Game of Thrones, Season 2, Episode 5: ‘The Ghost of Harrenhal’

For all of the problems and chaos created by the network television model — the stress, the constant threat of incompleteness, the inevitable shark-jumping hour devoted to mystical Thai tattoos — there is one distinct advantage. By creating reams of story on the fly, showrunners are able to course-correct in midstream, based not only on audience feedback (with more than 22 episodes a year, these series remain in production long after the first few episodes have aired), but also by the happy accidents that can occur on set: the clicking of a guest star, say, or the unexpected chemistry between two leads. It’s how we ended up with great romances like Desmond and Penny on Lost, Pacey and Joey on Dawson’s Creek, and Troy and Abed on Community. Jaleel White was but a humble day player on Family Matters before his high-waisted genius was allowed to run away with the entire show. Randomness, by necessity, becomes part of the plan.

And so, for all the stately, dependable majesty of Game of Thrones, there are times when I find myself longing for the frantic flexibility of shows that don’t have forest-killing road maps from which to draw. Sure, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are taking some liberties here and there (or so you rabid, literate commenters tell me) — changing the occasional character name or adding a few extra dashes of psychosexual sadism — but, for the most part, they’re as bound to their source material as the Stark kids are to revenge. In a different sort of show, Gethin Anthony’s hilariously high-spirited performance as Renly, the horny, queeny kinda-king would have been allowed to stretch out and stay awhile. Maybe he never would have made it to the Iron Throne, but I could at least see him lounging lazily on one made of crushed velvet, continually outwitting his dull sibling Stannis, and dropping gasp-inducing zingers while having his bo-hunk brother-in-law drop his chain mail trousers. Good characters are not in short supply in Westeros, thankfully, but good, funny characters are. So it was a disappointment, though certainly not a surprise, to see Renly taken from behind not five minutes into “The Ghost of Harrenhal.” The culprit wasn’t randy Sir Loras, though, it was Renly’s own smoky nephew, who breezed into the tent on the back of a windstorm and managed to solidify just enough to puncture the youngest Baratheon’s lusty heart. Goodbye, Renly. In another story, you’d be an anchor. But in this predetermined one, you’re merely a footnote.

It’s not just this grinding sense of things happening solely because they’re supposed to that rankled this week, it was the sense that these things also had to happen rather quickly. Take, for example, the inspired, Thelma & Louise pairing of Catelyn and Brienne. It’s a longstanding truism that nothing forms a bond faster than being the sole witnesses of a murder by a disembodied ghost, but how many days did these two spend foraging for berries by the stream before Brienne was on bended knee, swearing her sword, her life, and her 2008 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress to a woman she’s only just met? (Follow-up question: Are they fleeing the scene with Ned’s sarcophagus in tow? Because that’s the sort of thing that can really slow a gal down.) I don’t want to tell Brienne how to do her business, but it seems like a woman in her position ought to be a bit more choosy with her fealty. She’d only given it to Renly, what, three days before and the sight of his fallen — if still rakishly handsome — corpse caused her to scream, sob, and open up two fellow knights like sardine tins? Maybe step away from the online allegiance-swearing websites (OKLancelot.com is a popular one, though eArmory.com also has its adherents) and concentrate on some me time for a while, you know? Take up knitting, maybe adopt a dire dog. Let’s start putting Brienne first! That said, I’m all in on the Grey Gardens-y potential of Catelyn and her new guardian — maybe when the war’s over they can just putter around Winterfell together, wearing animal furs and fighting off raids from health inspectors and/or White Walkers. It’s just that Michelle Fairley deserves some kind of British stiff-upper-lip award for keeping a straight face during Brienne’s oath. She was all class, even if her brain was screaming maybe sit the next couple plays out, huh, champ?

If character relationships are being determined too quickly, the larger plot can at times feel just the opposite. We now know the players, but the action has dragged, leaving us with a surfeit of planning. It all feels a bit like watching Stannis play with his oversize Warhammer board. He and Davos gather Renly’s remaining bannermen and prepare to march on King’s Landing (sans the sneaky Melisandre) while, to the north, Theon preens pathetically in front of the crew of the Sea Bitch. (which, interestingly, was also the working title for Splash) — although his plan to sneak-attack Stark territory puts a spring in his step and a jolt of concern across the pristine brow of Bran. (Sidebar: Is a dream about your entire home being submerged in water really that much of an inscrutable image? I don’t think it requires beyond-the-wall thinking to maybe beef up the defenses and, at the very least, invest in some water wings for Rickon.) And in the capital, Tyrion’s quadruple game continues apace, whether he’s sparring with his sister, threatening his cousin, or shanghaiing his nephew’s risky plan to defend the city with flames (the Old Gods call it “pulling a Renly”). Still, I have faith in Tyrion’s ability to stay two steps ahead of everyone else because he’s the only one who even bothers to take a step outside. His lack of vanity (and his surprising size) allow him to wander the backstreets and melon markets of King’s Landing undisturbed, gaining a feel for the people, all of whom seem to know the (true) slander being whispered about the sleeping arrangements in the Lannister household. They also seem to know that Tyrion is pulling the strings, even if they do dismiss him as a “Demon Monkey.” (Interestingly, this was also the working title for Every Which Way But Loose.)

Our other little leads also found themselves wrapped up in schemes. Littlefinger, being the libertine that he is, throws his lot in with the twisted Tyrells; here’s hoping the three of them retire to a nearby castle — or at least a prep school — and busy themselves with a medieval remake of Cruel Intentions. And Arya is now more undercover than ever, serving water and wine to Tywin Lannister and hearing firsthand his grudging respect for her brother. She’s also developed a strange relationship with that scraggly Frenchman she rescued: He’s also passing for a Lannister soldier, but explains to Arya that together they owe “the Red God” three lives for the trio she saved. The annoyingly named Jaqen H’ghar may look like a Dutch painting, but he’s actually a murderous Kazaam, granting three kills on command. The first victim is the town torturer, and the lusty look on Arya’s face at her new power is matched only by the earlier moment when a shirtless Gendry offered her two free tickets to the gun show. (She, of course, took the time to critique his self-swordplay.)

Still, as ever, the most interesting things on Game of Thrones are occurring on the margins. To the North, the Rangers have reached their final destination of Hoth, more specifically the resting place of “the First Men.” Unfortunately for the Rangers, there are still some Current Men to deal with — and so Jon and company ride off to snuff out some fires and also extinguish some signal flares, if you get my meaning. (They’re going to kill some dudes.) The ice and snow are striking and beautiful to look at, but what I wouldn’t give for a full season in Qarth! Safe and hydrated behind the fancy walls, Dany is finally free to let her hair down and reconnect with the woman inside of the imperious horse warrior. This means leaving the dragons to their own devices (cute little buggers, they’re now able to flambé their own marshmallows), sending her handmaidens out to bone their way to some intel, and dressing herself up in some Ducksauce-gifted finery. At the welcoming cocktail party — one gets the sense that there are a lot of cocktail parties in Qarth — even Jorah looks jaunty in his formal turquoise ascot. The Dothraki are turning heads by casing the joint, but they’re hardly the weirdest guests. That honor goes to either the extra from Eyes Wide Shut who whispers about how fire is power, or Dean Pelton, on loan from Greendale, tarted up as a bluetoothed (nope, the other kind) warlock. (The Dean may be stacked with creepy parlor tricks, but at least he’s nice enough to invite Dany over to an all-night rave at the House of the Undying. It’s a lovely spot — I saw the Sisters of Mercy there back in 1989.)

Introduced last week as a cutter, our man Ducksauce reveals his heart of gold to Dany (considering her time in the desert, it’s a wonder she doesn’t greedily devour it) — and his top-secret vault full of actual gold, too. He wants to marry our widowed Khaleesi and bankroll her assault on Westeros with the same bemused indulgence of an Atlanta Falcon funding his second wife’s singing career. This seems like a killer union to me, but jealous Jorah puts the quick kibosh on it, arguing it would be better to get only one ship and head back to the mainland and start making friends. (As if “making friends” were something people did in Westeros! Making them into chew toys for scorched rats, maybe.) So I fear our time in the sun-dappled strangeness of Qarth is short-lived. In its second season, Game of Thrones has become so skilled at creating memorable characters that it finds itself in the curious position of not having enough time to service them. Where most programs can dawdle and linger, this one has a prescripted schedule to adhere to; Benioff and Weiss, like Theon’s underminey sister, are forced to run a tight ship. Having too much story is a rich person’s problem, to be sure — sort of like the serene, self-made Ducksauce’s daily challenge of selecting just which silk vest to wear — but a very real problem nonetheless.

Note on these recaps: I have not read the books and I have no intention to do so. My goal is to analyze and enjoy Game of Thrones strictly as a television show. So please, no spoilers or “I told you so”s in the comments, OK? OK!

Filed Under: Game of Thrones, HBO, Peter Dinklage, Recaps

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Andy Greenwald is a staff writer for Grantland.

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