In “The House of Black and White,” Arya finally arrives at the Braavosi temple after which this episode is named. She stands before the imposing structure, which sits alone on an island in the middle of a lagoon, and knocks bravely with a purpose. She has come at last to fulfill a mission given to her in Season 2, when Jaqen H’ghar gave her the coin she carries to this day and told her, “If the day comes when you must find me again, just give that coin to any man from Braavos and say these words to him: Valar Morghulis.”
Arya’s series-long journey from King’s Landing to Braavos has been a quest to find dominion over her own fear. “There is only one god, and his name is Death. And there is only one thing we say to Death: not today,” her “dancing instructor” Syrio Forel said to her in Season 1. She repeated that phrase (“not today”) throughout the course of the series whenever she needed to master her fear. Now, standing on a deserted island before two great weirwood and ebony doors, Arya’s fear is a memory.
Fear plays a major role throughout this series, but hardly so prominently as in “The House of Black and White.” Arya’s mastery over her childish fear has been her mission, and is how she draws her strength on the unknown shores of Braavos. Other characters, like Cersei and Daenerys, have to wrestle with their own fears in order to rule. Stannis, meanwhile, uses fear as a weapon to command respect (to varying degrees of success, of course), while Daario Naharis uses his knowledge of fear to understand his enemy.
“Fear is useful that way.”
The episode opens on Arya’s ship sailing through the legs of the Titan of Braavos. This imposing statue guards the entrance to the lagoon where Braavos is based, letting out a horn blast whenever a ship approaches. When Arya hears this, she is startled and grabs the hilt of her sword, Needle. The ship’s captain laughs and tells her, “Don’t be afraid. He’s announcing our arrival.” Arya considers this and calms noticeably, mastering her childishness once more. “I’m not afraid,” she replies, as much to herself as to the captain.
The act of conquering fear, of finding the courage to carry on despite it, is a hallmark of bravery. In Season 2, Robb Stark reminisced about a conversation he once had with his honorable father, Ned: “I asked him, ‘How can a man be brave if he’s afraid?’ That was the only time a man can be brave, he told me.” This scene of Arya sailing into Braavos, the first of the season, is important to remind us that she is still a child and she’s still afraid; her journey to Braavos is an act of bravery.
Jaqen promised her that, if she wanted to learn how to “take a new name” (or, face, it would seem), she should come to Braavos and ask for him. “The girl has many names on her list… Names to offer to the Red God. She could offer them all, one by one,” he said at the time. Arya comes to Braavos hoping to further hone her skills so that she can avenge the death of her family. To do this, she needs to meet Jaqen at the House of Black and White.
When Arya is turned away from the temple, she waits outside reciting the names of the people she wants to kill: Cersei (for obvious reasons), Walder Frey (for murdering Robb and Catelyn Stark during the Red Wedding), the Mountain (whose men killed and tortured some of her friends), and Meryn Trant (a Kingsguard who likely killed Syrio Forel). Noticeably absent from the list’s latest revision is the Hound, who was last seen begging for her to put him out of his misery.
Eventually, she tosses her coin into the lagoon and tries to survive in the streets of Braavos. She ends up in an area much like Flea Bottom of King’s Landing: a cramped area of mud alleys where Arya has been reduced to hunting pigeons for food with a sword “worth a hundred pigeons.” When she is set upon by three men who mean to take Needle from her, she displays her outsized bravery without a hint of fear. “Nothing’s worth anything to dead men.”
It is at that moment that the robed man from the House of Black and White appears again, as if summoned by Arya’s mettle. His mere presence scares off the would-be assailants, and he takes her back to the temple. There, he returns her coin to her and reveals the face of Jaqen H’ghar. Arya is indignant. “You said there was no Jaqen H’ghar here!” He replies, “There isn’t. A man is not Jaqen H’ghar.”
“Well who are you then?” she says. “No One, and that is who a girl must become.” In the end, he holds open the ebony door for her, and Arya enters the temple; who knows who she’ll be when she comes out.
Across the Narrow Sea, Brienne and Pod are eating in a popular roadside tavern when they conveniently run into Littlefinger and Sansa. Brienne bravely decides to confront the large party and bend a knee to the young Stark girl, much like she did long ago for Lady Stark. Littlefinger questions her ability to offer protection, given the fates of those who have received it in the past. Brienne is insulted and defends herself, urging Sansa to come away with her. Tellingly, Sansa does not follow Littlefinger’s line of reasoning (insisting on Brienne’s ineptitude); instead, she offers her own excuse, “I saw you at Joffrey’s wedding, bowing to the king.”
Brienne later hypothesizes that she is “worried of strangers,” but maybe Sansa just knew that the time was not right to leave Littlefinger and his many knights. Sansa sizes up Brienne—literally and figuratively, as she towers over the standing Littlefinger—and finds her to be without guile. It’s important to remember that she is being trained in the art of deception and artifice; last episode, Sansa spotted it even in the master himself. Therefore, she would likely see that Brienne’s vow of protection was heartfelt, and that she wasn’t truly a Lannister pawn, as Sansa insinuates. (In an interview, Brienne’s Gwendoline Christie notes that Sansa’s script notes called for the tiniest of looks in her eyes—perhaps meant to be a warning or concern for Brienne’s safety.) If this is the case, Sansa has grown into a master manipulator in her own right, managing to convince Littlefinger himself that she is under his care voluntarily.
Luckily for Sansa (and for us), Brienne does not give up the fight. She manages to evade Littlefinger’s men and save Pod, demonstrating the strength of her Valyrian steel blade as she cuts right through the sword of her attacker. Invigorated by the battle, Brienne reaffirms her mission, despite Pod’s insistence that “if both girls refused your service, maybe you’re released from your vow.”
“Do you think she’s safe with Littlefinger?” Everyone knows that, ultimately, she’s not—including, perhaps, Sansa herself.
Fear can also be a poison to the mind. Cersei’s fear for her children and her tenuous grasp on power lead her to become an increasingly mercurial leader, stacking her small council with sycophants who fear her, in turn. She means to rule the Seven Kingdoms in the name of her son, but fear over losing her position is slowly driving her mad (not unlike the Mad King Aerys Targaryen, whom Ser Barristan Selmy reminds Daenerys of as a cautionary tale). Aeyrs was once a benevolent ruler, until fear of his enemies corrupted his mind and led him to commit atrocities that tore his family’s dynasty apart.
In this case, Cersei’s fear makes her an ineffective leader. She blatantly charms Mace Tyrell (Margaery’s father) with the offer of two positions and makes her creepily-loyal Maester Qyburn the Master of Whisperers (i.e. director of espionage)—you know, the same man who earlier wanted to keep a severed head for his “experiments.” Most harmfully, she alienates her uncle Kevan Lannister (Lancel’s father), who refuses the post of Master of War when he sees the puppet government Cersei has set up for herself. Kevan puts Cersei’s constant fear into words when he declares, “You are the Queen Mother, nothing more,” and returns to Casterly Rock.
Cersei is always afraid of losing her flimsy claim to power, but nothing scares her more than threats—both real and perceived—against her children. This time around, the threat is very real; it is delivered as a present sent from Dorne, the land of Martell family (who has a long-standing beef with the Lannisters, stretching back to when their man, the Mountain, raped and murdered Elia Martell and later killed her brother, Oberyn, in Tyrion’s trial by combat). The gift is a stuffed red viper (also Oberyn’s nickname) with her daughter Myrcella’s Lannister necklace dangling from its fangs. She demands something from Jaime, but scoffs at the result when her brother makes up his mind to go to Dorne to rescue their daughter. “You’re going to Dorne? A one-handed man, alone?”
Jaime decides to take Bronn with him, offering Tyrion’s sellsword and friend an opportunity to improve upon his present betrothal to Lollys Stokeworth (who only just informed him that she won’t even be inheriting a castle, anyway). He tells him that they’ll be traveling “as far south as south goes.”
Dorne, a land modeled after Moorish Spain, makes its first appearance in the show as we head to the lush Water Gardens to check in on the Martells, who are still grappling with the death of the beloved Oberyn. His older brother and Prince of Dorne, Doran Martell, is first seen in his wheelchair, watching Myrcella and his son Trystane from afar.
Ellaria Sand, Oberyn’s lover, comes to him demanding vengeance for his younger brother’s murder. “How many of your brothers and sisters do they have to kill?” Doran argues that Oberyn’s death was not murder; it was a legal outcome of a trial by combat. Ellaria claims that the kingdom backs her cause, along with the Sand Snakes, Oberyn’s many bastard daughters—some of which were hers. Doran does not give in to her threats, insisting on leading with his head instead of his heart for as long as he rules over Dorne. “And how long will that be?” Ellaria wonders.
Like Doran, Daenerys is trying to rule her people justly, even if it means they might not always love her for it. When she liberated the slaves of Yunkai and Meereen, she was inspired by scenes of thousands of slaves calling her “mhysa,” or mother. Part of her craves the love and adoration of her people. However, a fair ruler cannot always be loved by everyone. Daenerys is trying to set up a state where everyone is equal and free, but many of the slaves want to see her punishing the noble families, instead. When she determines to hold a trial for the man suspected of killing White Rat, the Unsullied troop murdered in the last episode, Daenerys hopes to shed the legacy of her father. Her father’s fear of his enemies led him to determine his own form of justice: violent vengeance. This is what Mossador, a former slave and member of her small council, begs her to do. He wants to see the alleged insurgent put to death. When Daenerys determines otherwise, he has the man murdered in his cell.
Daenerys: “Once, the Masters were the law–”
Mossador: “And now you are the law!”
Daenerys: “The law is the law.”
When Daenerys says this, she is finally showing a belief in the rule of law above all else. Her emotional connection to her people has taken her this far, allowing her to inspire the movements that have helped her unseat the previous leaders and establish herself as sole ruler. However, maintaining her rule has been more of a struggle.
Daenerys hopes to legitimize her rule by creating a state monopoly on violence. Under these conditions, Mossador must be executed. She stages a public execution in order to demonstrate the rule of law, but the majority of the people (the former slaves) see this as a betrayal. “I promised you freedom and justice,” she declares. “One cannot exist without the other.” They beg her for mercy, and when she chooses justice over it, they immediately turn on her. The people begin to hiss menacingly and throw rocks at her, inciting a riot between the former masters and their slaves.
Daenerys is rushed out to safety by her Unsullied troops, but she is shaken by the scene. She fears that, in trying to do the right and just thing, she has lost her people. It’s in this moment that Drogon, the long absent child, finally returns. She is immediately grateful to see him, hoping that his presence is a sign that things will get better. However, just as soon as he arrives, he is gone again, leaving his young queen alone and questioning what it means to be a leader.
Jon Snow is also wrestling with the leadership responsibilities he has acquired after his success in the battle to protect the Wall. In his case, he showed mercy for the burning Mance Rayder and put an end to the king’s justice with a swift arrow to the heart. Stannis offers Jon Snow a lesson in his brand of leadership: “Show too much kindness, people won’t fear you. If they don’t fear you, they won’t follow you.” Still, he shows Jon a bit of clemency himself by offering him the position of Lord Stark of Winterfell in exchange for his help leading the Northerners and wildlings into service for Stannis.
“It was the first thing I ever remember wanting,” he later tells Sam. But, he refuses the position out of respect for his vow to the Night’s Watch. His desires have changed; he’s no longer the bastard child striving for a place in the Stark household. Instead of becoming someone he can never be, he is making a name for himself for the man he is.
Sam, reflecting on Jon’s leadership, ends up nominating him during the 998th election of the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. “Mormont himself chose Jon to be his Steward. He saw something in Jon and now we all see it, too.” The men cheer approvingly, and the vote ends up split between Jon and Ser Alliser Thorne. Maester Aemon wryly casts his own vote and elects Jon Snow as the new Lord Commander. Jon never asked to lead, but his natural ability has inspired men to love him, not to fear him. A skilled fighter and a fierce proponent of justice, the young Jon Snow might have come into rule rather easily; we’ll have to wait and see how well he does in maintaining it.