Harrenhal already seems like it could be the likeliest place in Westeros for a ghost to take up residence. Arya Stark is basically dead to the world; small wonder she finds herself in a position to be Harrenhal’s newest specter, a girl whose words can now kill.
Sunday was about Game of Thrones’ characters gaining new ground in unexpected places. Finding new sources of strength where they never imagined them to be. And naturally, having those new gains define character arcs and plots for the rest of the season. A setup episode of connective tissue necessary at this season’s midpoint.
Before all that setup could happen, and just as the show was teasing us with the prospect of an alliance between Highgarden and the North, we had to see what became of Stannis and Mel’s love-shadow. And we did.
One king down. Who knew the handsome little twat wouldn’t even see a single battle?
Little love was spared for Renly in death; Margaery struggles to come up with something to say, while she and Petyr stare at his corpse. “He was very handsome”, she musters, before lamenting her political loss. “If Renly wasn’t a king, I wasn’t a queen….I want to be the queen.” Good Marg locks eyes with Westeros’ second spider, who lets escape a devious little smirk, easily missed.
Unexpected gains, in unexpected places. Suddenly, a member of the King Joffrey’s council is offering something of an alliance with the Tyrells before they get spirited off to Highgarden. Littlefinger always seems to have multiple plots and endgames in motion, so it seems strange at first that he’s choosing to ally himself with the woman who suddenly has nothing at all in the face of three enormous political powers — Robb and the Northerners, Stannis’ forces now overflowing with Renly’s numbers who defect to his side, and the combination of King’s Landing and the Lannisters.
The only grief in the Stormlands seems to come from two of Renly’s knights; Loras Tyrell, his lover, who’s tucking tail and running off with Margaery, and Brienne, whose anguish tears shit to pieces in the wake of her king’s murder. I hope someone else was chuckling along with me when, despite her state, she had the wherewithal to pull off an execution-style downward stab on the second soldier that charges into the room.
Brienne is the new random prize for Cat Stark; a towering, unmistakably skilled and valiant knight, now sworn to the protection of the lady of the north. Unless she’s waylaid by enemy forces on the road, what does Cat need with this protector? For a moment while Brienne swears her oath, Cat looks as confused as we are. It’s a beautiful scene anyway, and it’s been awhile since we’ve seen a good oath sworn.
Stannis might have a moment of grief on his face, when left alone at last by a ruffled Davos. It might be a moment of regret, for invoking some seriously dark shit in the assassination of his brother; that’s what Davos wants him to think and feel, at the least. Davos cautions again, and again, that a victory with Melisandre and her Red God is a victory for Mel and the Red God. Stannis relents, and suddenly hands the admiralty of his fleet to Davos; first a lowly smuggler, then a seat on a would-be king’s council, now the fleet leadership of the premier military force in Westeros. A true level-up.
They sail for Blackwater Bay, the massive port into King’s Landing, as soon as their forces are properly assembled. Only one person in the Red Keep seems to give a shit that they’re coming.
Tyrion is busy as usual, cleaning house, taking names, threatening cousins and parading his very capable sellsword captain around in case of any trouble.
In Tyrion’s arsenal:
He is still the acting Hand of the King, and that gives someone a lot of power in the Court, as long as they can keep their heads. (a 3/10 joke at best, I know). Politically, this has empowered Tyrion to make some daring moves; he’s still shipping Myrcella off, Cersei’s eldest child after Joffrey, all the way to Dorne for an alliance brokered by marriage. Dorne is now the only one of the so-called Seven Kingdoms we haven’t really set foot in, and a power in the south.
Second — he owns the Gold Cloaks, the knights that make up the city watch, by virtue of installing Bronn as their captain three weeks ago.
Third, he’s now got a pocket-Lannister to play espionage in the Red Keep. Lancel, Tyrion and Bronn make the perfect comedy troupe in King’s Landing, and a bit of levity is welcome after witnessing Lost’s smoke monster invade the Stormlands and gut Renly.
Tyrion’s jabs at black humor with his cousin are his only way to deal with the gravity of what Lancel is telling him; wildfire is in mass-production in King’s Landing, and we’re meant to understand that these may as well be pocket-nukes. Each jar is highly destructive, indiscriminate in its ‘victims’, capable of melting practically anything it scours with its flames, and easily abused, to the point of being out of control.
When Tyrion discovers the store of wildfire (nearly 8,000 jars of the compound) that Cersei’s been stockpiling, he has his fourth weapon, one he appropriates for himself. These’ll be an interesting response to the enormous Baratheon fleet sailing to hang him by his ‘demon monkey’ neck, along with the rest of the Lannisters.
Shit ain’t totally rosy for Tyrion though; Tyrion is being made a mockery by the people, a definite check in the negative column. When we first join Bronn and Tyrion in the streets of King’s Landing, we’re given a deliberately misleading introduction to the capital. We have a first-person perspective, a camera careening wildly around the streets, and what looks like the poorest dump of a market you could expect to see in Westeros.
I hope I wasn’t alone in thinking at first that we were in the streets of Qarth with Dany; the visual was certainly more emblematic of the trashier marketplaces and slums Dany and the horde traipsed through in the East last year. To realize this sodden place is King’s Landing, and that its citizenry are openly rebellious and slanderous of their rulers, well, it’s a much more unstable and raucous place than the capital we might’ve though housed the Iron Throne.
Qarth on the other hand seems a great deal more civilized, at a first visit. Dany has been rescued from the sure death in the Red Waste and been re-elevated to the title of Mother of Dragons, enough for most of Xaro’s social circle to take interest in her and hers.
Xaro plants a seed of doubt in Dany’s camp by suggesting to her that Jorah’s infatuation with her might be a danger; he counterbalances by offering her his own hand in marriage, accompanied by all the wealth he’s accumulated in Qarth, well-enough to build a fleet to carry her back to Westeros.
Pyat Pree, an apparent warlock makes a show of impressing Dany’s company with the kind of visual flair that could be one-part magic and one-part acid-trip. He beckons her to the House of the Undying where she may learn more of what he has to offer.
And an unnamed character (who seems to be based on a character named Quaithe in the books) preys on Jorah, and lays even more bare the obvious problem quickly ensnaring Dany; everyone wants the fucking dragons, and their reemergence in the world is as much a sign of power as it is a sign of the world changing. That change is converging around Daenerys.
Hostilities now in play:
Xaro doesn’t seem fond of Pyat. Dany’s handmaiden Irri, doesn’t seem fond of Doreah, who the drakes have taken a liking to. And Jorah doesn’t seem fond of any of them, hesitant to trust anyone, as usual. One or all of these three are bound to catch fire soon enough.
Theon is bound for the mainland once again, having been entrusted with the leadership of a gang of Ironmen who already loathe their captain. It’s not much of a gain on paper, until one of the men, Dagmer, offers a cup-half-full reading of the situation; these men will respect a mission greater than the one assigned to them, and suddenly, the target has shifted from nameless fishing villages to Winterfell territory itself. Theon wasn’t gifted with blatant military might, but instead with the potential to craft it out of the clay he’s been given.
And of course, this week’s most endearing and awesome level-up; Arya has become the girl who speaks death in Harrenhal. Jaqen H’ghar, the mysterious prisoner she helped save from the flames on the Kingsroad has taken up a soldier’s arms to join the Lannister force at the ruined castle. He’s free to come and go as he pleases by the look of it, and now, that agency has been granted to Arya — Jaqen has promised her a debt of ‘three’ in return for the three lives she helped save. She need only name them.
And she does.
Game of Thrones, as always, ends its episode on a painfully inviting tease, a promise that something has been set in motion that it just wishes it could show you, but that will have to wait just a week longer.
The promise, instead of the cliffhanger. We dig? We dig.
This week’s uncategorizable ruminations:
Jaqen H’ghar, the Red God and the Tradewaters of Life and Death
Jaqen tells Arya that when she saved him and two other men from death by fire, she stole those lives from the Red God. That god would demand a payment in return; three for three. And it must be Arya herself that directs death to those three. So it becomes that Arya guides Jaqen’s hand to a victim, The Tickler.
Jaqen treats the entire situation with some welcome levity, and the soundtrack is light and bouncy, signaling to us that, yes, this is a death we can be happy about. But the assassin’s calm words and unwavering stares betray that some serious shit is at the core of this…process.
“Only death may pay for life.” Where have we heard those words before? On the lips of Mirri Maz Duur, the godswife-witch that Dany had burned at the pyre last year. And words that have escaped Melisandre at one time or another as well. It’s a law we’ve seen play out in full, given Dany’s dragonling infant corpse tumbling out of her to save Drogo’s life.
It’s a rule we can have some confidence in, and not the ravings of a religion we can ignore at the periphery of this story. Is the Red God in fact that one god that Mirri, Melisandre and now Jaqen all revere? The Lord of Light, one and the same?
Before even being bestowed with this gift of death-dealing, Arya already demonstrated a cinematic ‘understanding’ of death, when she won a staredown duel with Tywin Lannister himself. “Anyone can be killed”, she intones, cool as ice. And Jaqen makes that a reality.
Anyone faulting Arya for not electing a more important target for Jaqen’s hand should remember two things: first, she has no idea Jaqen will be able to follow through on his strange promise. She says, “The Tickler” without any sort of conviction that her words will actually mean death. Second, for all her growth and rapid maturing, she’s still a child, and she doesn’t have the big picture in her head. She’s thinking about seeing her friend tortured just the day before. The hurt that Tickles brought into her life is fresh and bloody; child or not, that’s where most anyone’s attention would turn first with revenge — myopic, immediate satisfaction.
And she had it.
Vengeance — Motivation in Parallels across Westeros
Anyone with ears wouldn’t have missed it. It was almost a little hamfisted and overly…overt.
Margaery, to her grieving brother: “You can’t avenge Renly from the grave.”
Cat, to her grieving new protector: “He’s gone, Brienne. You serve nothing and no one by following him into the Earth.”
Death is final, and the prospect of taking others to the brink first is a powerful reason to stay alive.
Loras and Brienne are the latest additions to a roster of Westerosi personnel embittered and driven by revenge. Arya exacts revenge on a Harrenhal torturer and now lives for exacting justice on the numerous villains that have waylaid her family and friends. Robb’s northern war is entirely driven by his slain father and captive sisters. Tyrion, for all his nobler virtues, must be seen to be enjoying (at least, to a small degree) his elevated position and well-thought out strategies come to life at the expense of his siblings, previously the golden children in his father’s eyes. “It must be odd for you,” he says to Cersei in the season opener, “to be the disappointing child”.
The Fist of the First Men — Fisted with Exposition
Let me break it all down, since the accents were so brutishly thick even I had to listen through twice to get it all:
- We’re way north of the wall, at an ancient place the First Men of Westeros once held.
- As in the past, rangers of the Watch signal the comings of every party with blasts of a horn; one for returning rangers, two for wildlings, and three, as Samwise (I’m sorry, Samwell) so helpfully suggests, for White Walkers. HINTNUDGEWINKLOL
- Qhorin Halfhand, a renowned ranger, much like Jon’s missing uncle Benjen, has returned from a ranging, and reports that Mance Rayder (the King-Beyond-the-Wall as he likes to call himself, and formerly of the Night’s Watch), has assembled practically all the wildlings under his banner; they’re coming.
- To find out more, Qhorin, Jon and some other rangers are heading out on a small expedition, possibly to observe, or possibly as Qhorin suggests, to infiltrate and assassinate before the wildings can come together en masse and become too strong.
Some humor from Mormont and Dolorous Edd keep the scenes light amidst a barrage of story detail, but they were a little heavy-handed nonetheless.
Fire Binds the World — After Melting it Down; Magic is Coming Back?
Dialogue was a gracious guide to the themes being played at this week.
After doling out the line of the week (“Our order does not deal in pigshit!”), King’s Landing’s chief pyromancer reveals the potent cache of wildfire to Tyrion and Bronn. Wildfire, he says, is “fire given form.” Quaithe, the masked Qartheen observer at Xaro’s estate tells Jorah the same thing about Dany’s drakes: the powers of the East will come to see this wonder, she says, “the power born into the world again…fire is power…(the dragons are) fire made flesh.”
In a story where the dragons are remaining distant for the time-being, other sources of super-power, magic, or whatever you want to call it, are cropping up, like wildfire, the white-walkers, Melisandre’s powers, and more. Wildfire and dragons are both being warned against as tools brimming with power, easily lost control of, reckless in their use.
We’ve already seen what this world’s most intense and oldest fires can do — raze Harrenhal to ruins, embolden steel to the point of invulnerability, or strangely, provide a mystical protection against poisons and harm.
They can also roast some fuckin’ sausage for dinner, as per Drogon’s newest trick. All Dany need do is utter the word, ‘dracarys’. I wonder how that’ll come in handy.
Rickon: Nutcracker, Wolf-Tamer, Vision-Seer
Rickon might’ve had more character development mutely smashing nuts upon the counter in Winterfell than he had in the entire first season. The kid is on the verge, emotionally bursting at the absence of his family in a way that Bran can’t afford to. His anger is an apt soundtrack to an otherwise empty scene, just repeating the frustration of dwindling resources in wartime.
All we really know about Rickon that we should probably care about, is that he’s still a keeper of one of the few dire wolves in Westeros, the large and imposing night-black Shaggydog. That, and that he shares in Bran’s prophetic dreams; he saw their father’s death before it happened.
Bran lets on an eerie prophetic dream of his own, a vision of the salty sea overtaking Winterfall, no doubt symbolic of Theon’s seafaring Ironmen coming for Winterfell after their ruse at Torrhen’s Square. If Rickon is indeed sharing in this ability, then he can’t be discounted yet.
Jorah: Edifying Speechmaster, Historian, and Casanova?
Xaro prods Dany for a motive in her pursuit of the Iron Throne. Sounding half-convinced herself as she bleats out a speech on her ancestral right to the seat, she turns around and asks Jorah the same question in her chambers a beat later. He wants to see her seated the throne too. Why? she asks.
It’s been a good, long time since Jorah Mormont had a chance to take center-stage. It’s been a smattering of historical footnotes out of his mouth since last year’s season finalé. Prefaced by the revelation that he might be in love with her, Dany endures a remarkable and poignant declaration of fealty from her knight-in-service:
Jorah beautifully and delicately dissects her character. It isn’t just her birthright that makes her special, but the notion that a daughter of kings should have a gentle heart as well. Someone who could be, not just respected and feared, but loved.
“Centuries come and go without someone like that coming into the world. There are times I look at you and still can’t believe that you’re real.”
Amidst all the changes in Dany’s story, it was incredible to pause for a beat and come back to this relationship, and be reminded of why Dany engenders the love that she does. It is her greatest asset, even in her world that’s seen dragons reborn.
Arya, Still a Waterdancer, Still a Wise Ass
Gendry, whose tits are the only ones we see all episode (thanks HBO), is given the education of a swordsman, as Arya channels her old lessons from Syrio. The girl still remembers the basics, and has a fighting soul in her; hopefully she’ll get to put it to use herself soon.
Tyrion, the Boss, And Don’t Forget It
When he divulges the secret of the wildfire to his cousin, Lancel: “I swear it”. Tyrion: “Swear to me on what?”
Lancel: “On my life.
Tyrion: “But I don’t care about your life”, to which Lancel begins a rehearsed oath to the Seven and all of the gods. “Alright, enough”, Tyrion cuts him off. “Even torturing you is boring. Oh, Lancel,” he adds, as he finishes kicking his cousin out of his litter. “Tell Bronn to kill you if anything should happen to me.” 10/10
Next Week, the Second Half (ALREADY)
Half the season blew by as effortlessly as an episode seems to every Sunday night. All the pieces are in place for the next five weeks:
- Jon’s headed north with Qhorin’s expedition into true wildling territory.
- Dany is rested and re-empowered; she’s ready to set out west for the Narrow Sea, unless Eastern parties after her dragons divert her attention.
- Cat and Brienne’s missions have fallen to tatters in the wake of Renly’s death, and are headed back north to Robb.
- Arya has a powerful new ally in Harrenhal, and is saying ‘today’ to death, but not for her own.
- Theon is coming for Winterfell; we can hope Summer and Shaggydog have been sharpening their teeth.
- Tyrion is actively preparing for Stannis’ invasion; Blackwater Bay is the battleground if Stannis moves his new fleet into place.
Shit be real for the next five weeks if all of these stories explode the way they’re building. See ya next week!
Budrickton, First of His Name, Warden of the Actual North (Canada)