“The Ghost Of Harrenhal” (for newbies) S2 / E5
- B+ Community Grade
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This week’s Game Of Thrones begins about as shockingly as can be expected, even from a show this twisty, to the extent that I don’t want to delve into the plot in my first paragraph for fear that it’ll spoil people who accidentally clicked on a link. So, just… get out of here, folks.
The end of last week’s episode was brilliant and strange: A writhing, naked Melisandre birthing a shadow monster for obviously nefarious purposes, a representation of magic on the show that still felt somewhat grounded in reality—she didn’t read from a spellbook; she physically birthed this shadowy assassin with the assistance of a love- and power-struck Stannis Baratheon. Still, considering the abruptness of the opening scene in “The Ghost Of Harrenhal,” I don’t know if that was the right place to cut off episode four.
Chatting with Catelyn about an alliance with Robb (and the chat seems to be going well for the Starks), Renly sheds his armor as one would, and shockingly quickly, he’s stabbed to death, with the shadow monster there and gone before anyone can really take stock of what’s happened. A grief-stricken Brienne, found over the body, is the immediate suspect, which means we’re treated to some more conventional violence from her in some of the show’s nicest, roughest swordplay yet (further evidence of her skill as a warrior).
But it’s just impossible to take stock of anything that’s happening, because Renly’s death comes out of nowhere. Now, obviously that shadow creature was going to be up to no good, and Stannis’ threat to Renly (something along the lines of surrendering before nightfall or facing his doom) ties all the foreshadowing together fine. But there’s so much left to explore with Renly—his relationships with Loras and Margery, not to mention his enmity with Stannis, being the prime examples.
There’s an obvious answer to that complaint—unless David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are really veering from the source material with this, Renly’s death occurs within the pages of A Song Of Ice And Fire, probably as sharp and sudden as it feels here. Plus, his death creates an interesting power vacuum for the show to explore—his large army and natural charisma (and potential alliance with Robb) made him an obvious favorite for the crown, which will now be fought over by the far less palatable Joffrey and Stannis (neither of whom are remotely interested in preserving Robb as King in the North).
Happily, it looks like the two new characters presented out of the short Renly arc—Margery and Brienne—aren’t going anywhere. Brienne helps Catelyn out of trouble (how she does so isn’t clear, but they’re eventually in some secluded clearing with their horses) and swears an oath of fealty to her. She’s a bit serious, but that insane physical strength mixed with a righteous, pious, honest outlook will be fun to explore. Knowing Game Of Thrones, her righteousness and piousness will quickly be beset on all sides by the world’s more cynical, venal forces.
Luckily, Margery’s already well on the way there—her husband is barely cold before she’s telling Loras to spirit her away and hinting to Petyr that she’s amenable to new arrangements. “Do you want to be a Queen?” he asks. “No. I want to be the Queen,” she replies, which is basically music to Petyr’s ears. Not to say that Margery is being presented as any kind of villain—just an operator working on Petyr’s level, free of any idealism or romanticism about the world. As I’ve mentioned before, this is a show where operators thrive as its best characters, and I expect no less from the new widow.
Speaking of operators, Tyrion has taken to conducting his secret meetings in a tiny little portable chamber, a rare visual gag about his stature. Tyrion’s scenes are often the funniest on the show but there’s an especially comedic bent this time around—something about how he’s treating poor, stammering Lancel, plus his buddy-cop scenes with Bronn stalking around the city (his horror at a street preacher calling him a “demon monkey” was especially funny). Things do get serious again, with the introduction of “wildfire,” some sort of weapon of mass destruction that Cersei commissioned in secret. But even Tyrion’s scenes inspecting the stuff with Bronn and a comically old alchemist had a lighter touch to them—a welcome one, considering how grim everything was last week.
Harrenhal, luckily, isn’t quite the horror show that it was in the previous episode—Tywin’s calming influence has put everyone to work as prisoners of war, but even though he’s figured out that Arya is a northern girl, she’s still smart enough to avoid dropping hints about her nobility. Maisie Williams is really doing wonderful work this season—her material is challenging, subduing Arya’s firecracker nature (with flashes of it when she talks to Gendry). And more than anyone else on the show, she makes you feel the impact of Ned’s death. Her response to Tywin when he asks her about the rumors surrounding her brother (he’s a shape-changing immortal warrior) is intended to throw him off the scent, but she definitely believes it—“Anyone can be killed.”
Now that her buddy from the cage who she rescued is out and about, it turns out that he’s some sort of ninja (at least, he’s from a foreign land) who offers to kill three people for her to repay his debt. Arya picks the torturer from last week, which I understand, but dude, pick the Mountain, or Tywin! If not Joffrey! At least now that you know this guy’s got the skills, put him to more interesting work on your little death list.
Things remain grim up north, getting grimmer, although Theon’s new crew does have fun at his expense before they set about trying to conquer all of the North. Bran inches forward on understanding his prophetic dreams (Osha doesn’t tell him what a three-eyed crow means to preserve his spirits, which isn’t a good sign). And up beyond the Wall, we get the most dramatic imagery of the show so far. While the Wall stuff was shot in Ireland last season, it moved up to Iceland this year, and you can tell—the “Fist of the First Men” location is beautiful.
We finally got some justification for the time spent with Craster, too—it helped Jeor recognize that Jon might not work out as a steward, since he’s such a dopey fool. So now Jon’s going on a secret mission with an especially frostbitten ranger called Halfhand to infiltrate the wildings; meanwhile, Sam will serve as Jeor’s steward, a development that makes perfect sense.
Finally, there’s Qarth, where I feel the show is also having a bit of fun—each one of the cast of characters Daenerys has to deal with is more insane-looking than the last, from a skeletal warlock to a woman wearing a mosaic on her face. Xaro comes across as a bit more normal—he’s incredibly rich, a self-made man, and he wants to marry Daenerys and buy her an army, an offer she’s understandably tempted by. He’s also smart enough to sow discord between Daenerys and Jorah, implying that he’s sticking around for love, not as an adviser.
That makes Jorah come across as especially clingy in his scene with Daenerys when he warns against invading with an army she’s bought, even though he’s right. It also makes his proclamation that she is worthy of ruling because she can be both feared and loved seem like a declaration of love. Which it probably is, in a way, but it also crystalizes the show’s case for Daenerys as Queen—ignore the Targaryen creepiness and the unfortunate genetic stock of her brother and insane father, there’s something special about her, especially when up against the folks trying to capture the throne right now. It’s the most fascinating part of the show—trying to bring us around to the side of a conqueror.
- Stannis picks Davos to lead his naval attack, which Davos thinks is weird because he’s a smuggler, not a captain. But Stannis seems to trust him for his blunt advice.
- Theon’s plan seems to be targeting Winterfell, if I understood his conversation with his first mate correctly. Bran might not have the power to defend the castle, but Rickon’s nut-smashing skills are second to none.