Monday, March 27, 2017

Game of Thrones Rewatch 5.2: "The House of Black and White"

Read the previous entry in this series here.
Read the next entry in this series here.

5.2 “The House of Black and White”
Written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss
Directed by Michael Slovis

This episode has a lot of new beginnings or attempts at new beginnings. Arya starts her training as a Faceless Man, Jaime and Bronn head off to Dorne, Tyrion heads to Meereen, Brienne finds Sansa, Cersei tries to rule, and Dany struggles to be a just ruler.

Arya sails into Braavos under the legs of the Titan, which would be more impressive if we hadn’t seen it already (still angry that Stannis stole her thunder here). The captain takes her directly to the House of Black and White, which is way bigger and more intimidating than I imagined from the books, and also more all-by-itself (it’s surrounded by other temples in the books). For a temple dedicated to death, where a cadre of secretive assassins is trained, this version is equal parts very noticeable and not very welcoming (despite the number of people who come here to seek death as a surcease from pain).

The not-very-welcoming continues when Arya tries to go in; an older man steps out, glares at her, tells her there’s no Jaqen H’ghar here, and slams the door in her face. She spends a long time (days, probably) sitting on the stairs waiting (and saying her prayers), then finally gets up, throws the iron coin in the water, and leaves. It’s probably a day or so later that she’s catching pigeons on the streets of Braavos—a callback to when she had to do so in King’s Landing—and ends up confronted by a bunch of bravos and rescued by the man from the House of Black and White. He gives her the iron coin back and changes his face back to Jaqen, telling her that he’s not Jaqen, but no one, and she must also learn to be no one.

I think what the showrunners were going for here was to ramp up the tension by suggesting that Arya might be at a dead end; she has nowhere else to go, as she tells the man who isn’t Jaqen, despite his reply that she has everywhere else to go. But again, the House of Black and White isn’t supposed to be barred to anyone—in the books she just walks in. Anyone seeking death, or considering seeking death, is welcome to come, sit for awhile, pray, leave a gift, and even drink from the poison well if that’s what they want. Or just pray and leave. Getting in isn’t the hard part. Getting them to accept her as an acolyte is. If their issue was (as it is with so many things) that it wasn’t cinematic enough, I humbly submit the description of the Kindly Man’s disguise meant to scare Arya: “Beneath the cowl, he had no face; only a yellowed skull with a few scraps of skin still clinging to the cheeks, and a white worm wriggling from one empty eye socket” (A Feast for Crows 6, Arya I). I understand why they swapped out the Kindly Man for not-Jaqen (though it makes it pretty clear that they’re abandoning a chunk of the Oldtown/Citadel subplot), but they could have directly adapted this part of the story and had the skull turn into not-Jaqen. Like a lot of changes through these next two seasons, they seem to be made because Benioff and Weiss can, not because it’s actually necessary for story, budget, or casting reasons.

The entire “Dorne” storyline is another one of those. The adaptation of Dorne was an utter travesty from beginning to end. With no other storyline did Benioff and Weiss drop the ball as hard as they did with Dorne. There’s no logical consistency, it suffers from serious trope-ism, the writing is terrible, and if they wanted to get Jaime out of King’s Landing, there’s an entire Riverlands storyline they could have been doing instead.

The whole thing kicks off with a threat from “Dorne”: Cersei’s been sent a viper (stuffed or a statue, I’m not quite sure) with Myrcella’s necklace in its mouth. Jaime says he’ll take care of it, and Cersei shoots back that he’s never fixed anything in his life and what is a one-handed man going to do? He’s going to go find a friend, that’s what. Because when we get a wisecracking character, we can’t let go of him.

Bronn’s walking along the beach with Lollys, who seems kind of silly but not actually disabled, as she is in the books. Bronn seems genuinely fond of Lollys, if a bit ambitious still (he all but promises her that he’ll take care of her sister Falyse who’s apparently a jerk), but all that gets yoinked out from under him when Jaime brings him a writ that says Lollys is going to marry Wyllas Bracken instead. So, we introduce Lollys (finally) as a reason that Bronn won’t defend Tyrion, actually bring her in for five minutes, and then boot her out of the narrative when we need Bronn to defend Jaime? That seems like really sloppy writing to me, not to mention that it takes Bronn’s entire storyline away from him, as well. Sure, it all occurs off-page, but it’s way more interesting than this whole “Dorne” thing. (And yes, I will continue to use scare-quotes, thank you.)

Meanwhile, actually in “Dorne,” Ellaria glares daggers at Trystane and Myrcella, who are walking in the gardens. She tries to go talk to Doran, but Aero Hotah stops her because Aero Hotah is a badass and I absolutely hate how this altered narrative treats him. Ellaria wants to know what Doran’s doing to avenge Oberyn, and Doran points out that death in a trial by combat is not murder, not like Elia and her children’s deaths were. She wants to torture and dismember Myrcella, then send the pieces back to Cersei, because that’s totally what Oberyn “we don’t hurt little girls in Dorne” Martell would have wanted. I hate that they replaced Arianne with Ellaria and then turned Ellaria into this cliché, because while the Dorne storyline in the books is kind of a slow burn, it’s such a great surprise when we find out just why Doran is waiting. He’s smart. He’s playing a long game. He’s good at politics and (one more time for the people in the back) Benioff and Weiss are bad at writing politics.

In the Riverlands, Brienne and Pod have come to an inn, where incidentally Petyr and Sansa are also staying, or at least stopping for a meal. Brienne repeats her heavy-handed offer of her service to a similarly distrustful young woman and is again rejected. Now, Sansa’s reasoning—that she can’t trust Brienne because she saw Brienne bow to Joffrey (because she was supposed to not bow and risk being shot on the spot?)—is utterly ridiculous. Brienne then runs out, frees all the horses, randomly murders a dude, and I’m a) continuing to be irritated by Brienne’s careless use of violence; and b) really confused as to what it is she’s trying to accomplish here. She and Pod get chased, kill a couple more men, and eventually regroup. Pod suggests that maybe being rejected by Arya and Sansa means she’s released from her vow; Brienne says Sansa’s in no way safe with Petyr, and she plans on following them.

Tyrion and Varys are on the road to Volantis, from where they’ll take the road to Meereen. Tyrion continues to be morose and drunk, and Varys clearly thinks he’s just feeling sorry for himself. The way they’ve treated Tyrion’s drop into drunken lechery is kind of disturbing, because frankly, Tyrion’s an alcoholic. He used to drink just to take the edge off the constant pain he’s in because of his disability, but now he’s also depressed and drinking to try to take the edge off of that. The show seems to give it this spin of “oh boo hoo I had to kill my lover and my father woe is me” instead of the deeply psychological pain he’s in. They’ve also removed most of his bad behavior and kept only the drinking, so we don’t get to see just how terrible Tyrion really becomes at this point. There’s a whole sexual harassment sequence with a slave-but-not-slave in Ilyrio’s house that they skipped right over, and they’ll skip over another bout of sexual assault in a later episode. Tyrion is clearly a fan- and showrunner-favorite, but unlike Martin, who also likes Tyrion, they don’t have the guts to show him at his absolute worst. It’s amazing how frequently they undo Martin’s anti-trope writing; Martin wrote A Song of Ice and Fire very specifically to challenge fantasy tropes and try to be more “realistic” (whether he succeeded and what his idea of “realism” is is a topic for a whole other blog), but Benioff and Weiss frequently hard-turn the narrative back to fantasy tropes, but with more sex and violence. Tyrion is an example of that; Martin wrote “grey” characters with lots of internal conflict and sometimes some serious self-awareness, and Benioff and Weiss have done a lot of black-and-whiting in response. Tyrion doesn’t have much internal conflict; sure, he’s going through a bad patch right now, but he’s awesome and he knows it, and the writers never let him go to the truly dark place that might put the viewers off of his character (Tyrion doesn’t get to rape a sex slave in a Volantene brothel, but Sansa totally gets to be raped in a storyline that doesn’t even belong to her).

Tyrion wants to get out and walk, but Varys says he can’t because Cersei wants his head. Tyrion thinks that’s ridiculous—how is anyone going to know he’s him? Is Cersei just going to kill every dwarf in the world?

Apparently, the answer is yes, because when she’s presented with a dwarf head that isn’t Tyrion’s, she chooses not to punish the killer because it might dissuade other people looking for Tyrion and “mistakes will be made.” She heads into the Small Council chamber, where she takes Tywin’s seat and begins arranging things to her liking, which Kevan doesn’t appreciate at all. She assigns Mace as Master of Ships and Master of Coin, Qyburn as Master of Whispers, herself as acting Hand of the King (until Tommen is old enough to choose one himself), and tries to offer Kevan the position of Master of War, but he refuses. He says he doesn’t recognize her authority to make these decisions; she’s “just” the Queen Mother.

Cersei has a lot working against her in her desire for power. She’s a woman in a man’s world, constantly fighting the patriarchal forces that push back against her. She’s internalized that misogyny to the point that she doesn’t believe that women should rule, just that she should have been born a man because she’s not like other women; she’s smart and savvy and driven and yet people won’t listen to her because all they see is a woman (in her mind, anyway). She’s also not nearly as smart as she thinks she is, as Petyr points out in the books, and manages to get caught in her own machinations. I think the show dropped some of this; the only really clearly bad decision she makes is with the Faith Militant, which backfires on her, but not as hard as it could because (as previously mentioned) the show cut out all the people she had sexually manipulated and a good chunk of the people she had “disappeared” into the black cells and Qyburn’s experiments.

Speaking of women rulers, Stannis is having a deadpan hissy fit about a letter he got from Lyanna Mormont claiming that the people of Bear Island only recognize the King in the North, whose name is Stark. He again pushes Jon to allow him to legitimize him and put him in charge of Winterfell, and Jon looks constipated. He discusses this possibility with Sam as the men are gathering to vote for Lord Commander, admitting that he’s torn between his long-held desire to be a real Stark and his vows as a member of the Night’s Watch. Sam responds by deciding to throw Jon in as a nominee for Lord Commander, touting him as the best thing to happen to this generation of the Night’s Watch. This scene, again, accelerates Jon’s timeline, as in the books they go through dozens of votes without a clear victor emerging, until Sam finally gathers his courage and goes to the most respected of the men to suggest that Jon would do a good job and isn’t the guy that the person he’s talking to doesn’t want as Lord Commander. Sam puts Jon up as a compromise candidate, but the thing that wins him the vote is Mormont’s raven showing up and yelling “snow” at everyone, suggesting that Jon is Mormont’s own choice for Lord Commander. Some of that comes through a tad in the show; Jon doesn’t win by a landslide, but by one vote—Maester Aemon’s. He doesn’t have a mandate, or even the support of most of the Night’s Watch. But here, it’s spun as those men are Stupid, Stubborn, and Racist, not that they have honest concerns about how Jon ends up running the Night’s Watch.

Also at the Wall, Shireen is teaching Gilly to read, and the writers get in what feels like a subtle dig at the viewers who have also read the books when Selyse tells Shireen that hanging around a Wildling is dangerous, because “you have no idea what people will do. All your books and you still don’t know.” Well, no, Benioff and Weiss, because your characters don’t act in logical and understandable ways, they just hop from plot point to plot point and then fight huge impressive battles. And book readers don’t know what the characters will do because what you’re doing here is barely adapting anymore and is more like fan-fiction. (Sorry, was that a bit snarky?)

Daario finds one of the Harpies and gives Grey Worm a lesson in subterfuge, and they haul the man back to Daenerys. She and Mossador both want to kill him immediately, Barristan urges restraint, and Hizdahr doesn’t understand why a poor man like this would want to be a Harpy—he couldn’t have owned slaves and therefore couldn’t have lost any, after all. Dany suggests that having slaves around made him feel better about himself, because he might be poor, but at least he’s not a slave. Mossador retorts that the man would have been paid to be a Harpy. The advisors argue over what to do, and Dany kicks them all out except Barristan, who gives her another lecture about not becoming her father. She agrees to hold a fair trial for the man, but Mossador has other ideas. He breaks into his cell, kills him, and nails him up to a wall with “kill the masters” painted beside him, probably in his own blood. Mossador thinks he’s done Dany a favor by releasing her from her dilemma, and doesn’t understand why she has him arrested for murder. She then hauls him out in front of everyone and has him beheaded, which starts a riot. So, she’s not willing to extend the same courtesy—a fair and public trial—to one of her own advisors that she was going to extend to the Harpy? Sure, Mossador confessed, but only to her and her people. The rest of the city only has her word for it.

Again, we see some really simplified and bad politics. The problem with Dany’s rule in the books is she keeps compromising her core values to try to make all of the people happy, eventually losing sight of who she is and what her purpose truly is. She even dresses like the Meereenese—which she very pointedly doesn’t do in the show—and refers to it as “wearing her floppy ears” from Brown Ben Plumm (Sir Not Appearing in this Picture) saying that if someone wants to be king of the rabbits, he has to wear some floppy ears. She ultimately does forge peace by marrying Hizdahr and opening the fighting pits, but that’s so far from who she is as a liberator that she strips off her tokar—which she explicitly refers to as her “floppy ears” in that moment—then rides away on Drogon and spends several weeks in the wilderness remembering who she is and what she has to do before encountering the Dothraki again.

Drogon shows up at the end of this episode, and he’s massive. She tries to pet him, but he doesn’t want to be touched, and he flies off out over the city. This both reminds us that Drogon’s out there and that he’s growing, and gives Dany a brief glimpse back at who she’s supposed to be after the bad decisions she’s made today.

Next week: Another royal wedding. Margaery is gross. Sansa learns Petyr’s plans. A girl tries to become no one. The Sparrows make their presence felt. The return of Jorah.

Unnamed dwarf
Unnamed Son of the Harpy

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