It’s hard to believe the season is already half over, but HBO’s Game of Thrones continues to go strong in its fifth episode, entitled “The Ghost of Harrenhal.” Gruesome deaths, political schemes, hard truths, and revenge are par for the course in this series and nowhere is that more evident than in this episode. The one shortfall of this particular episode is its ambition. While previous episodes have handled the scope and scale of the series quite well, “The Ghost of Harrenhal” suffers from being a mid-season bridging episode. It’s full of great moments, but the episode never comes together to be more than just that – a series of memorable moments.
After last week’s cliffhanger, many were left wondering what awful business the shade (popularly known as the shadow baby) that Melisandre birthed would get up to. Well, viewers did not have to wonder long, as the foul creature violently revealed its intentions in the episode’s opening scene. Catelyn Stark and Renly Baratheon are finishing up negotiations, coming to what appears to be a game changing agreement in the War of the Five Kings, when the shade appears and makes a swift end of Renly. Whether King Robb would have accepted Renly’s generous terms quickly becomes a moot point.
Crisitunity! Littlefinger swoops into action in the wake of Renly’s death, making good on his earlier overtures to those who surrounded the late King, namely the Tyrells – Renly’s bride Margaery and his lover Loras. The scheming master of coin urges the brother and sister to flee Renly’s camp before the arrival of Stannis so thye may live to fight another day. These first few scenes following the would-be King’s assassination feature members of his Kingsguard – Ser Loras Tyrell and Brienne of Tarth – swearing revenge against Stannis Baratheon. “I will put a sword through his righteous face!” shouts Loras, echoed no doubt by the many fans of the late younger Baratheon. Brienne too seeths with thoughts of avenging her beloved Renly, nearly begging Cat to let her go die in the attempt. Both are talked down by the cooler, more diplomatic heads of Littlefinger and Cat, respectively. The former Kingsguards go their separate ways as a result, with the Tyrell’s seemingly leaning towards an alliance with the Lannisters and Brienne swearing loyalty to Cat and in turn the Starks.
For all their battlefield prowess, the brutes of the world – warriors like Loras and Brienne – are steadily revealing themselves to be nothing more than pawns in the larger game, pieces to be manipulated and kept in check by the literal kings and queens of the land. The noble Loras is a fighter not a negotiator; the Knight of Flowers is nothing more than a high profile tool to be directed against an enemy, whoever that may be. Similarly, Brienne has little use for politics and court intrigue, but almost immediately finds herself blamed for her king’s death and deals with it the only way she knows how – by cutting her way out. It’s a tragic mix-up, but one that Brienne could not have talked her way out of even if she’d tried.
Players like Littlefinger and Margaery are repeatedly demonstrating to viewers that they are operating on a completely different level – They are not concerned with something as petty as vengeance. People like them always keep the long game in mind. Revenge may be a part of their plan, but it will always be incidental to an even larger goal. “Do you want to be a queen?” asks Littlefinger. “No. I want to be the queen.” declares Margaery. You can almost see the wheels turning behind Petyr Baelish’s eyes, and it’s hard to tell who is playing who in this situation. The phrase “mutually beneficial,” a concept that Littlefinger is most fond of seems apt.
There are no shortage of “plots and schemes” in “Ghosts of Harrenhal,” and no intrigue-centric episode would be complete without the presence of master schemer Cersei Lannister, who mysteriously sat out last week’s episode. She was apparently too busy plotting things. In yet another wondefully acted scene between Lena Headey and Peter Dinklage, Tyrion tries to have a civil conversation with Cersei about recent events and the impending invasion of King’s Landing by the forces of Stannis Baratheon. He instead ends up trading vicious barbs with his sister. Renly’s death means that most of the younger Baratheon’s bannermen have flocked to his elder brother’s cause, leaving the Lannisters and their allies sorely outnumbered. Cersei scoffs at Tyrion’s declarations of Stannis’ numerical superiority, stating that Littlefinger claims they can still outspend their enemies. The Queen Regent remains convinced that she can buy her way out of any problem, but Tyrion – always the realist – urges her to tell him what she has in mind to defend the city. Never one to give her brother the slightest advantage over her, Cersei remains mum on what she and Joffrey have planned.
Not only does this biting exchange drive Tyrion’s plot forward in this episode, it also serves to demonstrate his genuine willingness to cooperate with his sister for the greater good – or at least for the long game. Many may call Stannis Baratheon the most stubborn and inflexible person in Westeros, but Cersei easily takes the crown as the most obdurate player of the game of thrones. The Imp must use all the means at his disposal to discover the Queen Regent’s plans, starting with his well placed mole in the Queen’s camp – Poor, clueless Lancel Lannister.
Speaking of pigheaded to the point of absurdity, we get a quick scene between Stannis and Davos shortly thereafter. We learn of Stannis’ own plans for the invasion, but the real meat of the scene deals with Davos’ concerns about the Red Priestess. Having seen what Melisandre is truly capable of (ie: birthing murderous shadow demons), the Onion Knight obviously has some reservations about her relationship with his king. Stannis is very set in his ways, and is not someone who takes criticism lightly. However, Davos feels that he is being disloyal by not criticizing Stannis. “Loyal service means telling hard truths,” Davos proclaims, and in a rare moment of open-mindedness, Stannis hears the former smuggler out. Ser Davos’ “hard truth” moves Stannis – or at least as much as one so set in his ways can be moved. He decides that for the sake of optics, lest his newly won bannermen think Melisandre is pulling his strings, not to bring the Red Priestess with them to King’s Landing.
Plans are being made all over the Seven Kingdoms it would seem, and the Iron Islands are no different. Reborn as a true Greyjoy, Theon meets his ship’s crew for the first time. However, the raping and reaving crew of the “Sea Bitch” do not take kindly to some petulant boy trying to tell them what to do, even if he is the son of Balon Greyjoy. Theon’s firstmate, Dagmar Cleftjaw, gives the untried captain a quick education in how real Iron Islanders think. “They don’t do as they’re told… they do as they like.” This newly imparted wisdom gets Theon thinking like a true son of Pyke. Why harass fishermen as his father “ordered” him to do, when he can capture a much greater prize? With King Robb away fighting the Lannisters, the castles of Torrhen’s Square and Winterfell lie mostly undefended. There’s no going back for Theon after this fateful decision.
Across the continent, in Harrenhal, plans are being hatched by the war council of Tywin Lannister – though perhaps not as smoothly as the elder Lannister would like. Confounded repeatedly on the battlefield by the forces of Robb Stark, the Lannister patriarch finds himself at wits end, surrounded by sycophantic cousins and illiterate bannermen. Arya’s role as cupbearer to Tywin is an entirely new role for the character, one that never took place in Martin’s books. These scenes – particularly the interplay between Tywin and Arya – are an absolute delight to watch. Tywin’s questioning of Arya – a northerner – about Robb Stark is especially great. Young Maisie Williams absolutely holds the screen opposite the veteran actor Charles Dance. Her resignation to the fact that “Anyone can be killed,” when talking about her brother is absolutely heartbreaking. It’s in that moment that you finally realize just how much Arya has been through.
But back to Tywin. For anyone who has read the novels, it’s very hard to like Tywin Lannister – he’s a terrible, terrible man who was particularly cruel to everyone’s favourite character Tyrion growing up. Tyrion has alluded to this treatment at the hands of his father and those issues will come to the fore, but in the interim Dance is so god damned good in the role, that it’s almost impossible not to at least have a sort of grudging respect for Tywin.
In Harrenhal we are also reintroduced to another character, Jaqen H’ghar, who remains shrouded in mystery. You know, the foreign sounding prisoner with the patch of white in his red locks? The former captive of the Night’s Watch appears dressed in Lannister garb at the castle, making Arya immediately cautious. However, he soon reveals to Arya that he owes her a debt for saving his life back on the King’s Road, one that he intends to repay in blood. Jaqen will remain mysterious as hell for most viewers after this (he’s still quite an enigma for those who read the books), but at least we now have some idea of his intentions in the short term. The death of the Tickler in the episode’s final scene is the first bit of real empowerment Arya has been given since… well, pretty much ever. With Jaqen’s help, little Arya is through being a victim for now.
North of the Wall we catch up with the men of the Night’s Watch. Jon Snow, like Cersei, was absent from episode four – presumably quite boringly marching northward to a place called the Fist of the First Men. As the main force waits for the arrival of a scouting party, led by the legendary Qhorin Halfhand, Sam regales his companions with a historical account of the Fist before being told to shut up. Tarly and Dolorous Edd provide some much needed comic relief on this bleak trek beyond the wall. Shooting the show in Iceland has given Jon Snow’s adventures a much more epic feel than the previous season. And man, does it look cold out there. Major points for authenticity.
Events accelerate quickly in the third act. Tyrion uncovers that his sister has commissioned the production of wildfire, an incredibly flammable substance that can be flung in catapults against the land and sea forces of Stannis. Longtime Martin fans will recognize the Pyromancer Hallyne as Roy Dotrice, a veteran of GRRM’s Beauty and the Beast and narrator of most audio book versions of the novels. Dotrice was original to play Grand Maester Pycelle, but had to drop out at the last moment. Awesome to see him on the show.
After Tyrion’s discovery and decision to produce even more wildfire, audiences catch up with Daenerys attempting to make herself at home in Qarth. This visit also provides our first look at the dragons… well, a dragon… since the first episode of the season. CG is expensive, okay? Dany quickly finds the Dothraki ways at odds with those of Qarth, and must repeatedly scold members of her Khalassar from acting the way they are used to. That is to say, she has to ask them nicely not to rape, pillage, and murder at every opportunity. While Westeros deals with a clash of kings, Dany deals with a clash of cultures. We get that Qarth is a weird place full of warlocks and fat merchants, but what the heck was up with that woman who spoke to Ser Jorah? Despite the serious message she delivered, it was hard not to laugh at the masked figure’s appearance.
The surprise marriage proposal of Qarth’s wealthiest man, Xaro Xhoan Daxos, is extremely tempting for Dany, who is eager to be done with Essos and return to the Seven Kingdoms. His wealth, power, and influence would serve her cause well, but Ser Jorah warns that she may end up serving Daxos in the process. Daxos questioned Dany about her relationship with Mormont, stating that he believes the Bear is in love with her. Mormont’s subsequent speech about Dany’s virtues and what she means to him all but confirms Daxos’ belief for both Daenerys and the audience. The poor fool Jorah is totally in the friend zone.
To Winterfell where Bran is holding court as Lord. With the help of Maester Luwin, Bran has grown more comfortable in the role, but he’s given his first true test when the stalwart Ser Rodrick arrives to inform him that nearby Torrhen’s Square is under attack. In the wake of the attack (and knowing what we know about Theon’s plans), the young Stark’s confession to Osha about his dream is particularly foreboding. Bran’s dreams, though few and far between, have an unfortunate tendency to come true. Just ask his late father, Ned.
– The shade looked amazing, but we fear the showrunners will be tempted to bring it back. Please do not make it the Smoke Monster of Game of Thrones.
– We want more Qhorin Halfhand! His characterization on the show is spot on.
– Jon Snow a ranger? We’ll see how he does in the true north.
– Yay! Dany actually has things to do now… it only took half the season!
– If you hated Theon before, you’re really going to hate him over the next few episodes.
– Cersei needs to stop being such an obstructionist and help Tyrion prepare the city if they have any hope of surviving.
– Someone please submit Charles Dance for an Emmy or Golden Globe. The man is too good.
– We’re not totally sold on Jaqen H’ghar yet, but actor Tom Wlaschiha nailed his re-introduction to Arya. Performing with such unique dialogue cannot be easy.
– Nonso Anozie’s performance as Xaro Xhoan Daxos is easily one of our favourites of the season.
– No Robb Stark? Ladies will be tuning out.
– Seriously, what was with that Qartheen woman’s mask?