Aidan Gillen, Alfie Allen, Arya Stark, Braavos, Brienne, Cersei Lannister, Charles Dance, Daenerys Targaryen, Dorne, Dragons, Emilia Clarke, Game of Thrones, George R R Martin, Gethin Anthony, Gwendoline Christie, Iain Glen, Iwan Rheon, John Bradley, Jon Snow, Jorah Mormont, King's Landing, Kit Harington, Lena Headey, Littlefinger, Maisie Williams, Meereen, Mossador, Ned Stark, Oberyn, Pedro Pascal, Peter Dinklage, Ramsay Bolton, Reece Noi, Renly Baratheon, Richard Madden, Robb Stark, Sansa Stark, Sean Bean, Shae, Sibel Kekilli, Sky, Stannis Baratheon, Stephen Dillane, The House of Black and White, The Wall, Tyrion Lannister, Tywin Lannister, Westeros
This review contains spoilers for the season four finale of “Game of Thrones”, as well as spoilers for this episode and the season premiere.
Season five didn’t start with the bang that most of us had hoped. It was a good premiere, because this is “Game of Thrones” and every episode is of a high quality, but the first episode didn’t really excite or intrigue as much as it could’ve done. The second episode, entitled “The House of Black and White”, disappointingly takes another step back. I didn’t hate it, and there were plenty of interesting moments to ponder, but that’s all they were – moments. We didn’t spend a prolonged period of time with any of the characters, so things felt disjointed and rushed, and it’s a massive worry for me going forward.
I’ve seen a lot of different reactions to this episode, and it seems to have gone down quite favourably, but for me it really didn’t flow, and the significant moments, while important going forward, felt slightly over the top and amateurish when considering the level of quality we’ve become accustomed to.
“The House of Black and White” was a busy episode with a lot of key scenes being crammed into a short run time. Because of this, many of the scenes felt unsatisfactory and hollow, even though they contained vital character development. Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) finally had to face the truth about her father and decide what kind of ruler she wanted to be, which will most likely shape the choices that she makes in upcoming episodes. Jon Snow (Kit Harington) was offered the opportunity of becoming Jon Stark of Winterfell, but following his decision to reject the offer, (which he is yet to reveal to Stannis (Stephen Dillane)), he was elected the 998th Commander of the Night’s Watch.
These are hugely important plot points for the future of the series. They represent the internal struggles and identity crises that these two characters will face in the rest of the season, and provide an insight into what will be informing their decisions. Sadly, I didn’t enjoy these scenes at all, because there was no time to dwell on them or to see the characters react. The hustle and bustle of fitting everyone into an hour of television lessened the impact of what should’ve been the best moments in the episode, which has made me rethink my criticism of Arya’s (Maisie Williams) omission from episode one.
Jon Snow was thrust into the position of Commander at The Wall, which I’m sure will be exciting, but the way in which that scene was executed was so far below the calibre of this television show. It felt like a scene that you’d see in any run-of-the-mill show on Sky, not one belonging to what I consider to be the best series on television. The cliché nature of the tie-break, the way that the extras started cheering for Jon once he’d been elected, Sam’s (John Bradley) sudden surge of bravery – what a joke! When did “Game of Thrones” become a soap opera?
I don’t want to be too harsh, because I do love this show, but I get so frustrated when episodes fall below what we know the writers are capable of. This isn’t a one-off occurrence; “Game of Thrones” is excellent and usually exudes intelligence and gravitas, but sometimes it lets itself down when there’s too much to get through in one episode.
Take last season’s finale as the prime example. The series built steadily as we saw Tyrion’s (Peter Dinklage) wrongful imprisonment, trial and subsequent trial by combat; all of this taking place over the course of six episodes. The tension was palpable as we watched the finale, hoping and praying that Tyrion would be rescued by one of his allies in King’s Landing. However, when that moment came there was no time to savour it, no time to enjoy it, because there was no time left at all.
The episode was ready to end and the story needed to be resolved, so rather than follow the story that the book set out and make sense of why Tyrion went to visit his father, the writers chose to have him do so just because he could. Tyrion strangled Shae (Sibel Kekilli) in a ridiculous way, killing her so quickly that you have to question what the writers thought throats consist of, and then killing his father by shooting him in what appeared to be the shoulder! I was glad that those things happened, but the execution was terrible and only ignored because the scene was a great pay-off at the end of a long season, a pay-off provided by the books!
The details matter; the showrunners have seemingly forgotten that since last season’s finale because everything feels very rushed, and each character is fighting desperately for their minutes in each episode. Things need to start picking up soon, because if they don’t we could see a real downward spiral for a show that has such a rich world and history backing it up.
Despite my criticisms of the episode, there are still plenty of positives to take from it, particularly what it promises for the future in terms of the narrative. Daenerys has backed herself into a corner, because she’s alienating herself from the slaves that she set free after already having upset the masters. There’s a level of hatred on either side of her now, she no longer has Jorah (Iain Glen) to advise her, and her dragons are out of control. She’s in a dangerous place with very few allies, and despite the fact that she has three dragons and the right family name, she doesn’t hold all the cards. For the first time since the series began Daenerys genuinely feels vulnerable – she could actually die! I don’t believe that that will happen yet, if it does at all, but it makes everything feel a bit more fragile, because there is a chance that someone other than Daenerys could end up taking the Iron Throne, which hasn’t really crossed my mind as a serious option before.
As I watch Daenerys I can’t help but get that sinking feeling that we all experienced with Ned (Sean Bean) and Robb (Richard Madden), because she wants to be a noble and just ruler, but she’s in a world where that really lets you down. The problem with Daenerys was summed up in this episode when she said, ‘the law is the law’. That’s a fine sentiment, but what she’s forgetting is that, as Cersei (Lena Headey) said to Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) many moons ago, ‘power is power’. Daenerys is the law in Meereen, she’s wrong if she believes otherwise, and she doesn’t have to stick to the archaic notion of honour to rule in the right way.
She knew that executing Mossador (Reece Noi) wasn’t what would suit her cause the best, and it wasn’t what anyone else wanted, yet she proceeded to do so anyway because she thought it was the right thing to do. That’s not how it works in Westeros – the right course of action is the one that maintains your standing and secures your power, and that’s the only choice to make. Mossador really didn’t deserve to die, he did what he did in order to please Daenerys, and although he had to be punished, she could’ve shown mercy by sentencing him to something less barbaric without giving up the appearance of control.
Daenerys is so desperate to separate herself from the masters and demonstrate that she’s better than them that she’s forgotten what put them in power in the first place. The masters didn’t take control by doing the right thing, they took it by making smart decisions, by being pragmatic and ruthless, using their influence wherever they could and pleasing the people who supported them. The people that matter for Daenerys are the former slaves, they’re who she needs to keep on her side because the masters are never going to accept her. Now that she’s upset them, it’s anyone’s guess what will happen next.
Another interesting scene in this episode was Brienne’s (Gwendoline Christie) back-and-forth with Sansa, in which we saw another Stark girl turn down her protection. It was fun to see Brienne attempt to explain how Renly (Gethin Anthony) died, given the extraordinary circumstances, and it was also illuminating when Littlefinger pointed out her past failures, because if you think about it Brienne is basically a death sentence for those she’s protecting.
The Stark girls chose the devils they knew over a woman supposedly on a mission to protect them; they chose to follow people that fit into this world, to learn from them and become survivors, because at the end of the day those are the kind of people that know how to play the game. Brienne doesn’t belong in Westeros. She’s a woman of honour and integrity, but that doesn’t serve you well in a world of back-stabbing, debauchery and overall ugliness. She can follow Sansa all she wants, but ‘in the game of thrones you either win or you die’, and I don’t see Brienne out-manoeuvring Littlefinger.
If I had to call it, I’d say that her time is almost up. It feels like her journey leads to her demise rather than victory, because she either has to win or return to King’s Landing, and neither seem likely. I know how I want her to go, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Ramsay (Iwan Rheon) will be her end, just because Iwan Rheon and Alfie Allen suggested that Ramsay does something horrible to a character that they haven’t worked with before halfway through this season.
I’d be remised if I didn’t mention the two new additions to the series that were introduced in this episode. The first was Dorne, which we saw very briefly. I think the inclusion of the Dorne scene was simply there to introduce some of the new characters and remind everyone that Oberyn (Pedro Pascal) was killed last season, and that there will be repercussions. It wasn’t a substantial moment in the episode and I doubt that anyone will remember it in a couple of weeks, but it had a distinct aesthetic and I’m looking forward to seeing what the characters in Dorne have to offer to the series.
The second addition, the House of Black and White, was also visually impressive and got me excited straight away, even though the title of the episode gave away the fact that we’d be seeing it. I thought it looked great and I like that we’ll be seeing Arya doing her thing in a brand new place. Her short time on screen was slightly lacklustre, but her story has a lot of potential moving forward.
Overall this was a disappointing episode. It lacked the quality that I expect from “Game of Thrones”, and too many revelations were shoved into a short period of time, ruining any impact they might’ve had and giving the whole episode a hurried feeling. I hope that things become more careful and considered in the future, but I am concerned because it seems like the number of episodes in each season is becoming a real limitation for the writers. Nevertheless, saying that this was a disappointing episode of “Game of Thrones” isn’t saying that it was a terrible piece of television, so while it didn’t meet the standards I expect, it wasn’t awful in the grand scheme of things.