Game of Thrones Revisited: 2.05 The Ghost of Harrenhal
Game of Thrones, the critically acclaimed TV series by David Benioff and DB Weiss and developed from the best-selling series of novels by George RR Martin, has become a cultural icon. The tentpole of HBO's programming with a stellar cast and mix of medieval-style political drama and war with a healthy dash of fantasy, Game of Thrones has enthralled audiences worldwide. And in 2019, the show will come to a dramatic end in its final run of feature length episodes. In the lead up to season eight, I explore every episode leading up to the final battle for Westeros and the rest of the world and this episode sees the first major loss in the War of the Five Kings.
Warning: There may be spoilers for seasons one to seven...
Reply Baratheon, we barely knew you. The opening five minutes are certainly a rollercoaster of plot and emotion, opening with Catelyn Stark and King Renly negotiating peace and ending with Melisandre's evil smoke creature stabbing him through the heart, forcing Catelyn and Brienne to flee as fugitives. It's perhaps the first big surprise death of the season and again proves that - at least at this point in the show - it's the good guys who suffer most.
Renly wasn't without his faults certainly, but there was a sense of nobility and wisdom mixed in with all that baby-faced innocence. The death of the first 'monarch' in the War of the Five Kings certainly upsets the balance with a stone-faced Stannis absorbing his brother's army, Brienne swearing new fealty to Catelyn and the Tyrell siblings pondering new alliances, manipulated by Littlefinger and his talk of revenge. While the Red Priestess Melisandre is absent from this episode, the horrifying events in the cave last episode are certainly enough to allow Davos to convince Stannis to leaver her behind.
At this stage, it doesn't feel like a mistake, but it clearly was; there are more intriguing mysteries in King's Landing as Tyrion discovers his sister's madness in creating 7,000 jars of Wildfire to use against Stannis's forces. While Tyrion is quick to take control of the situation, there is a real sense of urgency and threat that even he might not be able to control.
That sense of threat permeates this episode. Beyond the Wall, the Night's Watch arrive at the Fist of the First Men and debate the imposing threats of the Wildling armies and White Walkers. While in Winterfell, the threat of the Ironborn emerges, as Bran sends Ser Rodrik off to deal with an attack a mere 40 miles away. It's not difficult to decipher his dream of the sea coming to Winterfell, setting up the attack on the Stark home to come; there's also plenty of set up for his destiny as Osha offers insight of the Three-Eyed Raven that haunts his dreams. As for that impending attack, Theon's impulsiveness, driven by the mockery of his sister and his 'crew' will lead him to stretch himself too far and result in his rather horrific downfall.
The Harrenhal scenes - on which the episode title is based - are a real delight; Charles Dance imbues Tywin Lannister with a non-nonsense nobility that it is hard not to be enamoured by his performance; he rules his court with an iron fist and isn't afraid to call out his men for their failures in front of others - even if they are fellow Lannisters. We also get our first proper tete a tete between Tywin and Arya that emerge as one of the real highlights of the season. For such a younger, less experienced actor, Maisie Williams holds her own against Dance, delivering wit and fireceness as she navigates his questions to lie about her birth home and its noble house.
Equally as absorbing are her scenes with Jaqen H'ghar, delivered with mysterious intensity by Tom Wlaschiha. There is a real sense of danger in the interplay between Jaqen and Arya, perhaps more so than her and Tywin and his promise of three deaths in exchange for his 'freedom' - resulting in the brutal death of the torturer known as the Tickler, really sets up the dark path she will take in the seasons to come.
This episode finally gains some momentum on Daenerys' storyline, which has literally dragged on for the first half of the season after the thrilling promise of the season one finale; Qarth really stands out for the rest of the show's location, unaffected by the wider troubles and full of decadence and beauty. But that doesn't stop that sense of danger and unease hanging over her storyline as is she forced to deal with the machinations of her own people and supposed allies.
Ian Hanmore's warlock Pyat Pree is a particularly unsettling character; his offer of a visit to the House of the Undying suggests real danger to come. But perhaps his insidiousness is just more overt than Nonso Anozie's Xaro Xhoan Daxos, whose grip on Daenerys tightens with a warm smile, lavish gifts and the offer of marriage to finance her triumphant return to Westeros. Interestingly enough, he is the first person to really question what she wants and why she feels she deserves the Iron Throne, laying bare perhaps the flaws in her plan. Family names - as he suggests with his talk of a poor upbringing and rise to power - are surely not enough give her the automatic right to the Throne of Westeros.
And perhaps that is the point; Daenerys needs to prove she can be a queen as much as her birthright suggests. There is certainly a sense that she is having to juggle more roles; quelling the rumours and discourse of her own Dothraki while forging new alliances in this city. It is also an episode that really makes it clear - through Xaro Xhoan Daxos' assertion - that Jorah wants to be more than just her loyal advisor. There is real discomfort in her scene with him, though she is still wise to heed his counsel and a promise of a good ship and captain to take them to safety and his belief that to succeed, she will need Westeros' support on her claim to the throne.
The tension is high in The Ghost of Harrenhal, an episode that continues to marvellously juggle several storylines, while still focusing on the characters it needs to. It means some are absent this episode, but the balance is right and half way through season two, there is a real sense that the War of the Five Kings is about to go to the next level. It's just a shame poor Renly is the first major loss in this long and bloody feud...