Though far from a weak episode, the midway point of this season of Game of Thrones is rather short on incidence, and doesn't have as strong a thematic structure as most episodes of the series. "The Ghost of Harrenhal" is predominantly occupied with a bit of mid-season shuffling, as the show moves all the players to their necessary places on the board.
But in the process of getting everyone where they need to be for the second half of the season, we see several declarations of allegiance, and some interesting questions raised about the nature of loyalty. What motivates all of these kings clashing for the throne, and what motivates the people who are willing to serve them, assist them, and—if necessary—die for them?
As of this week, we're one king down, and the remaining leaders may find that their claims to power ride less on their strength and more on the loyalty they are able to inspire from their allies.
"He'd have been a true king, a good king…"
It's strange to talk about "realism" in a fantasy sword-and-sorcery series, but one of George R. R. Martin's greatest—if most frustrating—talents is his ability to thwart traditional storytelling expectations. Deaths don't happen only when characters have exhausted their storylines or completed satisfactory arcs: just like in real life, some stories—and lives—end abruptly, and without resolution.
Game of Thrones has spent a fair amount of time this season on Renly Baratheon (Gethin Anthony), establishing the complicated relationships he has with Stannis (Stephen Dillane), Margaery (Natalie Dormer), Loras (Finn Jones), and—only recently—Brienne (Gwendoline Christie). In most stories, we could safely assume that all this investment meant that Renly was in it for the long haul—but of course we'd be wrong. Within the first five minutes of "The Ghost of Harrenhal," Melisandre's Evil Inky Twat Monster has fulfilled its nefarious purpose and shoved a shadowy dagger through Renly's heart.
It's a nice, nasty surprise to suddenly remove one of the would-be kings from the board, but Renly's death doesn't have the emotional weight of others that have happened: I doubt, after all, that many fans would count Renly as their favorite character, and no character we particularly admire supports his claim to the throne. But the question of why Renly wasn't more likable is an interesting one, and opens up a conversation about what, exactly, we're looking for in a King of Westeros. Renly was fairly intelligent, demonstrated no particular treachery or monstrosity, and seemed like a nice enough guy—so what was wrong with him? Why isn't he anyone's favorite? "He'd have been a true king, a good king," Loras says, but we don't feel it.
For me, there was always something too entitled about Renly; he was too soft, too inexperienced to be taken seriously. "Stannis is a commander," Ned said, last season. "He's led men into war, twice." Renly pointed out that a good soldier does not necessarily make a good king, but we want someone who has been tempered by trials, don't we? The trials need not be military in nature—Game of Thrones is full of characters who have suffered admirably just to be themselves, such as Sam and Brienne—but we've seen Renly hide his sexuality, and in other ways has always seemed to be pretending to be someone he is not. ("My son is fighting a war, not playing at one," Catelyn [Michelle Fairley] said last week, pointing out the posturing nature of Renly's court.) In a world in which life is almost unavoidably hard, we've never seen Renly make a hard choice, or show any strength of character.
Margaery—who confesses to Baelish that she doesn't want to be a queen, but the queen, now joins us in realizing Renly was an empty suit of armor. "Calling yourself a king doesn't make you one," she says, accepting that she will have to pursue her crown elsewhere.
Brienne of Tarth is one of those characters who is determined to be herself, no matter what it costs her, and I think we can assume that her loyalty to Renly has less to do with his character and more to do with hers. He gave her a place in his Kingsguard, and in return she gave him her allegiance—which she had, no doubt, been longing for years to give to someone who would let her. Now, though her honor still requires her to avenge Renly, she gives her allegiance as well to Cat, in one of the most touching scenes of the season so far. ""I do not know your son, my lady," Brienne says. "But I could serve you, if you'll have me. You have courage—not battle courage, perhaps, but…I don't know…a woman's kind of courage."
As I said last week, Cat has become the moral center of Game of Thrones, the speaker of reason and of hard truths, tempering the baser and more reckless instincts of the men she encounters. (She was urging Renly to make peace, right up until the moment he died.) It occurred to me this episode that Catelyn Stark would be my choice for Ruler of Westeros: she has tremendous strength, but she also has an ability to accept the lesser of evils, and to recognize the hard truths, that all the candidates for the Iron Throne seem to lack. That's "a woman's kind of courage," and its hard not to feel that Brienne has traded up in the fealty department.
"The king is a lost cause. It's the rest of us I'm worried about now."
What everyone seems to agree on is that Joffrey is a horrible king. The rumors of his incestuous parentage have become accepted fact in King's Landing, and his policy initiatives—like killing innocent babies and letting the people starve—are rapidly chipping away at the King's base of support. Now soapbox rabble-rousers are preaching in the streets against the evils of the royal family, and King's Landing seems to be on the verge of revolution. "The King is a lost cause," Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) says. "It's the rest of us I'm worried about."
"You're losing the people," Tyrion warned Cersei (Lena Headey) a few weeks ago. "You might find it difficult to rule over millions who want you dead." Tyrion is the only person trying to keep the city from exploding—literally, as we see this week—and so he's shocked to discover that the people hate him most of all. "Demon monkey?" he says, with real hurt in his voice, after hearing how the people describe him. "People think you're pulling the King's strings," Bronn (Jerome Flynn) tells him. "They blame you for the city's ills."
"I'm trying to save them," Tyrion protests, and—to his credit—he keeps on trying to save them. Cersei's assurances that "the King is taking personal charge of the preparations" do not make Tyrion feel any safer about the imminent attack, and so he ferrets out the reason for her confidence: wildfire, an alchemical super-weapon that can apparently burn anything. Discovering that Cersei has 7,800 jugs of the stuff stockpiled, and no idea how to use it responsibly, he quickly seizes control of the operation.
Tyrion's motives are interesting: he hates his father, hates his sister, and hates his repugnant nephew, the King. So why is he fighting to preserve their reign? Some of it must be basic family loyalty: a tribal allegiance based not on worthiness, or even affection, but on simple association and habit. (He does love his brother, and he has enough affection for Cersei's younger children that he doesn't want to see them slaughtered. ) Part of it is also self-preservation, certainly: he enjoys the wealth and privilege that comes with being a Lannister. But the larger part, I suspect, is pride: he has been insulted and dismissed all his life, a figure of mockery for the masses and the despised black sheep of his own family. Now he's the Hand of the King—a wartime consigliare—with the survival of King's Landing in his hands and a chance to prove himself the smartest and most capable man in the Seven Kingdoms. That's a powerful motivation for someone who's been called "the Imp" all his life, and it's hard for us not to root for him even as he's working for his detestable family.
"Someone who should rule: centuries come and go without a person like that coming into the world."
Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) finds her motives questioned this week. "What do you want?" Xaro Xhoan Daxos (Nonso Anozie) asks her, and she explains she wants to keep her people safe. "You want to conquer the Seven Kingdoms for the Dothraki?" he asks, but Dany makes no apologies for her ambition. "I want them because they're mine by right," she says. "The Iron Throne is mine and I will take it." She points out that Xaro—who began with nothing and gained great riches—is no different. "You wanted more than you had, so you took it: you're a conqueror too, you're just less ambitious."
It is not the most noble motive for waging war, and it contrasts severely with the qualities Jorah (Iain Glen), her most loyal counselor, ascribes to her later in the episode. "What do you want?" she asks him. "To see you on the Iron Throne," he says. "You have a good claim—a title, a birthright—but you have something more than that. You may cover it up and deny it, but you have a gentle heart. You would not only be respected and feared; you would be loved. Someone who can rule, and should rule: centuries come and go without a person like that coming into the world. There are times when I look at you, and I still can't believe you're real."
But is he right about her? Jorah—as everyone but Daenerys seems to recognize—is looking at her through the eyes of love, but she's told him before—and shown us plenty of evidence—that her heart is not as gentle as he wants to believe. (I commented last week on how she's inherited the family fetish of liking to see her enemies burn.) Now she's considering marrying Xaro just to get money to pay for her army, so she can conquer and rule a people she doesn't even know.
Jorah has reminded her before that there is really no such thing as a right to rule. "Your ancestor Aegon the Conqueror didn't seize six of the kingdoms because they were his right," he told her, in "You Win or You Die." "He had no right to them. He seized them because he could." Now he encourages her to build support among her people, not to seize power with a purchased army: "To win Westeros you need support from Westeros," he tells her. "The allies we need are in Westeros, not Qarth." Jorah understand that true power requires the support of the people, and he believes Dany is a leader to whom they will flock if given half a chance. Whether he'll be able to convince her to be worthy of loyalty still remains to be seen.
Jorah's point—that power mustn't be seen to come from without—is essentially the same advice Davos (Liam Cunningham) gives to Stannis (Stephen Dillane). Davos, having witnessed the unholy birth of the Shadow Baby last episode, is less trusting of Melisandre than ever, and begs Stannis to leave the woman behind when they invade the capital. "Loyal service means telling hard truths," he says to Stannis, and when he can't appeal to his king on moral grounds, he warns Stannis that this woman could cost him the loyalty of his men. "If you take King's Landing with her at your side, the victory will be hers," he says. "She's a foreigner, preaching a foreign religion…You won those bannermen from Renly; don't lose them to her." As is common on Game of Thrones, Davos's reward for his own fierce loyalty is to be given a task he'd rather not do: in this case, leading the attack on King's Landing. ("Hard truths cut both ways," Stannis tells him.)
"They're not going to respect you until you prove yourself."
Theon (Alfie Allen) demonstrates just how little he understands about loyalty as he meets his new crew. Having already been insulted by his father—who gave him one ship to command, compared to his sister's 30—Theon now discovers that his crew won't obey him anyway. Loyalty, he learns, must be earned, not demanded. ("My crew would wait on deck a year if I asked them to," Yara [Gemma Whelan] brags, rubbing a little sea-salt into his wound. Theon's crew won't even wait for him to get in the boat.)
Like most of the other characters in this episode, Theon gets valuable advice from a single ally—in this case, Dagmer (Ralph Ineson), his new first mate. "They're not going to respect you until you prove yourself," he tells Theon—but Theon points out that he can't earn their respect as a pillager and rapist given the boring task his father has told him to accomplish. "They're all Iron Islanders," Dagmer says. "They don't do as they're told; they do as they like."
Ironically, it is the quest to earn loyalty of others that leads Theon to betray any remaining loyalty he had to the family that raised him. Rather than attack defenseless fishing villages, he sets his sights on Torrhen's Square, the house of a Stark bannerman. "As soon as Winterfell got word we'd taken Torrhen's Square, the Starks would send their men to take it back, and then…" He trails off, but the very next line in the episode—as we segue to Harrenhal—is "The Starks have over-extended their lines," which does not bode well.
(Later in the episode, news of Theon's attack reaches Winterfell, and Bran [Isaac Hempstead-Wright]—as Theon predicted—sends men to defend Torrhen's Square. Maester Luwin (Donald Sumpter) seems to think they are indeed short-handed, but Bran does understand loyalty, and where it comes from. "If we can't protect our own bannermen," Bran asks, "why should they protect us?" He does the right thing—as his father would have done—but there are omens that suggest it may cost him: he seems to be having dreams—three-eyed raven dreams—in which the sea rises up to drown Winterfell.)
"Anyone can be killed."
Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) has finally recognized that Robb Stark is a more formidable opponent than he'd suspected, and that his strength comes, at least in part, through the will of the people. "He has a good mind for warfare, and his men worship him," Tywin tells his lieutenants. He is interested enough to know how Robb's people see him to ask Arya (Maisie Williams), whom Tywin recognizes as a Northerner. "What do they say of Robb Stark in the North?" he asks her, and Arya spins a tale of near godlike powers: how Robb rides a giant wolf into battle, and can become a wolf himself. "They say he can't be killed," she says, smiling to herself, wanting, no doubt, to believe it. But when Tywin asks her if she does believe it, she can't lie: she has seen too much already in her young life to put her faith in fairy tales. "No, my lord," she says. "Anyone can be killed."
There is only one god, Syrio Forel told her, and that is the God of Death. Now she finds out she owes a tribute to that god: having saved the lives of Jaquen H'ghar (Tom Wlaschiha) and two other men, Jaquen tells her she must name three men to die. Though the audience is no doubt screaming "JOFFREY JOFFREY JOFFREY," Arya has more immediate problems, and probably underestimates the range of Jaquen's influence: she names The Tickler (Anthony Morris), the torturer of Harrenhal, as her first choice, and is surprised to see him dead by the episode's end. Now Arya—seemingly the smallest person in Westeros—knows she has power, or at least a powerful new ally who owes her allegiance for two more deaths. Arya, like Daenerys, once had a tender heart, and it will be interesting to see what she does with her newfound power.
I said Catelyn Stark had now become the moral center of Game of Thrones, and—as we examine different views of loyalty this week—it is worth concluding on her definition of what it means to accept loyalty. "I vow that you shall always have a place at my home, and my table," she promises Brienne. "And that I will ask no service of you that shall bring you dishonor." To Cat, being a ruler means providing for those who serve, and offering them a home, and asking nothing dishonorable of them. As we go forward, it will be interesting to see which—if any—of these other would-be rulers will prove themselves equally worthy of loyalty.
- Things I skipped over this week: Jon Snow (Kit Harington) finally becomes a ranger, and goes off with Qhorin Halfhand (Simon Armstrong) to find Mance Rayder. (Are we finally going to meet the mysterious King Beyond the Wall?)
- I like the small rivalry that seems to be taking place between Dany's handmaidens Irri (Amrita Acharia) and Doreah (Roxanne McKee), and how it reflects the different ways they see her and the overall question of loyalty: Doreah calls her a "princess," and Irri insists she is a "khaleesi." Can she fulfill both roles, and serve her new tribe while pursuing the lost throne of her old family?
- We get our first good look at Qarth this week, and so far it's looking like a Cirque du Soleil show directed by Federico Fellini, with creepy magicians and mysterious women in masks lurking about. I'm gonna go out on a limb and say this is not a good place.
- I adored the small scene between Arya and Gendry (Joe Dempsie), in which she lectures him on swordplay. "I'm just practicing," he says. "You're practicing for a fight," she responds. "You should practice right." Is the age difference too great to hope these kids end up together?
- That Rickon (Art Parkinson) can smash the holy hell out a walnut, can't he?