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On Game of Thrones, little is political, because almost everything is personal

Arya (Maisie Williams) may repeat her list of names every night, but she seems less and less likely to act on it.
Arya (Maisie Williams) may repeat her list of names every night, but she seems less and less likely to act on it.
HBO

Every week, Todd VanDerWerff will be joined by two of Vox's other writers to discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones over the course of that week. Check out the recap for this episode here, and follow the whole discussion here. This week, Todd is joined by culture writer Kelsey McKinney and politics writer Andrew Prokop. Come back later today for thoughts from Todd and Andrew.

Kelsey McKinney: After a slow-paced premiere featuring lots of setup, "The House of Black and White" hits the gas. There are six (!) major storylines happening in this episode, scattered across the series' vast world. Characters we missed last week (like Arya!) rejoin the story, but we peek back in on almost every other major plot line. It's jam-packed.

One of my favorite aspects of Game of Thrones is the list Arya endlessly repeats to herself whenever she is in distress or just has a spare moment, really. Over and over, she intones the names of all the people she hopes to kill because they have harmed her or her family. The list is one part mission statement and one part coping mechanism, a way for her to order her life so she can move past some of the terrible traumas she has experienced.

And yet Arya's list is one of the few grudges on the show not immediately being acted upon. In season three and four, Arya spent a good chunk of time with "the Hound," who had been on her list, but she didn't kill him herself. (She instead left him to die.)

Arya's bucking the trend. More than alliances or desire to sit on the Iron Throne, what really drives the personal and political agreements in Westeros and abroad are personal grudges.

The most obvious example in this episode is Sansa Stark's chance meeting with Brienne of Tarth. After a miserable engagement to King Joffrey and a forced marriage to Tyrion (that was later dissolved), Sansa spent the second half of last season with her Aunt Lysa and Littlefinger. Now she's traveling somewhere (yet to be revealed) with the latter, after he killed Lysa and Sansa helped him cover it up.

Why anyone trusts Littlefinger is absolutely beyond me. His constant manipulations of the larger political picture seem primarily driven to benefit him, and though he is strangely affectionate with Sansa, it is almost impossible for me to believe he has her best interests in mind. Sansa seems almost willfully oblivious to this. She seems to almost see Littlefinger as her savior, which is made even more frustrating when Brienne, who actually could be her savior, encounters Sansa in an inn.

Brienne tells Sansa she was a guard for Catelyn Stark, Sansa's mother. But Sansa rebuffs Brienne, not for the somewhat logical reason that many of the people Brienne has been sworn to protect have died (or at least lost one of their hands), but for the fact that Brienne was invited to Joffrey's wedding.

This is at least a little illogical. Many powerful citizens of the Seven Kingdoms were invited to Joffrey's wedding. But Sansa's grudge seems to be part of the theme showrunners (and writers of this episode) David Benioff and D. B. Weiss are trying to communicate: personal vendettas and grudges are what run this entire world. Nothing is truly political unless it is also personal. Nothing changes unless someone pays.

Throughout the rest of this episode, personal offenses take precedence over smart actions. Cersei sends Jaime all the way to Dorne to spirit their daughter out of there. The Dornish could easily construe this as an act of war, potentially disastrous for a kingship that seems to be running out of energy, troops, and unification. But Cersei is frightened for Myrcella's life — and still upset the girl was taken from her.

In Dorne, meanwhile, Ellaria Sand (Oberyn's lover) has built up a hatred for the Lannisters so great that she tries to convince Oberyn's brother to cut off each of Myrcella's fingers and send them to the Lannisters one by one.

Every marriage, every battle, and every argument on this show may seem political, but they rarely are. Almost everything in Game of Thrones is personal.

Read the recap, and come back later today, as Todd discusses the role of vengeance in the series.

Previous episode's discussion

Next: Todd on the crushing weight of vengeance