And then there were four.
We’ve reached the halfway point of season two, and suddenly there’s one fewer king clashing for the Iron Throne. Melisandre’s smoke monster kicked off the episode by blowing into Renly’s tent and — with Catelyn and Brienne watching in horror — skewering the jolliest contender like a smoked ham. Thankfully for those of us who’ve been feeling gore-fatigued lately, Renly’s death was relatively quick, allowing us to focus on the far more interesting point of Brienne’s wild, berserker grief.
Catelyn tells Brienne — as Margaery and Littlefinger will tell a red-eyed Loras in the following scene — that she can’t avenge her beloved if she’s dead and urges Brienne to flee with her after the big gal kills a pair of guardsmen in self-defense. The two set off, Thelma and Louise–style, forming a feminine counterpart to the muscle/brains duo of Bronn and Tyrion. (There must be a healthy legion of Bronn-ienne shippers out there, right?)
In a show that’s often so grim, so focused on how terrible people can be to each other, it was a refreshing change of pace to see the brokenhearted Brienne (“I only held him that once, as he was dying”) turn her sorrow and rage into something that felt — dare I say it? — positive, by pledging herself to Catelyn. I’m a sucker for a good sisterhood bonding scene (even when it comes with slightly creaky lines about “a woman’s courage”), but it’s especially good to see some rays of light break through the long, dark, terror-filled night that is Game of Thrones.
In fact, “The Ghost of Harrenhal” seemed downright chipper at times. Arya gains a new ally in Jaqen H’ghar, who — annoying distaste for definite articles aside — proves to be a very useful friend indeed, killing the torturer known as “the Tickler” on Arya’s command. It made me so happy to see Arya catch a break, I half expected the episode to go out on a jaunty French song, like an ironic Mad Men kicker. Who is this mysterious man? And is his non-standard syntax the source of all his power? Is he a genie? I think he is a genie. He does, after all, grant three wishes. Who will Arya choose to slay with her final two? My money’s on one going to Joffrey and the other going horribly awry and taking out Robb or Catelyn or the like. It can’t stay sunny in Westeros forever.
Meanwhile, as new alliances were forged, some old ones were definitively broken. Brothers turning against brothers was a big theme this week. Not only did Stannis have Renly killed, but if Bran’s dreams and that eerie pan across the courtyard of Winterfell are any indication, Theon’s decision to ignore his father’s orders and take Torrhen’s Square, rather than raid the fishing villages of the Stony Shore, is going to mean very bad things for his “other family” in the North. (I wonder if that’s why Rickon, who is basically Game of Thrones’ Bobby Draper, was highlighted in that scene of Bran holding court in Winterfell. Is he about to be sacrificed to Theon’s daddy issues?) Whereas Renly’s death barely made an emotional ripple — I’m much more interested in seeing what crafty Margaery does now than I am in contemplating his loss — the seemingly inevitable clash between Theon and the Stark boys is one I’m looking ahead to with a heavy heart.
While Margaery is in Westeros declaring that she doesn’t just want to be a queen, thank you very much, she wants to be the queen, Daenerys is in Qarth confessing her burning desire for the same. I love how she starts to justify her enterprise to Xaro Xhoan Daxos by claiming that she wants to take care of her people, but then cuts to the chase and admits that she wants the Iron Throne because it’s hers. What a girl wants, Xaro, is not as complicated as it seems: It’s power.
Finally getting some real movement on the Daenerys story line was the most refreshing aspect of “The Ghost of Harrenhal.” Dany, having gained access to Qarth, finds herself the toast of the city. Some commenters last week noted that our early glimpses of Qarth looked a little cheesy. Though I was watching last night’s episode on my laptop (my television having inexplicably switched to HBO in Spanish just as Sam was composing his wish-you-were-here-in-this-frozen-hell note to Gilly), the greatest city that ever was or will be did kind of resemble one of those vaguely Mediterranean planets that the Enterprise would occasionally visit on Star Trek: The Next Generation, where Picard would be forced to make uncomfortable small talk with women while wearing an open shirt: all billowy curtains and birdsong. But once again, after all that dark griminess, a trip to a fancy night market sounds pretty good to me.
Qarth is full of Qolorful Qaracters, including a bald warlock and a woman in a tiled balaclava who whispers mysterious things to Jorah about how Daenerys needs protection from those who will flock to see “the wonder born into the world again” and will “lust.” (Though I guess everything sounds mysterious when spoken from behind a tiled balaclava.) It makes sense that Qarth would have a wide range of people, since it’s a port city where people from all over the world can come to make their fortunes. But the abundance of exoticness also underlined a central motif in this episode: foreignness, and the inherent distrust people have for it.
The otherness of the Dothraki has been a constant, uneasy thread throughout the show. But in this episode, we also have Davos trying to get Stannis (the increasingly wonderful and layered Stephen Dillane) to abandon Melisandre because “she’s a foreigner” — as if it’s Melisandre’s citizenship status that’s the big mark against her, and not the fact that she’s a freaky demon mom. And when Xaro offers Daenerys enough gold to buy a conquering army in exchange for her hand in marriage, Jorah admonishes her that crossing the sea “with an army you bought, and a foreign husband who paid for it” will backfire, and that the allies she needs are in Westeros, not Qarth.
It would definitely be a novel move for a Targaryen, whose emphasis on purity of bloodline was strong enough to mandate sibling marriages for generations. But Daenerys has already proven herself flexible enough to fall in love with a foreign man once, even as her unyielding focus on regaining the Iron Throne speaks to a connection with her birthland that supersedes the new life she’s found with her khalasar. I suspect that, if she declines Xaro’s offer, it’ll be less about his foreignness (because after all, she’s already going to have to explain all those Dothraki when she lands on the other side of the Narrow Sea) as it will be about her emergence as a woman who doesn’t want to be shackled to a man.
Earlier in the episode, Daenerys notes to Doreah and Irri that the last time a rich man gave her a dress, as Xaro has, he was selling her to Khal Drogo. By bookending Xaro’s offer with Jorah’s startling, semi-veiled confession of love (his claim that she would be a ruler for the centuries echoing Loras’s words over Renly’s corpse), the suit is placed in context: Xaro is yet another man who wants to use Daenerys for his own ends. Whether Dany has moved beyond that point in her life remains to be seen.
But really, who needs a man when you’ve got baby dragons who can cook their own kibble?
Five more episodes to go, and miles to go before we sleep. Jon seems poised to get his moment in the snow as he heads off with Qhorin Halfhand to find and kill the long-awaited Mance Rayder. (Word of advice: If, like me, you completely missed that the “Halfhand” the rangers were talking about was actually there in their midst, I recommend watching GoT on HBO GO and turning on the helpful footnotelike interactive features. You’ll save yourself a lot of Googling and rewinding.)
Meanwhile, King’s Landing is a powder keg — and not just because the alchemist has got a gajillion barrels of wildfire locked away in a cellar, the old coot. Jamie and Cersei’s relationship was enough of a secret just a few episodes ago that Cersei was shocked when Joffrey mentioned it as a rumor; now people are yelling it in the public square, with seemingly no fear of consequences. The people are rattling their cages. They’re calling Tyrion a twisted demon monkey. It only seems a matter of time before Bronn’s prediction about pots of wildfire falling within the city walls comes true, either literally or figuratively.
You may ask specifically or you may ask vaguely, the answer will be the same: I’ll see you back here next week.