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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Game Of Thrones (experts): “The Ghost Of Harrenhal” (for experts)

Illustration for article titled Game Of Thrones (experts): “The Ghost Of Harrenhal” (for experts)

(This Game Of Thrones post is for people who have read at least the first two books in the book series. It is written from the point-of-view of someone who has read those books and for the benefit of fans of the books. All discussion points are valid, up to and including the events of the fifth book. However, we would ask that you clearly mark spoilers from the third, fourth, and fifth books. The review itself will be non-spoilery, and talk of how events here portend future events will be clearly marked with a spoiler warning in the section following Stray Observations. If you would still like to read the review but haven't read the book, thus, you can, but you should proceed with caution after the spoiler warning and in comments. Those of you who haven't read the books can also check out our reviews for newbies.)

A couple of weeks ago, Game Of Thrones dangled a question about where power comes from in front of us, and tonight, it seemed to offer as good an answer as any: fire. Yes, Jorah Mormont says that Dany’s dragons are fire made flesh, and fire is power. At the same time, Tyrion takes a visit to the alchemist’s guild (seemingly far below the city of King’s Landing), where some old guy who presumably worked for Aerys before moving on to working for Robert Baratheon, then Cersei, shows him the city’s vast collection of pots full of Wildfire. Wildfire’s a magical concoction that can melt anything—wood, stone, steel, flesh—and it’s Tyrion’s last, best hope to hold the city, even if Bronn doesn’t think much of magic  tricks like this. What’s more, he’s going to have 7,500 pots at his disposal, which should be enough to cut right through Stannis’ ships and army. Power—and peace—can only stem from superior firepower, it would seem.

“The Ghost Of Harrenhal” is a busy episode of the show, and while I think last week’s managed just the right pace, this one felt a touch cluttered to me. There are some really big moments here—like Renly’s death by shadow baby or Arya making the re-acquaintance of Jaqen—but they feel as if they’re done away with in just a matter of moments, before the show is on to the next thing. Granted, that’s one of the perils of watching the adaptation of something you really enjoyed on the page. The Arya and Jaqen buddy-assassin story is one of my favorite things from this book, and here, it’s just another thing that happens. When I re-read the book a few months ago, it didn’t occupy nearly the amount of space on the page that it did in my head. You can imagine anything you want—and your brain can come up with extra stories to fill out what’s not there—but once it’s put up on screen, it becomes literal in a way that’s hard to work around.

In that case, it’s up to the actors to sell what’s going on. I don’t talk a lot about acting here—mostly because I find discussing acting in technical terms pretty boring—but the cast is absolutely essential to making this show work as well as it does. It’s easy to praise Peter Dinklage for his work as Tyrion, but in some ways, he has one of the easiest roles to play. (This isn’t to say that he doesn’t pull that role off with aplomb.) He struts into a scene, all captivating-like; tosses out a couple of wise-cracks; and leaves the same way he came in, with that little smirk. Compare that outward and showy performance to, say, Michelle Fairley’s work as Catelyn Stark. Catelyn’s a woman whose heart is breaking over how her homeland is falling apart, to say nothing of the loss of her much-loved husband and the fact that her son has been forced to become a man far too soon. But she’s also quieter and more reserved than someone like Tyrion. When Brienne pledges her service to Catelyn, Fairley can’t be too showy—that would go against who the character is. She simply lets her voice quaver a little bit, tears fill her eyes just a touch, then tells Brienne that she will always have a place with her. It’s a supremely moving scene as written, but Fairley’s just-right performance makes it almost perfect.

This is something that’s true of the cast from top to bottom. Everybody seems perfect in their role, and everybody allows you to find hints of sympathy for these characters. Even Jack Gleeson’s work as Joffrey (who doesn’t appear tonight) lets you see how his sociopathic tendencies were only aided and abetted by his spoiled upbringing. As I said last week, this series works best when you have some degree of empathy for everybody on screen—even if you want to see them rot in the dungeons, you can at least understand why they do what they do—and the acting is so important to that. One of the reasons the series was so delayed from the time HBO commissioned a pilot to the time it actually aired was because the producers recast many of the roles in the show, and that careful attention to the show’s ensemble has paid dividends.

Think about it this way: In some ways, this show is many smaller shows, joined together by being set in the same alternate world and being all roughly about the same things. The series began with many of the characters gathered in one place, but then it immediately began scattering them to the winds, then scattering them even further. Tyrion and Sansa, for instance, are in the same geographic location, but they could be occupying two different, completely compelling TV series where the each of them is the protagonist, for how the show plays everything. And that’s to say nothing of, say, the Arya show, where she has her own supporting cast, or the adventures of Jon and Sam beyond the Wall, where the same is true. To pull off something like that, the cast has to be note-perfect, right down to the smallest of guest parts. The death of the Tickler, at the end of tonight’s episode, wouldn’t work nearly as well if we didn’t know who he was, yet the actor playing him only got one scene to set up how loathsome he was. That his death plays as well as it does is testament to great casting, among other things.


Still, I said up above that the show feels like it’s jetting around a little too much in this episode, and I think that might be because this is the first episode of the season to incorporate all of the show’s major locations. We stop off in Pyke for a bit. We make a visit to Winterfell. We go to King’s Landing, Harrenhal, and Renly’s camp. We even check out the far-flung world beyond the Wall and Qarth. The previous episodes in the season have omitted at least one of these locations every time, and that’s given scenes some room to breathe. While there are good scenes and storylines in this episode, the pacing is relentless, and as soon as any given scene has made its point, it’s off to the next thing.

A case in point: Renly’s death is perhaps the most major event that’s happened yet this season. Because of it, a lot of other dominoes begin to fall (as we see throughout the hour), and Stannis becomes enemy number one for the Lannisters to deal with, as he’s got a better shot at taking King’s Landing (and Tywin’s out in the field, dealing with Robb). There are a couple of scenes in the first 10 minutes of the episode that give us a chance to mourn Renly—soft warrior though he was—but the episode is quickly off to the next thing. By and large, the whole thing relies on us believing that both Brienne and Loras are as devastated as they seem to be, allowing them to do all of the mourning for us. In the case of Brienne, I bought it, as Gwendoline Christie’s shrieks of horror were gut-wrenching. That she had to immediately defend herself (as she seemed to be the murderer) made the whole thing even more devastating for her. In the case of Loras, however, there was less going on. This was Renly’s lover, yet he seemed more put out than anything else. I’d buy that from Margaery, who’s pissed her surest path to power has been taken from her, but Loras needed to do more than act a little snotty.


Of course, that wouldn’t be true if the show had 12 or 13 episodes to work with. The 10 episode season has been to the show’s benefit, ultimately, since it forces everything to keep moving as briskly and enthrallingly as possible. But it also means that there’s less room to do the sorts of scenes that aren’t immediately plot-relevant but fill in necessary character and thematic detail. This isn’t to say that these scenes are non-existent, but when the show has to stretch to accommodate all of its locations, it’s harder to give the big, emotional moments the weight they truly deserve. Renly’s death becomes less of something that affects those who truly cared about him—and something that doesn’t really affect Stannis, intriguingly—and more about how his death sets a bunch of plot points in motion. Renly wasn’t a character on the level of, say, Ned, but with a couple more episodes, this moment would have had room to breathe. In general, I’m in favor of how David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have condensed the story of the novel, but this is one moment where extra space might have been preferred.

This is not to say that Benioff and Weiss aren’t able of creating such scenes to slot into the midst of other storylines. Take that great little scene between Arya and Tywin, for instance, the one in which Arya’s lack of patience for studying up on all of the houses of Westeros comes back to bite her, when she’s unable to effectively lie about where she’s from. Tywin, who seems to show a slightly softer side around the girl, doesn’t punish her for being from the North, instead asking her for what she knows of Robb. She feeds him the stories about Robb riding on a giant direwolf or being able to turn into a wolf or being unable to be killed, but she says she doesn’t believe the stories because any man can be killed. Cut to a series of close-ups, as the two try to figure each other out. It’s a great little moment, and it’s one that nicely sets up the next movement in Arya’s revenge plot (though it does make it seem a little odd that she’d tell Jaqen to take out the Tickler from the first).


Then we’ve got Daenerys, who’s feeling her way through Qarth’s power circles, clad once again in finery, but still the Khaleesi at heart. She’s oblivious to the way Jorah feels for her (as you’d expect her to be), and she’s tempted by Xaro’s offer of seemingly all the riches of Qarth to return to Westeros and take her country back. There’s perhaps a bit too much in the way of laying out just why everybody’s ready to lay down their lives for Dany, but I liked that the show decided to spend a little time in Qarth, not just rush through the obligatory plot points. She gets to watch a nicely eerie magic trick, and she gets to realize that she’s got to make her own way, not just get along with somebody else’s cash. That the Dany storyline mostly works—even though much of it is invented—is because we really spend some time in Qarth, getting to know this new world she finds herself in. It’s the one place we settle in and breathe a bit, and that’s why it works as well as it does.

Stray observations:

  • I don’t really have much to say about Jon’s story—he’s going to go off with some other guy to check up on the Wildlings—but, man, filming in Iceland was a good choice. What other TV show features the characters surrounded by a giant expanse of snow and ice?
  • I also don’t have anything to say about Theon, who hatches a dastardly scheme with Chris “Finchy” Finch from The Office, but I enjoyed Yara ribbing her brother here. I’m having a little more fun with these scenes.
  • Not to be all “straight guys, talkin’ ‘bout Game Of Thrones,” but Dany looked pretty great in her sky blue dress.
  • Jaime remains the main character who’s spent the most time offscreen this season, as we saw him a bit in the first episode and haven’t spent any time with him since.
  • I like the way the show changed up how the shadow baby operates. In the book, it’s just, well, a literal shadow, but here, it’s more like a creepy black mist that forms into a Stannis-like specter. The book’s depiction would have been cool, but immensely hard to depict on film, I think.
  • Correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t the book heavily imply Xaro is gay? He seems pretty into the idea of marrying Dany here, even though it’s just a strategic marriage.
  • Rickon Stark: for when you need that walnut smashed right now.
  • I loved the scene where Tyrion and Bronn are out in the streets of King’s Landing and realizing just how little the smallfolk like Joffrey, with Tyrion admitting that the king is beyond saving. Good stuff, playing right into my desire to get more into the ways this war has devastated the lower classes. Also, it gives us the line of the night, which is just the way that Dinklage says “demon monkey.”
  • Back-story corner: In the book, the Alchemist’s Guild really has just kept on making Wildfire, regardless of who’s in power. I think the series implies more heavily that Cersei is the one pulling the strings in that regard. Also, when Osha advises Bran, she seems to have taken the place of a character who’s been written out, a young boy who knows a little something about magic.

Here be spoilers!:

  • I’m going to guess that the very next episode has the biggest single event (as far as taking newbies by surprise) of this whole book. On the other hand, Bran’s dreams are there for foreshadowing (and played up a bit more than they are in the book).
  • Aw. Rodrik’s going to be the one cursed by being featured in Bran’s “green” dream. I’ll miss his weird chin beard most of all!
  • Season three foreshadowing alert: Margaery doesn’t just want to be a queen; she wants to be the queen. We’ll see you then, Natalie Dormer!