The second episode of Game of Thrones season five picks up some familiar story lines from last year, most notably Arya Stark’s journey across the narrow sea to the House of Black & White (also the title for this week’s episode). Thematically it sets the tone for the entire episode, presenting characters throughout the story with seemingly dichotomous plot options – do you take one path or another? By virtue of this storytelling device, it also highlights the road often travelled in our favorite HBO program, the morally ambiguous grey path where incest, feticide, and most other concepts of right and wrong are so often blurred and thrown out the window. Oh G.R.R. Martin, what exactly happened to you as a child?
House of Black & White is about choices. It’s about being presented with situations where your options will very clearly lead down distinct paths. In many ways it’s about order verses chaos, a theme explored at length in the book series A Song of Ice & Fire. Longtime fans of the show might hear echoes of the now infamous scene from season three’s episode The Climb between Lords Baelish and Varys. In it Littlefinger states that “…chaos isn’t a pit, chaos is a ladder” and says that, ultimately, “only the ladder is real” and that the gods, love, even honor for the realm are all but mere illusions. Some say that this scene, both in the book and TV show, is a defining moment in the entire story. Indeed, House of Black & White picks up that theme and runs with it across different plots.
The Stark girls are no strangers to making tough choices. Sansa has spent the past three seasons in King’s Landing getting the shaft, all in the name of order and The King’s will. She was betrothed to Joffrey, made to watch her father murdered, physically and mentally abused, and then married off to The Imp as a political maneuver. It’s no wonder that she’s started to embrace a little chaos under the wing of her “uncle” Baelish. Sucks for Brienne and Podrick though!
Conversely, Arya has spent most of the show living under the constant specter of chaos and fear, first running from capture and then living as a prisoner on the run. In the House of Black & White, she must learn to embrace order in the service to the Faceless Men, and their Many-Faced God of Death.
In a rather underwhelming first glimpse of Dorne, we meet Prince Doran Martell (played by sci-fi veteran Alexander Siddig) who is in mourning for his brother Prince Oberyn Martell. Oberyn’s widow, Ellaria Sand is furious with Doran, demanding justice for Oberyn’s murder in King’s Landing – regardless of whether or not it’d drag Dorne into chaos. She’s disgusted that Doran still entertains Marcella Baratheon as an honored guest, and wants revenge. Doran, staying true to the books, basically shuts her down right then and there. He knows how the game of thrones is played, and that by law Oberyn was not murdered, but killed in trial-by-combat. He is well versed in the confines of order, but book readers know he’s got a few tricks up his sleeve that we’re banking on seeing later this season (cough, Young Griff, cough).
Really the entire episode is riddled with these major conflicts between order and chaos, between black and white. On the Wall at Castle Black, Stannis Baratheon offers Jon Snow his family’s seat at Winterfell if he joins the King’s armies. He promises to make him a Stark in name, and return all that was taken from his family. Meanwhile the Night’s Watch elects a new Lord Commander, where they must decided between the order of what’s familiar with Alliser Thorne (played to a tee by Owen Teale) or the freefolk loving, war hero Jon Snow. The later is chosen, taking the Night’s Watch down a new and unfamiliar path.
Similarly at King’s Landing, Cersei threatens to burn Dorne to the ground to free her daughter Marcella. Jamie suggests a more subtle approach, and leaves immediately for Dorne with Bronn in tow. Cersei, or as we like to call her the embodiment of chaos and bad ideas, decides to stack the small council with puppets. Her uncle Kevan, in one of the standout scenes of the episode, shamefully calls her out and then leaves for Casterly Rock. If you found yourself nodding, or fist bumping the sky during this scene, you were not alone.
Ultimately the choices in House of Black & White are rooted in some kind of perception of justice, but none more so than in the case of Daenerys Targaryen. Meereen is under quiet siege by the Sons of the Harpy, a Ghiscari group of former nobles who oppose the rule of Daenerys. When one of these Harpies is captured, she must decide how to punish him. With council from Barristan, and his stories of her father The Mad King, she decides that a fair trial must take place. Her advisor Mossador disagrees, and kills the prisoner in the night. Daenerys has him executed for disobeying the law, and is shunned by her people. Even justice has two sides, and is often as complicated as the notion of chaos versus order. Daenerys isn’t above the Meereense concept of justice, and her small council fears for her life. In her worry she goes onto her patio to see the night’s sky, only to find her asshole dragon, Drogon perched atop her pyramid. Drogon is a symbol not of her arrogance that she is greater than Meereen, but that she must be something else for these people, a protector, a force of nature, and a symbol of something otherworldly but that even she must bend.
This episode is setting up the rest of the season in Dorne and Braavos quite nicely. We’re excited to see the inside of the House of Black & White, we’re anxious to finally meet the Sand Snakes, and we’re curious where these new roads will lead us with Brienne, Sansa and Jamie. As readers of the book series we’re being asked to embrace a little chaos as well. Since Benioff and Weiss are now going off canon with much of the story, we no longer have a road map of things to come. I guess we’ll really know how that feels once the last half of the season airs and we don’t have any leaks to get our early fix from!
Next week we meet the High Sparrow, and get our first look at the revamped Winterfell under the rule of House Bolton. Don’t miss it!
Game of Thrones airs Sunday nights on HBO.