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Sunday, April 29, 2012

"Game of Thrones," Season 2, Episode 5

If the first episode of “Game of Thrones” had been like this one, would the show have so successfully drawn in fantasy detractors and non-fans? Early episodes kept magic to a minimum and offered so much sexuality, the show popularized the term “sexposition.” “A Ghost in Harrenhal” features a baby dragon, a warlocks, a pyromancer and a supernatural assassin made of shadow, and mentions direwolves, three-eyed ravens and zombie-like White Walkers. And unless I missed an uncovered body part, there’s nary a bit of gratuitous nudity this week. Maybe the creators are showing more confidence it the viewers’ attention spans.

It begins as an ill wind roars through Renly’s camp, although things look optimistic for Catelyn’s negotiations. In his tent, Renly seems willing to ally with Robb Stark and will allow him to be King of the North as long as he swears fealty to Renly. And after they overthrow the Lannisters, of course. The negotiations hit a snag, however, in the form of a blade jabbed through Renly’s chest by the wraith we saw birthed by Melisandre last week. It swoops in, kills Renly and dissipates, leaving Catelyn and Brienne the only witnesses. Guards rush in and, not unreasonably, assume that the armed Brienne was the murderer, and she messes them up good in self-defense. Christie movingly captures Brienne’s grief for Renly, while Catelyn convinces her to flee: “You can’t avenge him if you’re dead.”

The next morning, Stannis’ pirate fleet arrives with Renly’s army in disarray. Twins Loras and Margaery mourn Renly’s death, and Littlefinger encourages them to flee. Like a pocket Mephistopheles, Littlefinger quizzes them both about what they want – a question that recurs this episode. Loras wants to kill Stannis. Littlefinger asks Margaery, “Do you want to be Queen?” “No. I want to be the Queen,” she says. Are we sure she’s not a Lannister?

Speaking of which, Cersei and Tyrion discuss the news that Renly’s bannermen have rallied around Stannis, giving him the biggest army and navy of the kingdom. Tyrion counsels that they should prepare for a big-ass battle. Cersei hints that the king has a secret plan for defense, but she’s totally over Tyrion and won’t say what it is. Tyrion asks her cousin-lover Lancel, who reports that she’s been meeting with alchemists to make bulk quantities of “wildfire,” which we learn is the Westeros equivalent of napalm.

The same bustling activity we previously saw in Renly’s (former) camp we now see in Stannis’, as he marshals his expanding forces for war. Davos tries to get a word to inform his king about the unholy birth he saw last week, but Stannis would apparently prefer to have plausible deniability about Melisandre’s activities. Stannis orders Davos to lead his fleet when it attacks King’s Landing.

Speaking of boats, Theon Greyjoy takes command of The Sea Bitch, but his new crew openly laugh at him and his nautical inexperience. Yara stops by the dock to rub it in for good measure. I love how the Iron Islanders so openly disrespect authority. Theon’s first mate points out that he hasn’t proved himself yet, and Theon gets the idea to skip the trivial busywork mission he’s been assigned, and instead attack – hold on, let me check my map – a keep called Torrhen’s Square. A sinister light glows in Theon’s guys, evoking a resemblance between the actor and Malcolm McDowell circa A Clockwork Orange.

This week we get a long-awaited return glimpse of Winterfell — and see Rickon! While Bran handles more of the castle’s business, Rickon sits next to him, hilariously smashing nuts with a rock. (Ah, the days before video games.) Bran gets word that Torrhen’s Square is under attack and arranges to send 200 men to defend it. How vulnerable does that leave Winterfell, one wonders. Bran also tells Osha that he’s had a dream of the sea coming to Winterfell, and as the camera takes in the courtyard, Bran describes waves drowning it all. Bran also quizzes Osha about dreams of a three-eyed crow, but she avoids answering.

Meanwhile, Brienne and Catelyn, sort-of fugitives from the Renly loyalists, take a break on the road and engage in an unusual but quite moving form of female bonding. Brienne lost her mother in childbirth which she describes as “a bloody business,” as if she’s describing a battle. Catelyn says that raising children is even harder. Brienne, contemplating her future, declares “You have… a woman’s kind of courage” and they swear loyalty oaths to each other.

Tyrion and Bronn stroll the streets of King’s Landing (which are reminiscent of HBO’s “Rome”) and listen to a crazy street preacher decry the state of a kingdom ruled by the spawn of incest. Tyrion’s amused until Bronn points out that the “demon monkey” the preacher mentions is supposed to be Tyrion. Later they meet with one of the alchemist/pyromancers that Cersei knows, and Bronn’s skeptical about wildfire as a practical weapon: “The poor cunts defending the city end up burning it down.” Tyrion discovers that they’ve made a ton of the stuff, and tells the pyromancer, “You won’t be making wildfire for my sister any longer. You’ll be making it for me.”

Over the Wall, the Night’s Watch trudges along a genuinely spectacular arctic landscape, including some ancient rocks called “The Fist of the First Men” that gets Samwell all excited, like they’re tourists at Stonehenge. They rendezvous with a ranger called Qhorin Halfhand, who reports that the wildlings are rallying around Mance Rayder in huge numbers. (How many? “All of them.”) Qhorin also identifies a wildling lookout camp, and Jon Snow volunteers to join the guerilla mission to take it out. Perhaps Jon wants to redeem himself for getting knocked out by Craster, clearly still a sore subject. Practically everyone on this show wants to prove him or herself: Jon, Bran, Theon, Brienne, Dany, etc.

In Qarth, Dany’s dragons seem to be growing up, even though they look kitten-sized. She and her two servants talk gossip a little about their host Xaro Xhoan Daxos, who throws a garden party for Dany and the Dothraki. Everybody who’s anybody in Qarth is there. The Dothraki contemplate stealing anything that’s not nailed down. A woman with a sexy voice and a crazy mask speaks enigmatically to Jorah. A bald warlock introduces himself, reveals a (probably illusory) double and invites Dany to The House of the Undying. Sounds totally safe.

Later, Xaro asks Dany what she wants, and Dany reveals her intention to claim the iron throne. Xaro offers all his treasure (“Well… half”) if she’ll only marry him. She also learns for the first time of the death of Robert Baratheon – apparently they didn’t get much news in the Red Wastes. Dany asks Jorah what she should do, and he’s against her marrying Xaro, and suggests she could rally Westeros and claim the throne without an invading army. He also says she’d make a great ruler: “At times, I look at you and can’t believe you’re real!” Oops, too much. Awkward. In Harrenhal, Arya serves a cupbearer to Tywin Lannister’s council of war. Tywin’s tired of Robb Stark kicking his ass, but his generals seem bereft of ideas. Tywin asks ascertains that Arya’s from the North (he sees through one lie and falls for another) and asks what they think of Robb up there. “They say he can’t be killed.” “Do you believe that?” “No, my lord. Anyone can be killed,” Arya replies, glaring at Tywin with an expression that says, “Especially you.” Awesome.

Outside the kitchens she encounters Jaqen H'ghar, one of those three prisoners she rescued from the fire. Jaqen owes her a debt, but as an assassin, reveals some complicated rules. Since Arya saved three lives, he’ll repay her by killing three people of her choosing. First up she suggests “The Tickler,” whom we saw quizzing prisoners with the rat bucket last week.

At the end, Arya offers Gedry some of the finer points of swordplay. They hear a scream and a crowd finds The Tickler lying dead. Arya makes eye contact with Jaqen who looks down and holds up a single finger. One down. Now who else would Arya like to see dead?

The elderly pyromancer was played by Roy Dotrice, a regular on George R.R. Martin’s old “Beauty and the Beast” TV show, who reads all of the audiobooks of A Song of Ice and Fire.

Where exactly does Tyrion meet Lancel? It looked like a cross between a sedan chair and a fancy dog house. At any rate, Lancel looked amusingly resigned when he crawled on the ground and told Bronn, “Please kill me if anything should happen to Lord Tyrion.”

I kind of expected that Gilly would’ve run away and caught up with the Night’s Watch, but that’s to be, it’s not this week. Samwell still moons over her, to Edd’s annoyance.

Was the CGI dragon effect better this week than on the season premiere? I thought it looked pretty good.
Also, is there some kind of rivalry going on between Dany’s handmaidens, perhaps because they’re from other nationalities?

If my memory of the book serves me right, Tywin Lannister never visited Harrenhal. I don’t recall if the scene with Arya is wholly new or an adaptation of an existing one, but either way, nicely done.

The repetition of "What do you want?" reminded me of "Babylon 5," the super-geeky sci-fi series that broke ground in long, arcing television stories. "What do you want?" and "Who are you?" were recurring questions that hinted at the philosophies of the show's major antagonists.

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