Game of Thrones: “The Ghost of Harrenhal” review

“Anyone can be killed.” Arya Stark

While season one of Game of Thrones was incredibly enjoyable and truly great at times, there is no denying that it was rather disjointed. The first four episodes were mostly introduction to this Thronesian world, which was certainly welcome given how many moving parts the story features but still technically poor storytelling. Once D.B. Weiss and David Benioff were confident viewers had their sea legs (preferably, their “Narrow Sea” legs) the last six episodes were markedly better at leaving the viewer to his or her own devices. Still, they tended to blend together in the telling, with each episode feeling like merely part of this extended rush to the finish line and not its own self-contained entity to tell a 50 to 60 minute story.

Season two of Game of Thrones, however, seems almost self-conscious of this and Weiss and Benioff appear dedicated to establishing a central theme to the season that each episode can comment on in its own little way. The theme thus far has been power. Who seeks it and why? Who is most justified in their pursuit of power? Hell, what IS power?

Professors Cersei, Varys, and Littlefinger have been consulted on the matter through the first half of the season and their answers have varied from knowledge being power, power being a trick-based construct and power being power, dummy. I know Cersei probably meant military might or something with her statement but I sleep easier at night thinking the queen is artless with her phrasing and flat out dense. Even Renly took a stab at where power derives from when he told his older brother last week that it’s his “friends” who will bring him the Iron Thrones, all 100,000 of them to be exact.

Well, speaking of Renly…and the Iron Throne…and stabbing, it looks like Renly won’t be sitting on that chair anytime soon, unless his bannermen prop him up there in a ghoulish “Weekend at Cersei’s” fashion. The most viable of the three kings vying for the Iron Throne (the other two kings, Robb and Balon, want nothing to do with the Iron Throne) is murdered within the first four minutes of “The Ghost of Harrenhal.” It seems that while the rest of Westeros has been debating the best course of action to achieve power, Stannis has already found his answer: Melisandre…or more specifically Melisandre’s supernatural abilities.

This, of course, is the most overt and direct use of magic the show has attempted yet. Magic and the supernatural have been introduced gradually throughout the series from Bran Stark’s puppy vision to Daenerys’s adorable dragons but Renly’s death at the hands of Melisandre’s shadow…thing is the first time that magic has injected itself into the plot and done something as extreme as killing a main character.

This might be the point where an army of online commenters springs into action and begins to scream “the shark has been jumped!” but I appreciate the show’s gradual introduction into the realm of the supernatural. And since there are five more episodes this season in a show based off of three more mammoth books, I don’t think every single episode will end with an assassination from a shadow creature and that magic will continue to be used economically.

Having said that, I’m still not entirely pleased with how it was structured narratively. Season two has been crafted so meticulously and based off a pre-existing plot, that there haven’t been many obvious points of criticism.The acting and production values are almost beyond reproach and the story, itself, is an all-or-nothing proposition. Either you’re picking up what Weiss, Benioff and author George R.R. Martin are putting down or you’re not. While I’ve certainly been invested in the story, the decision to push Renly’s murder from the end of last episode to the beginning of “Harrenhal” just kills far too much momentum.

When “Garden of Bones” ended with Melisandre birthing her shadowy fetus, the episode was about four to five minutes short of what normally constitutes the length of an HBO hour-long drama. I think it’s likely that Renly’s murder was originally part of that episode before the producers attempted to get cute with the structure and wanted to move it to the beginning to the next episode. Dispatching a major character in the beginning of an episode is a very HBO thing to do, but they definitely needed those extra five minutes in this episode to try to make the death of such a major character make as much sense emotionally as it does narratively.

Renly is not a Point-of-View character in the book series, meaning that the reader never gets to occupy his headspace. When a shadow dagger punctures his heart in the book, Martin feels free to simply move onto the next point without having to stop to mourn the character. But Renly is somewhat of POV character for the show in that the viewer gets to see him in far more intimate situations than his book-page counterpart. An extra five minutes of Brienne’s devastated wailing or an extra five minutes to have Loras come across as something other than a whiney douche would have been appreciated.

I appear to have spilled a lot of internet ink on four minutes of a 275-minute season so far but it’s a testament to the rhythm that Game of Thrones has settled into that those four minutes may have been the only outright objectionable part of the season.


  • Renly’s last words before being killed? “Together, we can end this war in a fortnight.” Don’t temp the fates like that, dude.
  • If I were writing a happy version of this show, the Robb and Renly alliance would actually have come to fruition and Renly gets to fairly rule six kingdoms while Robb holds down the fort. Baratheons + Starks = BFFs
  • Man, Gwendoline Christie as Brienne really does sell her misery at Renly’s passing.
  • “I don’t want to be a queen. I want to be THE queen.” Maergary Tyrell is also not a POV character in the books and every scene that has been added for her has been dynamite.
  • Love Tyrion’s meeting place. “Even torturing you is boring.”
  • Stannis and Davos’ bromance (or brodentured servitude) is just sublime. Humanizing Stannis through the far more level-headed Davos’ love for him has worked like gangbusters.
  • Apparently eating eels is a thing in King’s Landing?
  • “Being repeatedly humiliated by Robb Stark is time-consuming.” Preach, Tyrion! Er, I mean “Demon Monkey.”
  • Theon’s kraken-adorned armor (er, I mean “armour”) is awesome.
  • Something about Yara Greyjoy just isn’t doing it for me yet.
  • In some sort of alternate universe Arya and Tywin could be bros.
  • Tom Wlaschiha pulls out something interesting with his accent as Jaqen H’ghar. The actor is German but is able to attempt a believable British accent amongst the Lannisters, while still letting a little bit of his foreign Eastern accent to Arya when he speaks to her.
  • The MVP of this episode may have honestly been Iceland. Have you ever seen a more beautiful shot on TV than Jon Snow looking out on the snowy horizon from the Fist of the First Men?
  • “What do you think (the First Men) were like?” Sam asks. I don’t know Sam, why don’t you ask Jon? Aren’t the Starks the direct descendants of the First Men?
  • “Men win wars, not magic tricks.” Even Bronn has his own theory re: power.
  • You haven’t lived until you’ve been invited to a Qartheen lawn party.
  • Do not invite Dothraki to that aforementioned Qartheen lawn party. They’ll take your shit.
  • Jorah doesn’t even change his filthy clothes at the party, he just throws on a blue scarf and calls it a day.
  • Smash those nuts, Rickon.
  • I like that Daenerys is just now finding out that the King is dead.
  • Nothing like a little shirtless Gendry to wrap up an episode.

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