[This is a review of Game of Thrones season 5, episode 2. There will be SPOILERS.]
Assuming a position of authority in Westeros sometimes feels like the quickest way to end up on the soon-to-be-dead shortlist. And yet the lust for that position, for some reason or another, is still one of the driving motivators of many characters and their plots. But as Game of Thrones settles into season 5, following last week's libation-filled premiere, the series examines how the definition of authority sometimes differs from the usual seat of power lusted after by, say, characters like Cersei and Stannis Baratheon, and are instead filled by some who are reluctant to take them, and others who have come to know the burden such a weight brings.
The thing is, though, power, as it is divided among the various threads running through this early part of season 5, works differently depending on who wields it and why. It's also demonstrably different from one region to another. Stannis may have an enormous army at his command, and he can execute the King Beyond the Wall with relative impunity, but what kind of power does he really have when, in the face of such an unrelenting force, Northerners still pledge loyalty to a family that barely exists any longer, much less controls Winterfell? Stannis can't even get Jon Snow to bend his knee to the "one true king" in exchange for being de-bastardized and having Roose Bolton kicked out of the family home Jon never truly felt welcome in. That's the difference between power and respect in a nutshell: you can push people around. But what does it all amount to when no one wants to join your team of their own free will?
Now granted, Stannis is dealing with Northerners who, as Jon Snow puts it are a little like the wildlings: "loyal to their own," so it's understandable there might be a bit of a learning curve in dealing with them. And he may yet find success in earning some loyalty, if not respect, but setting Mance Rayder on fire isn't going to convince anyone he's more than a bully with an army bought on credit.
As such, Stannis stands in stark (no pun intended) contrast to two characters coming into their own in terms of assuming positions of authority. He acts as a foil of sorts for Daenerys and Jon, as they each rise in their respective storylines to assume the burden and challenges of being a leader. Dany's a little farther along in the position, but as the Sons of the Harpy make life difficult for the freed slaves of Meereen, and complicate Daenerys' clout by forcing her hand to remove the head of a former slave.
The Mother of Dragons' nascent rule has had its ups and downs, but in light of Barristan Selmy's admission that her father was indeed the madman she'd been told he was, Dany must choose to distance herself from such an inauspicious comparison by adhering to "justice" according to the law, rather revenge masquerading as justice. For all that Dany's been up to these last few seasons, the decision to execute a former slave who committed murder in the name of justice helps take her character out of the relative vacuum she has been in, and presents her a challenge she's not yet been asked to face: the challenge of making a decision that will see her lose the favor of her most fervent supporters.
Presenting characters with difficult choices makes them and their situations feel less static – which is why it's so nice to see the season's storyline finally asking Dany and Jon to make some of them. Although they're major players in Game of Thrones, most of the time they come across as mere types – the ideal upon which genre stories often rely. And while some of Dany's actions have changed her situation more than Jon's have his, the two have primarily been asked to react to events happening around them, rather than creating the situation through which change occurs.
As of 'The House of Black and White,' however, both Dany and Jon find themselves in a position where they must make a choice that will impact their stories directly. Dany's is to uphold the law, even though it is the unpopular decision, while Jon's is to adhere to the vow he made to the Night's Watch, even though he could be living the dream if he'd just make another vow to Stannis. Jon's adherence to doing the honorable or "just" thing is precisely why so many of the Starks are now dead and the rest are scattered about Westeros, and in many ways his decision mirrors Brienne's journey, which is comprised of helping those who don't want her help because of a vow she made to yet another dead Stark.
One of the defining characteristics that the episode seems determined to point out is the idea of justice and honor, and how a just, honorable ruler often has to make unpopular decisions, as he or she is beholden to a higher power. Sometimes that higher power comes in the form of a god, like the one that Melisandre worships. Others like Dany, Jon, and the second greatest travelling companions in all of Westeros: Varys and Tyrion (first place belonging to Jaime and his super fancy leather jacket…who are now joined by the inimitable sellsword Bronn) are more interested in social constructs, like law, honor, and the aforementioned justice.
Arya's acceptance into the House of Black and White, then, and the insinuation by Jaqen H'ghar (after his amazing Scooby-Doo moment) that she, too, must become "no one" feels like the antithesis of so many characters' journeys. H'ghar's words seem to mean Arya must abandon her identity if she is to accomplish her goals, which asks the question: if she is no longer Arya Stark, then are her goals still the same?
There's a compellingly nihilistic component to Arya's journey and her willingness to sacrifice herself (in an unconventional way) for the sake of revenge – or as she undoubtedly sees it: justice. It's the same willingness we see in Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma), as she mounts a scheme to get revenge on the Lannisters for Oberyn's death. Ellaria may be unsuccessful in convincing Doran Martell (Alexander Siddig) to support her cause for "justice," but she has her followers. And that demonstrates how real power comes from the ability to convince others to follow your path, to put their lives on the line supporting your cause because they believe it to be just.
Game of Thrones continues next Sunday with 'High Sparrow' @9pm on HBO.