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Game of Thrones' quietest revolution is telling a story about the powerless

Arya (Maisie Williams) hangs out at the House of Black and White, which has a great set.
Arya (Maisie Williams) hangs out at the House of Black and White, which has a great set.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

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 throughout the week for entries.

Todd VanDerWerff: The title of this episode — "The House of Black and White" — strikes me as potentially a key to understanding both the episode and where this season is headed. (It's also a really cool set. Just look at those giant doors!)

When Arya finally realizes that the man who greeted her at the door was actually Jaqen (or, at least, someone who's comfortable appearing to be Jaqen for her), she's told, more or less, that names don't have much currency among this set. The individual is mostly subsumed into the collective. The old is buried in favor of the new. The only way to truly change is to completely let go — at least for a little while.

Now, we know Arya well enough by now (and also know the books this is adapted from well enough) to know that she will struggle mightily with that idea — but so would anybody. A big part of what organizes and animates Game of Thrones is the idea of how we organize our societies, and George R. R. Martin based much of what happens in the books (as well as many of the characters) on actual historical societies and events — just heightened to better fit in a fantastical world.

Thus, the House — and those who reside within it — is just another way that people organize themselves, one that we're getting to see through the eyes of somebody unfamiliar. And all of that brings me to something kind of cool about the books this series is based on.

It's harder to tell on the TV show — because the show has a harder time indicating which characters are point-of-view characters than the page does — but at the center of Martin's books are a bunch of characters who are largely out of power. Yes, in the first book, Ned Stark is the Hand of the King, and that carries quite a bit of weight. But for the most part, this series is about a bunch of people who are ground up by the system in some way insisting there has to be something better.

Tyrion is hated by his family and mocked by much of society. Arya and Sansa are the daughters of a man convicted of treason — and tossed to the winds, consequently. Jon is Ned's illegitimate son. Dany is exiled to a far-off land and unlikely to ever rule because she's a woman. Bran can't walk. And on and on.

The fourth episode of this series is called "Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things," and that's a pretty good indicator of both where Martin's sympathies lie and how this story defies many of the traditions of its genre. Yes, there have always been grittier, more earthbound fantasies, but there's still the strong influence of Arthurian legends and epic poems. The larger-than-life quality is practically baked into the genre.

But Game of Thrones asks what it would be like to live in a world both where the larger-than-life days are mostly over (save for a dragon or witch or two) and be somebody scrabbling along on the edges of that society. True, the series doesn't really have any point-of-view characters who are of lower classes — its characters tend to be nobility in some way or another — but it still possesses a view of its world in which those who are ignored still deserve voices.

And that's why these alternate systems — be they a mother of dragons who overturns a slaver society or a building full of people who seemingly give themselves over to a larger goal — hold such appeal for people like Tyrion or Arya. They've tried the way of the Seven Kingdoms, and it mostly resulted in death and heartbreak. At this point, just about anything else must seem at least a little bit intriguing.

Andrew, we've barely talked about a scene that I think says a lot about what this series values — Jaime convincing Bronn to join him on a fun adventure to Dorne. What do you make of that, and where do you hope this is all headed?

Read the recap. Andrew will return with more thoughts tomorrow.

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Next: Andrew on how the show makes pawns into rulers

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