Game of Thrones – Wishes and Allegiances in ‘The Ghost of Harrenhal’
"The Ghost of Harrenhal" was the sort of episode every showrunner dreams of making, and for those who don't, well they should. It grabbed us from the opening scenes and really didn't let us go until the very last image showing Arya Stark's faint smile. It showcased the best the series has to offer in terms of characters and storylines, all that without the less attractive and more controversial bits.As Margaery Tyrell said, "Calling yourself king doesn't make you one." For all his mockery, fancy clothes and crown, Renly Baratheon was never a true king, but his death right at the beginning of the episode was an emotional peak that set the tone for the rest of the hour. We will not particularly miss the lord of Storm's End, so it wasn't his passing away that made for great television, but rather how it happened and what followed. The dark shadow (for lack of a better word) so dramatically born from "Lady" Melisandre during the last episode, acquired enough consistency to stab a beaming Renly who was receiving Lady Stark under his tent. Brienne of Tarth, his faithful new guard who was by his side, flew to his rescue only to be attacked by other guards who barged in upon hearing the noise, understandably thinking she murdered their "king". Quicker to react, Lady Stark convinced Brienne she had no business to stay in the camp if she wanted to stay alive.Because of what was being discussed, the terms of the agreement between the Starks and Renly, the killing was designed to take viewers by surprise, and it did. What followed in the camp was no less interesting. While most Renly's bannermen joined forces with Stannis, the Tyrells were convinced by Lord "Littlefinger" Baelish to run, but only after Margaery Tyrell shared her most ardent desire with the member of the king's small council, "No [I don't want to be a queen], I want to be the Queen." This is a Tyrell (and a character) who caught the viewers' attention as soon as she was introduced and who obviously has what it takes to play the game of thrones.Farther north, the frail Arya Stark started her duty as cup-bearer to the unsuspecting Lord Tywin Lannister who was busy with his war council. As his son Tyrion — safely away from his father's ears — put it, "He is very busy. Being repeatedly humiliated by Robb Stark is time consuming". After a show of power by dismissing one of his cousins, Tywin unmasked Arya as a Northerner, but then received a subtle blow from the girl who purportedly talking about Robb Stark said, "Anyone can be killed." The scene worked because Arya was intently starring at Tywin Lannister when she spoke and because we saw the smile disappear from his face in a way that was telling.It took awhile for this season to show a bit of Arya, and when it eventually did, most of what was shown could resonate more with those who have read G.R.R Martin's "A Clash of Kings." In this episode however, there was no need for the additional material from the novel to fully appreciate that moment and those that followed at Harrenhal, leading up to her closing scene's faint smile. What passed between the young Stark and the mysterious man she saved from the fire was intriguing. Part of it was the man's speech and principles, but the other was the fact that she was granted a wish which was her first taste of revenge and to some extent, of justice.Meanwhile at Qarth, the mother of dragons was being courted by everyone in the city, including the rich and powerful Xaro Xhoan Daxos who vouched for her and her people with his blood. It is impressive how Daenerys Targaryen can move effortlessly from being a Khaleesi to being a princess, just as it is remarkable how the show does justice to the world of Westeros (and Essos) in its beauties, wildness, and riches. After keeping her Dothrakis in check, Dany is surprised by Daxos who, as it turns out, is more ambitious than she thought. He vouched for her because he wants to marry her. He knows her claim to the Iron Throne and would finance her conquest. Their conversation started and ended around the subject of People's wishes, around what we want, around what Daxos and Dany each want. The young Targaryen princess is taken by the proposition until a totally different type of human commitment shatters her newfound convictions.During their conversation, Daxos hinted that he suspected her advisor Jorah Mormont was in love with her, so when she sees he is not impressed by her new plans, she lashes out at him, "What do you want?" She is looking for an agenda, maybe love or some other hidden goal, but what she gets is arguably better than love. In a scene where he has all the accents of sincerity, Mormont makes his case for his unflinching allegiance to her and she has no choice (and us with her) but to follow his advice to try and get back her throne on her own. That same commitment is expressed in a scene that, arguably even better than Mormont's, defined the episode.Fleeing Renly's camp, Lady Catelyn Stark and Brienne of Tarth are resting and are discussing what happened back under the tent of the short-lived king. The former kingsguard is thankful to Lady Stark who protected her by risking her own life. While talking, Brienne realizes what her admiration for the northern lady means for her own future and offers her allegiance through a vibrant oath. The scene worked for two reasons: in just a couple of episodes (and a few scenes) we saw enough of Brienne of Tarth to understand that she is uncomplicated in her feelings, and also because, in an unusual move, Catelyn Stark returned the favor by herself making an oath to the strong woman. It worked because we saw enough of Brienne of Tarth to understand she wasn't a sword for hire, but a sword for allegiance. Just like Eddard Stark, she seems to have an old-fashioned sense of honor.All that romanticized vision of knighthood is reinforced by Jorah Mormont's plea to the Khaleesi. Mormont is not exactly an honest man, but ever since he met Dany, we have seen him turn his back on an offer to go home, something he really wanted. Unlike a lover who would want his feelings returned, unlike an ambitious man who would like to get something out of his relationship with Daenerys Targaryen, he seems simply honored to serve his princess, just like Brienne who asked for the honor of serving Lady Stark. All that is why I think the episode would have been better served with a title like "The Oaths." (Jorah Mormont to Dany: "Someone who can rule and should rule, centuries come and go without a person like that coming into the world," he then added, "There are times when I look at you and I still can't believe you're real")Between all those strong moments, "The Ghost of Harrenhal" was filled with shorter storylines effectively allowing us to rest between each emotional spike. There were the ever tantalizing Bran Stark's dreams, there were Theon Greyjoy's hopes of proving his worth, there was Jon Snow's getting to act like a ranger, and there were Tyrion Lannister's schemings and entertaining conversations. After this episode, it is clear to me that I am becoming partial to women in Game of Thrones, but not as a reaction to the critics. It is simply that so far, the show seems to be at its best when its female characters are given center stage, which was the case here again.