[WARNING: contains spoilers for all seasons of Game of Thrones and all volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire, including The Winds of Winter]
Hello one and all. Gather ’round the campfire here outside the Crossroads Inn, because we have a new feature here for you over at Unleash The Fanboy!
Game of Thrones is a pretty big deal to me. I fell in love with the show a few years ago and subsequently the books too, with my passion for A Song of Ice and Fire quickly overtaking that of the TV show. The world is so dense, so rich, with such brilliant characters and story threads that have true realism, and the show just comes nowhere near matching that. That has been especially apparent in Season 5 of the fantasy drama, where book readers everywhere have been up in arms for the major changes to the source material made – the majority of the time with poor results.
Thus, this series was born. Nobody likes to read criticism which is just pure, well, criticism. With all art you can probably find at least one good thing about it, and while this season has been especially bad in my opinion there were still moments of glory in there – and we’re gonna take a look back at it all, starting with the Free City of Braavos.
To recap: at the end of Season 4, Arya Stark got on a ship to Braavos via an iron coin given to her by Jaqen H’ghar in Season 2 which would ensure safe passage to the Free City should you show it to a Braavosi. She arrived at the beginning of the season and was sent to the House of Black and White, the home of the Faceless Men. She was greeted by an elderly man who quickly changed his face to that of Jaqen’s, giving Arya a place to live.
Arya spent the rest of the season not doing an awful lot; scrubbing floors, mostly. However, things picked up in episode 9 when Mace Tyrell arrived in Braavos to treat with the Iron Bank on behalf of the crown, accompanied by the Kingsguard Ser Meryn Trant. You should remember that it was Trant who killed Arya’s dancing master Syrio Forel (also from Braavos) all the way back in Season 1, and since then he’s been on her kill list. After infiltrating a brothel and disguising herself as a little girl (to add to his already barbaric nature, Meryn Trant is now also a pedophile!), Arya stabbed the shit out of the soiled knight and slit his throat.
Now, the Many-Faced God needed a life – but not Trant’s. Arya was instructed to kill somebody completely different. “Only death can pay for life,” after all, so Jaqen sacrificed himself because the Many-Faced God was owed. Arya was distraught, but then ANOTHER Faceless Man appeared – wearing the face of Jaqen! Wait, what? A trippy face-ripping sequence followed where both Little Miss Murder and the viewers realised that he was never really Jaqen, just wearing his face; he truly was no one. Oh, and Arya goes blind.
Arya’s storyline was, by-and-large, fairly book-accurate. A lot of fans had guessed that the show would bring Jaqen H’ghar back and none of us really minded because it’s just easier (and Jaqen is cool). The change of killing Meryn Trant rather than Raff the Sweetling was also welcome. None of the viewers really remember Raff (was he in the show? I forget) and the Winds of Winter chapter it was adapted from was used last season when Arya killed Polliver in the opener, anyway. Everybody knows Meryn Trant, we all hate Meryn Trant, it’s not too much of a logical leap for Meryn Trant to be in Braavos and it gets Arya to the same place as where she is in the books just by shifting a few things around.
D&D have said how they couldn’t wait to present the House of Black and White on screen, and they didn’t disappoint. The set design was incredibly atmospheric and mysterious; it really gave the impression that this place was ancient and filled with secrets. This was communicated especially with the magnificent Hall of Faces; it’s nothing like I pictured it in the books (a small room with a few cupboards that had faces in) but was much grander. A huge, expansive hall filled to the brim with different faces. The cinematography was beautiful and it didn’t feel like anywhere in Westeros.
You could be forgiven for finding Arya’s arc dull – she spent half the season scrubbing floors. However, while it certainly wasn’t as exciting as the buddy-cop duo of Arya and the Hound roaming the Riverlands her storyline this season has been all about exploring who she is. She’s left Westeros for a place where nobody knows or cares who she is. I think since Season 2 Arya has believed herself to be ‘no one’. This is certainly true in the books with her inner monologues, and in the show she doesn’t march around screeching “I’m Arya Stark!!!,” but instead keeps her identity hidden and instead relies on her skills to get around. She thought herself to be quite the little badass, but her arrival at the House certainly challenged that. To truly be no one is to give up all aspects of your identity which we find Arya can’t do – she can’t throw away Needle. Needle symbolises her family, her old life, Nymeria, Winterfell, Westeros and Arya herself. She’s still a little girl, remember, and she doesn’t want to get rid of who she is. This is also clear when she kills Ser Meryn rather than going after ‘the thin man’. It was purely for vengeance related to herself, and to be a Faceless Woman you must shed your identity. By keeping hold of Needle and going after the man who killed her mentor Arya is showing that she isn’t no one and she can’t be: she will always consider herself Arya Stark. The show communicated this quite well, I think (they must have done if a chump like me got it).
To refer back to earlier, I think she has already embodied the ‘no one’ persona in previous seasons, but that was because this wasn’t challenged. As soon as she’s asked to actually go ahead with it she breaks and refuses and pays the price with her loss of vision. This says a lot about her character. Commit murder and steal? Sure, why not. Destroy her identity? Nu-uh. At the end of the day Arya is egotistical with motivations purely in her self-interest; she doesn’t want to be a Faceless Woman to serve the Many-Faced God or any of that crap. She wants to because it was the first place she found to live and she wants to kill the people who have hurt her. Because of this, she can never be part of the Faceless Men, and I think we’re going to see her leave the order sooner rather than later.
That has been her arc this season – to realise that she can never give up her identity. That would actually make Braavos one of the better parts of Season 5 in that department, because Arya had a clear character arc and development.
Truthfully, there wasn’t an awful lot which was bad about Braavos this season. It stayed pretty close to the books, the acting was all on top form and the Faceless Men were sufficiently intriguing. However, it wasn’t perfect.
Braavos itself was disappointing. In the show it felt like a discount King’s Landing; if you put clips from the two side-by-side you probably wouldn’t be faulted for being unable to tell the difference. Aside from the House of Black and White there wasn’t much about Braavos which really distinguished it from Westeros (except the canals). When I read the books I envisioned it as smokey, dark and cobbled. It feels like D&D tried to go for a Venice-esque look and you can’t deny there is an obvious influence, however the bright and sunny city look has already been taken by King’s Landing. I suspect Oldtown will be the exact same next year.
There was also no real feel of it as a place. What I mean by that is there was nothing regarding its history, its culture or anything really present about it from the books. Why not mention that it was founded by slaves? That it is the only Free City to not practice slavery in some form? That it is probably the most religiously tolerant place in the entire world? That the Faceless Men caused the Doom of fucking Valyria? That last one is especially ridiculous since we actually visited Valyria this season. Why not just have a quick conversation between Jaqen and Arya which hints that they’re a lot more than just assassins (rather than more scenes of the Waif hitting her) and then cut to Jorah and Tyrion’s adventures with the Stone Men?
Another important plot point from Braavos was Mace Tyrell’s journey there to treat with the Iron Bank. Rather than anything useful, the scene between he and Tycho Nestoris instead consisted of Mace acting like more of an idiot than he actually is by singing and mentioning a Targaryen king who didn’t exist. There’s no pay-off for the story – aside from Meryn’s murder. Why didn’t we see the meeting between the Iron Bank and Mace? I would have been interested in seeing that, especially because at that point the Braavosi definitely wouldn’t have heard of Stannis’ defeat and execution by Brienne, so as far as they’re concerned he’s still a viable contender for the throne. They went out of their way to hire the profilic and great Mark Gatiss for the role: give him something to do.
Finally, the moment which the entire arc had been building up to ended up being disappoining: Arya killing Ser Meryn. For some reason D&D thought we needed more reason to despise the Kingsguard, so the episode prior they made him a pedophile. What? Why? It was pointless; we already hate the guy. Remember when he beat Sansa in the throne room in Season 2 and was subsequently given a verbal beat-down by Tyrion? Practically every scene he’s in where you want to punch him in the face? Instead of a f*ck-yeah moment for Arya the scene was basically torture porn. She stabs him in the eyes repeatedly, beats him and slits his throat. I didn’t feel any sense of triumph watching it. I felt cheerier when she killed Polliver back at the beginning of Season 4. Don’t get me wrong, I’m GLAD he’s dead (even though it’s a shame to lose Ian Beattie), but it could have been done a lot better. The audience would be on a high and then be brought back down to Planetos when they see that Arya’s actions have led to her becoming blind.
WHAT WOULD I HAVE DONE?
Well… not a whole lot different, to be honest.
My criticisms of this would obviously have been addressed; pay more attention to Braavos’ production design, more about the city itself and show the meeting between Mace and the Iron Bank. Originally when planning this article I was thinking of putting ‘cut Arya’ for this part. I lumped her in with Bran for characters whom underwent training that could be done off-screen, however Bran isn’t ever going to leave that cave. You can easily skip him for a season and then come back to him for the next. As I’ve already argued, Arya can never be a Faceless Woman due to her personality, therefore it wouldn’t make sense to cut all of her training and character development and come back to her in Season 6 when she will likely get the hell out of Braavos by the end of the season anyway. Maybe even before then. A stowaway on a certain ship bound for King’s Landing, mayhaps…?
On the whole, Braavos this season wasn’t bad. It was actually pretty good compared to some of the abominations which were produced by D&D this season. If you enjoyed this little retrospective then, well, great. Next time I will be taking a look at a particular storyline from this season which had fan communities, critics and your average show watchers up in arms – Dorne.