This review contains spoilers.
2.5 The Ghost of Harrenhal
Just when you think the first clash of kings promised in the book of the same name is coming, something just has to get in the way. While the Starks and Lannisters war for the North and Greyjoy of the Iron Islands prepares his assault on Winterfell, Baratheon and Baratheon ends up being something of a dud. It’s hard for brother to fight brother when one brother ends up dead, a giant Tilda Swinton-alike bodyguard ends up on the run, and the Baratheon bannermen switching teams. Might the balance of power have shifted in Westeros, or does Littlefinger have his little fingers on a new pawn in the Game of Thrones?
I love the way Game of Thrones is handling its large cast. They can’t get everyone in every episode, but what they have been doing is finding a way to pair off characters who seem to complement one another. For example, the new pairing of Brienne and Catelyn Stark. Brienne is the brawn, Catelyn is the brains; like Tyrion and Bronn, they work well together. Another pairing that works well is Arya and Tywin. (Or Arya or anyone, really; Maisie Williams is great, and her character plays nicely with Gendry, Tywin, Jaquen, Syrio, or her late father Ned.) This allows characters to flesh out and establish relationships with one another and move the plot along briskly.
It’s also a showcase for the dialogue. Tyrion and Bronn’s walk through the city alone was brilliant, and while Arya’s reaction shots to Tywin’s discussion of the war for the north were great moments, the real showcase was her brief exchange with the deliciously weird and murderously skillful Jaquen (Tom Wlaschiha). We found out more about the mysterious killer this week in one scene with Arya than we had in weeks of the walk to the Wall.
Since it seems like the show has introduced all its locations for this season, it must be said that the shooting locations were incredible this week. From the looks of the North beyond the wall, Game of Thrones must be shooting in Iceland, because it just looks cold and foreboding and terrifying where the Night’s Watch are marching in their war on Mance Rayder and his wild savages. Ditto Qarth, which was one of the most impressive stages the show has had. It’s so vibrant and full of life, and it only needs a few interior shots to live up to the promise it revealed when Xaro Xhoan Daxos (Nonso Anozie) cuts his hand to give her entrance. Dany is a queen in need of a king, and Xaro Xhoan Daxos is a savage from the Iron Islands in need of pedigree.
As the show has established, everyone wants something from someone else. Dany needs troops and ships to recapture the Iron Throne, Xaro wants political power to go with his wealth, Robb wants freedom for the Northmen, Greyjoy wants his position back, the Lannisters want to hold onto the Seven Kingdoms, and Stannis wants his brother’s old seat on the Iron Throne. Will the participants, like Stannis, make compromises to get what they want and betray their principles, or will they, like Brienne, try to do things honorably while still getting their desires met?
Speaking of Stannis and his flexible morals, Game of Thrones is handling the supernatural in some interesting ways. There’s power in the magic of Melisandre and her shadowy vaginal assassin, but there’s more power in steel and good men at your side and in the wildfire of the Targaryens. Even Dany’s dragons, small and mostly helpless now, are nothing without handlers and riders and a team to control them. Magic is fun—as we saw with Dany meeting the warlocks of Qarth—but it is of limited use in this universe. At least, so far. Power takes many forms in Westeros and, for the moment, it seems to be the least powerful form of power behind arms and knowledge. Then again, the dragons were dead for hundreds of years before making a comeback; maybe by the time the show is into season four, magicians will be fighting warlocks and magic knights will be riding dragons into battle.
Will dragons and their magic fire be able to ward off the cold of the north? After all, winter is coming.