“The Ghosts of Harrenhal”
April 29th, 2012
“I still can’t believe that you’re real.”
Perhaps it’s my relatively unromantic disposition, but I’ve never really considered love in the context of Game of Thrones. It’s obviously part of Martin’s books, but it’s so often quashed, or forbidden, or broken, that it’s hard to identify it as one of the key themes (or even as a theme in some instances). However, as I noted in last week’s review, the introduction of Robb’s love interest reminded us that romance and desire are not entirely foreign concepts within the framework of this story.
However, as “The Ghosts of Harrenhal” observes (and as we’ll see continue into next week’s episode as well), that love is rarely consummated. Sam speaks of Gilly in hypotheticals, in love with a memory more than a real person, while Jorah’s love for Dany (captured in the quote above) makes both of them uncomfortable, an unspoken reality they dare not bring to the surface lest it shatter their existing relationship. In other words, their love remains unromantic out of fear of what romantic love would look like, relying instead on the love you have for a brother or a sister or for your King. It’s this love that ultimately threads through “The Ghosts of Harrenhal,” and the season at large, and it’s a love that may be equally tenuous depending on its object.
After last week’s shadow baby cliffhanger, Benioff and Weiss waste no time: within minutes, Renly Baratheon is dead at the hands of a shadow bearing a striking resemblance to his brother Stannis, Brienne and Catelyn are being blamed for his death, and Ser Loras and Margaery are mourning over the loss of their King. Or, rather, Ser Loras is mourning the loss of his lover, while Margaery mourns the loss of her title as Queen. While I’ve been generally pleased to see Margaery’s character expanded, I do wish the show could hit a different note: her ambitions are made almost too clear in her little conversation with Littlefinger, devoid of any affection or sense of loss for Renly. While she obviously didn’t love Renly as her brother did, just as Renly didn’t love her as he loved her brother, there is a cold pragmatism to Margaery that I’m not sure I like.
It does make sense, of course: Margaery, given her position as the daughter of a wealthy family, is very well aware of her duty. She was to marry Renly because that is her destiny, a role that Sansa (unseen in this episode, but returning next week) once viewed as a romantic one. While Joffrey’s terror has shown her otherwise, it seems Margaery has never had any romantic notions about what her role is in these circumstances. While the fact that Renly was gay precluded any ability to truly fall in love with her King, that was not a barrier for her provided she gain the position she desires.
What’s missing in Margaery is the love that Renly’s people apparently felt for him, like the love Brienne demonstrated as she wept over his body. However, part of the show’s point (which Margaery is being used to symbolize) is that such love is fleeting. The binary between Renly and Stannis was always positioned as one of likeability, of their ability to rally people around them, but Renly’s likeability didn’t do him any favors once he was dead. His people might have loved him, but in his absence everyone but Loras is quick to bend the knee to the invading Stannis. While they might be more likely to choose Renly if given the choice, their loyalty depends on the state of affairs more broadly, which means that even the King in the North (who is equally beloved by his people) is vulnerable should he lose any kind of favor. It’s actually the same strategy that the undermanned Night’s Watch raiding party is using North of the Wall: by killing Mance Rayder, they seek to disband those wildlings who have come together around his cult of personality.
I raise these comparisons because it’s a question that’s affecting just about every character. We discover that Bran is doing well at Winterfell, coming into his own as its “little lord” and understanding the potential ramifications of not responding to an attack so far into their territory (just as Robb was forced to respond to Ned’s imprisonment lest he appear weak). Similarly, the person leading that attack is trying to stake his own claim: after seeing his sister’s rapport with the Iron Men who man their ships, Theon takes the sea bitch on an uncharted path with eyes on a bigger prize, all in order to earn the respect of those men (and the father they symbolize). Dany, meanwhile, is trying to discover just what it will take to cross the narrow sea, forced to curry favor from rich men who all desire something from her in return. We could even attach the theme to Davos and Stannis, as the former laments the latter’s decision to sell his shadow to the red priestess, and wondering at what point the King’s victories will become Melisandre’s in the eyes of his men.
These characters are all negotiating the minefield that is winning the love of their subjects, something that the actual King has no interest in. Tyrion’s walk through the streets of King’s Landing reveals that Joffrey is as despised in the streets as he is in the Red Keep, although we also learn that it’s Tyrion (the demon monkey) who is often blamed for pulling the strings. While Jorah is perhaps right to express skepticism over what would happen if Dany returned to Westeros amidst this political turmoil, there is no question that the people of King’s Landing would be open to a change in leadership. The show largely makes this concern over unrest in shorthand, but it’s nicely integrated throughout “The Ghosts of Harrenhal,” popping up in Tywin’s meetings in addition to this thematic line between characters.
Those meetings are part of the narrative that provides the episode its title, really transitioning Arya into a key figure in this story. While the introduction of Tywin Lannister brings another recognizable character into the fray, Arya provides our viewpoint within the walls of Harrenhal. We only sit at Tywin’s table when she is present, we only meet the people she meets, and every one of those people is defined based on their relationship with her. It’s one of the purest evocations of the book’s isolated point-of-view structure that the show has done to date, and it’s kind of fantastic. Charles Dance and Maisie Williams are great at playing off of one another (with the former’s expanded role a much-appreciated bit of adaptation), the introduction of Jaqen H’qhar and his three wishes (read: three murders) is well-handled, and the show has found a far more interesting way to handle exposition. By filtering it through Arya, information about the Lannister troop movements or the state of Robb’s campaign become tension-filled and borderline suspenseful, Williams’ eyes keeping our attention while the information is delivered. It’s a new dynamic I’ve very much enjoyed, and one which remains equally strong in next week’s episode.
Similarly, the introduction of Qarth proper has provided momentum to Dany’s (purposeful) non-starter of a storyline, albeit one that relies more on cheap symbols of exoticism (like the mysterious woman’s metal mask) than on any sort of cultural specificity. The shorthand is likely necessitated in a shorter season, but I enjoyed the way the show used the tools at their disposal to navigate it. While Irri and Doreah have to this point been largely marginalized within the narrative, we know enough about them to know that the former is Dany’s link to the Dothraki while the latter provides her link to the common folk (and the sexual pleasures associated with it). As a result, pitting the two characters against one another is a great way to capture the difficult situation Dany finds herself in, wanting to stay attached to her past while being prompted by the Qartheen culture to engage in a more typical cultural dance of beauty and elegance. Irri’s irritation, if you’ll forgive the pun, is easily recognizable, while Doreah’s eyes grow wide at the thought of gowns and being asked to schmooze with the male denizens (although we never know if she actually prostitutes herself out in the process, something one feels Dany would disapprove of and which would fall into problematic patterns for the show at large).
There is a lot of plot and exposition to be dealt with in “The Ghosts of Harrenhal,” with the introduction of many elements that will be important later. However, despite this, there is a pleasant rhythm with the episode, the sense that these scenes speak to not only those plot points but also continually evolving relationships. The episode ends on the death of “The Tickler” at the hands of Jaqen, but that scene begins with Arya teasing Gendry over his poor practicing technique, a glimpse into the dynamic we saw develop briefly in earlier episodes this season. We don’t get to spend as much time with it as we might like, time being of the essence and all, but that one moment suggests the existence of others, a suggestion that holds great value. Similarly, while we only drop in on the Night’s Watch as they reach the Fist of the First Men, Grenn and Delorous Edd’s annoyance with Sam’s book knowledge being thrown around suggests it’s been a far longer walk for them than it has been for us, referring to an ongoing joke in the books by creating a sequence that suggests its duration without actually showing it all to the audience.
Game of Thrones lives and dies based on those sequences, largely because it depends on our relationships with these characters. While plot will be a dominating force, and will become more dominating with time, we won’t care about it if the people involved aren’t well-drawn. In other words, to bring everything full circle, the show is forced to win our love before it’s able to successfully disrupt that relationship. I saw some rumblings last week about people upset about the introduction of outright fantasy into a world that, to this point, was largely devoid of shadow babies and the like. However, I’d argue the show has built up more than enough goodwill for a measure of trust, the same trust that soldiers put into Kings or Queens in times of struggle. Sometimes that trust derives from religious doctrine, as in the case of Melisandre’s God of Light, but sometimes it is something more intangible. Catelyn Stark has no title, and makes no claim to any title, and yet Brienne chooses to pledge her sword to her based on the bravery she has displayed. While we might associate power with military might or the knowledge that drives it, loyalty and the love it suggests needs only a connection driven by belief and feeling.
It’s a connection that “The Ghosts of Harrenhal” did a fine job of making with this particular viewer, and a connection that really comes into its own in next week’s episode.
- I was disappointed to see that we get only an offhand, almost sarcastic reference to Daisy’s fate after Joffrey’s torture in last week’s episode. Without repeating my entire case, it felt off for us not to see Tyrion’s response to her condition, and her absence beyond that mention here confirms that she was more an object to demonstrate Joffrey’s cruelty than an actual character experiencing part of her narrative.
- Point of note: This is the first episode of the season to feature no nudity beyond perhaps a bare breast or two in the streets of King’s Landing or the parties of Qarth (I wasn’t scanning looking for them).
- The show is getting good use out of Bronn, bringing him into situations like Tyrion’s walk through King’s Landing or his meeting with the Pyromancer as a comic foil. It livens up the exposition of it all, and the more we see of Bronn the better in my eyes.
- Our first glimpse of the dragons continues to show us only one dragon at a time, and for only a brief sequence at that – they’re definitely playing it safe with the budget in this instance, and I’ll be interested to see if that means they’re saving the money for a larger sequence later, or had no money to begin with.
- For the non-readers, this is going to be an important episode for where the season goes from this point, so I’d suggest a rewatch and perhaps even some notetaking if you want to be advantageous about it.