Spoiler warning: Do not read on unless you’ve seen “Game of Thrones” episode 502, titled “The House of Black and White.”
After a scene-setting season five premiere which reestablished many of Westeros’ major players, the second installment allowed us to catch up with a character whose absence was keenly felt in last week’s return — Arya Stark (Maisie Williams), who was last seen asking a Braavosi captain to take her across the Narrow Sea to the free city, using a coin given to her by the Faceless Man Jaqen H’ghar (Tom Wlaschiha) back in season two.
As the second episode opened, Arya reached Braavos and visited The House of Black and White, the headquarters of the Faceless Men — but upon presenting her coin to the old man at the door and asking for Jaqen, she was turned away, with the assurance that there was no man by that name inside. After a night and day of waiting (and reciting her ever-dwindling kill-list), Arya gave up, throwing her coin into the bay and heading off into the streets of Braavos. Later, after being harassed by a band of thieves with designs on Needle, Arya was sought out by the old man, who took her back to the temple and finally revealed himself to be Jaqen H’ghar, although not by that name, instead calling himself “No one… and that is who a girl must become.”
Wlaschiha told Variety that after Jaqen’s exit in season two, he had no expectations of returning — but the actor has his suspicions about why producers Dan Weiss and David Benioff asked him to reprise the enigmatic role: “My luck is, I think, that George R. R. Martin is so slow in writing that they’ve now deviated from the books. Everyone complains, but I think it’s great that George is slow,” he laughed. “I was hoping for it, but I had no idea. With the plot of ‘Game of Thrones,’ the only thing you can be sure of is that you can’t be sure of anything.”
Arya has changed considerably since the last time she encountered Jaqen, and Wlaschiha admitted that he wanted to make sure that evolution was evident in their interactions this season. “What was important to me personally was that we’re not picking up where we left off in season two, because in season two she kind of had the impression at the end that they were friends,” he noted. “So I thought it would be really interesting to show a different side of Jaqen now that she finds him again — he will still teach her, but he’ll be more demanding, and I think that goes very well with Arya’s journey from being a little girl to becoming a young adult. Jaqen knows that now he can ask more of her, and he’s not gonna make it easy on her.”
Arya noticed that the thieves in the city had a visceral reaction to seeing Jaqen, even in his older disguise, observing that they were scared of him. Wlaschiha explained the reason for their wariness: “The whole sect of the Faceless Men is a very respected but also feared group of people, because they have the ultimate gift to give in the name of their god, the Many-Faced God, which is the gift of death. And it can come in different ways. They work as assassins — they will kill people for a very high price; but they will also hand out the gift of death as a merciful treat, and that’s what I really like about the Faceless Men is that they’re not corruptible. Everybody’s equal in front of them and their god — they don’t care if someone has power or is poor, it’s all the same to them.”
While Jaqen makes changing his appearance look as effortless as breathing, there’s a process to becoming “no one,” as he prompts Arya to do. “When I first read the episode, I thought ‘it’s a perfect description of how drama school works,’ the training of an actor — to leave all your personality at the door and become someone else,” Wlaschiha chuckled. “But there’s more philosophical side to that whole story, because what does it mean to become no one? Who is no one? Why is it important for Arya? He teaches her to be able to get what she wants by being able to disguise herself or to hide her true feelings and her true self, but for me, there’s also a bigger philosophical picture surrounding that, which I like.”
Jaqen may be a brutally efficient killer, but Wlaschiha was coy on the possibility of seeing any fight scenes involving his character this year, only teasing, “The good thing about Jaqen is he does everything in the dark — he doesn’t really need to get his hands dirty, although we will see him handling some sort of weapon…”
The episode packed in plenty of developments in all corners of the show’s landscape: elsewhere on the continent of Essos, Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) struggled with whether to kill a captured member of the Sons of the Harpy or allow him a fair trial, almost sparking a civil war among Meereen’s masters and newly-freed slaves in the process; Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) set off for Dorne with Bronn (Jerome Flynn) to rescue his and Cersei’s (Lena Headey) daughter Myrcella (Nell Tiger Free) from the Martells, and we finally got our first glimpse of Dorne itself, along with its ruler, Prince Doran (Alexander Siddig). In the North, Jon Snow (Kit Harington) was named the new Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch after he decided to turn down Stannis Baratheon’s (Stephen Dillane) tempting offer to officially recognize him as a member of House Stark so that he could retake Winterfell from the Boltons; and Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) and Pod (Daniel Portman) finally came face to face with Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) after their near-miss in the season premiere.
Variety also spoke to Christie about Brienne’s trajectory this season, since the resilient knight still seems determined to make good on her promise to Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) to protect the Stark daughters, whether the girls want to accept her help or not…
In the season premiere, it was so deliciously frustrating to see Brienne and Pod come so close to Sansa and yet so far as she and Littlefinger obliviously passed them in their carriage. How did you feel when you read for the script for episode two and discovered that so soon after that close encounter, they’d finally get to meet after all?
It’s such a brilliant storyline, because Brienne’s mission is so pure, to find those girls. She really wants to carry out the oath that she’s sworn to this woman who has died, and personally, I find it very beautiful that she continues to honor this idea. She has such a pure sense of honor, that she’s doing all in her power to carry out what she started and what she promised. So it’s masterful of the writers to of course take us within a hair’s breadth of exactly what Brienne’s seeking with all of her heart, just to have it painfully missed and slightly ripped away.
There’s a wonderful moment where Brienne’s sitting down with Pod, and Pod notices that it’s her, and she asks him if he’s certain, and she rises, and she strides over to Sansa, and she truly believes that Sansa will go with her, in the same way that she truly believed that Arya would go with her. And of course, she doesn’t, and I think there’s something in Brienne that expects both Arya and Sansa to look at her and to see how true she is, and she looks at them and sees in their faces something of their mother. And it’s even more painful when it’s “no,” because not only is it a rejection of her carrying out their mother’s wishes, it’s a rejection of all she’s strived to dedicate her life to.
As an actor, I find it divine. There’s real drama in that conflict, and it’s very exciting. Part of the reason I love the writing so much is that nothing is easy, and there are those delicious conflicts, those delicious bits of tension that just don’t quite allow us to have what we want. So I loved it. I was really delighted.
There’s a moment in that episode… it was written in the script that Brienne looks into Sansa’s eyes and something in Sansa’s eyes says to her to “get the F out of dodge,” which of course is an expression, but not one I’d heard before. I started assuming that the village they’re in is called Dodge. [Laughs.] I had to do research on the maps of Westeros, looking for Dodge, but no, it’s an expression. I found that out, which is great, because you learn things every day.
But it was a divine scene to act, and I really loved working with Sophie Turner and with Aidan Gillen, because they’re such an interesting and extraordinary couple, and such a weird match for each other, and it works so well — that dynamic is so mercurial and fluid between them. It was very exciting to try and step into that and to try and work with it, and of course Brienne’s tripped up by Littlefinger. He manages to metaphorically stick the knife into Brienne, and to press buttons to make her flustered. All that she’s gathered together, all of her strength and all of her focus starts to come tumbling down, because as we know, Brienne has such a vulnerable inner with such a tough exterior, that he just manages to poke the right place, and she starts to unravel, which is excruciating to watch.
Why do you think both Stark girls were so hesitant to trust her?
I think it’s because of the company they’ve been keeping thus far that they’re reluctant to trust her. I don’t think they trust anyone, and they’ve learned to be — or they’re learning to become — entirely self-sufficient. And that’s a journey we’ve seen with many of the female characters in “Game of Thrones,” this learning, whether positively or negatively, to become entirely self-reliant.
As Pod pointed out in the episode, both girls declined her offer of protection, which could’ve provided Brienne with an easy way out of her promise to Catelyn, but she still maintains her integrity and refuses to let them go without a fight. Do you think there’s anything that could make Brienne forsake that vow?
That’s what’s so interesting about the character of Brienne, is that she is unshakable, and we’ve seen her all through be unshakable and so resilient and so true and so focused. It’s wonderful to see a character like that. It’s wonderful to see such an honorable person, an honorable woman behaving in that way. What I can say is that part of what makes Brienne of Tarth such a fascinating character is that she’s such a complex woman, and that complexity doesn’t stop evolving, and new sides of it rear their head throughout season five.
What does she think of Littlefinger? We see that she’s worried about leaving Sansa with him, but what is her main concern when it comes to him?
I think Brienne finds him to be entirely untrustworthy. She came across him in series two in the tent with Renly, and she observed his dealings with Renly, and I think she forms quite an immediate opinion of people — a fairly astute opinion of people, but it is an immediate assessment. And I think she found him to be totally untrustworthy, and she sees him with this young girl who has lost both of her parents, and she feels his intentions are not entirely good or pure towards her, in whatever form that may take, which strengthens her resolve to remove Sansa from that situation.
The banter between Brienne and Pod has been one of the unexpected highlights of the show since they joined forces. How is she feeling about him at this point in the season — is he just a burden, or is she starting to develop a grudging fondness for him?
Well in episode one, when we see them, Brienne’s spirit is broken, because she’s lost Arya. She’s fought the biggest fight of her life, and she has overcome The Hound, and yet she has lost the one thing she sought to find, and what’s upsetting is seeing Brienne broken in that way. We’re used to seeing this strength — we’re not used to seeing the doubt and the crippled spirit. So in episode two, she’s picked herself up and she’s going about her business, but we don’t see that heroic nature in Brienne that we’re used to seeing. Instead, that moment between her and Pod, when they’re sitting at the table — the moment where Pod recognizes Sansa and he’s sure, and she can tell by the look in his eye that he is certain that it’s her — and she stands up, there’s a power in her, because she’s back on her mission again.
And then all that ensues with the very intense horse chase, and then saving Pod’s life and the exchange between them after, when she kills the guard, she realizes… I think what’s beautiful about this relationship is that she sees something in Pod that she sees in herself, or saw once in herself, which is someone that isn’t immediately suited to being a knight, that many people have given up on, that is not been treated constructively. She realizes that she has been part of that story too, and what she needs to do is to change her attitude towards him to make him a better person.
Following Renly’s death, it seems like Brienne is one of the few characters who actually believes in the supernatural elements plaguing Westeros — she at least acknowledges that there are some inexplicable dangers out there…
She definitely acknowledges it, because she watched it kill Renly in front of her, and what I love is that the show treats the supernatural element with such a realistic temperature, that it’s somehow an embodiment of the occult. It’s something beyond our reckoning, but somehow it does feel that it could be real, and that’s exciting to me in a modern, mainstream television program.
Brienne’s fight with The Hound was one of the most intense, visceral confrontations of last season. Have you filmed anything that comes close to topping that this season?
What I can tease is this: In season four, we saw a feat of strength against another, and in season five, Brienne’s narrative continues unconventionally, but still with a strong temperature.
“Game of Thrones” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.
What was your favorite moment of “The House of Black and White”? Did you expect to see Jaqen again? Share your reactions in the comments below.