Two episodes in, and HBO’s experiment in transforming George R.R. Martin’s muddled fourth and fifth books into a coherent and compelling story continues to look like a rousing success. “The House of Black and White” kept the storylines from last week moving forward. But more than that, it showed Game of Thrones deviating even further from Martin’s plot in its efforts to keep around beloved supporting characters.
Thanks to some adept writing, and the performances by peter Dinklage and Jerome Flynn, the partnership between Tyrion and the not-entirely-ethical but amiably-dry-humored sellsword Bronn – acting as Tyrion’s muscle and right-hand man – was a delight. Watching their camaraderie come to a close was one of last season’s more moving moments. And for those of us familiar with the books, it was all the more poignant because we figured this would be the last we’d see of Bronn.
But apparently not! When Jaime assured Cersei he wouldn’t be headed to Dorne alone, and the scene immediately cut to Bronn skipping rocks into the ocean, I confess I literally cheered. The way Flynn played Bronn’s good-humored tolerance for his bride-to-be – clearly bored out of his skull, but unwilling to descend into cruelty – made it clear the sellsword is in desperate need of an adventure.
And sending Jaime off to Dorne to rescue Myrcella, hoping he’ll win back Cersei’s approval, is probably the show’s single biggest jettisoning of Martin’s plot. The last we see of Jaime in the books, he’s randomly wandering around Westeros discovering a talent for diplomacy, It’s a huge gamble. But teaming him up with Bronn assures it will at least be a hell of a lot of fun to watch.
The other big callback in “The House of Black and White” literally came on the steps of the titular building. It was the assassin Jaqen H’Gar who set Arya on her path to becoming a Faceless Man back in season two. And again, while their relationship was quixotic and interesting in the book, the show and the performances by Tom Wlaschiha and Maisie Williams elevated it to something greater. So it would only make sense for him to show back up to begin her training now that she’s made it to Braavos.
Martin didn’t see it that way, but the show appears willing to throw the fans a few bones. And it’s a good call here: Jaqen’s return offers a sense of closure to everything Arya’s already gone through, and a sense of momentum for her next chapter. “A man is no one, and no one is who a girl must become.”
Speaking of, last night was textbook Arya: seemingly abandoned on the steps, at the very doorway to her goal, she stubbornly sat in the rain for a whole night, once again muttering that list of people she intends to wreak vengeance upon. Then she defiantly marched off into the city to survive on her wits and skill. And that very instinct for survival and adaptation appears to be what won the Faceless Men over.
The bullheaded determination to bend the world to their will was a characteristic shared by nearly all the major female players last night.
There was Indira Varma as Ellaria Sand, back for the show’s first new storyline in Dorne. She looked worn and severe after losing Oberyn last season. But her desire to strike back at the Lannister’s by literally sending Myrcella back to them a piece at a time, while monstrous, certainly doesn’t lack for panache. And even though their scene was brief, Alexander Siddig left an impression as Price Doran Martell, Ellaria’s physically broken, but mentally astute and morally upright foil.
In King’s Landing, Cersei not only sent Jaime off to Dorne to rescue their daughter, she began slowly securing her control over the Small Council by appointing Mace Tyrell Master of Coin and driving her uncle back to Casterly Rock. Soon she’ll control both the flow of information to her son Tommen, and the flow of power going outward from his newfound position as King.
Even the irrationality of her rage at Jaime was weirdly impressive. Of course he wouldn’t want to speak too loudly of “our daughter.” But the fact that Cersei just doesn’t give a shit anymore whether the world knows she fathered three children with her brother is, even for her, a remarkable level of defiance in the face of some pretty towering social costs.
Brienne insisted on plowing forward, even now that both the Stark daughters have turned down her offer of protection. Sansa’s apprenticeship of a sort with Littlefinger appears to be turning into more of a partnership. He certainly pitched the idea of turning Brienne down, but Sophie Turner gave Sansa’s choice to follow through a certain stand-alone agency. And Pod, ever the show’s heart of kindness, made the perfectly valid point that this would seem to fulfill Brienne’s vow to Catelyn Stark. You could see his hope that Brienne could set her obligations down and find a little peace.
But then, Brienne’s almost certainly right that Sansa isn’t safe with Littlefinger, and she should adapt her mission to track the two of them to see how things play out; just in case Sansa may reassess her refusal.
Then there’s Daenerys. You could see the look of horror on Emilia Clarke’s face when Daenerys realized she was seeing her own sense of righteous fury being adopted by a trusted advisor – a man she freed – and turned to murdering a prisoner in cold blood. The idea of a fair trial, which Barristan desperately stood up for, remains a theory, not a practice, in the new social fabric of the Mereen. And it will be up to Daenerys to try to carry its newly-liberated citizens passed their love for her and into a love for law and justice itself – and to recognize the difference between the two.
Indeed, that obligation may even call for Daenerys to make them hate her. The freed slaves turned on a dime, from worshipful entreaty to literal hissing in hostility, when Daenerys actually carried through with the execution. Of all the surviving “good” characters, Daenerys always seems most in danger of self-destructing, and seeing the execution through was a genuine act of governance.
Season five may be a season of duos: Arya and Jaqen, Jaime and Bronn, Tyrion and Varys, Brienne and Pod, Sansa and Littlefinger, Jon and Sam, and even Ellaria and Doran, after a fashion. It’s not clear who Daenerys opposite is, though the entire city of Mereen might be the best candidate at this point.
And in those duos, it looks like the women in Game of Thrones’ world are going to be the major driving engines of the action.