Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 5–The Ghost of Harrenhal

SPOILER WARNING – THIS IS FROM LAST NIGHT’S US BROADCAST, AND MAJOR PLOT POINTS ARE DISCUSSED. DON’T READ AHEAD IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN EPISODE 5 YET.

“Men win wars. Not magic tricks.”

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It was another catch-all episode of Game of Thrones this week, as almost every one of the season’s multifarious subplots was advanced, bit by bit. With the characters already so well-drawn, there’s no real need to focus so tightly on any one, which is fortunate; there’s so much going on now that the show has a lot to pack in over the next five episodes.

Nevertheless, there did seem to be a bit of a theme in this week’s script by series creators David Benioff and DB Weiss – the increasing return of magic to the lands of Westeros and Essos. Aside from Melisandre’s murderous shadow wraith, we saw Dany’s dragons again for the first time in ages, and she met the mysterious Pyat Pree, head of Qarth’s warlocks. At King’s Landing, Tyrion and Bronn were dubious about the King’s (meaning the Queen’s) method to defend the city against the forces of Stannis Baratheon – a strange green substance called wildfire, capable of burning so hot it can melt flesh. Up at gloomy Harrenhal, Arya finds herself making a pact with the enigmatic Jaqen H’ghar to take three lives in return for the three she saved from the burning wagon. And at Winterfell, Bran’s seemingly prescient dreams are getting more foreboding, as he tells Osha of a vision of Winterfell swamped by the sea and full of floating dead men.

That’s a lot of magic, for a show that has, until now, very much sidelined this traditional aspect of fantasy stories. And yet it still doesn’t interfere with the sense of grimy medieval reality that the show has already established. We already knew that there had been magic in this world; but as Maester Luwin contended a couple of weeks ago, it had long since vanished. Its apparent return cannot bode well – and presumably is tied to the return of the unstoppable White Walkers, as this world’s deadliest winter approaches.

It wasn’t all magic, of course, as the struggle for the Iron Throne continued apace. No sign of the loathsome Joffrey this week, though a ranting street preacher made clear the people’s dislike for their sadistic new monarch. Poor old Tyrion found himself lumped in with the hatred as the King’s Hand; “I’m trying to save them,” he grumbled to Bronn. As ever, Bronn was a marvellously sardonic sidekick for Tyrion, and continues to inject notes of realism about what war is really like. The role is a real opportunity for Jerome Flynn to reinvent himself from the housewives’ favourite crooner that he was in the 90s, and he’s seizing it with both hands, playing the part with relish.

Tyrion extracted the truth about Cersei’s plan from the pathetic Lancel, who’s such a wimp he’s not even fun for Tyrion to wind up (though it’s plenty of fun for us to watch). In the latest cameo by a genre veteran, a nearly unrecognisable Roy Dotrice popped up as Pyromancer Hallyne, eager to show off ‘the substance’ that his Order makes. It’s not clear (and neither is it in the books) whether wildfire is magical or a straightforward chemical weapon – I tend to the latter idea, likening it to the Byzantine incendiary known as Greek Fire. Either way, Bronn’s misgivings about its use make clear that this is very much an Ultimate Weapon, and one that could easily backfire uncontrollably on its deployers. Lucky Tyrion’s taking charge of it…

The reason for such drastic measures is that Stannis has now gained the upper hand in numbers, after using Melisandre’s deadly shadow to assassinate his own brother. That scene was genuinely creepy, Catelyn and Brienne watching in horror as the well-realised wraith crept up behind Renly and impaled him on an insubstantial blade. It’s a shame to lose Renly, whose war was over before it really began. But it does simplify matters somewhat that there’s one less pretender to the throne to keep up with. As Renly, Gethin Anthony was genial and likeable, but these qualities are hardly useful in a savage civil war. If nothing else, though, I’ll miss his role as eye candy and his dalliances with the pretty Finn Jones as Ser Loras.

Loras and his sister Margery were spirited away before Stannis arrived to take charge, presumably by Littlefinger, who popped up to work his schemes on them. It’s clear that Margery is the one with ambition in that family; Natalie Dormer did well as she steelily declared, “I don’t want to be a queen. I want to be the Queen.” I wonder where that will take her?

Also on the run from Renly’s camp were Catelyn and Brienne, who look to be forming another of the show’s well-judged double acts. There’s quite a few of these already; Tyrion and Bronn, Stannis and Davos, Varys and Littlefinger… It’s a good dramatic device, and one wonders if the showrunners took a bit of a lesson from classic Doctor Who scribe Robert Holmes, whose scripts always included at least one good double act.

Brienne and Cat are the only ones who know the truth of what happened to Renly, but they’re also suspects. They’d obviously do well to stick together until they reach safety. Gwendoline Christie, given more to do as Brienne this week, is looking like an excellent casting choice for this fan favourite from the books, and I look forward to seeing her adventuring with Lady Stark.

Up beyond the Wall, the Night’s Watch has moved on from Craster’s House of Incest and into the mountains, where they’ve met up with Qhorin ‘Halfhand’, a legendary Ranger. The change of setting is profound; previously, all the scenes beyond the Wall had been in claustrophobic snowbound forests. The breathtaking vistas high in the mountains give a much greater sense of scope to the wilds beyond the Wall – and the snow looks rather more convincing too. I wonder how much of these vistas are real, and how much CG?

At this point, Sam got to remind us of the actual threat the Seven Kingdoms are facing, in a discussion of the First Men with Jon – “I think they were hiding. And it didn’t work.” Sam also reminded his fellow Watchmen that three blasts on a horn herald the arrival of White Walkers, a signal unused for so long that it’s little remembered outside of history books.

But there was little time to dwell on such forebodings, as Qhorin duly turned up and announced a commando raid on the HQ of former Watchman-turned-wildling-leader Mance Rayder. We’ve heard a lot about this guy so far, but have yet to actually see him. I presume that next week, that may change…

In the rather warmer environs of Qarth, Dany was teaching one of her dragons how to breathe fire – that’s surely not going to work out well when they grow bigger. As an honoured guest, Dany was rather surprised to find herself beset by ‘romantic’ proposals. Her host, Xaro Xhoan Daxos, made an offer of marriage, to be paid for by providing her with the means to take back the Iron Throne; meanwhile, Ser Jorah made a speech of adoration for her leadership that can only be a declaration of love. The ever-reliable Iain Glen played the speech well, his eyes welling up with obvious restrained passion.

Dany also met the disquieting Pyat Pree, a cadaverous blue-lipped warlock seemingly capable of appearing in two places at once, who offered a less than tempting invitation to the ‘House of the Undying’. It’s definitely getting a bit mystical over in Qarth. But the city’s vague, undefined exoticism makes it an interesting addition to the story’s universe, especially after that barren desert.

Barren in a colder way are the Iron Islands, where Theon yet again proved that he’s a bit rubbish at being a leader of men. Stung by the contempt of his sister and his prospective ship’s crew, it’s believable that he would hatch an over-ambitious plan to ‘show them all’. And so it proved, as on the advice of his conniving first mate, he abandoned the ‘plan’ to raid an inoffensive fishing village, and instead invade a prime piece of Stark real estate. Whereupon, as he obviously realised, the Stark forces would head out to stop him, leaving the unspoken realisation that Winterfell would be pretty lacking in defences as a result.

The script didn’t spell that out, but it was easy enough for anyone with a basic knowledge of military tactics to work out what Theon’s going to try. Having already betrayed Robb Stark’s trust, he’s going to go the whole hog in the treachery stakes and actually invade Robb’s ancestral seat. I can’t see that going well for anyone…

As Bran’s prophetic dreams have already foretold. Plainly all that imagery of the sea swamping Winterfell is a foretaste of the invasion by the seafaring Ironmen. After last season’s dream of Ned Stark’s death, it’s looking like Bran’s nightmares have a disturbing habit of coming true; yet another sign of magic returning to this world. I like Isaac Hempstead-Wright as the solemn, soulful Bran, but as yet he’s not had much to do this year, occasionally popping up as a placeholder to remind the audience that Winterfell is still there. Thankfully, it looks like he’s about to get a plot of his own, maybe as early as next week.

Also continuing to impress was Maisie Williams as Arya; unlike some shows, Game of Thrones has cast some truly amazing child actors. The scene in which she faced off with the suspicious Tywin Lannister was electric, her eyes burning into those of Charles Dance like two equals rather than a prisoner and captor. It’s impressive that such a young actor can more than hold her own in a scene with an old pro like Charles Dance. And the scene was freighted with threat – Tywin obviously doesn’t realise what a valuable captive he has right under his nose.

Jaqen H’ghar might, though. He seems awfully knowledgeable about everything, by presumably mystical means. German actor Tom Wlaschiha is another bit of impeccable casting as Jaqen, with the solitary streak of grey in his long hair. At the end of the episode, he’d clearly fulfilled the first part of his bargain, and Arya is yet again responsible for a death – the torturer from last week having plummeted from the battlements with his head turned somewhat farther than necks usually allow.

It was a busy episode plotwise, which surprisingly found no time for the usual excesses of sex and violence. You get the feeling that it’s all building up to a positive orgy of killing in the very near future, though. And while there was none of the show’s trademark ‘sexposition’, at least I got some titillation from the surprisingly buff Joe Dempsie all sweaty and shirtless as Gendry:

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Next week, presumably many of the strands set up will begin coming to fruition, and I predict killing aplenty as Theon’s unwise plan starts to unfold and Jaqen continues to stalk victims at Harrenhal. Looking forward to it!

1 thought on “Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 5–The Ghost of Harrenhal”

  1. We’ve watched the whole second season at a gallop on Blu-ray, so I’ve just caught up with all your reviews here (and Richard’s confession from last year). I could have commented on any of them, but with the picture of Arya, this seemed the most appropriate. For all the exciting fighting, shagging and magicking, the bit of this series that had me most agog was here – the three episodes of Arya and Tywin.

    From his episode-stealing entrance on horseback in the previous episode (for me, more compelling than his more spectacular triumphal horseshit for its lack of fuss) through to his enjoyment of how cleverly she turned back on him in the next, they were, as you say, electric. And of all the child actors in the world, where did they find Maisie Williams, able to face off against Charles Dance in pure dialogue scenes for three episodes and between them be the best thing in it?

    So, obviously, I’m an I, Claudius boy after all (and watching it again on BBC4).

    My only problem is that they stopped so abruptly; you talk in the next episode about it letting down Littlefinger that he doesn’t quite spot her, but as well as the disappointment of not getting ten episodes of just Maisie Williams’ and Charles Dance’s verbal fencing in a room (I’d watch that for a dollar), it made me think less of the second-cleverest of the Lannister clan, too. Unresolved, it just left him looking a bit dim.

    And now, I hope you enjoy the new one…!

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