We’re back with another installment of The Wars to Come, our Game of Thrones rewatch seeking to explore where David Benioff and Dan Weiss (D&D)’s masterpiece took a turn. Last week was the low-point of this project so far, with an episode that would have felt easily in good company in Season 6. This week, however, D&D return as credited writers in “The Ghost of Harrenhal,” to the confusing relief of Kylie, Julia, Danzie, Caroline, and James.
In case you didn’t have a chance to catch it, let’s break down what happened.
The action begins immediately at Renly’s camp. Inside his tent, with only Brienne as witness, he and Cat reach terms that Robb can still call himself “King in the North” as long as he swears an oath of fealty in return. However this agreement doesn’t go anywhere, since that shadow-baby Melisandre birthed last episode rushes inside the tent and stabs him to death. Cat and Brienne are forced to flee—Brienne cutting down two guards—since they are implicated in the murder. Once in the woods, Brienne swears her own oath to be Cat’s sword, so long as Cat won’t stop her should the situation ever arise where she can murder Stannis.
The next morning, it’s chaos! All of Renly’s bannermen seem to be turning to Stannis’s side, with the exception of the Tyrells. Loras doesn’t want to leave Renly’s body, instead hoping to kill Stannis, but both Margaery and Littlefinger encourage him that he can’t avenge Renly if he dies. Margaery then tells Littlefinger how she has ambitions to be the Queen of Westeros.
In Stannis’s camp, Davos is not happy with the manner in which Renly died. However, their sights are turning to King’s Landing with all of Renly’s bannermen on their side. Davos convinces Stannis that he should not bring Melisandre with them for the attack, and Stannis informs Davos that he’ll be leading the fleet.
Down in King’s Landing, Cersei and Tyrion get news of Renly’s defeat, and discuss Stannis’s imminent arrival. Cersei has secret war preparations that she tries to keep from her brother, but he gets it out of Lancel later: wildfire. Apparently Cersei has been ordering a pyromancer played by Roy Dotrice to make lots of jars of wildfire. Bronn thinks it’s too dangerous to be practical, but Tyrion tells the pyromancer that he’s working for him now, not Cersei.
Over on the Iron Islands, Theon tries to get the attention of his crew on his first ship to give a command. It’s clear they don’t respect him, which is only more apparent when Yara lets him know about her own entire fleet. Theon’s first-mate, however, asks why they don’t just take Torrhen Square. Theon insists that they couldn’t hold it against the strength of Winterfell, but looks pensive all the same.
Speaking of Winterfell, Bran is still ruling as Lord. He helps Wintertown out by sending them two orphan boys, and when he gets word that Torrhen’s Square has fallen under attack, he gives Ser Rodrik the command to gather men and reclaim it. Later, he confides in Osha that he’s been having dreams about the three-eyed raven, and one dream in particular was about the sea coming to Winterfell and drowning Rodrik. Osha refuses to tell him what wildlings say about dreams like this.
The other wildings are pretty busy, it’s soon discovered. Jon and the Night’s Watch have reached the Fist of the First Men, where they meet up with the ranger Qhorin Halfhand and his crew. Qhorin informs Jeor Mormont that Mance Rayder has united what seems like all the Wildlings, and his guess is that they’re going to march on The Wall. He wants to take a small party to kill Mance, and Jeor consents to let Jon go with him.
Down in Harrenhal, Arya is still serving as Tywin’s cupbearer. She overhears a war council, where Tywin makes it clear that Robb is doing well in the war. He figures out that Arya’s Northern, and asks what they say about Robb. She provides him with exaggerated tales of heroism in return.
After this meeting, she runs into Jaqen H’ghar, who is now a Lannister guard. He tells her that for freeing himself and his two travelers from the cage, she took three lives from the “red god of death.” He says she must give him three names in return—names of anyone. Arya decides to go with the main torturer, the Tickler. Later, in the yard, the Tickler is found dead. Jaqen gives Arya a signal, letting her know it was indeed his work.
Finally in Qarth, Dany adjusts to her new situation. Xaro Xhoan Daxos has given her many nice gifts and her dragons can now fry their own meat. She attends a party at Xaro’s palace, where the Warlocks of the House of the Undying are present and invite Dany over. Meanwhile, a mysterious masked figure pops up to tell Jorah that Dany is in danger, because everyone is lusting for her dragons.
Xaro Xhoan Daxos seems to have other ideas; he shows Dany a very big vault that no one can open, since the only key is around his neck. He offers her half his riches in it, to buy an army and take Westeros, as long as she marries him. He also tells her Robert is dead and the time to strike is now. She tells Jorah that she wants to consider this, though he convinces her that a rich man never offers more than he gets in return. His idea is to buy a small ship to take them to Westeros, since that’s where all her allies are that she needs anyway.
Initial, quick reaction
Kylie: Welp, this was a real interesting one to watch. Last week was just dreadful, though I was getting worried I was being unnecessarily harsh. This week, I never thought I’d say this, but boy was I so glad to be back with D&D. I thoroughly enjoyed this episode. There’s definitely cracks in the plaster worth discussing, so I don’t mean to paint it as perfect, and as has been the theme in this reread project so far, I’m struggling to engage with both Jon and Dany. But overall I’d describe the episode as competent; the pacing felt good, the writing wasn’t viscerally unpleasant, motivations pretty much checked out… Yeah, honestly, this is at the top of the pack for this season so far.
Julia: Yes, after last week it’s nice to be back in the realm of mediocrity. In fact, I don’t think I felt any emotions at all this week. Except maybe when I felt sorry for Lancel. Why was Tyrion being such a jerk to him?
Caroline: I would mark this episode down as “fine.” It’s a solid C+. Nothing was outrageous, the pacing was fine, and I only rolled my eyes at a few lines here and there. Plus, some of the costumes were truly on-point (shoutout to my girl Michelle Carragher and her badass bug details on the Qarth costumes). And I’m always down for Dany’s emo eyeliner.
Though, uh…burrito dress again.
Danzie: I liked this episode a lot, actually! It was pretty strong, even with last week’s complete and utter faceplant. I definitely have some nitpicks, but this actually impressed me quite a bit, given last week’s episode…are we sure their writing credits weren’t switched? This didn’t have any of D&D’s typical BS.
James: I’m with Danzie on this one, although I will admit I’m probably being a bit generous. The fact that all the scenes are, by and large, functional pieces of storytelling, isn’t something that I should be rewarding, it’s just a lot more noticeable given the quality of later seasons. But I do genuinely like this episode and a couple of moments were standouts.
Kylie: Okay, despite my glowing initial reaction, weirdly nothing is jumping out as an actual highlight, unless you count me fangirling over Roy Dotrice. It was just mostly competency across the board. Or perhaps it’s just the contrast to Vanessa Taylor’s debut. I think if I had to select, I’d go with Bran’s scenes, since I think they did a pretty good job dancing around his magical destiny, while also demonstrating how this kid being in this situation is just so overwhelming. It actually felt like some decently subtle writing, and I’m really engaging with Bran as a character this time around.
My lowlight was Qarth so far. Emilia Clarke’s lack of range is fully on display here, and it’s just not working to paint Dany as having any kind of like…consistent guiding motivation or morality. She makes opposite points to Doreah and Jorah, which maybe was a point, but it comes across as just very unfocused writing, as if D&D weren’t really sure how anyone should be feeling about this. Also Doreah and Irri’s minor feud here was pretty cringeworthy. But part of it could also be that I’m aware they’re building these kind of forced stakes for this specific plotline.
Julia: Hm… I think I liked the opening scene the best. Cat was at her most Cat-like. That what she should be doing, damn it, making decisions with confidence and authority.
I also really enjoyed Bran’s scene. I liked how proud Maester Luwin looked at how Bran was progressing in his lording. What a treasure that man was. The actor who played him is named Donald Sumpter, and I’ve been a fan of his ever since he played Alexander Cust in The ABC Murders back in the 90s. He’s so good at projecting sympathy for his characters. And Osha continues to impress too. I think I just like people caring about each other?
Lowlight? Like, I don’t know. Like I said, there weren’t many highs or lows here. I guess Harrenhal was objectively ridiculous plot-wise. Why didn’t Arya ask Tom to kill Tywin immediately? He was literally just talking about killing her brother.
Caroline: I actually found two scenes effective in this episode. The first is when the Night’s Watch arrives at the Fist of the First Men and Sam is expositing on its history. This exposition works because it fits with Sam’s character as an in-verse book nerd. There are also some lines between the brothers that are genuinely funny. I think it worked (even if Jon was kind of a Debbie Downer for a minute). I also enjoyed the Winterfell scene where Bran describes his dream of the ocean coming to Winterfell. That is close enough to a book scene that I can project, and I think the camera panning over the living people in Winterfell while Bran describes the water and waves is very effective. I felt things!
Reminder: I am a Davos fan. My lowlight is a very specific little detail that I originally thought was nit-picking, but realized actually matters. In this episode, my boy Davos convinces Stannis not to take Melisandre to the Battle of Blackwater. The logic is sort of YOLO, but Stannis listens. In subsequent episodes, Melisandre claims she could have helped if she was at the Blackwater, because fire and shit. She uses this fact against my poor boy Davos. Now, in the books, as I recall, this whole exchange never happens. So D&D wrongfully maligned Davos. I’m curious to see what affect this has, if any, that couldn’t have been achieved by following the regular book plot. Future re-watching will tell.
Danzie: Renly’s death and Cat/Brienne were my favorites. I know Gwendoline Christie’s ugly crying was a bit silly, but opening with Renly’s death was a strong choice, and the immediate aftermath was really strong as well. Female characters… actually interacting like real people? No, really…are we sure D&D wrote this?
In regards to Renly’s death though, I do wish they had swapped out the LF scene with what was, in my opinion, a really great and humanizing scene for Loras that never made it into the episode.
Lowlight: Qarth. Clarke’s acting is especially bad in this episode. All these scenes played out with all the talent of a middle school drama class. However, I want to be totally transparent and say that Dany’s ACOK chapters were the turning point where I lost interest in her character permanently. Other than her fabulous vision chapter at the end, so much of Qarth felt unnecessary in the books. So, these scenes were never going to appeal to me.
Julia: Yeah, I’m not sure if the burrito dress scene replaced that scene of awesomeness or if it’s supposed to be at a later point. It was explicitly after Renly was buried and in the burrito dress scene his corpse is right there, so I’m not sure. But whatever, they should have moved heaven and earth to include it, because Finn Jones gave it his all.
James: My highlight was definitely the Harrenhal scenes. While some of the writing and character choices are a bit messy like Julia pointed out, there was nothing that overly hampered my enjoyment.
I want to give particular praise to the show’s introduction of Jaqen H’ghar as a Faceless Man. The eyrie music coupled with Tom Wlaschiha’s fantastic performance create a really creepy vibe that totally work for him.
Quality of writing
Julia: Fine. Solidly mediocre. Bronn was very Bronn and I think I was actually supposed to be on Tyrion’s side when he’s treating Lancel, the sexual abuse victim, like shit. But other than that, it was fine. Sam being an intellectual is hilarious, apparently, even if his grasp of the timeline of Westerosi history is a little confused.
Caroline: There were some great lines, and there were some stupid lines. Great line from Arya: “All men can be killed.” Even though the context was dumb, I found the line itself effective. Stupid line from Marg: “I want to be the queen.” #CracksInThePlaster
Danzie: Yeah, Tyrion/Lancel just went on a bit too long and felt like more Peter Dinklage Emmy-baiting. However, I feel like they really practiced restraint here? Bronn’s scenes ended before he got annoying, the Arya/Tywin exchange hasn’t veered into ridiculousness yet, Theon’s interactions with his crew didn’t involve a bunch of dick jokes. I know these are all pretty low-bar examples, but I feel like it really could have changed everything if they had taken more lessons from this episode going forward. Just, like…don’t beat a dead horse? It’s really that simple.
Julia: In fact, he may have been the most book!Tyrion-like he’s been in the whole series there. But I’m more than willing to get behind the tin-foil hat theory that the writing credits were switched.
Kylie: I’d call it “solid” writing, if I had to pick an adjective. “Mediocre” sounds too harsh. Yeah, some of it isn’t great, especially message-wise; the worst example being both Cat and Littlefinger/Marg telling Brienne/Loras they need to stay alive for ~REVENGE~ in such quick succession that it borders on self-parody. But the mouth-words themselves didn’t sound like they were written by giggling 8-year-olds. This still felt like a script that had been edited at some point.
James: Yeah this still felt…professional? There’s issues here and there, but the writing quality is still worthy of respect. While the first four seasons of GoT aren’t perfect, I can actually take them seriously. Season 5 and onwards, not so much.
Our 8th grade book report (on themes)
Kylie: Both Cat and Margaery spoke to the wonderfulness of revenge, but I’m not really seeing that anywhere else. I guess Arya’s kill could be viewed slightly in that way?
Julia: I guess. Though it’s clearly a “it’s wrong that he’s alive” kind of thing.
I’m going for leadership and being respected as a leader. Davos tells Stannis he needs to leave Mel behind or else people won’t acknowledge his victory as his. Tyrion needs to scheme and plot (but those are the same thing!) in order to actually lead the attempt to protect the city from a siege. Tywin is clearly a perfect and well-respected leader because he’s willing to pull all-nighters—unlike that slacker Reginald—and take advice from random Northern girls. Theon has trouble getting anyone to take him seriously as a leader, while everyone holds Qhorin Halfhand in awe. Dany is learning that a leader can’t just get shit handed to her, and Bran is delegating stuff.
Danzie: I agree with Julia. Respect and leadership were king here (pun intended). That, and just general sneaky-sneaking? I dunno. I think I might round up all the other guest writers and convince them to boycott this section. It’s cruel and unusual punishment to be forced to try and find themes on this show week after week, I tell ya! 😛
Julia: Jeeze, Danzie. Thanks for explaining the point.
Kylie: Reginald Lannister, ruining everything.
Cracks in the plaster (the bullshit to come)
Julia: I mean, Qarth is not promising. Why was Quiathe talking to Jorah and not Dany?
Caroline: Right?? Like why have Quiathe here at all! And she has a dumb mask too, the book description is way better.
I guess a potential crack in the plaster would be Tyrion’s commentary that he’s trying to save the city. In the books, his grand views of himself are part of his POV bias. In the show, it is ultimately taken at face value, creating a Mary Sue later on. This is about the place where the talk of how he saved the city started.
The other glaring crack is that already nobody wears hats in the north. Only Qhorin Halfhand. He knows what’s up.
And of course seeding Marg as a manipulative, power-hungry character who just wants to be the queen, as if that’s so bad for a woman in this feudal society.
Danzie: Having Quaithe was so silly. She comes in, drops a couple ominous warnings and is never seen, heard from, or talked about again after this season. She’s been the subject of so many YouTube theory honeypots. It’s another plot thread that time will end up being extremely unkind to.
Julia: AND all she said was that Jorah has to continue to “protect” Dany. No going east to go west or anything.
Kylie: I loved Qaithe. Sure, random mask lady, come pop-in and tell Jorah stuff he already knows. Why did they even think to include her? This changed no one’s motivation.
The true “crack” in this case is, of course, D&D’s checklist approach. It’s not like Qaithe gave us new information, or anything worth going on. Maybe she should have talked to Dany and seed more doubt about Xaro Xhoan Daxos’s offer. But no. She’s just there because she was there in the books. Check!
Danize: The most foreboding part of this episode to me was Stannis. I count this as the first major failure D&D made in adapting his character. He absolutely needs some kind of humanizing moment here for his whole story to have a shot at working. Him being mildly bummed out over killing his brother doesn’t cut it. If you don’t show him being racked with guilt then all you have is a grumpy, one-note sociopath.
James: Aside from the adaptational issues, the Arya/Tywin scene seems to be an early sign of “creatively it made sense because we wanted it to happen.” There’s no denying Maisie Williams and Charles Dance are talented actors and a treat to watch, but the logic behind their interactions is a bit off. Arya didn’t just mildly sass Tywin—she very clearly threatened his life. Yes, Maisie Williams is an amazing actor (especially given that she was only 14 when this was made), but when you focus on acting over storytelling, you’re going to run into problems.
Kylie: Interestingly, a lot of their “creative” decisions involve shoving two characters in a room who have no business being there.
I’m trying to decide if it was a crack in the plaster to have the Dothraki debating how best to loot Xaro’s place, given the caricatures they become in Season 6. But I’ll also say I objectively enjoyed that whole exchange. Amazing what can be done with jokes that aren’t based on cocks or fandom memes.
Caroline: I think the biggest adaptational issue is that Arya is serving Tywin. With her in this position, there is no reason she wouldn’t ask Jaqen to kill him immediately. Big, giant plot hole.
Danzie: I mean, I’m going to be generous here and say that for this episode at least, maybe she was skeptical that Jaqen wasn’t just spitting bullshit and just named the Tickler off the cuff? This theory falls apart next episode of course, though.
Julia: And I know you like that line, Caroline, but boy was it dumb that Tywin was okay her being all, “Anyone can be killed” and then just staring at him being all, “hey, you’re anyone.” Especially considering he just sent his cousin to his room for needing sleep.
Kylie: Also considering he parsed out that she’s Northern, and I know he later parses out that she’s highborn with her “my lords.” So yeah, Tywin, let this clearly Northern high born girl with Arya Stark’s features stare you down about murder, and had zero suspicions. He’s just such a good Grandpappy that I guess he’s too busy seeing Cersei in her and offering her survival advise.
That is the biggest adaptational change, but a telling one was the shift in Cat’s line to Brienne. No more, “Fight for the living, not the dead.” Instead we get, “You can’t avenge him if you’re dead.”
James: Ah yes, good old “revenge.” While not quite at season 5 levels just yet, it’s an unpleasant indicator of the bountiful acedia of later seasons.
Carol Watch: who is Cersei this week?
Kylie: I think this was a solid Cersei week. I mean, you can totally see Carol in there with bringing up Myrcella and all, but nothing in this struck me as out of character for Cersei in A Clash of Kings.
Julia: And her petty secrecy for no reason at all.
James: Yes! As far as adaptation goes, the more insufferable the better!
Caroline: Agreed, solid Cersei week. Her comment to Tywin regarding marrying Loras Tyrell—“don’t make me do it again” or something to that effect—also fits in with what we know of book!Cersei’s feelings on marriage and the traumas from it.
Danzie: She felt maybe a little too chummy with Tyrion to be full on Cersei. I’d call it a 70-30 split in favor of Cersei.
Exposition Imposition: good or clunky?
Caroline: Some of the exposition worked great—explaining the Fist of the First Men, for instance. Some not so much: “What is the house of the Undying?” Dany asks, never having had any visions or dreams or particular connection to magic other than dragons. Without her magical questions her interest in the House of the Undying is superficial, and it feels clunky. She might as well be saying “What is that plot point we need next?”
Kylie: I think that clunkiness is also what adds to this year being ‘Dany’s Semester Abroad.’ The Night’s Watchmen are naturally asking questions about this new environment they’re thrown into. Dany’s basically interacting with a pop-up book.
Julia: That just reminds me of how Sam randomly said how much Gilly would love it at the Fist of the First Men. Um, dude, you barely know her. Just because she’s not into her baby being murdered as soon as he’s born, it doesn’t immediately follow that she shares your taste in the picturesque. But I guess he’s “in love.”
James: Sorry Julia, but I’m going to have to defend D&D on that one. Guys with a lack of romantic experience randomly commenting that a girl would like something—regardless of whether they’re accurate or not—is actually pretty realistic, as ridiculous as it may seem.
How was the pacing?
Kylie: Qarth was a little back-ended, which I think may have been better served more intercut. I also felt a little jarred by Renly’s men instantly backing Stannis, and Cersei instantly knowing. But those were more small quibbles in what was otherwise a very well-paced episode, I think. There weren’t any scenes that dragged.
Danzie: Something that was a little weird for me was all the build up to Qhorin’s arrival… only to have him just appear with no introduction in the next scene. I feel like we need to get to know him a little better for Jon killing him to mean more.
Julia: You know what’s not being built up very well? The Battle of the Blackwater. I guess they still have three episodes to make that happen. I do recall that there’s a scene coming up with Varys telling Tyrion how brilliant he is again.
Kylie: Let’s reserve our judgement until 2×08, I think. But this comes back to things feeling a little tensionless lately. I’m just not sure what’s causing that effect.
Let’s talk about the lack of sex, baby
Julia: I don’t know…shirtless Gendry, man.
James: Yes, please excuse me as I reassess my sexuality for the umpteenth time this week.
Kylie: Maybe he’ll get another shirtless scene in Season 8 and we’ll forgive him being brought back.
Danzie: It’s a solid Gendry scene, and by that I mean Gendry is solid as heck. I’m a sucker for any Baratheon fan service.
Kylie: And he will be too, in time!
Julia: Like Edric Storm! See, this show is just like the books!
In memoriam…Renly Baratheon, The Tickler
Danzie: Alright, so I was ready to go into a rant here about Renly, his death’s place in the book, how him dying affected me more than the red wedding, and how I’m just super not over it… But I’ll save it for the podcast, I think.
Kylie: I’ll be really curious to hear your thoughts. My first time watching this show, I was bummed out when he died. And it’s kind of become fandom gospel that D&D were clearly Renly fanboys. This time around, it’s felt so exceedingly truncated, and he kinda came across poorly in places. It’s clear he had the popular vote over Stannis, and I’ll never deny that D&D painted that one poorly. But yeah, this supposed Renly-favoritism is feeling more like Baratheon indifference this time around, at least to me.
Julia: Everything does feel very truncated, doesn’t it? This isn’t the first time I’ve noticed that.
Is no one sad to see The Tickler go? He was full of character.
Kylie: Tywin had already ordered him to cut the shit. God, Arya, why do you have to fall victim to such ill conceived writing?!
On that note, we’re going to duck out of here. Please give us your thoughts below. Did Renly’s death get you? Is Qarth more passable than we think? Where do Roy Dotrices go? We look forward to discussing in the comments below, as well as more good fortune ahead in The Wars to Come.