One day is fine, next is black.
Well, that changed everything, huh? It's a good job it's taken me two weeks to write down my thoughts on "The Ghost of Harrenhal", because at least we might all have gotten our breath back.
Today's topic: when do you stand fast, when do you cut and run, and when do you realise that choice is no longer available to you?
(Spoilers below the fold)
This question presents itself only a few minutes into the episode, following what's probably the most brutal and surprising beginning to an episode of television I've ever seen. Other shows would have saved Renly's murder for a finale. Game of Thrones can't, it only gets ten cliffhangers this year.
Anyway, the youngest Baratheon's death-by-The-Mummy-CGI immediately presents Brienne of Tarth a dilemma, helpfully summarised by the ever pragmatic (well, mostly ever) Catelyn: Brienne can't avenge Renly if she's been slain by his guards. Leaving Renly's side is a stain on her honour - as was allowing him to die in the first place - but she does so anyway, in the hope that she can continue to serve him, even after he is gone. The question of what a sworn sword (or sworn other things) should do once those they serve have passed on is one the show has touched on - consider Lord Eddard or Ser Barristan after Robert took a boar to the guts - and, without giving anything away, this series has more to say on the subject.
Brienne is not the only one to face this choice in the wake of Renly's assassination: Ser Loras has to make the same decision. In fact, it's so similar (although this time it's Stannis' men who'd do the killing), it might feel slightly redundant, were it not for the fact that Ser Loras isn't actually the Tyrell we need to be watching here. It's Margaery's comments to the characteristically slimy Littlefinger that are the more interesting. Her brother may be riding back to Highgarden in fear for his life, but Margaery is going to... well, that's the question, isn't it? Littlefinger has no use for Loras' thirst for revenge, but ambition? Ambition he can work with. Standing her ground as Renly's queen isn't something that Margaery seemingly considers for a second. But is she retreating, or is she simply advancing in another direction?
Whilst Mace Tyrell's daughter gives no thought to digging her heels in, Cersei and Tyrion have the exact opposite problem: they can't do anything but draw a line in the sand and hope Stannis somehow trips over it. Of the two, only Tyrion has sense enough to see that there's almost no chance of that. Cersei is too busy seething over her small brother preparing to send Dorne one princess, C.O.D. As always with the Queen Regent, her passions are ruling her head: standing in the way of Tyrion trying to co-ordinate his defence efforts with the king is at just slowing everything down.
Then again, Cersei can't possibly believe that Tyrion wants to save the city, because there's only three people in King's Landing besides herself the Queen Regent gives a shit about, and by arranging to send one away, Tyrion's apparently proved he doesn't feel the same way about them. One of the most interesting things about Cersei is that whilst she's more than happy to assume someone is an idiot, she never, ever assumes someone is any less willing to scheme or to throw people under the bus (dung-cart?) than she is herself. Of course, whilst it's difficult to run a kingdom in peace time fuelled by such mad paranoia, doing so during a war is monumental folly. But then the entirety of the new Lannister dynasty seems to be running on the motto of "Mad King Aerys just didn't have enough people thinking he was a c***." Gods, I feel sorry for the poor twisted demon monkey...
Davos and Stannis have their own decision to make, though in this case the dilemma is rather more metaphorical: Stannis must choose whether to face the "hard truth" of how Melisandre orchestrated his brother's death, or continue to ignore it, and Davos must choose whether to press home the point, or retreat from speaking his mind. In the end, both men choose to withdraw. Their motivations demand it, in truth; Stannis cannot allow himself to accept that winning Renly's bannermen required quite so - and let's not beat around the bush - fucked-up an approach, and Davos cannot bring himself to directly disobey the king he all but worships. His decision to abandon his efforts earns him command of Stannis' fleet which, if he's very lucky, means he won't get horribly burned by King Joffrey's Operation Burn The Shit Out Of Everything (because Gods know, that worked so well for the Mad King).
Speaking of ships, Theon's arrived to take command of the Sea Bitch, and finds two decisions waiting for him there. The first is easy; let the crew mock and ignore them or attempt to dominate them - there's no chance someone as cocky as entitled as the heir to Pyke wouldn't go for option 2. That doesn't get him anywhere, though (indeed were Asha not so nearby, Theon would almost certainly be feeding the crabs about seven seconds after attempting it), which brings on the second problem, a far thornier issue: does he follow his father's demeaning order to raid the Stony Shore (and guarantee his truculent crew will be intolerable arseholes throughout), or defy his father by reaching for a far more impressive prize. As with Stannis and Davos, this is more "should I stay on-mission" rather than just "should I stay", but it all feeds into the larger point of this episode about knowing there is no road to take that won't lead to someone claiming you've made the wrong choice, and one of the larger points of this entire show, which is that the application of power or choice in any direction means a vacuum somewhere else, which someone or something will be only too happy to fill.
This is driven home towards the end of the episode, when Bran (who, irony of ironies, can no longer retreat or move in any direction at all himself) learns that Torrhen's Square is under attack, and he sends more or less the entirety of his remaining men to relieve its garrison, leaving Winterfell itself completely vulnerable. If there's a stand/run angle to this, it's whether Bran is willing to stand fast in his duty as a liege lord and protect his vassals, or retreat his own influence into the walls of his own castle, leaving the wider North to defend itself. Two hundred men will only go so far, especially with twenty thousand more far south in the riverlands.
Finally, we turn to Dany, a continent and a half away at least, who's choice at present seems to essentially boil down to exactly how she is going to leave Qarth: on a single ship found for her by Ser Jorah Mormont? Or as part of a mighty fleet, but as Xaro Xhoan Daxos' husband? For now, the Mother of Dragons has sufficient time to keep both options open, but sooner or later she'll have to make a decision. If there's one thing we've learned from the fate of poor Eddard Stark, it's this: in the game of thrones, you choose quickly, or you die.
Some other stray observations:
- Charles Dance's Tywin Lannister and Rosie William's Arya Stark is a truly inspired pairing. Watching an old man of unlimited wealth and massive power trading words with an indomitable "servant" is fascinating, and it's one more thing you can't really imagine any show other than this one doing in quite the same way;
- On the other hand, Jaquen H'ghar isn't quite gelling for me yet. There's something a bit... preppy about him. That said, I did like him pointing out Arya has no call to be complaining about anyone joining up with the Lannisters so long as she remains Tywin's cupbearer;
- "Before I die, please: stop talking."
- Who knew the Dothraki were such kleptos? Well, everyone, I guess, but it was still very funny, and humour is something this show very much needs to keep in mind;
- Pyat Pree is brilliantly cast; far more sinister than I remember his book counterpart. Mind you, there's something a tiny bit LEXX about him, which probably isn't an association the showrunners would appreciate.
- Why does Dany seem surprised/annoyed that Xaro Xhoan Daxos' proposal lacks for romance? That's a response that belongs in this world, not George R R Martin's.