Excluding a minor check-in with Tyrion and a not-so-minor interlude at the Wall, “The House of Black and White” centers on Game of Thrones’ women. Each is involved in a microcosm of the struggle that defines their lives in this man’s world of violence and bored rock-skipping during discussions of wedding logistics: asserting control over both themselves and others, an enterprise that’s doomed to fail, or at least not entirely succeed. When Cersei smirks that “clearly it would not be appropriate for a woman” to be Hand of the King, the gloat is bittersweet; she’s both flaunting her ability to become de facto Hand anyway and admitting that she’ll never truly rule because of who, or rather what, she is. “The House of Black and White” sees everyone from Sansa to Ellaria to Daenerys in the same situation—they’ve seized more control than most men would give them, but not nearly enough to level the playing field.
As the character whose absence from the premiere was most glaringly obvious, Arya is a logical place to start. At the end of her journey to Braavos, she doesn’t appear to have changed her facial expression (steely determination meets barely repressed anxiety) since the end of last season. Arriving at the episode’s namesake temple, a super-sized mausoleum every Braavosi seems to regard with a mixture of terror and awe, she’s promptly turned away at the door. Naturally, she turns to her prime motivator, which also happens to function as her way of exercising control over the senseless violence that took away her family: vengeance.
There are just four names left on Arya’s shortlist, and chanting them over and over again helps her survive a rainy night with no food or shelter. Ever the survivor, she strikes out on her own, killing pigeons for sport and picking fights with strangers. That’s when the doorman reveals that he’s decided to let her into the House after all—and that he’s the new face of the man formerly known as Jaqen H’ghar. So who is he, and who are these shape-shifting assassin priests? They’re no one, and that’s what Arya is agreeing to become when she steps inside. She does, of course, and tentatively trades her identity for the ability to kill with impunity. Because for Arya, and for many others, taking a life is the ultimate form of control.
Arya has something of a kindred spirit in Ellaria Sand, Oberyn’s not-quite-widow. In the wake of his death, she’s become just as fixated on revenge as her younger counterpart, only to be doubly thwarted: Ellaria can’t kill The Mountain or Cersei herself for obvious reasons, but she can’t exact revenge by proxy either. Instead, she’s forced to watch the child of her worst enemy practically frolic under the protection of her brother-in-law Doran, a man whose passivity is communicated to the audience via the rather ableist symbol of a wheelchair. (The scene also gives us our first look at Dorne; keen-eyed viewers might notice that Doran’s palace bears a striking resemblance to the Alcázar of Seville, a 14th-century palace in Spain.)
Though she may not get the child mutilation she wants, Ellaria settles for putting Cersei in a nearly identical bind. A petrified cobra with a lion pendant in its mouth broadcasts the danger Myrcella’s in loud and clear, and just as Ellaria can’t avenge her lover without starting a war, Cersei can’t save her daughter either. It’s yet another incentive to tighten her grip on the capital by domineering the Small Council, although her influence in King’s Landing is decreasing ever faster. (“You’re the Queen Mother, nothing more,” her uncle tells her, as evidenced by his saying so while remaining confident he’ll keep his head.) Meanwhile, Jaime agrees to make up for a lifetime of absentee parenting by attempting to rescue their daughter, subbing for his brother as Bronn’s bantering partner in the process.
Back in the North, Brienne’s attempts to protect the Stark women are officially zero for three. Her encounter with Sansa starts badly—by pure accident, in a roadside inn—and ends worse, with Sansa rejecting her offer and standing by idly when the exchange turns violent. At the same time, Sansa’s refusal makes perfect sense; there’s a reason why Littlefinger, master of emotional manipulation, has offered Sansa many things, but never protection. Like her sister, like Ellaria, like Cersei, what Sansa wants most in the world is control over her own fate, and being protected means being passive—making Brienne’s proposed guardianship just another form of captivity. That’s the last thing in the world the former Mrs. Tyrion Lannister wants.
The problem with control, though, is that sometimes you just don’t have it. That’s the lesson Dany learns this week after she listens to Barristan’s advice and refuses to give in to her worst impulses. Even when she accepts that her father was the madman her enemies say he was, and even when she agrees to give a murderer a fair trial because, as she later tells a crowd, justice and freedom are one and the same, the captive Son of the Harpy still winds up dead. The culprit, a former slave, sincerely believes he’s doing Dany a favor. And so she’s powerless to stop the latest stage in her fledgling empire’s unraveling: she can’t prevent the killing; she can’t prevent the rioting between former slaves and former masters that ensues; and worst of all, she can’t make Drogon stay. For the first time since her dragons hatched, Dany is losing control rather than gaining it.
Outside this theme entirely is the election of Jon Snow as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. It’s a predictable development, though Sam-as-hype-man is certainly a sight to see. Declining Stannis’s offer to become a Stark, however, is less predictable. “It’s the first thing I ever remember wanting,” Jon admits, and yet he turns it down anyway—a final test of loyalty before he takes on the hardest job in Westeros. Holding down the Seven Kingdoms or even Meereen is all well and good; fending off the White Walkers is another matter altogether.