Considering the amount of time we’ve committed to spending there, it’s remarkable how deeply unpleasant Westeros is. Even at the beginning of the first season, when things were at their relative best — one king on the throne, Ned with his head, Sansa still dreaming of princes instead of being threatened at crossbow-point by them — it was still an awfully grim place. Sure, the summers were long and the whore economy was booming, but life was brutish, nasty, and short for the common people, and even worse for royalty. Magic and dragons had fled the realm, along with the White Walkers, and the whole lot apparently took laughter with them when they left. The best citizens could hope for was relative stability, a couple of flagons of good Southern wine and the dream of being interred for eternity in a relatively damp-resistant crypt, preferably near your also-dead family. I imagine the Let’s Go guide for the Seven Kingdoms as more of a thin pamphlet bearing a single word: DON’T.
I mention this only because things have managed to get even worse in the time since Jaime Lannister gave Bran Stark an impromptu lesson in base jumping. Winter may be taking its sweet time to get here, but civil society is dying faster than the leaves in the Vale of Arryn. “Garden of Bones” was the gnarliest episode of Game of Thrones to date, a bleak hour that started with savage sexual violence and an unanesthetized field amputation, then only got darker from there. (OK, technically it started with a fart joke, but there really wasn’t much time for giggling, what with the subsequent full-body wolf-disemboweling.) The happiest moments were nothing but pauses in the onslaught of barbarity: Tyrion covering Sansa, literally and otherwise, from the psychosexual humiliation of her would-be betrothed, Gendry not having his sternum reverse Alien-ed by an overheated bucket rat. There was a happy reunion, yes, but it was between Catelyn Stark and the no-hope chest containing her dead husband’s decomposing bones. By the time Melisandre spread-eagled herself on the floor of a cave and agonizingly gave birth to the smoke monster from Lost, I was reaching for a bottle of Prozac. In order to gouge out my eyes.
Thank goodness, then, for Gay King Renly, possibly the best character on Game of Thrones, and certainly the merriest. In Westeros, like gym class, wit is something only cultivated by freaks and outcasts — Tyrion being the foremost example — and it tends to be the outward manifestation of deep internal hurt. But regardless of the reasons, Renly’s tart humor is desperately welcome in a show that usually considers the funny bone something you throw to the direwolf to gnaw on between battles. Renly’s mounted tête-à-tête with his dour brother was the highlight of the hour, if only because Renly takes to leadership the same way D’Fwan from Queen of Jordan takes to a velveteen waistcoat. “I suppose if we use the same [banner] in the battle it will be terribly confusing,” Renly teases after noticing Stannis’s new sigil is even more flaming than his beloved Sir Loras. And when Melisandre, who, like all high school hippies, is really only tolerated due to her predilection for nudity, hisses something about Stannis being born of “salt and smoke,” Renly has an ace quip already in the chamber: “Is he a ham?” (This guy! One more neck snap and he’s liable to earn himself a permanent gig on Watch What Happens, a King’s Landing–based chat show hosted by Varys in which he serves the guests free mead and tells them riddles until they either fall asleep or commit treason.)
There’s a strange and crackling new energy to the east as well, where Daenerys, the only female claimant of the Iron Throne, runs into a whole mess of queens. This is Qarth, or at least the outside of it, “the greatest city that ever was and would be,” and it’s guarded by the self-appointed “Thirteen,” a snippy little sewing circle of spice merchants and bed and breakfast owners. Their spokesman with the unpronounceable name is willing to let the ragtag Dothraki inside their well-appointed walls in exchange for a glimpse of Dany’s dragons. Though this seems like not much to ask, she — or, I imagine, the tight-fisted producers in charge of the CGI budget — refuses. (Game of Thrones is rightly praised for its lavish locations, but save some kudos for its artful penny-pinching as well. It’s impressive how little we notice things like the fully covered dragon baskets and the fact that we only see battles either at night or the morning after.) Before a full catfight can develop on the litterboxy sands of the Red Waste, another member of the Thirteen steps forward and saves the day. According to the infallible raven known as “Wikipedia,” this guy’s name is Xaro Xhoan Daxos, but I heard it as “Zarozon Ducksauce,” which is 100 times better. (Get at me, George R.R.!) Ducksauce, played by the striking Nonso Anozie, cuts his hand as some kind of blood oath to take responsibility for the horseless horsepeople, and when the doors to Qarth open, we catch a fleeting glimpse of a city that looks like one of those murals of the Amalfi Coast painted on the wall of a midtown pizza parlor. Spice merchant, a round of garlic knots for all my starving friends!
But this Mediterranean idyll is short-lived. Back on the mainland, the worse-than-we-thought sadism of Joffrey is proving that the center of power can’t hold for much longer. And everyone caught up in his twisted gravity seems to be getting worse by the week: Robb is falling in love with enemy Florence Nightengales, Arya was saved from torture only to be pressed into service by her sworn enemy’s grandfather — and the fact that she counts Lannisters instead of sheep suggests I was wildly off base last week when I mused that she wasn’t consumed by thoughts of violent revenge. Tyrion manages to disarm his uppity cousin by confronting him with the knowledge that he’d already been disrobed by Cersei. But one gets the sense that even Tyrion can’t stay three moves ahead of the field forever. The world beyond the castle walls — even the world beyond The Wall — seems strange and wondrous and well worth exploring. And yet everyone keeps thundering toward boring, savage old King’s Landing with all the subtlety of Joffrey’s belt against a defenseless behind. The promise of ruinous violence is now as inevitable as winter for all our power-hungry pawns. Nothing drove that home more than the freaky final image of the red-clad sidepiece of the so-called Lord of Light giving birth to something that was anything but. Westeros was always a brutal and scary place, but at least there was a lot of sex to lose yourself in. Now it seems even ladies’ netherbits are dark and full of terrors. Is nothing sacred?
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!