“The Ghost of Harrenhal”
It’s remarkable how often the thoughts I have about Game of Thrones mirror those I have about Fate/Zero. These are two stories that share much in common – a large cast, a struggle for power that cuts through all the threads, and an extremely dark and pessimistic view of the human animal. Both are epic stories that can dazzle the viewer with spectacle and shock them with violence. But perhaps most importantly, both are better when they step back from the shock & awe storytelling and focus on the characters, and the most memorable scenes are invariably those where two or three of them quietly converse.
This was arguably one of the most low-key episodes of GoT so far – despite starting and ending with a death - but it was one of my favorites. There were no battles, no sieges, no disasters or armies on the march. But there was a human quality to the ep that made it one of the most accessible and engaging so far. As well, there were the beginnings of what will be an increasing focus as the series progresses this year and beyond, the history behind the story. It happened in the North and it happened in the South, as more than ever before we began to get a sense of what came before the characters we see walked this land, and how the past is connected to the present.
Given that Game of Thrones is such a dark and generally pessimistic show with an enormous cast of characters, I find myself latching onto certain of them – they’re my anchors as I’m buffeted about by the sheer size of the story and the abundance of man’s inhumanity to man. We got more than a normal share of those characters this week, and that always makes a good episode for me. Tyrion is one of them of course, but he’s as close to a central figure as this ensemble has, and always a difficult and dangerous character to try and pin down. When he does something like returning Ned’s bones to Cat or saving Sansa from Joffrey’s debasement, we can’t be sure if he did it because it was the right thing, or for the strategic sense. Tyrion is obviously a brilliant man, and he would certainly have done those things for strategic reasons alone. So did he? No, Tyrion is more endlessly fascinating than reassuring. This week, he’s busying himself in trying to find a way to defend the city from Stannis’ now overwhelming forces with one hand while fending off Cersei’s incompetence, which takes him into the catacombs of the Pyromancer’s Guild with Hallyne (Roy Dotrice) where thousands of jars of the mysterious and deadly substance wildfire are being stored, their creating having been ordered by the Queen.
Bran is definitely one of those anchor characters for me, because he’s innocent in a way Arya will never be. As hard as the lessons life is teaching him are, he’s still a pure soul, and watching him try his best to keep Winterfell running it’s impossible not to root for him. When he says “If we can’t protect our Bannermen, why should they protect us?” it’s also impossible not to see Ned in his young son. Bran has honor and courage, like his father did, but what are honor and courage among snakes and spiders? Bran continues to be plagued by dreams – three-eyed ravens, and the sea lapping at the walls of Winterfell. Maester Luwin tells him they’re just dreams, but Bran is learning that in matters of dreams, Osha is more an authority than Luwin, even if her chains are not so pretty as his.
Brienne of Tarth is another character I feel that “anchor” sense about, and Gwendolyne Christie – while definitely too pretty – is winning me over with her portrayal. Brienne isn’t a complicated woman – she loves Renly and that’s enough for her, but when she fails to protect him from the shadow demon (she says it had the face of Stannis) her world comes crashing down around her. It’s only Cat’s quick thinking that spares her from being hanged as the presumed killer, and Brienne escapes to chase the ghost of revenge. I liked Renly – we didn’t get to see much of him, but if not honorable per se, he was at least humane. His story ended much too quickly in the TV version, alas, and Brienne fled with Cat, finally pledging her service to her because Cat possesses “a woman’s courage”. What Brienne lacks in sophistication she seems to make up for with perception, as this sums up Catelyn Stark as any short description ever could.
It’s easy to see the conflict rising inside of Davos, another of those characters who anchor GoT for me. It’s rare to see a character in epic fantasy so completely devoid of ego as Davos is, especially in the corridors of power. He reacts like a kicked dog when Stannis questions his loyalty, but Davos sees his role quite clearly – true loyalty means telling your Lord the truth, even at the risk of his wrath. What is a justifiable price to pay for power? What means justify the desired end? Yet another question in common between this series and Fate/Zero, and both Davos and Stannis struggle with it in their own way. If Brienne summed up Cat’s character this week, it falls to Stannis to do so for himself – “The hard truths cut both ways.”
On the geographical extremes of the story, new players are introduced. In the North another anchor character, Sam, is coming into himself as the book-smart intellectual among his rough-hewn brethren. As Lord Mormont’s party reaches the ancient hilltop fortress, the First of the First Men, Sam gives them an unasked-for history lesson about the place – one which Jon finished in unsettling fashion. Joining the party is legendary Ranger Quorin Halfhand (Simon Armstrong), the only Ranger to survive an entire winter beyond the Wall. He says Mance Rayder is gathering a huge army of Wildlings, and tells Mormont he needs to take a small party to kill Rayder’s scouts – a party which Jon talks his way into joining. And in Qarth, Danerys meets two more members of The Thirteen – creepy Wizard’s Guild leader Pyat Pree (Ian Hanmore) and mysterious masked Quaithe (Laura Pradelska) as Xaro tries to woo her into marriage with promises of half the wealth he hides behind the Valeryian steel door to his vault – an offer Jorah urges her to reject.
Lastly, our story returns to Arya, who seems to be involved in final scenes quite often this season. Tywin Lannister has clearly recognized much about the girl – she’s whip-smart, and from the North – but doesn’t realize just who his new cup-bearer is. Tywin has also realized that Robb is more formidable than his overconfident yes-men believed, and a force to be feared and respected. But the headline in Harrenhal is Jaqen H’Ghar, who tells Arya that in exchange for the three lives she saved, three must be given to the Red God – and that he will send any three whose names he gives her. This is the one sequence this week that’s radically different from the book – some will find the change troubling, but I see it as relatively minor in the larger scheme of things…