(Tyrion/Yoren from episode three could qualify, had Benjen not interrupted.)
Ironically, it was a small departure from the books, where the captain was visibly eager to get rid of Arya (though he never denies her his service), but at the same time this TV scene is easily among the most faithful ones to the source material as a whole. The world George R. R. Martin built in his “A Song of Ice and Fire” book series is populated by people that aren’t unlike us and they happen to interact with each other in ways that clearly resemble human interactions from our reality. While the story is indeed focused on lords and ladies and other highborn people, ordinary folks are never too far away and most usually they’re reasonably decent to strangers they happen to meet on streets, or at the market, or at the inn. Of course, that somewhat changes in times of war and accompanying horrors, but never vanishes. And that is what gives the utmost realistic aspect to Martin’s world. If you don’t want realism to be jeopardized by gradually introduced supernatural elements like dragons and resurrections, you have to ground it in the most basic forms of humanity. That’s what the world-building should be in a character and culture-driven story.
“Game of Thrones” is, sadly, not that kind of story. Its characters are overwhelmingly inconsistent, and its societies are both superficial and unsustainable. And one of the main reasons is that for four seasons we practically didn’t have a single example of ordinary human decency. Instead, Benioff and Weiss clearly enjoy treating their viewers to a misery porn. In their world, common folks are constantly vulgar, rude, greedy, vile, touchy and aggressive, often without any reason or provocation whatsoever.
Perhaps that’s how Benioff and Weiss are trying to detail their world as adult and mature, but in effect they’re accomplishing exactly the opposite.
And that is why Arya’s story collapses as soon as she parts ways with the captain. When she knocks, a hooded man opens the black-white door and—guess what?—he doesn’t even want to hear her out. After uttering some cryptic ominous warning, he slams the door right in front of her nose and never opens it again, even though Arya spends what looks like days at the stairs and under heavy rain. She finally decides to move on, tosses Jaqen’s coin in the river and goes further into the city, where, later in the episode, she’s about to engage in a fight with some young bullies when—guess what?—the hooded man suddenly appears behind her, forcing the bullies to run away, after which Arya follows him back to the House of Black and White.
If a reason for any of this ever existed, it surely never left Benioff and Weiss’ writing room.
And then a small discontinuity occurs: when the hooded man changes his face to that of Jaqen, he also changes his voice to that of Jaqen. In the finale of Season Two, when the original Jaqen performed the same magic, he changed appearances, but not the voice. One more not too important but nevertheless evident detail the showrunners failed to remember from their own work.
But all that is small potatoes compared to the problems with the second scene, in which Brienne and Pod cross paths with Littlefinger and Sansa once again, this time at the inn. Let’s start with the biggest, most bizarre problem of all: horses.
Benioff and Weiss are known to have had issues with horses in the past, due to how difficult these animals are for filming, but this was a whole new level. Pay attention to this little dialogue between Brienne and Pod, that ensues after he spotted Sansa, Littlefinger and a bunch of knights at the opposite side of the inn:
Brienne: “Ready the horses!”
Pod: “We only have one horse.”
Brienne: “Find. More.
If you think about it even for a second, this exchange is as stupid as they come. Like, are horses a commodity in Westeros or aren’t they? Are they hard to obtain or not? If they are, then how the hell is Pod to “find more” in no time? If they aren’t, what the hell were Brienne and Pod doing with just one horse all this time?
For comparison, imagine a similar dialogue but on modern Earth, where cars are the prime mode of transportation: “Go start our cars.” “We have only one car.” “Find more!” See how absurd it gets when put in a familiar environment? And that is the biggest, most frequent deficiency of the show: too much of the stuff Benioff and Weiss came up with is completely unsustainable in any reasonable and logical surrounding.
Issues like those are dealt with on basic levels of writing classes, or even acting classes for that matter. There, one learned early on to be vigilant about the details that could betray the fundamental illusion the audience is being drawn into by the artist, be it a creator or a performer. It’s details that most easily corrode the glamor, whether the audience recognizes it instantly and consciously or not. And in the case of GOT, it’s not even that hard to immediately recognize all the missteps the show creators are making in every given episode.
After the nonsense with the horses, there’s a rare, and therefore remarkable, example of consistency in the show in regards to Brienne: she’s still to meet a Stark girl’s company she won’t start a fight with. Last year it was Sandor escorting Arya, this time around it’s the knights of the Vale escorting Sansa. It’s as if her actual priority is not to protect late Lady Catelyn’s daughters, but to kill everyone who happens to protect them at the moment. Here, she killed two of the knights that guarded Littlefinger and Sansa, but only because she had to rescue Pod. What was her initial intent is hard to tell, just like with great many of the actions characters in the show undertake. Once again, if Brienne ever had anything that resembles a plan when she ordered Pod to “ready the horses,” it’s still well and safe in the writing room of Benioff and Weiss.
Brienne also seems sworn to never mention a sister to any of the Stark girls. Just like last year she didn’t tell Arya anything about Sansa (which was understandable, truth be told), in this episode she managed to hide from Sansa the fact that she saw Arya recently. Again, a consistency! Not in logic, but at least in writing. Enjoy it while it lasts.
Bronn’s not as lucky as Brienne. His reasoning changes rapidly, as witnessed in the first scene he appears in this season. Last year, he refused to be Tyrion’s champion against Gregor Clegane because he wasn’t too much into “if and may and could.” However, when Jaime Lannister presented him with an offer that is nothing but “if and may and could,” Bronn accepted. And, in all fairness, Jaime’s offer is way more dangerous than Tyrion’s. Gregor Clegane was a beast, a freak of nature, a killing monster, but Dorne is an entire region. Kidnapping a royal hostage from the heart of a hostile region and bringing her back safely half a continent away, well, that sounds quite more perilous than challenging one man, even if it happens to be The Mountain.
But it’s not only perilous, it’s also absolutely stupid, at least on Jaime’s part. The entire plan is. First, why bring just Bronn along? Why not one more sellsword, or a knight? Why not two more? A party of three or four can be as light and fast as a pair, and the extra fighter or two can really make a difference between life and death on a mission like this one. The only reason one can think of is that, per the industry’s common wisdom, the buddy comedy commands just two participants. Since the showrunners obviously liked the “chemistry” between Jaime and Bronn, they saw no reason to disturb it by bringing more people into the mix, even if the in-story logic would have it otherwise.
Second, and even more important, what’s Jaime’s goal anyway if he actually doesn’t want to start a war, as he says to Cersei when he pitches his brilliant idea to her? How does he expect Dorne to react once he kidnaps Myrcella right from their very court and thus breaks the deal that sealed their shaky alliance? What is this world in which suicide missions like Jaime’s are actually expected not only to succeed but also to have no consequences whatsoever?
Stannis has Melisandre and her shadow-babies? Big deal! The Lannisters have Jaime. He’s a shadow-baby on cocaine! Jaime can reach further than Mel’s creatures and can perform much more sophisticated operations than just trust a shadow dagger through one’s throat. How come the Lannisters hadn’t thought of using him that way before?
While he’s in Dorne, by the way, would Jaime be kind enough to remove whoever was directing the scenes staged in that particular region of Westeros? So far we had just one such a scene, but it was enough. In it, Ellaria Sand, paramour of the late Oberyn Martell, confronts Oberyn’s brother and Dorne’s Prince Doran, demanding his approval to tear poor Myrcella to pieces, in retaliation for Oberyn’s death. Everything’s cartoonish about that piece of television: the dialogue is worded expectedly poorly, the camera work is more than lacking (when you’re having one of the most amazing locations in the world as your set, why not show its full beauty from, say, an aerial view?), and the acting is so one-note it hurts. Indira Varma as Ellaria and Alexander Siddig as newly-introduced Doran are experienced actors and proven in other roles. So, for the fact that neither of them changes their face expression during their minute-and-a-half long conversation, it’s probably the director who’s responsible.
The situation in Meereen is something not even Jaime the Commando could solve. When the story entered that city, apparently it ended 1) slavery, and 2) rationality. And sadly, nobody’s fighting to restore the latter, while the former has numerous champions, some of them even hiding inside the walls. What are they doing there? How did they get there? How did they ever plan to get out of there? Well, we’re like the Unsullied in patrol, too conspicuous, so we’ll probably never be told.
What does Dany want to do with the captured Son of the Harpy? To put him on trial, of course, like any reasonable 21st century leader only should. The problem is, she’s not in the 21st century. She’s ruling a recently conquered medieval-like city that used to run on slavery for centuries, so the very idea of a trial for such an unquestionable offense is rather preposterous. But even that aside, what would be the point of the trial in this particular instance? Is the captured fellow denying he’s a member of the terrorist group that’s behind the murders? Can he at all, considering the way he was captured? “We do not know what this man did or didn’t do, give him a trial at least,” says Ser Barristan, but in all actuality they do know the captured man was hiding inside the wall with weapons and a mask. What, he was hiding in the wall by accident? And what judicial bodies would conduct a trial? Would the trial be open? Would the accused therefore get the chance to address the masses and spread the poisonous ideas of his group? Really, how would a trial even look like?
We’ll never know, only not because we’re too conspicuous but because Mossador took the justice into his own hands and killed the prisoner. Did Mossador himself get a fair trial? Well, no. He was denied all those mysterious judicial possibilities that were meant for the Son of the Harpy. Mossador was simply executed in front of thousands of citizens of Meereen, both ex-slaves and former slavers. And of course, the former didn’t take it too kindly. How did they react? As if they came from Monty Python’s famous 1979 film “Life of Brian”: there’s a very similar scene in there, with the crowd of followers gathered outside of Brian’s window and answering unanimously to his complicated questions; the difference is, the Monty Python’s scene was meant to ridicule scenes like the execution of Mossador; Benioff and Weiss therefore have the dubious honor of being alluded to in a Monty Python movie 36 years ago.
It’d be interesting to find out what Benioff and Weiss really think of those poor ex-slaves in Meereen. What they think of their show’s viewers, however, is pretty evident and most precisely articulated in the Wall scenes in this episode.
The image they have of their core audience is illustrated by the members of the Night’s Watch in the elections: they can be persuaded into anything. A few lines by Samwell Tarly, who’s likely a stand-in for the modern TV critics that keep praising “Game of Thrones” in their weekly reviews, was all it took for both the voters and the viewers to forget what an incompetent fool Jon Snow was for the previous three seasons. Strangely, it also served to erase the memory of Sam’s advice to Jon just a minute earlier, when he was urging Jon to accept Stannis’ proposition. Even Sam seemed to completely forget about it: one moment he was prompting Jon to leave the Night’s Watch, next moment he was nominating his friend to lead the Black Brothers.
Once again, it was a blatant example of the show not taking itself seriously at all and going back on its own internal logic in just a minute or thereabouts. That has to be a new record.
And what Benioff and Weiss think of the viewers they inherited from the source material, they showed in the scene in which Selyse Baratheon chastises her daughter Shireen. “All your books and you still don’t know,” says the Queen at the Wall.
Yes, all our books, and we basically have no idea what is going on in this show that was supposed to be an adaptation of those books. And, so far, it doesn’t look like the show is better off because of it. Quite the opposite.