Ask and ye shall receive. Just when I was ready to file away “Garden of Bones” as a forgettable, if necessary, bit of narrative groundwork — after all, Daenerys was going to need to get out of that desert and find a hairbrush at some point — the episode ended with a major jolt of brazen WTF. Congratulations, Melisandre! Your baby Dementor is adorable.
In these first four hours of season two, Game of Thrones has been nudging all of its chess pieces across the board that is Westeros. With the forgivable exceptions of a couple of draggy story lines that felt somewhat tacked-on (the detour at Craster’s Keep, the Daenerys scenes in the Red Waste), the writers have done an elegant job of both shuttling the viewer among the subplots and inching those subplots forward. Meanwhile, even when there wasn’t much dramatic movement on the macro level, the attention paid to the emotional development and inner lives of the characters (Theon in episode two and Arya last week) have made each individual episode compelling. But sometimes it feels like our promised clash of kings is always going to linger on the horizon, just beyond our reach. Winter is coming, but it’s taking its sweet time getting here.
Without a strong emotional or thematic spine, “Garden of Bones” felt more like an interstitial or preparatory chapter than the episodes that came before. Even the big breakthrough in the Daenerys story line, in which her ragged khalasar reaches Qarth and finds both succor and a champion in Xaro Xhoan Daxos (like Daenerys, an outsider), felt more like a tease for an upcoming development than a satisfying development in its own right. So even though the night’s hairpin turn came via Melisandre — the world’s least interesting priestess who has ever been able to speed-gestate and then birth a smoke monster — it was a welcome breath of fresh
Last night’s cliff-hanger doesn’t just portend a big, dirty shift in the Renly-Stannis standoff. (Cleaner ways don’t win wars, as Stannis points out — hinting that, while he may be as rigid as Ned Stark was in some ways, his ethics are a lot more flexible.) It’s also the first major supernatural twist we’ve seen this season. Lots of fans will tell you that Game of Thrones isn’t really a fantasy story, because there actually isn’t much magic on display, and the dragons and spells we do see always take a backseat to the people and the realpolitik. But the offhand, almost haphazard way the magical elements are dotted throughout the show is also what gives Game of Thrones its unique texture as a work of fantasy art. After all, there aren’t many series that would have the confidence to hatch a set of dragons in hour ten and then keep them hidden through hour fourteen, like a bunch of puppies stowed away in a cargo hold. We’ll see whether Melisandre's new “son” changes that slow-burn strategy, or shifts the screen-time balance between magic and realism in a significant way.
One theme that “Garden of Bones” did advance is the notion that the ruthless power plays in Game of Thrones have severe consequences for the little people. From the opening scene in which two Lannister redshirts get direwolf-ed — a night ambush that recalled the ending of last week’s episode, when the Night’s Watch recruits were similarly set upon — to Sansa being beaten and publicly humiliated for her brother’s actions, the episode built upon the battlefield scene between Robb and the nurse, Talisa, in which the mysterious medic forces Robb to think more carefully about the countless people dying in his name. “The boy was lucky you were here,” Robb says, speaking of the young soldier whose festering leg she just sawed off — an act Robb found strangely alluring. (Welcome to Game of Thrones’ idea of a meet-cute.) “He was unlucky that you were,” she retorts before riding off. Robb is the most promising leader of all the contenders — more stalwart than Renly, more charismatic than Stannis, less batshit evil than Joffrey — and his refusal to torture his prisoners shows that he does want to do right by the subjects who’ve been drawn into his conflicts. But like Daenerys with the Lhazareen women, that goal is proving more difficult to execute than he imagined. (“The high road’s very pretty,” as Lord Bolton points out, but Robb’s going to have “a hard time marching [his] army down it.”) Robb may be a master military strategist, but as Talisa makes him acknowledge, he hasn’t really thought the long game through. It seems clear that this isn’t the last we’ve seen of her. How much will Robb’s hormones — he is a teenager, after all — shape his kingly conscience?
Meanwhile, at Harrenhal, Arya, Gendry, Hot Pie, and the rest of the captured Night’s Watch crew have been thrown in a pen by Tywin Lannister’s men, joining a group that’s being picked off one by one to be interrogated. The method of torture is ingenious, in a medieval Saw kind of way: a bucket with a rat in it is strapped to each victim, open end against flesh; a torch held to the bottom of the bucket makes the rat go crazy and, presumably, start chewing. The variety of ways a person can be flayed and slayed in Game of Thrones is nothing short of astonishing (though it always seems to end with a head on a spike). But there are only so many times you can recoil from such blatant violence without it all becoming numbing in its excess. The mystery of “the Brotherhood,” which the interrogators mention, cryptically, to each victim, felt like too slim a narrative hook on which to hang all that gruesomeness.
I felt similarly about the stomach-churning scene in Joffrey’s chambers. After Tyrion — showing, once again, that he’s an honorable guy — saves Sansa from being beaten for Joffrey’s amusement, Bronn suggests that the boy is “backed up, clogged from balls to brains” and that “dipping his wick,” in Tyrion’s words, could “get some of the poison out.” So Tyrion sends the boy Ros and another prostitute. Rather than sample the wares himself, though, Joffrey tells Ros to touch the other girl. Then he tells her to hit her. Then use his belt. Then he hands Ros a mean-looking metal weapon and tells her to go to town on the now-terrified other girl — which she does, because these women, like the prisoners at Harrenhal or the poor boy who’s now missing a leg, are the collateral damage of Tyrion and Joffrey’s game, a game that Joffrey can play as coldly as his uncle can. (Rather than being scared at the thought of Tyrion finding out what he’s done, Joffrey welcomes the opportunity to show the Hand what he’s capable of.)
Still, the scene didn’t really reveal anything we didn’t already know about Joffrey. We know he gets off on watching people bleed and hurt, we know that he’s borderline psychotic, we know that he’s willing to go to brutal lengths to achieve his ends. The extremeness of the flogging seemed like an awfully big card to play for a relatively small payoff. Joffrey is Game of Thrones' flattest major character, and this scene didn’t do much to change that. It did, however, draw a bright line between Joffrey and the old Mad King, a connection Tyrion made earlier in the episode in front of the assembled court. The rot has already set in. That boy’s getting a comeuppance, and it’s not going to be pretty.
Finally, “Garden of Bones” brought us back around to poor Ned Stark, who is perhaps the show’s prime example of a character who gets caught in and sacrificed to the gears of war. Catelyn’s reaction to seeing her husband’s body (or was it just his head?) — a strangled little noise, then a decisive clampdown on her emotions — makes it clear that Sansa gets her steeliness from her mother as much as from her warrior father.
The scene in Catelyn’s tent also gives us an opportunity to see yet another identity of Littlefinger’s: the hapless suitor. I don’t really buy Littlefinger’s supposed lifelong love for Catelyn — that bit of backstory feels planted — but his botched attempt at courting her over her husband’s corpse, Richard III–style, fits with his arc this season. Littlefinger may still be a scary motherfucker, as the second episode made clear, but he’s not quite the smooth operator he’s been in the past. Played by both Cersei and Tyrion in succession, Littlefinger’s off his game — which seems like a precarious place to put a man as dangerous as Petyr Baelish.
Till next week, and remember: There’s no cure for being a cunt.