Reviewing Game of Thrones: “The Ghost of Harrenhal”


[Note: There are spoilers both for the TV show and the novels]

A sudden turn in the stormlands leads Catelyn to flee with Brienne of Tarth, while Littlefinger moves in to convince the Tyrells to make an important choice. Meanwhile, Tyrion learns of a dangerous new weapon that the queen is preparing, and determines to find out more about it as he tries to organize the defenses of a city that hates him and blames him for Joffrey’s crimes. In the ruins of Harrenhal, Arya receives three deaths from Jaqen H’ghar, who claims that the red god has his due. And in the distant lands beyond the Wall, the Night’s Watch finally reaches the Fist of the First Men only to learn from a legendary ranger that there’s danger nearer than they thought…


“The Ghost of Harrenhal” is an episode filled with incident, from its opening moment that suddenly removes Renly Baratheon from the equation to Arya Stark suddenly gaining the power of life and death. But it’s also an episode that covers a wide area, which feels rushed in places, and whose opening moments attempt to meet — and fail — the eerie perfection of the previous episode’s finale. Executive producers David Benioff and Dan Weiss have so far taken the most difficult episodes to write, which is commendable, but it does expose them to some criticism in the way that the narrative advances in ways that occasionally seems clumsy or which miss obvious opportunities to add richness to the story without necessarily spending any particular effort to achieve it. Perhaps because they’re the show runners, Benioff and Weiss are quickest to resolve the need to fit the story into ten episodes by radical invention… but at times, sticking to what the novel describes could well be the best approach to take even if it isn’t obvious.

An interesting example is the opening scene, which as described in the novel would have required less in the way of CG — because some of it, namely a shadowy assassin on the tent wall, was achievable through practical lighting — than what the show eventually used, and which could have been quite strong and sudden. What’s fascinating is the fact that the interactive features available on HBO Go revealed that this was how the scene was first shot and how it was envisioned by David Petrarca. Why did they change it? Probably because it was decided in the editing room that it simply was not working right. Unfortunately, this led to the scene being rushed — through editing it down to be able to fit the CG elements, presumably, with awkward reaction shots from Brienne and Catelyn that felt too stagey and obvious.

The immediate aftermath, especially Gwendoline Christie’s fine physicality in the fight sequence, works well, but the failure to capture the full horror of what happens to Renly is a dangerous thing when opening an episode. It impacts the scene that follows, as the Tyrells seem too subdued at what happened, a far cry from the material Martin provided that illustrated how mad with grief the Knight of Flowers became on learning of his lover’s murder. Moreover, for some reason that escapes me, they decided to cut away Loras’s blaming of Renly’s death on Brienne, something that motivates later in the novels and could have been a good source of drama later in the show.

On the other hand, the aftermath as it related to Brienne and Catelyn was quite well done, and Gwendoline Christie deserves kudos. Not only did she go above and beyond to make herself seem as fit and capable of wielding a sword as possible, but she also conveyed the loos and grief that Brienne felt at that moment as the man she loved from afar — and from up close — died in her arms. Later in the episode, Brienne and Catelyn converse of their respective future plans, and there we get the sense that Christie’s Brienne is a woman uncomfortable in her place, unsure how to behave, and this makes her somewhat taciturn.

It works well in the context of the character and the person she’s interacting with. The swearing of fealty scene in particular wins a great deal of attention in the script, suggesting that this scene resonates strongly with the writers. In considering that fact — and the fact that for me, the scene was certainly quite good but not of key importance — I wondered to what degree that David and Dan’s more recent fan experience (by which I mean the fact that they read the first four novels all together) made them place a different weight on that scene than readers who first read it back in 1997 or 1998 might have done.

In other areas, the show did very well — even spectacularly well. Wholly invented scenes like Tyrion and Lancel were amusing and well-played by both Dinklage (who can do no wrong at the moment) and Eugene Simon. More notably, Arya’s scene with Lord Tywin in Harrenhal was a magnificent moment, one that anyone could be enthusiastic about. The fact that young Maisie Williams can hold her own against veteran Charles Dance is remarkable enough, but for my part it’s not Maisie’s staring eyes that sell that moment when she says that anyone can be killed: it’s Dance’s subtly shifting expression, a moment’s surprise followed by a consideration… and something like amusement, respect, and annoyance all mixed together. It’s fascinating to see. In the novel, Arya’s never a cup-bearer for Tywin and only ever sees him from a distance… but this scene does feel like a scene Martin himself could have written, if he had opted to change Arya’s circumstances.

Near and dear to my heart was one scene in particular, however, one that’s not really invented at all: Tyrion’s visit to Hallyne the Pyromancer. Not only is this a well-acted, interesting scene (although one that rather botches some of the history), but it features Roy Dotrice who is perhaps best known to fans of the novels as reader of the five audio books of the series (yes, including A Feast for Crows, which Random House had Dotrice re-record after he missed out due to scheduling difficulties when it originally came out).

An acquaintance of George R.R. Martin’s from when the both worked on Beauty and the Beast in the 80’s, Dotrice was originally going to play Grand Maester Pycelle but illness prevented him from taking up that role. I recall hearing Bryan Cogman (this season’s story editor, and writer of “What is Dead May Never Die) suggest that Maester Cressen might be an excellent role for the actor. This was undoubtedly true… but a quirkier role like Hallyne (who seems on the verge of becoming a full-blown mad scientist) suits his talents especially well, as he mixes a certain gravitas with the pyromancer’s somewhat scary enthusiasm for “the substance” and its flesh-melting capabilities.

Two other key storylines received significant focus. First, Jon Snow lives up to his name by traveling through the snow-covered landscape of Iceland with the Watch, as they make for one legend (the Fist of the First Men) and wait for another (Qhorin Halfhand). Qhorin’s appearance is heralded by the horn that announces rangers returning if blown once, wildlings if blown twice, and White Walkers if blown thrice. That last detail is something that Samwell appears to reveal to the other men of the Watch — and, very strangely, he claims it was last sounded “a thousand” years ago. No idea why that is said, when Samwell also suggests that the Long Night was “thousands” of years ago. Sometimes the show’s take on the history of the setting seems sloppy.

In any case, Qhorin is a character that’s strikingly memorable in A Clash of Kings, and one hopes he’ll be the same in the series; so far, so good. It’s a nice piece of compression on their part, to have the wildling watchers situated within sight (if barely) of the Fist of the First Men. This means that Qhorin and his companions — including Jon, who volunteers rather than being directly selected by the Halfhand — aren’t acting as scouts going into the Frostfangs and the Skirling Pass, but are instead a hit team to take out inconvenient surveillance. It works quite well, as does this part of the story with it’s magnificent, sweeping vistas.

The other story line doesn’t succeed so very well, I believe. Daenerys’s sojourn in Qarth does feature absolutely stunning special effects for Drogon and Rhaegal (the green dragon; blink and you’ll miss him) — the sound design has to be praised as well, turning the baby dragon into one of the cutest things ever imagined — but the city of Qarth itself does not live up to the opulent, strange decadence of Martin’s novel. In a very real sense, Qarth stands in as a kind of Faerie in the book, and the Qartheen are the elves of Faerie. In the traditional stories, you know that Faerie is a dangerous place for mortals to be, full of glamors and tricks to try and trap you; so too with Qarth, even if the Qartheen people aren’t magical, and their traps are their extraordinary wealth and their exotic and refined culture. The Qarth of the novel shows its danger through… a garden party.

It’s a very nice garden party, as such things go, but it would have more profitably been left to Mad Men while the show took some other tack. Would it have been difficult to show Daenerys almost enthroned, Xaro overseeing a series of increasingly more outlandish gifts from increasingly more outlandish visitor, all of them coming to see the Mother of Dragons? A display of the Qartheen’s decadent wealth and manners would have done a lot to both set them apart and make Qarth all that much stranger while also being tempting to Daenerys, while (hopefully) not breaking the bank. But that’s in the mind’s eye, and perhaps it wouldn’t be workable, wouldn’t convey the strange and surreal opulence of the place.

“The Ghost of Harrenhal” is an episode that is largely fine — and sometimes exceptional — in its parts, but the flat opening and the thinness of the Qartheen material feels like it keeps the whole from matching the sum.