(The eighth and final season of Game of Thrones debuts on April 14th, marking the beginning of the end for HBO’s cultural touchstone. Over the years, we’ve covered all 67 episodes of the series, and are revisiting those original reviews in our new retrospective series titled, “Winter is Coming”. We’re pulling these straight from our vacuum sealed digital time capsules, so step into the virtual time machine with us and read our impressions from way back! With the benefit of hindsight, there is plenty of reasons these reviews will raise some eyebrows)
The season five premiere of Game of Thrones had a lot of work to do, reintroducing us to a large ensemble cast while establishing several new story-lines for major characters. While “The Wars to Come” was busy with several key players including Jon Snow, Stannis Baratheon, Daenerys Targaryen, Tyrion, and Cersei, there was little room for some of our other favourite characters to shine, and one (Arya) to make even a slight appearance. Luckily, episode 2, “The House of Black and White,” found ample time to focus on Arya Stark’s journey to Braavos. Meanwhile, Pod and Brienne run into trouble on the road when crossing paths with Little Finger; Jamie heads to Dorne to bring his daughter back home to safety and Stannis offers Jon Snow a deal to become king of Winterfell.
For the second week in a row, two massive statues make an appearance early in each episode. In “The Wars to Come,” an enormous statue of a harpy, located at the top of the largest and tallest pyramid that dominates the skyline of Yunkai was yanked down; and this week, fans are treated to a stunning aerial shot of the giant statue of the Titan of Braavos which guards the harbor entrance to the city. The world of Game of Thrones is expanding, and with each season the world building improves. Credit to the production designers for such great work. Every part of Westeros looks and feels different – from the golden color of Kings Landing, dominated by towers and spires and all the trappings of a palace, to the massive barrier of solid ice guarded by the Brothers of the Night’s Watch – and across the Narrow Sea lies Slaver’s Bay, where Daenerys Targaryen leads an army of freed slaves to a desert city, and let’s not forget Winterfell, which resembles the beautiful lands of Northern Ireland and Scotland. This week we arrive at two gorgeous new locations; first is the harsh desert climate of Dorne, the southernmost part of the continent of Westeros, located thousands of miles from Winterfell – and second is Braavos, one of the Free Cities, that in the novels is vaguely similar to real-life Venice.
“The House of Black and White” is all about vows and new alliances
After Arya left The Hound to die at the end of Season 4, the youngest Stark daughter arrives in Braavos and finds The House of Black and White to learn what awaits her there. Recall how Arya came to be there in the first place? Jaqen gives her a coin, and tells her to show the coin to a Braavosi delivering the coded message, “Valer Morgulis,” meaning “All men must die.” And so she does, but what wasn’t made very clear is why she was turned away upon arriving and only later allowed in? Did she knock on the wrong side of the door? While the scenes spent with Arya remind us why we love her character so much, there are also long stretches of her musing over her coin and over who she plans to kill. I question the decision to include so many scenes that don’t do much in the way of moving her story forward and given that the episode is called “The House of Black and White,” one would hope to learn more about this strange new place. After all, how often do we need to see her repeatedly call out every name on her kill list? That said, one of the most memorable sequences shows the camera circle around Arya and the hooded man, whose face vanishes, only to be replaced by Jaqen’s welcome visage.
Sansa, meanwhile, finally comes face to face with Brienne of Tarth thanks to the keen eye of Podrick Payne who spots her in a crowded pub. After so many close encounters, it was a relief to finally see them cross paths. Unsurprisingly Sansa, much like her little sister refuses Brienne’s help, albeit with Littlefinger’s coaxing. “If both Stark girls refused your service, maybe you’re released from your vow?” Podrick says, after a thrilling chase on horseback. “Do you think she’s safe with Littlefinger?” Brienne asks, before once again setting out in pursuit of the girl to whom she’s pledged her loyalty. As much as we love Brienne, she seems doomed, since she’s hellbent on keeping her word, even if nobody else cares. But one has to question her true motives here. What would Brienne do if released from her oath? Her entire life has been in service of someone – and without her work, she’s fears she’s without purpose and worse, is afraid of being utterly alone. Not to say Brienne doesn’t care for Sansa, but there’s more to her determination than her vows to the now deceased Lady Stark.
In the Seven Kingdoms, Cersei does what Cersei does best, which isn’t much since she can’t seem to do anything right. Ellaria Sand wants revenge for Prince Oberyn’s death, something that becomes apparent once Cersei receives a threatening package. Cersei who fears for her daughter’s life, blames Jaime for allowing her to be sent away to Dorne. Jaime’s guilt over being an accessory to her troubles, inspires him to head south, but not without recruiting the most capable sellsword he knows! It’s great to see Bronn back in the game and I’m guessing their journey will bring plenty of highlights this season. Much like Jamie and Brienne of season 3, their pairing seems like a perfect match, even if they are polar opposites. Meanwhile, we get to meet Prince Oberyn’s brother, Prince Doran Martell – who makes it clear he’s in no way interested in ending the Martell’s alliance with the Lannisters. I look forward to seeing more of Doran and hope that he is just as dangerous as his brother was.
The show’s writers continue to improve on Jon Snow’s storyline which feels far more focused now. The same can be said for Stannis Baratheon who shows a side of him we haven’t seen before when offering to give Jon Snow the name he’s always wanted, as well as the lordship of Winterfell. All Jon has to do is cast off the black cloak of the Night’s Watch and break his vows in order to become Jon Stark, Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North. All this in exchange for helping Stannis retake the North. It seems an offer he should at least consider but Jon is stubborn, and instead of joining Stannis’ army, Jon winds up with his own, when Sam nominates him to be the new lord high commander. It’s a nice moment, and a satisfying payoff. Much like Brienne, Jon has chosen honour, and, as he tells Sam, “If I don’t take my own word seriously, what kind of Lord of Winterfell would I be?” And while it’s not quite surprising or satisfying watching him win the election thanks to the deciding vote via Maester Aemon, it’s perhaps a wise decision to simplify Jon’s rise to power as opposed to stretching it out across multiple scenes and taking up valuable screen time.
Once again, the highlight this week revolves around Varys and Tyrion, two men who despite growing up wealthy have always faced discrimination. But as Varys points out, even as outcasts, they wield immense power and freedom. “People follow leaders, and they will never follow us,” Varys explains. “They find us repulsive.” “I find us repulsive, and we find them repulsive, which is why we surround ourselves with large, comfortable boxes to keep them away. And yet no matter what we do, people like you and I are never really satisfied inside the box, not for long.” It’s amazing how amidst the epic battles, black magic, white walkers and even dragons, it’s these little conversations that stand out most.
“The House of Black and White” reunites several characters while continuing to show how everyone seems in search of allies both old and new. It not only brought Arya and Bronn back into the mix but expanded the world even further hinting at secret alliances, backroom meetings, new marriages, and future assassinations. With so many different settings, different characters, and different genres, Game of Thrones is one huge puzzle – and I can’t wait to see how it all ultimately fits together.
“The House of Black and White” shows many characters reiterate the vows that place them in a rather peculiar predicament, be it Jaime who promises to bring back Myrcella; Jon Snow who refuses to break his oath; Brienne reminding Pod of her vow to Catelyn, or Arya completing her task when arriving at Braavos. If anything is certain after five seasons, it is that George RR Martin loves his outcasts, his women and those outcasts and/or women who hold on to their promises. Women seem to be front and center this season, and while it was the men pulling the strings in the past, the women seem prime for taking control. In “The Wars To Come,” the witch warned Cersei of another younger and more beautiful queen to take her place, and looking around, it seems there are plenty of candidates. Although Margaery seems a little to0 obvious and Daenerys seems too good to be true – there are plenty of others to take her place including any one of the two Stark children, to name a few. Only time will tell.
The hardships of ruling continue to be a major theme of the series. Just as Cersei lacks the respect of her all-male council, Daenerys is faced with the unpleasant task of having to execute a former slave who committed an act of vengeance when killing White Rat. In the last episode, Dany’s refusal to respect the tradition of gladiatorial combat had many of her followers upset, but this week, Dany’s attempts to impose her own sense of justice on her chosen home of Meereen completely backfires on her. Showing her inexperience, she tries to enforce the law and establish her authority in the most explicit, grandiose way possible – executing Mossador in front of the citizens of Meereen, a scene echoing the beheading of Ned Stark back in season 1. The commoners call Mossador “brother,” they name Daenerys “mother” but when the head rolls, a hiss is heard throughout the crowd before they charge and attack. The mother of dragons is left helpless relying on her guards to take her away from the angry mob – surrounding her, they form a black box around Daenerys – a predominant image this week – and one that echoes the words spoken earlier by Varys and as well as the image of the house of which the episode is named after. Dany’s attempt to rule through goodness keeps running afoul and now, much like her dragons, the people she rules reject her.
– Ricky D
Be sure to listen to our Game of Thrones podcast with a different guest host, each and every week.
Where is Sansa headed and who exactly is Littlefinger marrying?
Jamie: “If I was a father to any of my children, they’d be stoned in the streets.”
Cersei tries her best to take control of the Small Council, claiming she’s acting purely on Tommen’s behalf, only her uncle Kevan Lannister isn’t having it and storms off. Is he the new Tywin?
Bronn: You know what I think? I think you’re a good person and your sister is a mean person. I’ve been all over the world, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that meanness comes around. People like your sister, they always get what’s coming to them, eventually.”
Game of Thrones, Season Five, Episode 2: “The House of Black and White”
Directed by Michael Slovis
Written by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss
Featured music Ramin Djawadi
Cinematography by David Franco
Editing by Katie Weiland
Originally published April 19, 2019