As always, we start out in the North. Shireen, Teacher-in-Chief, now tells Gilly how to read, with Sam trying to be helpful, but really only waving his superiority around, something he might be forgiven for since he usually doesn't get much chance for that. He wants to be Jon Snow, too, for a moment. The lovely scene soon goes south, though, as Gilly inquires about Shireen's greyscale. The show surely is putting the sickness even more in the foreground than did A Dance with Dragons, further giving evidence to those who think it will evolve into a great plague in The Winds of Winter. Although, should Jon Connington remain absent (which is much more likely after Varys sent Tyrion directly in Dany's direction), Shireen is the likely Patient Zero for this. Given how she tells the story, it might be that Stannis' methods of curing her weren't really... clean.
Speaking of her father, after Jon killed Mance Rayder last week, Stannis surprisingly isn't angry with him. Jon shows qualities here, and Stannis isn't like to overlook such a detail. Therefore, Jon gets the Stannis Seal of Approval along with the tempting offer to become Jon Stark, lord of Winterfell, sweetened in a way by Davos pointing out that the Boltons are pretty bad people. But, as Jon tells Sam in the following scene, he doesn't want to foreswear the Watch, even though the election that is now starting favors Alliser Thorne. The situation here is subtly different than in the books and requires a closer examination.
On the one hand, Thorne in the show is a far less deadly option for Jon than Janos Slynt in the books. Where the two of them tried to outright murder him in the books, in the show, Thorne is just a really, really nasty guy who hates Jon's guts but is in principle a hard and tested officer of the Watch. More like serving under the Drill Instructor from Full Metal Jacket all your career instead of getting someone that wants to kill you as soon as he can. Therefore, the stakes of Jon's decision are a bit lower. We also miss Ghost reappearing in time to remind Jon of his vows and place, cutting away the mystical element of it, but that's in line with how the show treated this anyway. Last, Jon is credited with having the support of around half of the brothers, another noticeable difference to the books. Given his role in the defense of the Wall, though, this makes sense.
I still take issue with the speed of it, though. It seems hastened. The scene with Gilly, Shireen and Sam starts only at 33 minutes into the episode, with Jon entering the frame in minute 36, talking with Stannis. He's Lord Commander by minute 44, and in between, we get the whole contest and even introduce Denys Mallister as commander of the Shadow Tower. Given this incredible pace, it's astonishing that the show still largely pulls it off. The emotional beats are there, and the pace within those eight minutes works. Still, it feels like the election should have taken place in episode 3 with one indecisive vote in this episode. We'll have to wait for the next episodes to see whether or not the pace here pays off; if they just insert another Crasterfuck, it won't.
With that, let's move further south. Brienne and Pod, after crossing paths with Sansa in the last episode, find themselves in the one inn between King's Landing and Winterfell with Littlefinger and Sansa. Brienne, always one for cautious approaches, sends Pod away and confronts Sansa directly, which plays off as well as one might expect. Once again, the show writers are savvy enough to evolve the characters from the books based on previous deviations from the story: in this case, Brienne is still shaken by the idea of being rejected by Arya and is now rejected by Sansa, too. What will this do to her? Right now, it seems like she's all "challenge accepted," and given that the only location in the North where Littlefinger could conceivably take Sansa is Winterfell (as a bride for Ramsay, standing in for Jeyne Poole), she will get another shot at rescuing her for sure. This also further confirms the idea that Mance really is dead in the show: with Brienne and Pod heading for Winterfell, there is no need for Abel and his washerwomen.
Since Brienne now has to leave in quite some haste, we get a well done horse chase which is solved by some slapstick. This would be out of place in most storylines, but for Brienne and Pod, it kind of works, so I'm on board. This storyline is now officially totally different from the books, and therefore it will be new territory for everyone. Quite excited to see where it is heading.
Going from there to King's Landing, the small council is getting small real fast. While Cersei is continuing to kill dwarves and Qyburn builds his Ungregor (really, the show isn't subtle about that detail), she sends Mace Tyrell to Braavos with Meryn Trant (whom Arya mentions several times this episode just to make sure we get it) in order to deal with the Iron Bank. She also makes a mess of trying to recruit Kevan, who is finally back from Season 1, as her master of war. Really, only the Cersei in the books was more on the nose with her puppet government.
Jaime meanwhile is considering the consequences of his actions and embarks on what can only be described as a suicide mission. After Cersei got a warning the Myrcella could die at any time (probably from the Sand Snakes, as it doesn't seem Doran's style), Jaime promises Cersei that he'll bring her back. Missing his sword hand and trying to stay undercover, he recruits Bronn for the cause, because if you want to be totally inconspicuous, why not go all in? The Dornish seem pretty menacing with the death threat, and we still hadn't seen them at the time it was made, so now we're pretty interested in seeing how they will play out.
The recruitment of Bronn, on the other hand, is sufficiently hilarious. Unlike in the books, we can see Bronn hatching the plan to kill poor Falyse for the benefit of his new betrothed, Lollys Stokeworth (who thank the gods is neither simple nor raped in this version). Jaime interrupts the happy murder session though, sitting in Bronn's way like the dramatic villain of some sword-and-mantle-flick from the 60s. Of course, as Bronn quickly reminds him, without his right hand he won't win many fights anytime soon. This is going off to a great start. The decision to send Jaime and Bronn to Dorne is a sensible one, even if it means losing the whole Brotherhood plot in its book form. Bronn and Jaime already teamed up well in Season 4, and we need someone more relatable and better known than Arys Oakheart in Dorne. This decision makes sense, and I bet the undercover part of their mission will go south (heh) in the next episode already. Let the Hunger Games begin!
Speaking of Dorne, we get our first glimpse of the place in this episode as well. Spain provides a beautiful backdrop to Doran's palace (they pronounce him Dor-AN, which is interesting. Never did it like this). A furious Ellaria is coming at Doran, much less gouty than in the books, and demands to kill Myrcella. This is a change. In the books, Ellaria was the softening influence, trying to remind the Sand Snakes that revenge won't bring their father back. This time, she's the queen bee of revenge in Dorne, threatening Doran and promising to kill Myrcella regardless. Depending on how her dynamic plays out with the Sand Snakes, whom we have yet to meet, this might work well enough and give us two nice camps of Dornish politics, making it sufficiently complicated but keeping it simple enough for ten episodes. Other than these first impressions, we don't get much of Dorne yet, so we'll have to wait for episode 3 to see more.
Leaving Westeros, we get to Arya who firmly establishes the third permanent plot location in Essos, a threefold increase from the previous seasons. We get another very beautiful money shot of the Titan of Braavos with a bit of world building and the House of Black and White, which provides the episode's title. The house is looking a bit like Scrooge McDuck's money bin, but it has a somewhat mystical feel of it with the understated black-and-white door and standing all by itself in the water. Of course, Arya has to go through the "apprentice gets rejected at first" routine, but one thing is for sure: that guy is not the "kindly man." They seem to have skipped that thing completely, since Jaqen isn't exactly the person to do this and already knows Arya. This seems efficient enough to do: since Sam doesn't seem to go to Oldtown either, we don't need him there, and having him mentor Arya in Braavos will fill some fans' hearts with joy. I'll reserve judgement until we see how it plays out, though. As with Jon's election to Lord Commander, though, this happens pretty fast: I'm not exactly sure what test Arya succeeded in when Jaqen comes to take her in, but obviously it suffices to become an apprentice.
Tyrion, meanwhile, is engaging in some more self-pity, but it's halfway enjoyable since Varys is sharing the coach and providing biting commentary. There also are some nice metaphors about boxes and ruling, but otherwise, the scene only serves the purpose of killing time until we arrive in Volantis next episode (or the one after) since Tyrion doesn't have an awful lot to do given the absence of Griff and Young Griff (which we can now take as granted, I guess). Since Jorah Mormont likely waits in Volantis, there's isn't that much to do in the meantime other than world building.
Surprisingly, it's in Meereen where things are really starting to get interesting. Relegating Yunkai into some kind of "also ran" concentrates Dany's storyline strongly in one place, and after the murder of last episode, her Unsullied are trying to hunt down the Sons of the Harpy, blundering all the time. I think the tone is a bit mishandled here: it's more a continuation of the buddy-comedy between Daario and Grey Worm that started in Season 4 while the viewer has to somehow puzzle the background together himself: the Unsullied are absolutely hopeless as a police force. Lacking for Skahaz, though, there are no Brazen Beasts to make up for this (and hopelessly complicate the plot). It seems like this detail is underserved for rah-rah moments between Grey Worm and Daario. Therefore, well, let's give Daario his moment as Colonel Hans Landa and explain why rats hide under the floorboards or something.
In the council, of which Hizdahr is now a formal part (another thing that happened pretty fast), the discussion is on whether or not to execute the Son of the Harpy. Mossador (in case you don't remember: he was the guy speaking out to "kill the masters" in Season 4) wants to get it done ASAP, while Barristan argues for a fair trial, with everyone else falling on one side or the other. Dany wants to get it over with, once again raising the question of what exactly makes her the better ruler Varys was talking about, but Barristan wins her over with a quick explainer about why her father was the Mad King. Well, that was about time. Dany decides for a trial.
That of course is thwarted by Mossador, who simply murders the guy in his cell. Dany now has a dilemma on her hands that mirrors the similar dilemma for Robb in Season 3: do the "right thing" and execute Mossador, alienating her followers, or rule as a tyrant and let it slide. To make matters worse, Mossador didn't act out of selfish motives of revenge like Karstark did in Season 3; he genuinely believed that he fulfilled Dany's will who just couldn't express herself openly. Even when he is dragged to the execution place, neither he nor the crowd really believe what it about to happen. Ah, moral dilemma! This is promising to make Dany's story arc much more interesting this season. Of course, she doesn't swing the sword. In fact, she doesn't even bring it over herself to pass the sentence, and Daario takes her silence and her looking away (no father to notice when she does it) as the go-ahead much like Mossador did. Only Daario knows his queen better.
The reaction of the crowd shows that this wasn't the smartest move politically, but "the law is the law." Dany is taking a page out of Stannis' playbook here. And if the situation wasn't ambivalent and interesting enough, not only do the Unsullied spirit her away, the crowd also engages into a little pogrom against the masters, again reinforcing the idea that Dany has no control over the situation. But she decided for peace and order, a decision that is metaphorically asserted at the end of the episode: Drogon comes back for a brief moment, sitting atop the pyramid. She tries to touch him, but he feels... something... and flies away. This is an incredibly powerful scene. She decided against the dragons, heralding fire and blood, and for peace and justice. Accordingly, the dragons refuse her and flee. When she has her change of heart after the fighting pits are reopened, I bet that's the moment Drogon returns. Really interested in how they sell it visually. The scene was a bit muddled in the books regarding this context. Man, never have I been more excited to return to Meereen! Can't wait for next week.