Monday, September 5, 2016

Game of Thrones Rewatch 2.5: "The Ghost of Harrenhal"

Read the previous entry in this series here.
Read the next entry in this series here.

2.5 “The Ghost of Harrenhal”
Written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss
Directed by David Petrarca

This episode starts with a bang, killing Renly off within the first five minutes. The shadow-thing slithers in, stands up, stabs Renly through the back, and poofs. Brienne shrieks. Cat freezes up. Two other knights bust in and attack Brienne, but Brienne isn’t too torn up to defend herself and kill them. But she immediately comes to pieces again, holding Renly’s body and sobbing. This allows Benioff & Weiss to set up the theme of the episode: revenge. Cat convinces Brienne that she can’t find and kill Stannis (the shadow looked like him) if she’s caught and killed here. A good deal of the conversations and action of this episode revolve around revenge—what’s required to get it, how it’s gotten, and how to be smart about getting it. Petyr refers to revenge as “the purest of motivations,” which says a lot about his character and how revenge-seeking reflects on every character who seeks it.

Brienne and Cat run away, and Brienne offers to swear fealty to Cat, which is a bit odd because Cat’s a lady, not a liege lord, and because Brienne’s not a knight. However, Cat takes it in stride, even when Brienne qualifies her oath by asking Cat not to restrain her from killing Stannis when the time comes. Cat promises, oaths are sworn, accepted, and counter-sworn, and Cat has herself a sworn sword to protect her as she travels back to Robb’s camp, and then to Winterfell (she hopes). Although Cat having a sworn sword doesn’t quite match the ethos of lordship and vassalship in Westeros, it’s not uncommon for romance, wherein knights would often swear themselves to ladies, which even in the romances made for some interesting implications with regard to gender and status. Brienne acting as a knight is still outside the realm even of romances, where (as far as I know, and someone can correct me if I’m wrong) this never happens. (Unless the romance is also a hagiography of some kind; cross-dressing happens pretty often in saint’s lives and hagiographies and stuff.)

Also, this is where aging Brienne up gets a little weird. In the books, she’s eighteen and still has a very romantic view of knighthood and vassalship. She’s madly in love with Renly, who she sees as the perfect knight and perfect king, much as a romance knight sees his beloved. Gwendolyn Christie is 38, and while she’s visually stunning as Brienne and I love her acting, it loses a lot of the wide-eyed innocent that I picture with book-Brienne. Christie plays Brienne much more jaded and tired and less romantic-minded and young.

Loras also wants revenge for the murder of his lover, and they act out a similar scene as Cat and Brienne, with Margaery and Petyr trying to convince Loras that they need to leave before Stannis arrives or he’ll never get to take his revenge. While Loras’ desire for revenge might be “the purest motivation,” Margaery’s desires are a bit more complicated. She’s looking at the death of her hope to be queen, but the wheels are turning, and new plots are being formed. Petyr asks her if she wants to be a queen, and she says she wants to be “the queen.” Wheels start turning in his head, too.

My one issue with this particular scene is that Margaery and Loras immediately jump to believing that Stannis somehow killed Renly. They dismiss the idea that it was Brienne as nonsense and move right on. This doesn’t match Loras in the books, who continues to insist that Brienne killed Renly up until A Feast for Crows, when Jaime manages to convince him otherwise. Perhaps this simplifies the plot and character motivations a bit, but the logical leap—only Cat and Brienne were in the tent, the tent was well-guarded, the guards came in immediately and didn’t see anyone else—that Brienne wasn’t involved was a bit odd. Taken by itself, it isn’t really a big deal, but it’s part of a larger trend of Benioff & Weiss simplifying and trimming and condensing until the narrative is almost unrecognizable.

Cersei is getting a shallower and pettier sort of revenge against Tyrion by withholding information from him. It’s a stupid move, frankly, because the information she’s withholding is about how they plan to defend King’s Landing against Stannis. You’d think she’d want all the minds she can get helping to plan this, but she has such an overinflated idea of her own cunning and political skill that she thinks she can do it on her own (with some input from Joffrey, of course). (Also she's drunk.) This leaves Tyrion to suss out her plans for himself, which sets up the upcoming Battle of the Blackwater by introducing us to the pyromancer and the idea of wildfire. Bronn playing this-will-never-work advocate is a hilarious part of this whole scene.

Even Theon’s storyline is kind of a revenge one; he plans to sack Winterfell for a lot of really complicated reasons: to show his father he’s really Ironborn (and get revenge for his father sending him away ten years ago); to take something that belongs to the Starks (and get revenge for being held hostage for ten years); to one-up Yara (and take revenge for her embarrassing him when they met a couple of episodes ago). Theon has a lot of entitlement issues, a lot of which are no real fault of his own, along with a bit of an inferiority complex that makes him want to prove his worth to everyone (usually by mouthing off, which doesn’t work with the Ironborn), which makes him a really fascinating character. (On a completely side and inconsequential note, something about the way Alfie Allen says “Iron Islands” grates on every nerve I have. Great actor, though.)

Finally, we have Arya. Arya’s entire character arc is about revenge. All she wants is to get big enough, skilled enough, and strong enough to kill everyone on her prayer-list, and probably some others besides. But she’s not yet, so when Jaqen shows up again and offers to kill three people for her to balance the scales for her saving him, Biter, and Rorge from the fire, she’s all over it. Unfortunately for Arya, she’s still young and doesn’t think about the bigger picture. Jaqen offered to kill anyone. Arya’s list has names like King Joffrey, Queen Cersei, Ser Gregor Clegane—really influential people whose deaths could actually change the course of history.

She picks the Tickler.

Now, I’m not saying the Tickler doesn’t need to die. He’s a sadistic bastard who tortures people to death (well, supervises their torture while he asks questions) for fun. He almost killed Gendry. I understand why Arya wants him dead, especially since she’s pretty narrow-sighted right now. The Tickler is an immediate threat to her and the people around her, and she wants him dead.

You know who’s a more immediate threat? The Tickler’s boss. Gregor Clegane. Or maybe Gregor’s boss—Tywin Lannister. Both are available if she wants to stick to people in her immediate vicinity. Both are smarter choices, big-picture-wise. But Arya’s not there yet (and I don’t know if she ever gets there; the teaser chapter from The Winds of Winter would indicate that she’s still willing to sacrifice the bigger picture for immediate payoff). I’ll have more on this when she picks her next two deaths.

Other things going on that don’t have much to do with revenge:
Daenerys is being wined and dined and Jorah’s jealous that she remotely trusts Xaro. He insists that he can find her a ship that will take her to Westeros, where people are eagerly awaiting the return of the true king. Again, the simplification here removes so much nuance; in the books, Jorah tells her that if she marries Xaro, he has the right to ask her for one thing that she’s not allowed to refuse. What’s he going to want? A dragon, of course. That’s what convinces her not to trust the people of Qarth to help her get her throne, not Jorah begging, and it makes much more sense. In this case, she agrees to possibly trade half the wealth of one of the wealthiest men in Qarth (or so we think, dun dun duuuuun) for Jorah’s single ship and promises that he can get her support once they’ve reached Westeros. Dany may be just a young girl and know little of the ways of war, but she knows better than that. And it’s not even like keeping that particular plot point would complicate things, anyway. Heck, it might set up the changes they made to Dany visiting the House of the Undying in the next episode even better, because we know the people of Qarth are generally just trying to steal her dragons from her.

Bran knows the Ironborn are coming, but since he saw it in a dream, he doesn’t know that that’s what he knows. Prophetic dreams are irritating like that.

Jon, Mormont, and Qhorin Halfhand make plans to assassinate Mance Rayder. Again, here’s another minor change that completely shifts some connotations of what happens and wasn’t needed. In the book, Qhorin asks for Jon. He knows Jon’s Ned Stark’s bastard and that has leverage up here. He can use both Jon’s birth status and his relationship to the late Warden of the North to get Jon into Mance’s camp. Instead, Benioff and Weiss have Jon volunteer to go, Mormont reluctantly let him, and Qhorin not particularly caring one way or the other.

King Renly Baratheon, First of His Name
Emmon Cuy and Robar Royce (the knights Brienne killed)
The Tickler

Next week: The sea comes to Winterfell. A girl says a second name. The smallfolk are restless. Where are my DRAGONS?!

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