GAME OF THRONES 5×02

"The House of Black and White"

There are a couple of interrelated themes running throughout "The House of Black and White." The first, of course, is fear. "Don't be afraid," the ship's captain tells Arya Stark as they arrive at Braavos. "I'm not afraid," Arya says firmly, and she's not. She is nervous—perhaps even anxious—but Arya has been tempered by horror after horror, and—for the first time since she left her home so many years ago—she has finally arrived in a place where she has nothing in particular to fear. As we see when she draws on three older, larger assailants who accost her in the street, Arya has moved beyond fear, and that can be both a powerful and a reckless way to live.

Fear, after all, is an important thing. It can teach you to be cautious and wily. "You understood fear once, long ago, but you've forgotten what it means," Daario Naharis tells Grey Worm in this episode. "Someone who has forgotten fear has forgotten how to hide. Fear is useful that way." Elsewhere, we are reminded that Janos Slynt has not forgotten how to hide: Sam—widely known as a craven among the men of the Night's Watch—publicly shames Slynt for cowering in a cupboard during the Battle for the Wall. Arya's sister Sansa has not forgotten fear either: "wary of strangers, as she should be," Sansa (like Arya did) refuses Brienne's help, clinging to the security of the devil she knows. Fear can be a weapon, as it is when someone sends Cersei a threat. Fear can be used to challenge regimes, as the Sons of the Harpy are doing in Meereen. Fear can be used to control men, as Stannis reminds Jon Snow. ("Show too much kindness, people don't fear you," Stannis says. "If they don't fear you, they won't follow you.")

When you think about it, this entire world—structured on a feudal system of loyalty exchanged for protection—is run on fear. (It's no wonder that Melisandre—one of the great manipulators and con artists in the Seven Kingdoms—is so fond of reminding everyone that "the night is dark and full of terrors.")

So yes, fear in general is one of our themes this week on Game of Thrones. But the more interesting subject to me is a variation on that theme: the fear specifically felt by rulers. Because that's a new thing, isn't it? For a while now we've been discussing how the War of Five Kings—and everything else that has happened—has weakened the very foundations of Westeros, bringing some walls down and exposing cracks in others. The old power structure is still largely in place, but it's a much more fragile thing than it once was, and the people who used to fear nothing are growing more and more nervous.

I am reminded of a famous line from Alan Moore's V for Vendetta—a book that has a few things to say about the weakening of power structures. "People should not be afraid of their governments," Moore's anarchic anti-hero says. "Governments should be afraid of their people." In the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, the people are growing stronger, and the governments are remembering what it means to be afraid.

"And we find them repulsive, which is why we surround ourselves with large, comfortable boxes, to keep them away." — Varys

Varys (Conleth Hill) and Tyrion (Peter Dinklage)

This issue—the fear the powerful have of the powerless—is inextricably tied to issues of class, and that's something that comes up more than once in this episode. This subject is most prominent in Dany's storyline, of course, which we will get to in due course. But it is most clearly articulated by Varys, as he and Tyrion travel from Pentos to Volantis, on their way to Meereen.

Since he fled King's Landing, Tyrion has spent most of his time in boxes: the one he is stuck in now is considerably more luxurious than the shipping crate in which he was smuggled across the Narrow Sea, but he's not enjoying it much more. He is drinking heavily, of course, because "what else is there to for me to do in this fucking box?"

On the surface, the conversation is about being stir crazy, but it segues quickly into a conversation about ruling. ("Everywhere already has a ruler," Tyrion says. "Every pile of shit on the side of every road has someone's banner hanging from it.") Even though they describe themselves as "servants," Varys and Tyrion are both of the ruling class. ("You were quite good at it, you know," Varys says. "Ruling.") And, like other rulers, they prefer to stay safely locked away inside large, comfortable boxes. (Remember the box in which Joffrey was carried through the streets of King's Landing? Remember the box in which Tyrion—when he was Hand of the King—conducted his business? What are castles but comfortable boxes that keep the world at bay? Moving up in this society—as people like Bronn are doing—means getting better and better boxes in which to hide.)

I said last week that this season of Game of Thrones will be about choosing how to live in this new world order, and these insular boxes of class privilege are one of the things everyone—particularly the rulers—will have to symbolically reconsider. They can hide behind the walls of power, or they can come out and experience the real world. In what seems at first like a non-sequitur, Tyrion confesses the mistake he made, which was probably the greatest mistake of his life. "She wanted me to leave King's Landing," he says, of Shae. "She begged me. I wouldn't go." Why? Varys asks him. "Because I liked it. Power." He was happy with Shae—and they might have been genuinely happy together—but he was too scared to exile himself from his comfortable box.

As Dany is discovering, the issue of class and privilege is only more complicated where Varys and Tyrion are headed. It is, after all, called "Slaver's Bay." (One of the only things we know about Volantis comes from a story the late Talisa told, back in "The Prince of Winterfell." She told Robb about how a slave once saved her little brother's life, even though it was death for a slave to even touch a high-born person. She also told him slaves there are all tattooed, "so you know what they are without having to talk to them.")

Varys and Tyrion are still in the box for now—literally and figuratively—but they have left their places of power and gone out to face their fears in the real world, with all its dangers and inequities. "People like you and me are never really satisfied inside the box," Varys admits. "Not for long."

"Mistakes will be made." — Cersei Lannister

Cersei (Lena Headey) 2

On the other hand, Cersei Lannister is reinforcing the walls of her box as quickly as she can.

As I've said many times before, it would be possible to feel sorry for Cersei if she didn't go out of her way to make it so very difficult. She probably was her father's most dutiful and capable child, and would have been his worthy heir if she'd only been born a boy. As it is, as a woman in a man's world, Cersei has had to fight hard to protect her children and hold onto her limited position of power. Now, she's lost one son to murder; she's losing her remaining son to a new, younger queen; her daughter has been sold to their enemies; and her father—the source of all her power—is gone, thanks to her two brothers. She's lost everyone she ever cared about, and she's completely alienated everyone else in the world, so Cersei is more or less completely alone.  ("You might find it difficult to rule over millions who want you dead," Tyrion once warned her, and that's more or less the situation she faces now. "They're going to try to take it away," Jaime warned her last week, and he's right: they are.)

It's no wonder, then, that she's repositioning herself and fortifying the barricades. Her first move is to try to reclaim her one remaining child, her daughter Myrcella, after receiving a clear threat in the form of a nasty snake-o-gram. The red viper, of course, is a reference to Oberyn Martell, and the necklace in its teeth is a warning about Myrcella. ("Of course it's a threat," Cersei says. "Our daughter is alone in Dorne, surrounded by people who hate our family.") Jaime mounts a two-man rescue mission—enlisting Bronn to go with him—but Cersei has her doubts: "You've never made anything better," she snarls at him. (I love the framing in this scene: with the stuffed snake standing on the table between them, both Cersei and the viper appear to be snarling at Jaime.)

Her next move is to shore up her support in the government. She is placing her new ally Qyburn on the small council as Master of Whisperers, over the objections of Pycelle. She flatters Mace Tyrell, her son's father-in-law-to-be, in order to curry his favor. And she tries to do the same with her Uncle Kevan, but he isn't having it. "I did not return to the capital to serve as your puppet, to watch you stack the council with sycophants," he says. "I do not recognize your authority…You are the queen mother, nothing more." His final words are a blow to her as well: he says he is returning to Casterly Rock. The family seat of power, Casterly Rock is the safe and secure "box" that would be hers to hide in, if only she were a man.

I'm sure this will develop further as the season progresses, but all of this echoes with the rest of the episode by reminding us how precarious power is, especially when it is based solely on fear. No one loves the Lannisters: no one ever did. They ruled because they had the power to rule, the power to keep everyone else in line. Now, that power is slipping, and the world is suddenly a very threatening place. Cersei hates Margaery—"that smirking whore from Highgarden"—in part because Margaery believes there's a different way to rule: a method of leadership based on earning the peoples' love, not their fear.  Margaery is all about stepping outside the box. (She did so literally, in "Valar Doeharis," walking freely and without fear through the slums of Fleabottom, talking to the poor and orphaned peasants. And, prior to the wedding, she urged Joffrey—over Cersei's terrified objections—to open the doors of the Sept and greet his people. "If you give them your love, they will return it a thousand fold," Margaery told him, summarizing an approach to power that has historically been anathema to the Lannisters.)

Margaery believes love is a stronger foundation of power than fear; she tried to teach that to Joffrey, and she'll no doubt succeed in teaching it to Tommen (who will take to the lesson more naturally). It's a lesson Cersei never learned, and it's probably too late for her to learn it now except the hard way.

"Then we are lucky the whole country does not decide." — Prince Doran

Doran (Alexander Siddig) and Ellaria (Indira Varma)

Throughout this episode we are reminded of how difficult ruling truly is: decisions are rarely black and white—another meaning of the title—and it can be a tricky thing to balance the right thing to do with the safe thing to do. We don't know much yet about Prince Doran (Alexander Siddig), the ruler of Dorne whom we meet this episode. But—like Dany—he appears to be a ruler with the best interest of his people at heart. And—like Dany—he may find his good intentions come back to bite him in the ass.

Ellaria Sand, the paramour of the late Oberyn Martell, wants vengeance for her lover's death, by any means necessary. Cersei's daughter Myrcella, betrothed to the crown prince, looks happy enough in Dorne, but Ellaria wants to use her to strike back at the Lannisters. "Let me send her to Cersei, one finger at a time," she pleads. But that's not how they do things here, in a land Oberyn swore was much more civilized than King's Landing. "You have my word," Oberyn told Cersei, in "First of His Name." "We don't hurt little girls in Dorne." Now, Oberyn's older brother repeats that philosophy to Oberyn's lover: "I loved my brother, and you made him very happy," Doran says. "But we do not mutilate little girls for vengeance. Not here. Not while I rule."

And how long will that be? Ellaria asks him, which gets at the crux of the issue. We have precious few forms of government in Westeros that even vaguely resemble a democracy, but that doesn't mean that rulers don't fear denying the will of their people. "You would have me go to war," Doran accuses Ellaria, and she responds that the whole country would have them go to war. "Then we are lucky the whole country does not decide," Doran says.

That's the thing about the rulers, living in their boxes: they are always separated from the people they rule, always above and apart from the common masses. But power is a precarious thing, tentatively bolstered by consensus, and easily shaken by dissent. ("Power resides where men think it resides," Varys told us, long ago.) One wrong move—or even one right move that proves unpopular—and these rulers can find the walls of their comfortable boxes crashing down around them.

"Then who lives in the pyramids?"— Mossador

Daenerys (Emilia Clarke)

Which brings us to Queen Daenerys Stormborn, who learns—for the first time—to fear her own people.

Dany has always tried to do the right thing, and it has mostly worked out for her. Like Margaery, she believes power comes from love, not fear, and she has put that philosophy into practice and secured the love of the masses. They adore her, and the crowds treat her like a messiah-figure, calling out in one voice to call her mysha, or mother.

But Dany is a colonialist, and we know from our own experience that the history of colonization is a troubled one: outsiders greeted as liberators often end up seen as invaders or conquerors. "She doesn't belong here," the captured Son of the Harpy (Chris-Lee Ashqar) tells the former slave Mossador (Reece Noi). "And no matter how many of you traitors call her mysha, she will never be your mother."

Meereen is rife with class issues, which have already complicated all of Dany's good intentions. She had many of the former slave-masters executed, but the son of one of them—Hizdahr zo Loraq, now one of her advisers—convinced her that that was an injustice. She had all of the former slaves released from their chains, only to discover that some of them begged to be allowed to sell themselves back into slavery. She has tried to create a just society, where everyone is equal, but even the way the crowds segregate themselves by class makes it clear she has not succeeded. The issue that threatens now to tear Dany's new regime apart is between former masters and former slaves, but even that is not simple: the Harpy who killed White Rat is a poor man himself—note the squalor of the "box" he must hide in—but, as Mossador explains, "Great families afraid to do a thing, they pay poor men to do it for them." It turns out—shockingly— that achieving a just and egalitarian society is not as simple as just setting free the slaves. "There are no more slaves, there are no more masters," Dany tells Mossador. "Then who lives in the pyramids?" he challenges her. The rich are still safe in their boxes, even in Dany's new world order.

And—just like everywhere else—there is an inherent debate here about the use of fear. Forced to decide what to do with the captured Harpy, she must decide whether to "send a message" by executing him, or to give him a fair trial. Meereen, Mossador warns, knows nothing of mercy and justice: "all they understand is blood." But Barristan Selmy convinces her to be merciful, by invoking the memory of how her father tried to stamp out dissension through fear, right until the day he fell. "The Mad King gave his enemies the justice he thought they deserved, and each time it made him feel powerful, and right. Until the very end."

But Dany's plan to teach the people of Meereen "a better way" backfires: Mossador murders the Harpy, and under Dany's own laws she is forced to hold an execution after all. ("You are the law," Mossador pleads with her, but Dany holds firm: the law is the law.) At the execution, the people are calling her "mother," and pleading for mercy for their brother, and you can see Daenerys hesitating, weighing the voice of the people against her own ideals about justice. In the end, however, she gives the slightest of nods to Daario, and he removes Mossador's head.

The quiet that follows is absolute, the voices formerly raised in love having fallen silent in an instant. And the silence is broken by a new sound: hissing. Like the red viper that represented Dorne's disagreement with Prince Doran, this sound—and the chaos that follows—teaches Dany just how much even well-intentioned governments have to fear from their people.

Last week we discussed how tricky the balance is between strength and compassion, and here we can rephrase that as the balance between fear and love. Dany has tried to rule by love, but, to hold onto her power, she may be tempted to use fear. (Like her father, and so many other rulers before and after him.) And so, as Dany locks herself in the safety of her comfortable box—guards posted all around to protect her from her own people—the most terrifying symbol of her strength and power comes back. Her fiercest dragon, Drogon—the one she had not chained up out of compassion for her people—returns. It is an ambiguous reunion—he does not attack her, but neither does he let her touch him—reflecting her own indecision and the uncertainty of her next steps. She is caught between love and fear—between being the ruler she wanted to be or being the Mad King—and right now it could go either way.

"He may be young, but he was the commander we turned to when the night was darkest." — Sam, of Jon Snow

Jon Snow (Kit Harington)

In this episode about rulers, Jon Snow has quite a day. He is offered not one, but two positions of power, and in choosing between them he must decide what kind of ruler he wants to be.

As we've seen with Doran and Dany, doing the right thing in spite of fear—fear of death, fear of displeasure, fear of reprisal—is one of the things rulers are called upon to do. It's this quality that gets Jon both his job offers now, the first coming from Stannis Baratheon. Jon's willful defiance of Stannis last episode was itself a choice of mercy over fear, and Jon had every right to expect that he would be punished for it by stern Stannis and his terrifying Red Woman. As it turns out, however, he has earned Stannis's respect instead. "I don't punish men for bravery," Stannis says. "I reward it." His reward for Jon is everything Jon has ever dreamed of: to be made a trueborn Stark, his father's heir and the new Lord of Winterfell.

"It's the first thing I ever remember wanting," Jon admits to Sam. In the same breath, however, he says he is turning it down. "I swore a vow to the Night's Watch. If I don't take my own word seriously, what sort of Lord of Winterfell would I be?" This is a good reason, an honest reason, an honorable reason—but, in the light of the rest of this episode, I wonder if it is the only reason. Jon has been haunted by his bastard status all his life, and so we would understand if he is tempted by this ultimate gesture of respectability and status. But would he really want to be a lord? After everything he has been through, can we really imagine Jon hiding away in the cushioned box of Winterfell, ruling over people, apart and above? That's a way to rule—and his father provided the best example of how to do it right that we've seen—but it's not the life for Jon Snow.

Jon is not meant for a box: he's a man of the world, a man of the people. I said earlier that there are few real democracies in Westeros, but the Night's Watch is one of them: it is a place that chooses its own rulers, and it is a place that is—in its own flawed, peculiar way—a version of the utopian society that Dany dreams of building. Though the brothers all come from different places—lords and peasants, slaves and masters, criminals and kings—everyone is equal at the Wall. It is a place where birth and wealth and status are all meaningless, where the lowest born man can rise to the greatest heights of authority. Even the Lord Commander of the Night's Watch lives and fights among his men, with no real class distinction and little luxury: there are no large, comfortable boxes at Castle Black. No one lives in pyramids here.

And so this is the job for which Jon Snow is meant, and he gets it—thanks to a well-timed nominating speech about courage from Samwell Tarly.

"Whilst Lord Janos was hiding with the women and children, Jon Snow was leading. Ser Alliser fought bravely, it is true, but when he was wounded it was Jon who saved us. He took charge of the Wall's defense, he killed the Magna of the Thenns, he went north to deal with Mance Rayder, knowing it almost certainly meant his own death. Before that, he led the mission to avenge Lord Commander Mormont. Mormont himself chose Jon to be his steward. He saw something in Jon, and now we've all seen it too. He may be young, but he's the commander we turned to when the night was darkest. "

No one present disagrees with any of this, not even Alliser Thorne. And Thorne's one rebuttal actually speaks to the larger issue of how the very concept of ruling may be changing in Westeros. "You want to choose a man who has fought the Wildlings all his life, or a man who makes love to them?" Thorne asks.

Though crudely phrased—and intended as a criticism—this summarizes exactly why Jon Snow is the right leader at the right time. Fear can only protect you so long: leaders who rule from the blindness of boxes are leaders who don't know their people, don't trust their people, don't have the love of their people. Jon doesn't fear, and doesn't make decisions based on fear: he doesn't hate the Wildlings because he has been beyond the Wall—the ultimate box—to live among them, and get to know them. The old divisions and class distinctions mean nothing to him. ("They were born on the wrong side of the Wall," he told Stannis last week, of the Wildlings. "That doesn't make them monsters.")

Alliser thinks the Brothers of the Night's Watch have to be ruled by fear as well, "with a firm hand," as he said last week. But Jon is different: he is chosen by his brothers because they know him, and he them. He has eaten and slept and trained among them, fought along side them, shared their conversations and jokes and fears. He is strong—for him, as for Dany, strength will be necessary—but he is also compassionate, loving, merciful. He is not an outsider, but one of them: he will lead from within, not from fear, not from far away, not from a comfortable box of privilege.

The walls are tumbling down in Westeros, and winning the game of thrones will require a new kind of ruler.

Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits

  • I skipped over Arya. How could I skip over Arya? I love Arya. She just didn't happen to fit easily into my theme this week. There is, arguably, a connection: the old order of Westeros is based largely on name recognition, with power linked to birth and status and lineage. That's one of the things that is changing now—as Jon's story bears witness—and Arya's path to power, too, is taking her in a different direction. What Arya will become in the House of Black and White will not depend on her being someone, but on her ability to become no one. It sounds like she will have to cast off the old trappings of class and privilege.
  • The keen listener will notice a name missing from Arya's prayers: Ilyn Payne. The executioner has not been seen since Season Two's "Blackwater," and I suspect he is quietly being written off the show. Wilko Johnson, who plays Payne—and is, incidentally, a founding member of the seminal punk rock group Dr. Feelgood—was given a terminal cancer diagnosis in 2012. Thankfully, he is now apparently (and somewhat miraculously) cancer-free, but I wonder if Arya's omission is a sign that we've seen the last of "the King's Justice."
  • There's a nice parallel going on between Myrcella and Shireen, Stannis's daughter (who is, adorably, teaching Gilly how to read). Both their mothers fear that their enemies will strike at them through their daughters. ("You have no idea what people will do," Selyse warns Shireen. "All your books, and you still don't know.")
  • I don't like to compare screen-to-book, but I'll just say that Jon's becoming Lord Commander was a lot more complicated in the novels, and involved a great deal of back-room politicking by Samwell Tarly. I understand—and even approve of—the decision to shorten and simplify it here, but I regret the absence of a major, character-defining storyline for Sam.
  • Baelish tells Brienne that, according to Renley, "your loyalty came free of charge." Maybe, but poor Brienne can't even give it away, can she? Both Stark girls have now rejected her service: to Sansa, she's just another well-intentioned "outsider." Podrick gently suggests that perhaps Brienne is released from her obligation now, but Brienne is one of those people who do the right thing even when no one wants them to.

NEXT: Episode 5×03 – "High Sparrow"

The Unaffiliated Critic

Michael G. McDunnah is a freelance writer, a recovering lit major, a pop-culture junkie, and an unaffiliated critic. He lives in Chicago.

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