“Two sides. Two players. One is light, and the other is dark.”
John Locke’s prophetic words on LOST don’t pop up in this week’s Game of Thrones, but they might as well. The second episode of season five, The House of Black and White, lives up to its name in both literal and figurative fashion — but it’s the gray area in between that matters most.
On the face of it, the episode title refers to the actual House of Black and White that stands tall in Braavos. Here, weary traveler Arya Stark hopes to find her old ally Jaqen H’ghar, the face-changing assassin who helped her escape the clutches of Harrenhal so many moons ago. But when she knocks on the massive black and white doors, she’s greeted by a kindly old man who barely acknowledges her existence; he doesn’t even meet the common greeting, “Valar Morghulis,” with the proper response of “Valar Dohaeris.” Instead, he turns Arya away, forcing the poor waif to sleep out in the cold, rainy night.
It’s all that Jon has ever wanted in his life but it would come at the cost of forsaking his vows to the Night’s Watch.
The next day, Arya meets the man again, after nearly being forced to kill a trio of burglars. (“Nothing’s worth anything to dead men,” she warns as they flirt with stealing her precious Needle.) When she follows him back to the House of Black and White, he changes his face, revealing himself to be Jaqen, the faceless man. Why the smoke and mirrors? Because, in his own words, he isn’t Jaqen H’Ghar; he is “no one, and that is who you must become.”
What will Arya learn inside this place? For now, no one knows — but the name of the House looms large over the rest of the episode, as several other men and women wrestle with seemingly binary choices between right and wrong, yes and no, black and white … and yet, it’s the middle-road that calls their names.
In King’s Landing, for instance, Cersei and Jaime Lannister wrestle with the fact that Dorne possesses their daughter Myrcella, and are threatening to harm her in retaliation for the death of Prince Oberyn Martell at the hands of Gregor Clegane. Rather than risk a great diplomatic crisis, and potentially their daughter’s life, by sending armed forces, Jaime instead volunteers to travel to Dorne himself, alongside the mercenary-turned-knight Bronn of the Blackwater, finding a creative solution in the face of extraordinary stakes.
Jaime’s old friend, Brienne of Tarth, faces a similarly difficult situation. She swore an oath to the late Catelyn Stark that she would find and rescue her missing daughters, Arya and Sansa. But what if the daughters don’t want to be rescued? What if they reject Brienne’s help? Brienne already faced that problem last season with Arya, and she faces it again when encountering Sansa Stark in a tavern, taking breakfast with Petyr Baelish.
Even though Sansa refuses Brienne’s assistance, Brienne persists, killing several of Littlefinger’s men and continuing her quest to follow and save Sansa from the most manipulative man in Westeros. Even in the face of a “no,” Brienne finds her own way to hear “yes.”
In the North, Jon Snow faces one of the most difficult yes/no questions of all. Stannis Baratheon offers to legitimize Eddard Stark’s bastard son and name him Lord of Winterfell in exchange for Jon rallying his fellow Northerners to the Baratheon cause. It’s all that Jon has ever wanted in his life — to be recognized as a Stark — but it would come at the cost of forsaking his vows to the Night’s Watch.
Proving his true colors as a Stark, Jon chooses honor over his name, maintaining his place at the Wall … and it pays off in an unexpected way, when his fellow Brothers in Black elect him as their new Lord Commander. And so his watch begins, just as his road back toward Winterfell ends.
Dany’s decision shows just how difficult it is to please everyone — and how easy it is to please no one.
Even further away, Daenerys Targaryen faces her most difficult political situation yet. One of her most trusted Meereenese advisors, a former slave, murders one of the rebellions Sons of the Harpy as he’s awaiting trial. Dany’s choice is black and white: Spare the former slave and condone murder, or execute the former slave for an atrocity committed against an atrocious man?
In the end, she deems the latter option just, and even if she’s right, it doesn’t mean the people of Meereen agree with the choice. Both the former slavers and the former slaves rally together against Dany in a heated display of violence. Dany’s decision shows just how difficult it is to please everyone — and how easy it is to please no one.
Later, as Dany privately questions her own actions, she’s greeted at night by her long lost dragon, Drogon. He stands taller and prouder, more majestic than ever before. It’s as though he’s heard her heart’s call for help, and has arrived just in time to heal her wounds. But just as his presences begins to comfort Dany, he leaves her, flying off into the night, missing in action once again.
Drogon can’t comfort Dany any more than she can comfort herself. Her fire-breathing child cannot weigh in on whether she made the right choice or the wrong choice, because there is no right or wrong choice, only the pieces that fall to the floor when black and white collide — and it’s up to decision makers like Daenerys Stormborn to pick up the shattered gray.
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