Game of Thrones: Season 5, Episode 2 – The House of Black and White

“The Mad King gave each of his enemies the justice he thought they deserved. And every time it made him feel powerful and right. Until the very end.”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

If, after last week’s rather low-key season opener, you were hoping for a return to Game of Thrones’ usual slam bang action, sex and gore, you may have been a bit disappointed by this week’s offering. Effectively, it was more of the same – a series of brief vignettes that spent more time examining the characters through well-crafted dialogue than actually advancing the plot.

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Of course, that’s an accurate reflection of the later books in the series, which are often glacially-paced travelogues of Westeros and Essos. Benioff and Weiss, again on scripting duties, are continuing their strategy of mixing up material from books three, four and five, adding in new material of their own; it doesn’t feel as dull as Martin’s countryside wanderings, but if you want the plot to leap forward, its current snail’s pace may be insufficient.

It really depends on what you watch Game of Thrones for. Is it the frequent nudity? The lovingly-depicted violence? The all-powerful supernatural threat lurking in the wings? Or the well-drawn characters, who work as dramatis personae in their own right, and sometimes need a bit of breathing space to shine?

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For me, that latter is what sets the show apart from other fantasy efforts over the years – the fact that these are believable, complex characters with well-written dialogue, whose motivations drive the plot rather than the other way round. Together with the likes of Battlestar Galactica and The Walking Dead, it’s an approach that’s given genre television a new respectability as real drama. So despite the currently slow-moving plot, I still enjoy just spending time with these people, as the cast’s continuingly excellent performances make that entertaining in its own right.

That said, this ep did have plenty of elements that drove the plot forward, albeit still at the scheming, chess set-up stage of affairs. It also introduced some new players for the first time this season, as we finally got a glimpse at the fabled hot, dry landscape of Westeros’ most southern kingdom, Dorne.

Last season we got an introduction to the Dornish by way of the flamboyant ‘Red Viper’ Oberyn Martell (now sadly and gruesomely deceased), and his paramour Ellaria Sand. Ellaria was back this week as a character we already knew to introduce us to a realm we don’t, and the brief scene in Dorne was significant as an introduction of an important new player – Prince Doran Martell, brother to Oberyn and Lord of Dorne.

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The prolific Alexander Siddig, here taking a break from his usual role as Hollywood’s ‘sympathetic Arab’ gave Doran a more measured, considered feel than his brother, or Ellaria, who’s dead set on an all out war against the Lannisters in the wake of Oberyn’s death. Clearly Doran’s got something more cunning up his sleeve – but what? With Dorne having stood neutral in the War of the Five Kings, it looks like Doran may be a better chess player than the likes of Renly, Robb or Stannis.

Dorne also hold a key pawn in the shape of Cersei’s daughter Myrcella, sent there for safekeeping by Tyrion back when he was still Hand. This was much on Cersei’s mind this week, even as she schemed to cement her power base by appointing her flunkeys to key positions on the Small Council. From the past, we know that if there’s anything Cersei treasures more than power, it’s her children; even the monstrous Joffrey, whose failings she acknowledged but was able to overlook.

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Jaime’s “diplomatic mission” to Dorne to retrieve Myrcella looked like an idea he arrived at independently, but the whole scene between him and Cersei felt as though she was manipulating him to that very conclusion. Either way, it’s good that Jaime will now get something to do plotwise instead of standing around King’s Landing in Kingsguard armour looking mopey. And it’s even better that his chosen right hand will be the ever-enjoyable Bronn, Jerome Flynn making his first appearance this season. We saw last year how well these two characters work together, and now it’s looking like they’ll be another of the show’s well-crafted double acts for the foreseeable future.

The newly established double act of Varys and Tyrion was only briefly seen this week, in a fairly disposable scene inside a closed caravan on the road to Volantis, Cersei having sent minions out to slay any dwarf at hand on the off chance that they might be Tyrion. While this was one of those scenes that could have been left out without the ep suffering, it’s always fun to watch these two musing on the nature of power and morality. The still-dejected Tyrion, drowning his sorrows in wine, this week opined cynically, “we’ve already got a ruler. Everywhere has already got a ruler. Every pile of shit on the side of every road has someone’s banner hanging from it”.

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Dany’s plotline in Meereen this week was also much concerned with the retention of power, and how inflexible moral viewpoints can be a leader’s downfall. In one of the show’s infrequent references to the deranged rule of Dany’s father, the Mad King Aerys Targaryen, the sagely Ser Barristan cautioned Dany that everything she’d heard about her father was true, and that his surety of his own brutal ‘justice’ had led to his downfall. The message was clear – you can be as enlightened a ruler as you want, but if you want to stay a ruler you have to make political compromises.

Unfortunately Dany, who haughtily informed Joel Fry’s oleaginous Hizdahr, “I’m not a politician, I’m a queen”, didn’t seem to get the point. Power is not a one way street, as Dany discovered when executing her too-faithful former slave lieutenant for his pre-emptive murder of one of the Sons of the Harpy. It was a well-directed scene as she squandered all her former followers’ goodwill in that one moment, the fickle mob turning on her so she had to be hustled to safety under the shields of the Unsullied. As in the books at this point, Dany’s hubris is very much in need of puncturing, and that process looks to be well started. It’s also good that, with three of the major Westeros characters now on the same actual continent as her, her plotlines now seem to be less isolated from the rest of the action than before.

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Aside from Varys and Tyrion, the other major character now on Essos is Arya Stark, making her first welcome appearance this season. OK, she didn’t actually get to do very much, but her arrival at Braavos is significant for her continuing story, as evidenced by the fact that the episode’s title was a reference to this plot. It was also good to see the reappearance of Tom Wlaschiha as the mystical assassin Jaqen H’Ghar, his first appearance since shape-shifting and vanishing at the end of Season Two. It’s clear from this that he’s going to function as a sort of Obi Wan/Leon the Professional mentor for Arya, which will definitely be interesting.

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There was more wrangling at Castle Black, but this particular strand of squabbling does seem to smack of the plot here being in a holding pattern. Jon Snow’s dilemma – whether to accept Stannis’ offer of becoming new Lord of Winterfell or stay true to his vow to the Night’s Watch – was never really in doubt. Everything we know about Jon pointed to him keeping his vow no matter how tempting the alternative, so there wasn’t really much tension here. Still, two episodes of having his potential alliances frustrated must be leaving Stannis seething; the problem being that eventually he’ll have to sort something out and get on the warpath again. Let’s hope it’s sooner rather than later.

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Further south, Petyr Baelish continued to travel incognito with Black Sansa. By an amusing contrivance, this week found Brienne and Pod actually catching up with the other Stark daughter when they popped into the same inn for a bite of lunch, only to be firmly told by Sansa herself that she was quite happy to stay under Littlefinger’s protection rather than Brienne’s. The ensuing fight and horseback chase with Baelish’s men provided the first thing that could be called an action sequence this season, and it was as exciting as ever; I genuinely wondered if Pod, plainly none too skilled at horseriding, might not make it.

He did, only to raise the fairly vital point that, with both Stark daughters having rejected Brienne’s protection, there wasn’t much actual purpose to their quest any more. In both the books and now the TV show, this has left Brienne and Pod as something of a loose end, without any real purpose to their wanderings. Hopefully Benioff and Weiss can come up with some original material to give them a renewed purpose, as Gwendoline Christie and Daniel Portman are too enjoyable to keep wholly on the sidelines.

Sex and violence

Actually very little of either this week. Amidst all the scene setting, last week still gave us plenty of gratuitous nudity; this week, perhaps surprisingly, there was none to be seen. On the violence front, it was all down to Brienne and her sword-wielding cavalry charges against Littlefinger’s henchmen – and this was mostly shown in long shot. The only really notable bit of grue was the close shot of her sword being rammed through an overly confident henchman’s throat:

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Another fairly sedate episode this week then, and your enjoyment mileage will probably vary according to what you want from the show. Myself, I really enjoy the character moments and the Machiavellian scheming, though I have to acknowledge that we still seem to be in the ‘scene-setting’ stage of the season at this point. I would expect much of this setup to start paying off in the near future – Dany’s slave revolution leading, as revolutions so often do, to a major civil war, Jaime arriving at Dorne, Arya beginning her training as Jaqen’s apprentice. For now, though, the show seems to be more about anticipation than satisfaction.