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State of Play
The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly:
The Lion, Tyrion Lannister
Lions of King’s Landing: Jaime Lannister, Cersei Lannister
Dragons of Mereen: Daenerys Targaryen
Direwolves of the Wall: Jon Snow
Mockingbirds of the Eyrie: Petyr Baelish
Burning Hearts of the Wall: Stannis Baratheon,
Ships of the Wall: Davos Seaworth
The Snake, Elaria Sand
Archers of the Wall: Samwell Tarly
Direwolves the Eyrie: Sansa Stark
Direwolves of Braavos: Arya Stark
Flowers of the Wall: Gilly
The Spider, Varys
The Chain, Bronn
Swords of Mereen: Daario Noharis
Butterflies of Mereen: Missandrei
Shields of the Eyrie: Brienne of Tarth
Coins of Braavos: No one
Winterfell is abandoned.
The episode is in eleven parts. The first part runs five minutes and is set in Braavos. The opening shot is of Arya’s face, staring up at the Titan of Braavos.
The second runs eight minutes and is set in the Vale of Arryn. The transition is by hard cut, from Arya walking away after throwing her coin in the canal to an establishing shot of an inn.
The third runs two minutes and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by hard cut, from Podrick standing as Brienne rides off to Cersei.
The fourth runs three minutes and is set at Castle Stokeworth. The transition is by dialogue, from Jaime talking about Bronn to Bronn.
The fifth runs two minutes and is set in Dorne. The transition is by dialogue from Jaime and Bronn talking about going to Dorne to Dorne.
The sixth runs five minute and is set in Mereen. The transition is by hard cut, from Doran Martell to Unsullied marching through the streets.
The seventh runs two minutes and is set on the road to Volantis. The transition is by hard cut, from Daenerys to an establishing shot of Varys and Tyrion’s carriage.
The eighth runs four minutes and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by dialogue, from Tyrion rhetorically asking if Cersei will be killing all the dwarfs in the world to her appraising the head of a dead dwarf.
The ninth runs eleven minutes and is in two section; it is set on the Wall. The first section is three minutes long; the transition is by hard cut, from Kevan Lannister storming off to the letter S in a book. The other is eight minutes long; the transition is by dialogue, from Shireen and Selyse talking about Stannis’s execution of Mance Rayder to Jon and Stannis talking about the same.
The tenth part runs two minutes and is set in Braavos; the transition is by family, from Jon Snow to Arya Stark.
The eleventh runs eight minutes and is set in Mereen; the transition is by theme, from Arya starting her training to become a Faceless Man to Mossador murdering the captured Son of the Harpy. The final shot is of Daenerys staring as Drogon flies away, acutely aware that she has lost her mojo.
On paper, framed as the State of Play, it looks extremely disjointed, with a surprisingly large number of hard cuts. The longest sustained section of actual transitions could just as easily be described as a single part in three sections, given that it all concerns introducing the plotline of Jaime going to Dorne to rescue his daughter. It watches much more smoothly than that, but the complaint still holds water. “The House of Black and White” is an episode of setup, and being the second of these in a row, is by its nature slightly more frustrating.
The result of this is that the bits of the episode that really work, and there are several, feel in some ways like papering over the cracks. The most obvious of these is the episode’s longest part, the eleven minute sequence on the Wall that culminates in Jon Snow’s election as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, with which he finally joins all the other characters in being past A Storm of Swords. But it is in some ways strange to see this plot point used to spice up the back half of a slow episode, as opposed to as the culmination of several chapters of political maneuvering.
Equally, the way it’s strange is largely in its confidence. What a moment to decide you can get away with swallowing in the ninth of eleven parts, in an episode you end with Daenerys staring morosely at a dragon. For all that this is the second straight hour of throat-clearing setup, there’s a swagger to it. Just look at how beautiful it all is, if nothing else. Compare the panache with which Daenerys executing a character we barely know to the execution of Ned Stark four years earlier. Not, obviously in their impact as plot events, but in how they are blocked and cut together, and how much more the audience is trusted now compared to when the show was establishing itself.
So in turn the show seems willing to demand trust. Which is not to say the show is coasting. Instead it’s doing an incredibly delicate dance with its source material, making its transition from an adaptation to an alternate version of the same story. Which brings us to the other moment that can fairly be described as “big” in the sense of “feeling like a momentous change to the status quo,” namely Brienne finding Sansa. In the books, Brienne’s quest does not really bring her towards either Stark girl, but instead finds her on the trail of a plot the series does not seem to be doing. Now she’s positioned at the heart of a plot, in a position to really affect things.
And it’s interesting to see the show still making quite a big moment out of that. It would have been easy to just let the weight of the actual Brienne/Littlefinger/Sansa confrontation scene carry the scene instead of throwing in a slick action sequence (and these too are much, much better shot than they were in Season One), but the decision to make it into a slightly bigger deal is a strong one that reflects just how exciting a development it is.
In terms of changes to the books, Dorne, and the fact that Dorne is now Jaime’s plot is the other big thing to be introduced here, although it was a change that was obvious from the trailers, and this episode really amounts to simply catching up with those. Nevertheless, it appeals – Jaime and Bronn are a fantastic double act, and feel, intuitively, like a strong way to handle Dorne. Certainly it’s fun here – the three minute sequence at Castle Stokeworth is the episode’s one proper comic relief moment, and it’s fantastic.
The other plot to be given a lot of weight here is Arya’s, which for now progresses with a sort of sensible streamlining of the book plot. The reveal of Jaqen H’ghar is a satisfying one, especially for attentive credits viewers, but in some ways the more satisfying thing is Arya’s reaction to being turned away. The sequence in which she calmly kills a pigeon, and equally calmly stares down the boys who try to threaten her is thrilling in its own right. This is the first time in the series that we’ve really seen Arya in a position of relative safety, and the first time we’ve gotten a sense that she plausibly could survive on her own. It’s a lovely character beat to have.
But underneath this calm willingness to let things develop in anticipation of future fireworks is a perhaps unfortunate truth: this will almost certainly be better on the DVD set than it is as serialized television. In a way, what’s most interesting in all of this is how the sense of publicity has dissipated. Four episodes have leaked to no particular effect (as is, it turns out, the case with such leaks – and I will point out, to piracy fans, that we’re 2-0 in “shows I decide to review episodically” and “shows that get advance leaks,” so, you know, back my Patreon and see what else I can magically cause to leak), Martin is spending more time talking about the Hugos than promoting the show, and generally speaking, everyone seems happy to just let Mad Men have the headlines for now. In some ways this is necessary – large swaths of episodes are still being taken up with the task of establishing narratively things that people had already figured out from the trailer. Which is probably just fine for normal viewers who did not close-analyze the trailer but instead went “ooh, that’s pretty” like they were supposed to. Nevertheless, I find myself much more excited about episode seven than I am about episode three.