It’s fitting that the titular House of Black and White is home to No One, for if there’s anything true of Westeros, it’s that nothing is ever black and white. Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma), for example, blames the Lannisters for her beloved husband’s death, and from her viewpoint, it would be just to mail parts of an innocent young girl, Myrcella (Nell Tiger Free), back to her mother, Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey). Back in King’s Landing, looking at the threatening statue of a snake that’s been mailed to her, Cersei acts like the victim; she can’t fathom why Ellaria might seek revenge, even as she herself swears to burn Dorne to the ground should anything happen to her daughter. Everybody is the hero of their own narrative; those who are mere bystanders, like the current prince of Dorne, Ellaria’s brother-in-law, Doran (Alexander Siddig), are warned that their inactions will swiftly lead to their own deposal.
This holds true for the brave and loyal-to-a-fault Brienne (Gwendoline Christie), who finally gets her opportunity to swear allegiance to Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), fulfilling an oath she made to the girl’s deceased mother. But characters in Game of Thrones aren’t nearly as omniscient as viewers, and Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) makes an excellent point in noting that Brienne has publicly failed to protect the two previous lords she served, Renly Baratheon and Catelyn Stark. Worse, at least in Sansa’s eyes, she obeyed the orders of the tyrannical King Joffrey. At least Brienne has an awareness of how she must appear to Sansa (and to Arya before her): a stranger with a sword and a suspicious list of promises. Fear and distrust often trump common sense, and so Sansa makes no move to stop Littlefinger’s men from attempting to kill Brienne, unaware that her so-called “uncle” does so not to protect her, but to guard himself from the honorable men and women (like Ned Stark) whom he has been unable to manipulate.
Even within the Night’s Watch, where Jon Snow (Kit Harington) proved his valor and heroism a hundred times over during the recent Wildling siege, there are those like Alliser Thorne (Owen Teale) who continue to distrust him. Sure, in the blackest of nights, he was willing to turn to Jon for aid, but in the revealing white of daylight, Jon is a man who’s shown sympathy to the wildlings. The vote for 998th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, then, is about as binary as it gets: When Maester Aemon (Peter Vaughan) breaks the tie in Jon’s favor, it’s simultaneously black and white—depending on if you’re Jon’s faithful friend, Samwell Tarly (John Bradley-West), or Thorne’s lackey, Janos Slynt (Dominic Carter).
The same applies to the small council of King’s Landing: Those willing to look the other way as Cersei rules on behalf of her young son, King Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman), are rewarded for their loyalty, like Qyburn (Anton Lesser), to whom Cersei not only donates the beheaded skulls of Tyrion lookalikes (from those seeking the bounty she placed on her misshapen brother), but also grants the title of Master of Whisperers. Only her uncle, Kevan (Ian Gelder), takes a stand, but a passive one, choosing to return to Casterly Rock rather than cross Cersei, as he knows that in Westeros, morality often inversely correlates with mortality. The wisest course appears to be the one Bronn (Jerome Flynn) has taken, trusting that “meanness comes around—people always get what’s coming to them” while simultaneously selling his sword to anybody who wants to ensure as much. It’s a bit of a laissez-faire attitude, but if we accept that either side has the ability to be in the right, then all a man can do is simply go with the flow and trust that things will work out, which may explain why he chooses to help one-handed Jamie Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) rescue Myrcella from Dorne.
Meanwhile, in Meereen, Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) continues to learn the hard lessons of what it means to be a ruler. Nowhere is the episode’s black-and-white theme clearer than in the brewing civil war between the now-liberated slaves and their rich former masters. When the Unsullied commander, Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson), and Daario Naharis (Michiel Huisman) catch one of the Sons of the Harpy who’s been terrorizing the general populace, it comes to Daenerys to determine his punishment. She’s at first torn between the plea from aristocratic, diplomatic Hizdahr zo Loraq (Joel Fry) and the more vengeful former slave Mossador (Reece Noi), but chooses to delegate the decision to a trial of peers after a reminder from her advisor, Barristan Selmy (Ian McElhinney), that her father—who went mad—once ruled by “giving his enemies the justice he thought they deserved, and each time it made him feel powerful and right. Until the very end.” Only madmen believe that the world can be reduced to black and white. Unfortunately for her, Mossador takes the decision out of her hands by killing the prisoner before trial, which in turn forces her to stand beneath the law and have Mossador executed. She’s correct to note that “Freedom cannot exist without justice”; the problem is that when there are two diametrically opposed viewpoints, what sort of justice is capable of appeasing both?
Given the episode’s title and the feared reverence which the citizens of Braavos show toward the House of Black and White and its nameless, faceless assassins, it appears as if the answers lie in death. And indeed, Arya (Maisie Williams) continues to near that calling; the first shot of the episode isn’t of the giant titan that straddles both sides of the river entrance to Braavos, but rather Arya’s steely, determined face, staring down this armored man before sailing right through his legs. She’s alive and happy for it, and even allows herself the rare smile upon glimpsing joyful passersby, but she’s given up on fear and other human characteristics. She spends the majority of the episode reciting her list of people to kill as she sits vigil outside the House: “I have nowhere else to go,” she tells the gatekeeper. “You have everywhere else to go,” he says in response, implying that she’ll not gain access until she’s shed even more of her possibilities. It’s not until Arya exhausts her options at the end of the episode, staring down three bullies, that Jaqen H’ghar (Tom Wlaschiha) reveals himself, ushering her into his mysterious house. Perhaps only those who don’t care can see beyond the black-and-white viewpoints that serve to define and divide us; then again, perhaps black and white is a good thing, when the alternative demands being faceless and nameless.
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