Thursday, May 03, 2012

Game of Thrones 2.05: The Ghost of Harrenhal

Hi everyone again, and welcome back to the Chris and Nikki show, in which we co-blog Games of Thrones, episode by episode, with me offering the perspective of a long-time fan of the novels, and Nikki "OMG, smoke monster!" Stafford coming at the series as someone who has never read the books. This week is a barn burner, featuring all sorts of self-indulgent reminiscing and inside baseball from the two of us, just to remind every that, yes, we have known each other a long time.

But, on to the episode!

Morning in St. John's. Or life north of the Wall. I forget which.

Christopher: Well, if it wasn’t already perfectly clear, this episode established firmly the GRRM law of narrative causality: if things look as if they’re starting to stabilize and get better, that’s when you have to look out for a Lost-esque smoke monster in the shape of your estranged brother behind you.

Or something to that effect. We begin, as we so often do in this series, with the best laid plans of stags and wolves going pear-shaped. Can it be? An alliance between Robb and Renly, with Joffrey’s doom in sight? D’oh! No, of course not … that would be too easy. Of course, on the bright side, now Stannis has most of Renly’s army, which will surely be enough to smash the Lannisters. Right? Right?

OK, that’s as close to spoilery as I want to get. Last week I opened my comments with the speculation on when we’d get a tepid episode … which in hindsight wasn’t a fair question. Renly’s shocking death notwithstanding, this episode certainly didn’t keep ratcheting up the tension and the surprises (or, to use Nikki’s lovely expression, the oogy factor), but it was riveting nonetheless and provided a lot of foundational exposition for what is to come—and in a set us up for the next few big plot points. There were a lot of pregnant hints (an expression I’m leery of using after last week’s finale with Melisandre), but I won’t list them, again for fear of being seen as spoilery.

Instead, I’ll lead us off this week with Brienne the Beauty, the Maid of Tarth, who had her first really big moment after Renly is killed—her palpable grief for her slain king bookending an exhibition of her martial prowess as she handily dispatches the men who attack her on the assumption that she is the murderess. It becomes clear here (if it wasn’t before—and I don’t think it was, exactly, at least not in the series) that she is hopelessly in love with Renly, and that he has won her love and loyalty in part because he is willing to acknowledge her as a knight and does not mock her like the rest of his lords. His death shatters her, and all she can think of is revenge—but fortunately for her, Catelyn is present to show her reason, and as a result she ends up swearing fealty to Lady Stark … with the proviso, of course, that she is free to carry out her vengeance on Stannis later.

The Brienne-Catelyn relationship is an interesting one, as it is in the novels. Brienne’s comments to Catelyn later—that she has “a woman’s kind of courage”—could be seen as ironic, but Brienne is a character who doesn’t indulge in irony or, really, invite it. She is a woman in a man’s role, but her unrequited love for Renly (and her constant feeling of hurt at all the barbs and japes men level at her) don’t let us simply map a stereotypically masculine sensibility onto her. It will be interesting to see where the series takes her: in the novels, though it is never made explicit, Brienne’s bitter reminisces about her awkward girlhood suggest that, given the choice, she would have been beautiful and feminine. One way or another, it is always clear that, however inured she gets to them, slights against her homeliness (to paraphrase Arya) cut deeper than swords.

What do you think, Nikki?

"But you have to respect me! I have armour and everything!"

Nikki: Wow, your explanation of Brienne makes me want to read the books even more. As someone who’s not yet used to the “Quick, look behind you!… oops. Sorry, Mr Main Character, you got too comfortable being alive” world of GRRM (though Joss Whedon should have prepared me for it), I completely fell for the easy alliance between Renly and the Starks. I should have known better. And I also hope I’m not the only Lost fan in the audience who said, “Brother killed by angry smoke monster? SEEN IT!!” Before, of course, realizing that GRRM wrote this scene long before Darlton wrote theirs.

But once Renly bit it, Brienne being attacked by the two guards made me scream; I thought they were actually going to kill her off, too, and I barely knew her! Thank goodness that woman is AMAZING with a sword. She was a marvel in this episode; from her palpable grief over Renly’s death (and I didn’t realize she was in love with Renly, I thought she was just a really, really loyal knight of the king’s guard, especially when you see the anger in the others when they see his body) to the way she bows before Catelyn and swears her fealty to her, I was completely taken by her. And what an extraordinary actress they’ve found to play her. Gwendolyne Christie is actually 6’3”, and in an interview with SFX this week she was quoted as saying:

"I wanted the part so very badly because from reading the books the character was so like elements of myself . . . I've not come across a part like this before, whereby the complexities of being an extremely tall woman are explored. So I decided I had to go all out for it."

I’m thinking the casting agents must have stifled loud squeals of “OH MY GOD SHE’S PERFECT” when she entered the audition room.

I agree that this episode was very plot-heavy, and needed to move some things along to get us to the next stage, but as you say, that doesn’t mean it was slow by any means. Stannis “impregnated” Melisandre with an angry vengeful smoke sludge monster that could take his form and kill the person standing in his way. Arya, on the other hand, uses less carnal methods and happens upon a man in Harrenhal who offers to help her off three people she needs gone. Like a strange-talking, less Robin Williams–version of Aladdin’s genie in the lamp, Jaqen H’ghar is the man she freed from the burning cart back at the camp before she was captured as a prisoner. I knew then that the writers were pointing him out as someone to remember. She decides to test him by asking him to kill the torturer, which he does, peering out from behind a window and holding up one finger, indicating to her and her alone that he’s finished one, and now she has two left. Who will they be?! Could she risk revealing herself and say, “Well, in that case, Joffrey and Cersei, go to it!” Or will she be more devious? My money’s on the latter. Arya is one smart cookie, and now that she’s on the inside as Tywin’s little assistant and cup-bearer, she can hear the goings-on. Oh, how I loved the scene when he asked her where she was from, and she bungled the first lie but managed the second one so beautifully (as if she’s a master hustler) that he believed her, and then asked her what her people think of Robb Stark. She speaks of him not as a sister but as one who would have grown up in the north, raised by myth, and tells him that Robb has been known to ride into battle on the back of a direwolf and cannot be killed.

“Do you believe that?” Tywin asks the little girl, amused by her admiration.

“No. Anyone can be killed,” she answers back, staring into his eyes and looking like she may have unnerved the great man. Tyrion has grown up in the shadow of his father, a brilliant man who values intelligence in others. And Arya may be the one to outwit him in the end. What a fantastic scene.

"I said 'anyone can be killed,' but I'm really just thinking of
one person. (In case you're wondering, it's you)."

Christopher: I love how perturbed Tywin looks at Arya’s reply—however self-assured and powerful he is, he still can’t hold her gaze for long. Have I mentioned lately how brilliant Maesie Williams is as Arya? I feel as though I should say that several times per post, because not only does she not exhibit many of the flaws most child actors exhibit, she’s easily on par with everyone else in the cast, and better than most. (The only other show I’ve seen with child actors this good was The Wire—and in my TV universe, that’s the highest praise there is). I’d go so far as to say she’s as good as Dinklage. If she doesn’t get a nomination for an Emmy this year, I say we go all Khal Drogo on their asses.

I’m loving how the Arya story arc is being handled this season, in part because the Arya-at-Harrenhal is one of my favourite sequences out of the novels so far. In having her captured right away, the writers made a shrewd choice … in the novel, they have her and Gendry and Hot Pie stumbling through the countryside for a long while before finally being caught by the Lannister men, and if they needed to jettison some of the story, I’m happy this was one of their choices. Arya’s “reunion” with Jaqen was done beautifully—the actor they have playing him is spot-on (incidentally, in her email when she sent me her last installment, Nikki said she thought there was a distinctive resemblance between Jaqen and myself … she didn’t mention it here, but I’m doing it, because really, that’s just terribly flattering. He’s a handsome man, both in the books and in the series).

Obviously Jaqen is a character of some significance, but I specifically encourage all the GRRM newbies to pay attention to him—he becomes a pivot-point in Arya’s story. Not now, but later …

Turning to the frigid north—well, I guess winter has come. (Though speaking as someone living in Newfoundland: that was what April 30th looked like when I woke up). The Night Watch’s rangers have traveled past the Haunted Forest and into an arctic snowscape, and put down stakes in an ancient and indeed primeval fortress, the “Fist of the First Men.” We meet Qorin Halfhand, who takes a small group, including Jon Snow, to scout the approaches to where the Wildlings are mustering. I must say, all of the northern sequences were pretty spectacular—they were filmed in Iceland. In an interview, Kit Harrington—the actor playing Jon—said ruefully that there were no special effects at work. “When you see us shivering,” he said, “it’s because we’re freezing our arses off.”

Aside from the introduction of Qorin, a peripheral character much-loved in GRRM fan circles, all the Watch segments were mostly expository, setting us up for some big moments next week. People who have read the books, you know what I’m talkin’ about. Heh.

There was one particular moment in King’s Landing this week that set my professorial and theatrical bells ringing, and which called to mind an essay I read in Salon just after the season started. Laura Miller did an interesting piece highlighting the fact that GRRM was as inspired by medieval European history as by such novels as The Lord of the Rings, in particular the Wars of the Roses, the fifteenth-century English civil war between the houses of Lancaster and York (as Miller points out, Lancaster and York are pretty decent phonetic parallels to Lannister and Stark), chronicled among others by William Shakespeare in Henry VI parts one through three. Miller does a nice job of pointing out some of the analogues: the womanizing and ultimately dissolute King Edward IV for Robert Baratheon; the cold and scheming Margaret of Anjou for Cersei; but she ignores what is to me the most obvious—and most interesting and subversive—parallel.

Well … I say obvious, but it didn’t occur to me until Tyrion hears a street preacher charge that the king dances “to the tune of a twisted demon monkey.” As I said, that rang a bell in my head:

Grim-visaged war hath smooth'd his wrinkled front;
And now, instead of mounting barbed steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady's chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.

Recognize it? It’s from the famous Winter of our Discontent speech at the beginning of Richard III, a play near and dear to my heart because it was the first one I ever directed (in fact, now that I think of it—Nikki, you came to the closing night! The guy I had playing Richard took your mom up on stage during one of his soliloquies).

Ahem. Sorry, memory lane and all that. The key part comes just after those lines:

But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp'd, and want love's majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail'd of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish'd, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up …

Is Tyrion a Richard III character? The more I think of it, the more it makes sense to me. Not a Shakespearean Richard, who is implacably and delightfully evil, perhaps, but a shrewd and at times ruthless man whose physical disadvantages force him to be smarter than everyone around him.

What do you think, Nikki? Am I off base here?

Nikki: Wow, I think you’re right on home plate, actually. Brilliant observation. Like Richard III, Tyrion is a brilliant character who is held back by a physical “deformity,” and while we root for him, we know many of the things he does is wrong. I think Tyrion may follow a more ethical code (“Man’s gotta have a code…” Total sidebar here: Tell me you watched Community last week! It was brilliant) but I think you’re dead on with the comparison.

I see a Pop Culture Association paper brewing.

Now, as for the other thing (my likening you to the guy I like to spell Jackenheier, because I have to check the real spelling about six times to get it right…), it’s seriously in the eyes, dude. When he turned to the side, and looked sideways at Arya, I actually said aloud, “WOW, he looks like Chris Lockett!!” As I said in my email, we need to get you a wig with a white stripe in it.

And on another sidebar, Chris sent me this photo he found a year ago, taken back in 1999 (!) and I’ve been looking for the right time to post it, and I say now! Look for yourself and see if you can see the resemblance. (OK, maybe I needed one less smiley and moodier…)

I still have that tie.
[Over at her blog, Nikki goes a step further and puts a picture of me alongside Jaqen. Not going that far here, sorry--Chris]

Which of these scenarios do you think is pictured here?:
A) Chris and me on our wedding day
B) the two of us backstage after we appeared in a Shakespearean comedy together (one that ended in a wedding)
C) the two of hanging out at school, where we both decided to get unusually dressed up for the day to see if people would notice
D) a picture of Chris on his wedding day, and I just showed up a little overdressed (and pissed off the bride)

OK!! Back to Game of Thrones! We haven’t yet talked about Daenerys, who finally seems to have a substantial scene in the episode. Just before she’s propositioned by Xaro Xhoan Daxos (an offer that actually might be a shrewd political move for her) she walks through the courtyards in Qarth. A guy who represents the Lollipop Guild Warlocks of Qarth comes up to her, looking like Uncle Fester after a major diet, and creeps the hell out of her (and me) before he seemingly splits himself and appears behind her. They’re definitely ramping up the supernatural aspects of this show, what with that and what happened at the beginning.

There are tensions building among the women serving the Khaleesi, and we see one of the lovely dragons again (LOVED that scene) whose mommy is teaching him to breathe fire to cook his own steak. (Sniff… I remember when my firstborn used her fire-breath to cook her own steak for the very first time. They grow up so fast…) But the best part of the episode is where Daenerys returns to her chamber after being told that Ser Jorah is in love with her. She blew off the comment, laughing and saying it’s ridiculous, because he’s her advisor, and nothing more. But when she returns to her room and tells him of the offer, he’s defiant, telling her she should be ruling the world herself, not settling down elsewhere. “You would not only be respected and feared, but you would be loved… I still can’t believe you are real.” As he walks away, Daenerys struggles to catch her breath, realizing he really is in love with her, something she’d never noticed before.

Abed's cameo.

Christopher: That was a lovely moment, and doubly painful to watch as, not only do we see Jorah’s desperate love, we see him fail as a councillor and advisor. Xaro is obviously self-interested, but he’s also a pragmatist—he might be seeking to enricj himself, but he’ll also give Dany what she wants and needs. It’s a moment that evokes Robb’s reluctant agreement with the Freys—marrying a daughter to cement an alliance—and Tyrion’s argument with Cersei about her daughter. We have such a romantic conception of marriage that we forget that for the larger portion of human history, marriage was a practical, economic, and political contract. Love was secondary. In fact, the preoccupation with love as the central necessity in a marriage is an extremely recent one … and so Xaro’s proposal actually makes a whole lot of sense, which Jorah must know.

Any last thoughts, Nikki?

I did in fact once have hair like that.

Nikki: This episode began as one about pragmatism winning out over emotions. Where, as we both agree, marriage to Xaro would actually be a good thing for Daenerys, earlier in the show Catelyn explains to Brienne that she must be practical and flee, for she can’t avenge Renly’s death if she’s dead (a line Margaery later repeats to her brother). It’s about setting emotions aside and thinking instead.

Tyrion’s way of thinking got him a spy in Cersei’s camp in the form of his insipid cousin, who tells him that Cersei is stockpiling something called Wildfire (I loved the scene of the doors opening and seeing the rows and rows of the stuff) and Tyrion, now caught on to his sister’s dastardly plan, tells the man he’s no longer making this stuff for Cersei; he’s making it for Tyrion. Great scene, and once again, the smallest man casts a large shadow.

A couple of last bits:
-Haven’t the Night’s Watch men ever heard of toques? Seriously, guys, I can’t believe they haven’t all lost ears to frostbite. When it showed them all standing there swaying in the winter cold, it was like they were extras in a human version of March of the Penguins
-seeing the smokey Stannis kill Renly, I couldn’t help but remember that the smoke monster was conceived when Melisandre and Stannis had sex on a map of the armies, and in doing so, knocked Renly’s wooden army right off the map, which is symbolic of exactly what that act achieved.
-poor Bran has been left behind to play referee, and he’s had to do one boring thing after another (his younger brother is so bored he’s smashing nuts… in fact, he was doing so in such an imbecilic way I actually thought it was Bran’s cousin Robin)
-I will admit, I wanted to see Tyrion really upset about what happened to the prostitutes last week, but instead he was all, “Huh. That’s too bad.”

Looking forward to next week!


Dan Rochman said...

True Story: I was watching this episode with Em. I'd already seen this post (and Nikki's), but Em hadn't. And of course, during the Jaqen/Arya scene, Em turned to me and said: "He looks just like Chris Lockett!" - or that you look like him, or some such or other variant. But I start laughing, and have to show her this post, then Nikki's... So now that a second researcher has independently reproduced the experiment, it's no longer opinion, it's Science. :-D

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