Game of Thrones: The House of Black and White

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In The House of Black and WhiteGame of Thrones took a sharp turn away from the books, changing or inventing material for pretty much every plotline.

The results were, unsurprisingly, hit and miss. In some cases, the show provided intriguing alternatives to the book's plotlines, streamlining the story while staying true to its spirit. In other cases, it veered off wildly, its changes reconfirming the show's prioritization of violence and vengeance over any "softer" characteristics.

This post contains book spoilers.

Sansa and Brienne

The prize for "most surprising" plot twist this week goes to Brienne, for actually finding her maid of three and ten. When we saw Sansa and Brienne in the same inn, I expected them to pass one another by, a frustrating "almost" before their plots went separate ways again. At most, I expected Pod to notice her, and Brienne to start following her, without any contact between them. Yet instead we were treated to Brienne confronting them, pledging her loyalty to Sansa as she did to Catelyn, and offering to take her away.

This move was naive at best, but I actually think it fits with Brienne's personality. She would want to play out the honorable script, to give Sansa the same speech she gave Catelyn and swear her allegiance. She clearly knew that it would probably go wrong, as she told Pod to prepare horses to flee, but her sense of honor insisted that she try. Brienne made contact in the proper way, and that is what matters to her.

Meanwhile, Sansa's response to Brienne is complicated. On the one hand, she refuses her help, and that makes perfect sense. Better the devil you know, and all that, and although she doesn't trust Littlefinger, she at least believes she knows what he wants. Brienne, as far as she knows, works for the Lannisters, and doesn't offer any concrete plans about what she'll do after Sansa leaves with her. It would be foolish for Sansa to leave with her, regardless of what we as viewers know about Brienne.

But on the other hand, Sansa almost seems to be trying to help Brienne. Her reasons for refusing her are clear, but when she tells Brienne that sometimes people do have a choice, she almost seems to be telling Brienne that she doesn't have to run after Sansa, that she can choose to leave and save herself.

Of course, this moment could also be interpreted as Sansa making clear that she's choosing to stay. And it would be naive to say that Sansa was in control of her situation and was purely trying to protect Brienne. Although her decision made sense, this scene also proved that Sansa is not in control. She's performing that role, but no amount of black hair dye will change the fact that she's still being manipulated by Littlefinger. The manipulation has taken on a new tone now, one that uses that idea that Sansa is smart and in control of her situation against her, one that plants ideas in Sansa's head while suggesting that they were her own thoughts all along, but it's still manipulation.

This isn't to suggest that Sansa is weak here -- anything but -- but this is not a narrative of female power. At best, Sansa recognizes the danger and powerlessness of her situation and warns Brienne to save herself. At worst, she's been manipulated into believing she's in control, putting herself in an even more dangerous position.

The mention of the marriage proposal -- and related spoilers -- makes me feel very strongly that it's the second.

However, although I'll miss the Lady Stoneheart plotline, I also think the decision to reunite Sansa and Brienne is a good one. It makes the idea of our knight rescuing her lady more immediate, and it gives Brienne a more concrete purpose. From a pacing perspective, it also helps to bring characters back together to share plotlines again, at a point when pretty much every significant character has struck out alone. If this saves us from episodes where every character gets a single five minute scene while we cycle through all the different plotlines, that can only be a good thing.

But why is everyone so bad at hiding Sansa? Dying her hair won't make much of a difference if everyone keeps referring to her as "Lady Sansa," in an inn full of strangers. All her guards, at least, know who she is. Anyone could have eavesdropped on Brienne's speech and figured out what was going on. Considering that Cersei still wants Sansa's head, it seems more that a bit foolish, and trying to kill Brienne wouldn't contain that.

Daenerys and Meereen

One of my favorite parts of A Dance with Dragons is the suggestion that Daenerys might not be the noble savior after all, that she may actually be turning mad too. So I'm really glad that the show is exploring this too, instead of playing the savior trope straight.

Daenerys truly believes in herself as "Mhysa," and seems to have bought the idea that this was a slave revolution, not an invasion. She really isn't a conquerer in her eyes, she's a "mother" who has a duty to protect her children. Except that this idealized title is incredibly precarious, and people who are willing to view her as their "Mhysa" one moment could quickly turn against her once they stop liking her actions. A military savior can become a conquerer with just a single twist of perspective, and her actions in this episode caused that adoration to shift into fury.

Daenerys took Ser Barristan's words about justice and the Mad King to heart, but Daenery's support base don't want Daenerys to be truly just. "The law is the law," she insists, but Daenerys' stance so far has created a precarious situation where she must always appear to be on the side of the liberated slaves. Killing masters and murderers is just. Executing someone for killing masters and murderers is cruel, because masters and murderers deserve to die. And if Daenerys stops being a "mother" and starts being a ruler, she will quickly become a despised conqueror instead.

Cersei, Ellaria Sand and Dorne

This plotline was incredibly frustrating. I have no problem with Jaime going to Dorne -- if the show is getting rid of Lady Stoneheart and changing Brienne's plotline, he needs something to do and some reason to be away from King's Landing -- and Cersei's anger makes perfect sense.

But the reappearance of Ellaria Sand made me furious. In the books, Ellaria thinks that justice has been dealt for Elia's death with the deaths of the Mountain, Tywin Lannister and Robert Baratheon, and is more concerned with protecting her daughters than with stirring up more violence. She wants the cycle of vengeance to end.

But here, of course, she is a "stronger" character because she is out for blood. Once again, it's woman vs woman, or rather woman vs innocent girl, and it's needlessly cruel. Oberyn died in trial by combat, and even if that was unjust, Myrcella had nothing to do with it. Threatening Cersei, demanding the right to send Myrcella back to King's Landing piece by piece... it's brutal and horrific.

But it's given me an uncomfortable theory about the Dorne plotline this season. In the books, Arianne Martell uses Myrcella as part of her plan to protect her own birthright, declaring her queen to precipitate a war with King's Landing and ultimately create a ruler of Westeros who supports her. Ellaria isn't involved, and certainly wouldn't hurt Myrcella. But now I believe that Ellaria will be the one declaring Myrcella as queen, as part of a scheme to destroy the Lannisters and possibly to get Myrcella hurt or killed herself. An actual story of female strength and determination, turned into rivarly and mutual destruction.

Meanwhile, Cersei attempted this week to maintain her power in Tommen's council. Cersei is one of the few characters allowed to address Westerosi sexism, which is an interesting stance, as the council's opposition of her would otherwise be justified. She is being manipulative and fighting to keep herself in a position of power, and she has abused that power again and again. But then, their response to her is less about her past actions and more about her status as a woman. Why should the queen mother have a voice, they say, when, as Cersei herself is forced to acknowledge, she is "only" a woman. She can only derive power through the idea of Tommen, attributing all of her own words and plans to her son, and although Cersei is a master manipulator, the need to do this after being Queen Regent is a massive blow to her pride. I always wonder, with these scenes, whether we're supposed to sympathize with Cersei, or whether it's telling that this misogyny is addressed around a character who does really loathsome things. It adds a lot of depth and moral ambiguity to her character and to her interactions with others, but I do wonder why Cersei was chosen for this treatment, and others were not.

The Wall

A lot happened at the Wall this week. Most notably, Stannis offered to legitimize Jon and make him Warden of the North, and Jon's difficult moral decision was eased by his surprise selection as Lord Commander of the Night's Watch by the episode's end.

Perhaps it's the moment's placement in the season -- in episode two, rather than in the finale like it is in the books -- but it felt somewhat insignificant and anti-climactic to me, especially considering how important and surprising it should have been.

But then, I'm usually the wrong person to comment on happenings at the Wall, since I find it the least compelling part of the series. Even though I'm enjoying these scenes with Jon and Stannis, I'm still left without much to say on it.

But I did enjoy the scenes between Gilly and Shireen. Basically any scene featuring Shireen's adorableness is a winner, and this one was particularly wonderful because it not only showed one female character patiently teaching another, but it also allowed two female outcasts -- the Wildling and the greyscale survivor -- to bond and support one another.

Also, Shireen and Gilly's discussion of greyscale made pretty clear that that plotpoint, at least, will still be playing a significant role in the series.

Overall

Once again, when striking out on its own, Game of Thrones ends up with quite a mixed bag. Some changes and inventions, like Brienne finding Sansa and Daenerys' disastrous execution, work well to condense the story for TV and to add depth and vividness, while others, like the changes to Ellaria Sand, leave a mess in their wake.

The key, I think, is in maintaining character integrity. When the show fleshes out secondary characters, further develops a plotline or even uses characterization to set the character on a different path, it works, because it feels authentic. It maintains the heart of the story, while the details shift. But once the show changes the heart of a character, or the central tone or message of their story, everything feels jarring as a result.