Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 5. The Ghost of Harrenhal
Game of Thrones is based on A Song of Ice and Fire by George R R Martin. The content of Season 2 in this television adaptation by HBO is drawn from A Clash of Kings. As before, the production is helmed by David Benioff and D B Weis. Here is the link to my retrospective overview of Game of Thrones Season 1. This is a spoiler-rich discussion of what happens in each episode, so do not read this if you want to watch without prior knowledge.
It’s often said that the buck stops when it gets to the top of the food chain or, when there’s no-one else to blame for a decision, you blame the leader. Except despite the generations of experience that should have taught us about morality, our modern society has still not resolved the question of accountability. Borrowing the Americanism, the 99% want the CEOs of the top corporations to be held liable when their organisations do something terrible, yet it’s the top 1% that controls governments and so laws rarely impose any personal liability. Why raise this? Well, at the end of the last episode, we saw Melisandre (Carice Van Houten) use her dark powers. It’s rather like the British Government deciding to firebomb Dresden to demoralise the civil popoulation and hopefully bring a German surrender closer. Had Britain not been on the winning side, a war crimes tribunal would have been very interested in what Winston Churchill had to say about the decision-making. Robb Stark (Richard Madden), on the other hand, is doing his best to ensure his reputation for fairness in battle and the treatment of prisoners afterwards remains unblemished. He wants to win, but not at any price. This may actually be a sign of weakness. Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) is the ruthless one, prepared to kill his brother while Robb Stark may lack the killer instinct and political pragmatism to get the job done (whatever he thinks the job is which doesn’t always seem entirely clear to him).
Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) and Renly Baratheon (Gethin Anthony) had negotiated a deal when the dark spirit sent by Melisandre strikes. Catelyn covers for Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Chrstie) as she escapes and, in due course, they bond. Naturally, Brienne wants to kill Stannis Baratheon to avenge Renly’s death, but that’s postponed until it becomes a practical proposition. Petyr Baelish aka Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) continues to do a wonderful job of lurking in the background and so saves Loras Tyrell (Finn Jones) and Lady Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer) by persuading them to make a strategic retreat with their troops. He rightly blames Stannis for the death of Renly and advises them it will be safer to keep their options open. Meeting Stannis at this point might provoke the wrong alliance. Interestingly, Lady Margaery says she doesn’t want to be a queen. She want to be the queen. Now that’s an interesting thing to say to a fixer like Littlefinger. In King’s Landing, Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) and Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) understand the threat of an army unified under Stannis. Unfortunately, Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) is so full of his own importance, he has decided to run the defence personally. To keep tabs on what everyone is doing, Tyrion pulls strings with Lancel Lannister (Eugene Simon) who’s currently sleeping with Cersei in her brother’s absence, and discovers Cersei is persuading Pyromancer Allyne (Roy Dotrice) to make wildfire — an art that kept the Targaryens in power. Tyrion takes over control of the manufacture, but is deeply worried about the risks of using it anywhere near the city. To further complicate the defence of the city, there are signs of revolution in the air as Joffrey’s cruelty and Cersei’s short-termism begin to bear fruit.
Ser Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) tries to remonstrate with Stannis about how Renly died but is fobbed off. Stannis prefers willful blindness as his defence should he come before a war crimes tribunal. As a reward for asking awkward questions, Ser Davos is put in sole charge of the fleet to attack King’s Landing — as the Onion Knight, this is not exactly the level of responsibility he was looking for, but he genuinely is the right man for the job. Better still, he persuades Stannis to leave Melisandre behind lest she gain too much power. If they are to win, it must be a secular victory without any reliance on magic or new gods. Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), on the other hand, is humiliated by his father and sister. They give him a single ship to command. Arya (Maisie Williams) has a confrontation with Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) and discusses the art of survival with Jaqen H’ghar (Tom Wlaschiha). As her reward for saving three lives, Jagen offers her three deaths. At least she’s completely honest about using murder as a tool. It’s all about accountability. As she says, anyone can be killed and that’s an acceptable way of doing business when the survival of those she values is at stake.
Jon Snow (Kit Harington) walks on into the North to meet Qhorin Halfhand (Simon Armstrong) who confirms that Manse Rayder has collected all the Wildlings together and will attack the Wall. Jon Snow goes off in a small raiding party to kill Mance. He accepts assassination as an acceptable means of winning a war. Back in Winterfell, Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) dreams that the sea comes to Winterfell and floods the castle. Being a seer is deeply frustrating when the messages are framed as unexplained allegories. Osha (Natalia Tena) listens with interest to all his questions and confirms there are legends of the three-eyed raven north of the Wall — a useful fact to know.
Xaro Xhoan Daxos (Nonso Anozie) offers Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) a fortune if she will marry him. The political situation in Qarth is interesting as the dragons represent a long-term investment in power. The question for Daenerys is whether she should take immediate help and sail across the the Westeros as the other contenders for the Iron Throne fight among themselves, or go slow and return on her own terms when she’s ready. Ser Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) advises slow and steady wins the race.
This is a more compact episode keeping the focus on the moves to win the Iron Throne or perhaps just take control of a part of Westeros. When we move briefly away to other places, we see everyone taking strategic decisions as they try to make the best of their individual situations. That said, it’s a bit workmanlike. There’s an awful lot crammed in here and I’m not sure everyone will follow what’s happening unless they’ve read the book. Worse, the chance to make a frightening opening is lost with a perfunctory death for Renly. I really don’t understand why this was not featured. There’s also little made of the consolidation of military power as a result of the death. Having had the confrontation between Stannis and Renly, it seems a shame not to deal with the aftermath more clearly. So this is good in parts but not quite so good together.
For reviews of Season 2, see:
Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 1. The North Remembers
Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 2. The Night Lands
Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 3. What Is Dead May Never Die
Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 4 Garden of Bones
Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 6. The Old Gods and the New
Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 7. A Man Without Honor
Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 8. The Prince of Winterfell
Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 9. Blackwater
Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 10. Valar Morghulis
Game of Thrones: Season 2 — the HBO series considered