Game of Thrones, Season 5: "The House of Black and White"




This week on Dear Television:

  • “50 Shades of Black and White,” from Sarah Mesle
     

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50 Shades of Black and White
By Sarah Mesle
April 19, 2015

arya
Dear Television,

“THE HOUSE OF BLACK AND WHITE” is an episode written in the future tense. Instead of important things happening, important things are put in place so that they might happen later: Jaime will go to Dorne; Brienne will follow Sansa; Ellaria will seek revenge; Jon will be the Night’s Watch commander; Arya will become no one. As an early-season exercise in set building, the episode is both impressive and unsatisfying. I’m happy so many wheels are set in motion, but mostly I’m eager to get somewhere.

In fact, this episode deferred narrative so fully that it forced me to engage with the show’s other pleasures. If we shift away from trying to synthesize this story, what do we see? Here are some things I loved and hated about this episode.

I Loved:
Arya’s Eyebrows. 

I know I’m not the only one at Dear Television who hopes Game of Thrones is retitled Girlhood and reedited to feature entirely Maisie Williams maturing over 12 years. One of the real pleasures of this show is watching Williams grow into new ways to inhabit her character, and while it does not give her a lot to do, it does give her a lot of things to look at. Watching her furrow her brow at things is more satisfying than 25 mammoths randomly charging the Wall; watching her behead a pidgeon is absolutely as rewarding as basically anything else some dude does with a sword. Pigeon Pie!

Sansa Being Badass

Who knew Sansa could be badass? I mean, here she is just the tiniest bit badass, but it’s such a step forward I’m going to go ahead and call it. “I’d like some ale,” she says, wearing her bad necklace, which she apparently bought at some Westerosi Forever 21. I am so interested to see what Sansa does this season, now that she is, as my friend Matt says, black haired and “all goth.” 

Gilly and Shireen Passing the Bechdel Test

Ladies talking about their childhoods? Yes please. These two outcasts, with their honesty and resiliency, are a great pair. I hope we get to see more of them helping each other out; I hope they get to help.

Bromances

Jaime and Bron; Daario and Grey Worm; Tyrion and Varys; it’s such a comfort when dudes get to banter. Andy Greenwald said this week that he’s so excited for Tyrion and Varys to get to Meereen and “bring their one liners with them,” and I think that’s exactly right. I don’t love that so few ladies are given witty banter, but I do love the witty banter the dudes are given. No where is this more evident than in the (extremely satisfying!) Night’s Watch election scene, which emphasizes the ability of good humor to reveal truths and create community.
 

I Did Not Love:
Ladies Shrieking with Irrational Emotion

Cersei and Ellaria are really two irrational peas in a pod here, aren’t they? I understand that these characters are under a lot of duress, and I’m not saying that their acting itself was shrill or unpleasant (Cersei, in particular, gets almost as much done with her eyebrows as Arya does, and I loved her pissed-off pronunciation of “cit-ties” when she threatened to burn all of Dorne’s down). But these are smart, strategic women, and the script’s decision to write them as shrill, guided by fear and anger in a way that precludes intelligence or ethics, chafed at me. These are women who should draw our respect; instead, the show puts its viewers consistently on the side of beleaguered, ethical, men. Do better, Game of Thrones.

Childlike Slaves

A lot has been written about Game of Throne’s fascination with Daenerys’s ability to inspire the enslaved brown people of Essos through the magic of beautiful white womanhood. In general, I think the show’s treatment of race and slavery is more complex than its surface narrative would indicate. By I have zero patience for how Daenerys’s relationship to the slaves she has freed is portrayed in this episode. Consider Daenerys’s counselors: the former master who advises her is practical, appealing, and adult, while the former slave is almost a minstrel type: wide eyed, simple minded, emotional, naïve, violent. More egregious still is the panting emotional response that Daenerys elicits from Meereen’s former slaves when they are gathered at the episode’s conclusion. Not only do they call her “Mhysa,” mother, but they are themselves portrayed as children, unable to understand Daenerys’s ethical stance. I don’t know, Dear Television. The whole thing was pretty gross.

So where does this leave us? These are disparate points, and they don’t add up necessarily to any grand narrative. But that doesn’t mean “The House of Black and White” has nothing cohesive to offer us. Two tensions — or, I don’t know, motifs, or themes or something — seem to weave the episode together, but they’re very different kinds of threads. The first is a concept: family. The second is a noun, or maybe a symbol: snakes. When put together like that, it makes it seem like the episode is about loyalty and treachery, belonging and betraying. But in truth, that simplifies the ambivalence of what the episode, I think, is after. What is family, in Westeros, afterall?

It’s a more complicated question than it first appears. Again and again Game of Thrones emphasizes the importance of family. Bloodline matters intensely in this plot, set in motion by inheritance and propelled by the rivalry between Lannisters, Starks, Boratheons, and Targaryans. Family, at one level, is everything, and it is indeed black and white: you are the heir, or you are a bastard. You’re in or you’re out. Or as Petyr Baelish explains very succinctly to Brienne in this episode: “We’re family now, and you’re an outsider.”

Pieter isn’t the only one in this episode to make a similar claim. (The Wildings, Jon Snow explains to Stannis, will only follow one of their own: the Northerners are the same.) But even as Petyr claims his family ties to Sansa, the viewer can’t help but notice that the lines he draws are clearer in theory than practice. After all, Petry and Sansa are “family” not because of blood or even emotional ties between them — they are family because Littlefinger is so skilled at political maneuvering and emotional manipulation. Jon Snow is a Snow, a bastard — but “with a pen,” Stannis can make him a Stark. The social pressures generated by “the wars to come” are creating a Westeros where what counts as family is mostly open to interpretation.

Which is not to say that family, just because it is in flux, doesn’t matter. In fact, just the opposite: characters cling to the categories they value, and do so ever more tightly when those categories are strained. This happens over and over in “The House of Black and White” — Cersei is furious at Jaime for not protecting, as she says, “our children” even though she knows the incestuous danger inherent in that “ours.” Ellaria Sand and Doran Martell feud about their competing ties  — love and blood, respectively — to Oberyn. Brienne feels bound by vow to Sansa; Jon’s vows bind him to the Night’s Watch; Dany wants to be a mother to her dragons and her citizens. These characters all agree that “family” matters, even as none of them can quite reconcile what “family” is.

“The House of Black and White” thus creates a world of ambivalence, where because no one is certain of where lines of affiliation finally lie, it is particularly easy for those lines to be challenged, manipulated, or betrayed. And perhaps this takes us to the episode’s other binding thread: snakes. This is a looser theme, but still one worth parsing. Snakes appear visually at least three times: Cersei shows Jaime an anonymous threat from Dorne, with Myrcella’s necklace clutched in the teeth of a carved red viper. The reference is to Oberyn, but when the camera, two scenes later, focuses on Ellaria’s viper ring we know that the threat is from her. Then, later, and seemingly unrelated, Stannis’s daughter Shireen teaches Gilly to read by reminding her that “S” is for snake.  Vengeful Ellaria seems the opposite of the gentle Shireen, so why bring them together through this visual cue? 

Perhaps it is simply to keep snakes in our mind. No one knows, here, exactly who to trust; no one agrees exactly on what betrayal might be. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the penultimate scene when the freed slaves hiss at Daenerys: for them, she is the snake. We are not meant to agree with them (sigh), but we are meant, I think, to remember how complex loyalty is as the wheels of this narrative move forward.

I hate flutes,

Sarah

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