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Well, that was a bit of a bummer, wasn’t it? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not tuning into Game Of Thrones expecting a breezy laugh riot. This is a show with real emotional peaks and valleys—especially heavy on the valleys—so it’s not like I was surprised by the grim content of “Garden Of Bones.” With a title like that, Tyrion is hardly going to start singing show tunes for us, fun as that might be. Still, the episode has a tighter focus, excising a lot of settings (Winterfell, beyond the Wall, Pyke) and upping the intensity as a result.
There’s real plot movement on some fronts, too. After brief scenes in the first two episodes (and nothing in the third), Daenerys finally finds somewhere to hang her dragon boxes by encountering the walled city of Qarth, which appears to be run by a council of thirteen rich, fat bald dudes who are very interested in looking at her pets (and far less interested in the Dothraki stragglers behind her). It’s a little silly of me to describe this scene as “plot movement,” since we barely get a glimpse inside Qarth—it’s all just negotiations over whether Daenerys can get in without exposing her dragons to the council.
Still, it’s a well-played scene, especially on Emilia Clarke’s end. She conveys Daenerys’ natural terrifying Targaryen charisma, threatening to burn the city down once her dragons get big, but it’s also obvious that she’s at her wits’ end. One of the more pleasant rich fat bald dudes, a younger fellow by the name of Xaro Xhoan Daxos (would it shock you to learn that I had to look that name up?), speaks up for Daenerys and gets her inside, but I have a sneaking suspicion that perhaps this is not the end of her journey. I don’t think she’s just going to rent a hotel, put her feet up, and charge 10 bucks for a look at the dragons.
Things have been moving along at a decent clip for most of the Westeros storylines, which is perhaps why Daenerys’ plot seems draggy. Or it might just be the relative blandness of the desert setting when compared to some of the series’ more peculiar locations (although the desert is plenty dramatic, don’t get me wrong). Either way, I’m hoping the mysteries of Qarth will be enough to get things going on this end. One of the most memorable thing about the season one finale was those dragons getting born—that doesn’t have to get paid off this very second, but Daenerys’ journey can’t be coasting on that moment alone for too long either.
Over to grim old Westeros, where things start off positively—Robb wins another victory against the Lannisters, taking their forces by surprise—but otherwise, the horrors of war seem to be setting in. I’m still a little bummed that we haven’t seen a real battle yet on this show. It finds cool ways to get around it, like Tyrion getting whacked in the head last year or Robb’s dramatic secret entrance in the rain here, but before the season is done, I’d love to see a bit of hacking and slashing. Here, we get a view of the aftermath, with Robb interacting (flirting, in a serious sort of way) with a Florence Nightingale-type on the battlefield, and of course it’s a nice bit of character development for steely old Robb, who is one of the show’s least-defined characters.
In the first season, Robb was just the level-headed brother trying to grasp the reins of responsibility while Theon flew off the handle or Jon moped about. There still isn’t a lot more to him—although Richard Madden is doing a fine job in the role—but the only impression we get is his trepidation about the trappings of power (even though he seems to be good at winning battles). So maybe this is laying the groundwork for some future development on his side. He can’t always be in his tent looking at maps and talking to old bearded men.
Robb’s victory has the unfortunate, if predictable effect of throwing Joffrey into a rage, and we’re treated to a heart-rending scene of humiliation where he has Sansa stripped in front of the court at crossbow-point by his jerky bodyguards (although the Hound seems unimpressed by this behavior). Tyrion cements his status as the show’s best character by breaking it up and shaming the knights following Joffrey’s orders (Sansa keeps her cool and proclaims her love for Joffrey again, upping Tyrion’s awed pity for her) and I thought maybe that was it from Joffrey this week. Another friendly reminder of what a piece of shit he is, just in case I fell on my head since last week and forgot.
Except no, that’s not all. Tyrion and Bronn decide that the king is acting out partly because he’s so horny (although, as Bronn notes, just having sex won’t solve his problem—“there’s no cure for being a cunt”). So Tyrion gifts him some prostitutes, which in the Game Of Thrones universe is akin to a fruit basket, at least among the aristocrats. It all goes horribly wrong, though, and descends into a nightmare of torture and death for the two women as Joffrey indulges his sadistic side (while also sending a message to his uncle, although that seems almost beside the point).
I don’t know how much more that scene brought to the table—there’s nobody watching this show who isn’t already convinced that Joffrey is evil incarnate, and that scene with Sansa definitely hints at a nasty sexual streak. But it does cement in our minds that Joffrey isn’t a child, stripping Sansa in front of the court of a whim—there’s a tactical element to what he’s doing with the prostitutes, an attempt to shock and awe his uncle, as well as revel in his own sadomasochistic tendencies.
That was bad enough, but the goings-on at Harrenhal, this new “cursed” castle that Arya has been dragged to, are no picnic either. One definitely gets a whiff of Abu Ghraib from the whole scene—Arya and Gendry and the rest of them are being tortured, one by one, ostensibly for the purposes of war intelligence, but it’s pretty obvious that this is a bunch of kids who know nothing. One thing I wasn’t quite clear on: Is the big bearded dude picking them out for torture the Mountain from last season, the guy who cut off the horse’s head? Because he looks different, but I’m pretty sure Arya was referring to him in her little list of people she’d like dead (an idea taken from the sadly dead Yoren). He may have been recast from his brief (but very memorable) appearance last year.
Either way, it’s a grim scene for poor Arya, alleviated only by the surprising appearance of Tywin Lannister, who shows up being the monster badass that we all remember from last year (The monologue Charles Dance delivers while cutting open that stag remains one of my favorite moments in the whole show). He instantly tells the weird, evil idiots running the show at Harrenhal to stop being weird, evil idiots, points out that Arya’s a girl, and hires her as his cup-holder. It’s not like he’s a good guy, but it’s nice to see a smart villain on this show (Joffrey and company certainly don’t cut it in that regard).
Finally, the grim scale goes off the charts with the return of Stannis, who has a tense, failed meeting with his brother that was one of the best scenes of the episode. Stephen Dillane is doing a great job with this role—as prickly and mean as Stannis is, he’s pretty damn fascinating. That dour intensity could be boring in a lesser actor’s hands, but Dillane makes you aware of all the insecurity below the surface. Stannis might talk big, but he’s definitely cowed by his younger brother’s popularity. So much so that he bids Melisandre (who is her usual chipper self) to go… give birth to a shadowy nightmare monster in a cave. I assume the shadow nightmare monster will immediately get to brokering peace between everyone, and definitely won’t be used for nefarious purposes.
While I’m praising Dillane, I should also throw in some support for Liam Cunningham, who is doing a great job as the increasingly horrified Davos. Cunningham’s been great many times in his years as a journeyman actor—I loved him in Shooting The Past years ago, and his long, unbroken dialogue scene with Michael Fassbender in Hunger is a sight to behold. But as much as I enjoy the Stannis scenes, I’m very much glad Davos is there to keep the audience grounded, and keep Melisandre from dominating the frame with her craziness.
This shadow pregnancy has to be the most outwardly magical the show has been so far, or at least on the level of Drogo’s re-animation last year. Sure, you have Bran looking through the wolf’s eyes, and as far as I know dragons are fantastical creatures, but what Melisandre is up to this season is out-and-out sorcery. It should be a little jarring on a show that mostly apes the wars of the roses and has lots of medieval pageantry and deal-making. But because everything fantastic is introduced so gradually, it comes off well. Melisandre’s birthing doesn’t come from her reading from a spellbook or waving a wand around; it’s tied to her sexual hold over Stannis and his burning desire for power. Game Of Thrones is doing something right if the audience watches the horrifying, bizarre scene that ends this episode and nods, saying, “that makes sense.”
- A little less puppet mastery from Tyrion this time around, but he does make one key discovery—Cersei is bedding her weak-chinned cousin Lancel (the king’s squire from last season who possibly poisoned him with wine) in Jaime’s absence, perhaps coming to the conclusion that a lesser pretty blonde boy is better than no blonde at all. Tyrion’s takedown of Lancel is a lot of fun, but Cersei clearly has more to learn about keeping her cards close to her chest.
- The minute Joffrey picked up that staff with the stag head on it, my stomach turned. Oof.
- Petyr drops by Renly’s tent to bother Margery and later Catelyn, with little effect (although Ned’s remains are now in her hands, which is nice). I love Aidan Gillen in the role but every scene with Petyr is just innuendo upon innuendo, especially with Margery. “You seem quite interested in our marriage.” “Your marriage is quite interesting.”
- The Mountain’s torture method (strap a barrel filled with rats to someone’s chest, then heat it up) is a unique, horrible concept.