TV Review: Game of Thrones, 2.5 & 2.6: The Ghost of Harrenhal/The Old Gods and the New

Did David Benioff and D.B. Weiss mean for the halfway point of Game of Thrones‘ second season to almost completely drop the rampant displays of sexuality? In two hours time, there’s only one instance of nudity* which itself only hints (however strongly) at impending carnality– and like most such displays in the show, there’s a pretty big consequence attached to it. No, these two episodes focus themselves far more on getting us to look ahead to the slowly approaching finale, putting pieces into place to form a bigger picture for us as the season’s close draws nearer. Arya says it best: anyone can die.

And if any character would know that on a deep, personal level, it’d be Arya. In fact, she’s the literal embodiment of that statement. In the books I think Arya works well enough, but in fits and spurts; television and the talented Maisie Williams have both been far kinder to her as a full-fledged, robust character. She’s not the one doing the heavy lifting in the separate killings of the Tickler and Amory Lorch– you can thank the equally charismatic and enigmatic Jaqen H’ghar for that– but she has the agency to literally make anyone she wishes in Harrenhal into a much less alive version of themselves. When we see the gruesomely twisted neck of the cursed fortress’ resident torturer, it gives Arya a power thrill. She’s in possession of her own stealthy, inconspicuous guided missile, and she knows it.

But besides that, she’s seen almost everyone she’s grown close to die. Yeah, yeah, Yoren did the right thing and turned her away from Ned’s beheading in last season’s Baelor, but that’s really just nitpicking; she was there, she knows what happened even if she didn’t see it. She knows Syrio’s dead**, she saw Yoren cut down with her own eyes, and immediately after that one of her young companions is cruelly murdered for sport by a Lannister guardsman. This is a girl who’s arc has led to her witnessing the deaths of people she cares about, and has now put her in a position to get even. Just wait until you see what she does with her third murderous wish– assuming the show doesn’t do a switcheroo from the books. (Which it could.) Arya’s a girl who gets to see her dreams come true.

Is it odd that that grants her a sort of kinship with Daenerys, then? It’s absolutely wonderful to see her again after the first half of season 2 gave us precious little time with her, and while I can’t quite fathom why we’ve been denied the pleasure of her company for so long, it was certainly worth the wait. In part, this is thanks to Emilia Clarke; she’s a wonderful actress and quite possibly the most perfect choice for the role that I’d have never thought of in a million years***. But there’s also the fact that Dany, well-portrayed or not, is an integral part of the story regardless of the fact that she’s so removed from the main plot threads unfolding in Westeros.

We have to turn again to structural resonance, then, because through thematic similarities she feels connected to the overarching narrative and to the other characters despite being located another continent. If Daenerys can claim that her dreams come true, after all, then Arya can as well. Maybe Jaqen is more like a genie– say the name and the man does the rest– but all Arya wants is to see the people who have wronged her and her family punished****. She names each of them every night before she sleeps. And now she’s getting to watch some of them die. What does Daenerys want? To take back her birthright. Dragons might help somewhat with that.

Of course, Dany’s fortunes are beginning to dwindle as she runs into more opposition in Qarth. One may begin to think that marrying Xaro Xhoan Daxos might be the best option left to her. Now, for me this is where things get interesting, because while Dany’s campaign is at a standstill, Robb’s keeps on building momentum. Granted, Robb has the entire North backing him, except for the Iron Islanders, but he’s so advanced in his war that he’s already staring at the end-game–and he has no idea what to do with that. At least he has the tools to get there, but neither of these would-be conquerors really knows what to do with the power they’re fighting for.

And neither does Joffrey! Well, wait, scratch that– he knows, but all of the choices he makes are terrible, both in terms of morality and in terms of being circumspect. This kid’s a class-A psycho willing to a) leave his future queen to the mercy of a bunch of would-be rapists (and that whole scene does a lot to further the ambiguity of Sandor Clegane), and b) execute people over cow pies. Oh, and risk burning down the whole city in its defense. Tyrion and Tywin remain the only Lannisters with a firm grasp on how to wield power; governance and the authority of the ruling bodies both being so central to the story here, the natural reaction to all of this is that youths aren’t fit to rule. Some of them, anyhow. Maybe the more salient point is that such power is difficult to use properly and effectively, or that power corrupts.

I realize that I’m mostly ignoring the events occurring beyond the Wall, and there’s a reason for that: they’ve been kind of boring. Seeing Jon Snow and his brothers cut down some Wildlings is exciting enough, but for the most part we’ve just had character introductions and beats with very little by way of actual plot progression. That seems to be the formula for the show, and I understand that’s just a byproduct of having so many narrative threads to weave together, but it’s still left Jon’s bits a bit inert– for the time being anyways, as the arrival of Ygritte (Downton Abbey‘s Rose Leslie) signals a big turning point for the character. We’ll have to wait until next week to see where her attempts to bump and grind with everyone’s favorite bastard end up taking the story.

*Any of you out there who have fetish fantasies about Tonks from Harry Potter, well, The Old Gods and the New is now probably your favorite episode.
**If there’s any doubt as to Syrio’s fate in the book, the show makes it more clear he’s dead. We last see him facing off against Ser Meryn; as Arya runs away, we hear a blood-curdling scream. Meryn is alive and well, as we’ve seen; Syrio is nowhere to be found. Guy’s a goner.
***Because I’d never heard of her until Game of Thrones.
****To head off any “why doesn’t she just name Tywin Lannister, he’s right there” nonsense: Because a) that would make the entire story much shorter, and b) he hasn’t really done anything to her or her family. In fact, if Tywin was in complete control, Ned would still be alive.


5 thoughts on “TV Review: Game of Thrones, 2.5 & 2.6: The Ghost of Harrenhal/The Old Gods and the New

  1. Certainly give a lot of detailed thought into that post, loved the most recent episode mainly because Joffrey gets cow pat in his face and then slapped by Tyrian haha just love it 😀

    • I’m getting more and more into Gleeson’s portrayal of Joffrey; he’s made him into a raging, uncontrollable psychopath, but he’s also kept him as a child. Seeing him whine at Tyrion’s commands just makes him so much stronger as a character.

      Though I’m liking Arya’s and Tywin’s continuing (if dishonest) master-servant dynamic a lot, too.

  2. This was a great review, and I agree with, things beyond the Wall have been a little slow this season, but I also think we’re going to see something big happen way there up North before too long. There has to be something, and like Arya said; anyone can die. I watched this again at lunch today at Dish Online, and kept going back to the part where Tyrion slaps Joffrey. Boy is that ever sweet to see, mostly because it’s exactly what I’d like to do. One of my coworkers at Dish was saying he thinks that in many ways Tyrion is being used as Joffrey’s conscience, like an Imp Jiminy Cricket, if you will. My argument is that Tyrion is simply the voice or reason, as Joffrey’s has no conscience, metaphorical or otherwise; behind that sneering mask of a face is an endless, empty void.

  3. The opening scene in Winterfell from The Old Gods and the New was so damn gripping and emotional. The child actors are just incredible. And damn Theon! I do actually feel sympathy for him even with that brutal act. The line Ser Rodrik delivers, “Gods help you Theon Greyjoy. Now you are truly lost.”, was so damn perfectly delivered.

    • Yeah, I liked Ser Rodrik’s final moment of defiance. Played out perfectly. And I agree about Isaac Hempstead-Wright, he really gives Bran a lot of nobility with childlike vulnerability.

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