Yeah, that JUST HAPPENED. You thought the way last week ended was a tad unsettling, get a load of how this one kicks off. In a scene that now seems hugely symbolic, Renly Baratheon (literally) takes off his armor as he relays his plan to vanquish his brother Stannis’ army at dawn. And then…he chokes on his words.
Shadow baby becomes a shadow man with it’s (?) first kill, swooping into Renly’s tent and stabbing him in the back in front of his personal guard Brienne and Lady Catelyn Stark. It’s such a shock to the system, you almost don’t believe it. To start an episode with such a world-altering event is a double-edged sword though. Looking back, I wonder if it was similar to including a comedy film’s best punchlines in the trailer. Did they give away the farm? It sets an assertive tone though, and it establishes the rule of the realm that Arya later declares to Tywin Lannister—anyone can be killed.
The initial adrenaline rush lingers, giving the episode a cluttered feel. It’s quickened too by its attempts to drop in on every location to see how swift Westeros has swerved in another direction after the cataclysmic assassination. The lasting impact of “The Ghost of Harrenhal” hinges so tightly to the ripples of Renly’s murder that it’s hard to hold onto, let alone remember, anything else meaningful that happens afterward. But as your servile TV critic I’ll do my best.
The Aftermath at Renly’s Camp
As one might imagine, the sudden slaying of your commander (and the man you believe has the most legitimate claim to the throne) might shake things up a bit. Immediately after, Brienne is the number one suspect, having been the only sword-weilding person—why they wouldn’t account for shadow people is ridiculous— in his vicinity. Her inclination is not to leave the body of her king. Her horrifying screams seemed slightly overblown, but then later when she swears an oath of fealty to Catelyn, it becomes clear she her lot in life is to serve. She seems lost when the lord she revers leaves this earth, like a part of her has been defeated as well. Thankfully, she finds a womanly courage within Catelyn, and Lady Stark is always willing to take in honorable lost souls.
Less obviously devastated, but still grieving are his lover, Loras Tyrell and his wife, Margery Tyrell. Loras wants to stay and avenge his brother in battle, but as Littlefinger rationalizes, he’ll be dead before he can get close to Stannis. His army’s disorganized and unprepared, awaiting their fate. Most of them end up converting into Stannis believers, so while it comes off cowardly, Loras is being smart in fleeing. My love affair with Margery continues when she confides in Littlefinger that she does not want to be a queen, she wants to be THE queen. It would seem Melisandre has that title wrapped with Stannis, so who does she cozy up to next? I love how manipulative she is, and how unafraid she is to show it. She’s a career-minded woman, and she will get what she wants. She barely mourns, because Renly was an arrangement of convenience, not an unbreakable bond. I expect she isn’t going to be fleeing for long.
With Stannis’ army about to add 100,000 strong, Tyrion is nervous about what strategy Joffrey has to oppose those astronomical numbers. His new spy, Lancel, has overheard Cersei discuss “Wildfire” a chemical weapon of sorts that burns more fiercely than your run-of-the-mill fire. When Tyrion drops by the alchemist guild that is assembling this secret weapon, he learns they’ve been amassing jars of the stuff for months—the count in the thousands when he arrives.
Bronn, Tyrion’s brutish right hand, is skeptical: “Men win wars, not magic tricks.” And this seems to be an antiquated, or at least incorrect view. Magic eliminated Renly’s threat, and far-off Daenerys threatens with her baby fire-breathers, therefore magic and fire seem like the trend in warfare. Tyrion recognizes the possible destruction that would result from such a volatile weapon being in Joffrey’s hands, and commands the alchemist report to him now. Not sure how he could so easily sway the man, but I suppose the Hand trumps Queen regent.
To balance out the heavy, we’re treated to Tyrion and Bronn, buddy cop duo as they survey the townsfolk who seem eager for an uprising. They mock their boy king and his sociopathic tendencies, and Tyrion agrees: “The king is a lost cause, I’m worried about the rest of us.” Although he is discouraged to know that the commoners view him as the puppet master pulling his strings. They refer to him unaffectionately as a “demon monkey” and he seems determined hereafter to prove he deserves their admiration.
High off his recent acquisition of soldiers, Stannis is ready to take on King’s Landing. Ser Davos seems reticent only because of how easily his king deployed dark magic to reach his ends. To him, these means seem more threatening than helpful. Stannis calms his advisor by handing him the keys to his naval fleet, despite his beginnings as a smuggler. He also assures him that Melisandre will not accompany them on this invasion, but I doubt this means she’ll be uninvolved during the entirety of his conquest, let alone his possible reign.
Not much to report except that Theon sets sail for his mission to seize a fisherman’s village viking-style. His crew is a bunch of rapists and looters frankly, and don’t seem likely to take orders (especially from a boy who was only recently baptized). His first mate is more cordial, and even offers him advice in how he can prove himself: take down a more valuable target. The first mate (whose name I looked across the Seven Kingdoms for and couldn’t find) suggests Torrhen’s Square, a castle not far from Winterfell. The idea is that Bran will deflect his forces there and be unequipped to handle the brunt of the Iron Island attack when they come knocking on his door.
Let’s just say Bran sees this coming, but nobody believes him. Bran Stark tells his wildling servant, Osha, about a vivid dream where the sea comes to Winterfell. This is immediately dismissed since Winterfell is 100 miles from water. Osha also deflects questions about the three-eyed raven that continuously appears in his prophetic dreams, not wanting to answer what it might mean. That can’t be a good sign. And with all this witchcraft going on, I can’t help but buy into Bran as dream psychic. Bran proves his leadership when he commits 200 troops, along with his Master-At-Arms Rodrik Cassel, to investigate the sacking of Torrhen’s Square, but could that be playing into The Iron Islanders hands?
Beyond the Wall
Probably the plot that suffered the most severe cutbacks was this one. Besides a charming discussion of what the “first men” who journeyed this harsh climate must have felt, the only notable change is their spotting of Mance Rayder’s men (Rayder is a former Night’s Watchman who decided he would crown himself King of the Wildlings or something). Jon Snow insists he be one of the rangers to accompany Halfhand on his raid. Sam take over as Commander Jeor Mormont’s steward, and that about wraps it up. As much as I loved Jon Snow in season one, I’m hoping we get to see some heroics pretty soon. Otherwise, our adventure in the way North has only produced an incestuous host named Craster, a baby boy sacrifice and a white walker sighting.
Daenerys plays with her dragons (not a euphemism) within the gorgeous walls of Qarth. She’s suspicious of Xaro Xhoan Daxos (I looked it up!) who buys her a dress. As she guessed, he’s interested in marrying her, but not for the reasons you might expect—she’s sexy as hell, and her “firepower” kinda turns me on. His ambition is to turn his riches into political clout. He’s got a well-secured safe full of gold that would buy her the most formidable army in Westeros and would ensure she reclaims the Iron Throne for House Targaryen. He also passes along the valuable nugget of information that Robert Baratheon is dead. It had totally slipped my mind that she wasn’t aware of this. I think because her plans to conquer fit in so perfectly with the turmoil Westeros plunged into the minute he passed, I forgotten she was out of the loop.
She insists to her advisor, Jorah Mormont, that this is the perfect time to strike. Jorah, however, seems hesitant to see her wed. I always knew he loved her, but didn’t know when it would start to complicate their relationship or their ambitions. He professes his love to her subliminally when he says she would be loved as well as feared as Queen: “There are times when I look at you, and still can’t believe you’re real.” This certainly gives Daenerys the heebie-jeebies, but I’m unsure if she will take stock of his advice to “make her own way.” If I’m her, I marry the rich black man (The first one to get a major part! In a show with dynamite females, it’s nice to see that equal employment opportunity extend to race as well). He’s got the dough to get you the might you need to match your growing dragon threat. I say use him and abuse him, then cut him loose if he doesn’t satisfy you once your sitting on the Iron Throne. By the way, how adorable are those baby dragons? Mommy, can I have one?!
What leapt this episode to above average status for me though was my required dose of Arya. Her awesomeness knows no bounds. When cornered by her new employer, Tywin Lannister, she tries to lie and pass for a Southerner, but her lack of knowledge reveals her to be a Northerner. And yet she stands her ground, bending the truth again by not giving her true origin and naming a Northern house she knows as well as her own. She then perpetuates an imposing myth about her brother that he rides into battle on the back of a giant direwolf, and that he can’t be killed. She qualifies it though with her motto for the episode. Say it with me—anyone can be killed.
Her other development involves the repaying of a debt. During the invasion of the City Watch, Arya had handed an axe to the caged prisoners, one of whom was Jaqen H’ghar. Since she saved his life with that gesture, Jaqen promises to return the favor by killing three people of her choice. Guess that means she’ll have three less to recite as she falls asleep! Later, he keeps his word and strikes down her first request with his bow and arrow: the man who tortured them a.k.a The Tickler. Does Arya have a master assassin in her pocket? Oh, “Game of Thrones,” I can’t stay mad.
“The Ghost of Harrenhal” might have been biting off more than they could chew with this installment, but you can’t say there isn’t any intrigue. Two fleets are about to descend upon their target—Stannis on King’s Landing, and Balon Greyjoy on Winterfell—, Arya’s got Tywin Lannister’s ear and an assassin on her team and let’s not forget the all-important glue (magic and fire), that kept this episode together. At a glance this week, GoT was disheveled, but thankfully it was bound together by duct tape. Adhered by the idea that the victors may have to cheat to win, magic and fire looms over the future of every house. It was an hour that broke the rules, but like a lovable rebel, we’re still gunning for them.
Many of the fan favorites have ethically dubious strategies, but the show has made it apparent that righteousness will get you killed. Without knowing it, we’ve all agreed to a moral relativism. All that separates good and evil is intent. Tyrion wants the respect of his subjects, but he’s willing to resort to chemical warfare. Daenerys seems destined to rule, but she wants to buy her way in. And Arya, for now, has given permission for an assassin to carry out her dirty work. But somehow, we all want them to succeed. That’s a credit to the writers who have masterfully drawn a huge cast without sacrificing any humanity. Each player’s motivations are spelled out within minutes of introduction so that we can assign our impressions, but their evolution isn’t done until they’re knocked off. Although the haunting beginning made maintaining tension almost insurmountable, by the end I realized I wasn’t any less invested. For showing the nuances of conquering on screen while seizing my imagination, GoT remains formidable and battle-ready.
Remember, don’t discuss elements of the books that haven’t aired yet. Don’t spoil it for everyone else in the comments section!