Due to popular demand, and the increasing addiction of the entire staff to the show, we're going to be covering HBO's fantasy epic "Game Of Thrones" episode-by-episode for the rest of the season. You can find our verdict on the first four episodes here, and below is our take on episode five, "The Ghost Of Harrenhal" and episode six, "The Old Gods And The New." Look for recaps of new episodes on Monday morning from now on. Oh, and we haven't read the books, so please, no spoilers in the comments, thanks.
As the mid-point of the series, episode five and six of the first season of "Game of Thrones" was when, to borrow an old Dothraki term, shit got real. Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) was in prison, accused of attempting to murder Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) by the boy's mother, Catelyn (Michelle Fairley). A rift was created between King Robert (Mark Addy) and his hand, Ned Stark (Sean Bean), which was only worsened by Tyrion's brother Jamie (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) attacking Ned in the street, as vengeance for his brother's capture. Viserys Targaeryn discovered he wasn't fireproof in the most definitive way by having a pot of molten gold dumped on his head by his sister's husband, Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa). Oh, and a horse got beheaded.
Of course, shit has only gotten more real. Three of those mentioned above are now dead, the Seven Kingdoms are at war thanks to the positively psychotic King Joffrey, and the characters are scattered to the wind. It's not looking particularly good for any of them. But it's a mark of the way that showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss keep raising the stakes to unimaginable levels (working of course, from George R. R. Martin's source material) that after the fifth and sixth episode of season two, things look grimmer than ever for all concerned.
The show's shown an absolute disregard for the life of its characters, something proven in the opening of last week's "The Ghost Of Harrenhal" when the shadow creature birthed by rarely-clothed sorceress Melisandre (Carice Van Houten) murdered Renly Baratheon (Gethin Anthony) who, having forged an alliance with Catelyn Stark, was looking like a frontrunner in the war. It's the kind of death that could be a season-finale cliffhanger, but here it's tossed off before the credits, and any hope of a quick end to the war dies with Renly (we're sad to see Gethin Anthony go as the young actor has been ace in the part, and we hope we'll be seeing him again on screen before too long).
Catelyn and Renly's sworn protector Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) were the only people in the room when it happened, and guards find Renly's body in Brienne's arms. She dispatches them quickly and the two are soon on the run together, Brienne swearing loyalty to her new pal (in an awkward scene that might mark the low-point of the second season so far — Fairley and Christie are among the most fiercely sincere actors on the show, but the dialogue just came across as a series of emphatic statements). We're perhaps more interested in what's brewing with Renly's widow Margaery Tyrell (the excellent Natalie Dormer), who looks as if she'll be a major figure to come, and with the relationship between his brother Stannis (Stephen Dillane), who's out to conquer the capital, and his lieutenant Davos (Liam Cunningham, arguably our favorite of the new characters). They both skip out episode six, though, so we're a while away from any new news from the pair.
The bigger question is whether King's Landing will still be standing by the time Stannis gets there. The show's done an excellent job of building up the sense that King Joffrey (Jack Gleason) is as unpopular with his subjects as he is with viewers (most of the people we know spend 20-30 minutes of every day fantasizing about his grisly death), and it all came to a head in episode six, with a riot as terrifying as any scene the show has done so far. Between the priest being torn apart limb from limb to the attempted rape of Sansa Stark, saved only by The Hound — Sophie Turner and Rory McCann have now set up one of the more promising relationships in the show — it was virtually a horror film, and Tyrion's fury at his nephew, accompanied by another satisfying slap, shows how he's reached the end of his tether with the little shit. We're interested in seeing how the WMD-like wildfire plays out too, but we can't imagine it'll be good news for anyone. If we've got a quibble, it's one with one particular actress — Sibil Kekilli, who plays Tyrion's courtesan, and Sansa's handmaiden. She did great work in Fatih Akin's "Head-On," but seems to be struggling with English language delivery a little, and it robs her scene with Sansa of much of the power it could have had.
Perhaps our favorite segments these days are up in Harrenhal, where Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) has been enlisted as a cup-bearer to Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance), the man at war with her brother Robb. Among an amazing cast, Williams has been the real discovery; the 15-year-old actress has been knocking it out of the park on a regular basis, and we can only imagine what a huge star she's going to be when she's older. Her interactions with Tywin have been fascinating to watch, and the show's really taken its time to round out a man who could have been merely severe and villainous, and Dance has really reminded us what a superb actor he can be with the right material. But we wonder how long he'll be for the world, as by our count, Arya's owed one more kill from her badass ninja pal, and he'd seem like an obvious target to us. Then again, things rarely go well for the good guys on this show, if there are such things, so we're a little doubtful as to how that'll play out.
Meanwhile, Arya's half-brother Jon Snow (Kit Harington) got to have a little fun, at least relatively speaking — out north of the wall, he was left to kill a wildling woman (Rose Leslie — if she looks familiar, she played maid Gwen in "Downton Abbey"). He has mercy, and the two end up snuggling for survival. Will his vows of chastity last much longer? We have to say, Jon Snow's storylines have been the weak link of Season Two to date. It feels like the writers are spinning their wheels a bit, and we hope we get some actual movement at some point too, because we keep rolling our eyes a little every time we see a snowy landcape. Snow's brother Robb Stark (Richard Madden) has sex on the brain too, thanks to some heavy flirting with lady-turned-nursemaid Talisa (Oona Chaplin, Charlie's granddaughter). His mother, back from her travels, reminds him that he's promised to another, but it's all soon forgotten anyway, thanks to the events at their home of Winterfell.
The major development of "The Old Gods And The New" (and one that happened quite abruptly) is the occupation of Winterfell by the Starks' one-time ward/hostage Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), out to win the approval of his father. He marches in to the disabled Bran Stark's bedroom and demands that he surrender, only to find himself facing resistance from the castle's elders, leading him to execute the excellently-bearded Rodrik Cassel. The development of Theon has been one of season two's delights; it's become increasingly clear what a weak and lost character he is, and Allen's really impressed in the role. His botched beheading of Cassel, which ends with him just kicking the old man's head off, is one of the most brutal moments of the series to date, but also a fine bit of character writing. He might be in charge of Winterfell for now, but we can't see that lasting long, particularly now the Stark children Bran and Rickon (i.e. the pointless one) have broken out, thanks to the plotting of wildling girl Osha (Natalie Tena, who's grown into the part nicely, and gets her finest moment to date here).
Finally, across the Narrow Sea, things are looking equally grim for Danaerys. Accepted into the deeply weird city of Qarth (arguably our favorite location to date), all seemed rosy for a while, even if she's not keen on accepting the proposal of suitor Xaro (Nonso Anozie, who's been excellent, but needs for the writers to ease up on the lines about how rich he is). But her feistiness seems to have rubbed someone up the wrong way, returning to Xaro's palace to find her entire entourage slaughtered, and her precious baby dragons stolen away. Was it the obese Spice King (Nicholas Blane)? Those creepy warlock dudes? We imagine we'll find out next week, but as ever, it's been a case of one step forward, two steps back for Danaerys, although it's been carried off in a satisfying way, in part thanks to Emilia Clarke, who simply gets better and better in the role.
The show didn't miss a beat going into the second season, and with an ever-growing audience, seems to have survived both the killing off of many of its star names, and introducing more out-there fantasy elements. The two episodes in the last couple of weeks have been the highpoint of the series so far for certain, but if Benioff and Weiss follow the form of the first season, things are only going to get more heated in the remaining four.
"The Ghost Of Harrenhal" [A-]
"The Old Gods And The New" [A]
Bits And Pieces
– Notable absences this week, aside from Stannis & co, were Jorah Mormont, who didn't seem to among the casualties in Qarth, and Jamie Lannister. In fact, the latter's been AWOL, imprisoned in Robb's camp since the start of the series. Presumably we'll get movement on him before too long.
– A smaller role for Bronn this week, which was a touch disappointing for fans of our favorite mercenary/Tyrion sidekick. Fun fact about actor Jerome Flynn, who plays the character: together with fellow actor Robson Jerome, he topped the U.K. charts in the 1990s a number of times, with tracks like the one below. A far cry from his "Game Of Thrones" character, for sure.
– Rory McCann, who plays The Hound, has a bunch of credits behind him, including the original TV version of "State of Play" and Oliver Stone's "Alexander," but we'll always think of him as Lurch in "Hot Fuzz." Yarp.
– While it's obviously a result of budget limitations, we'd been getting a little tired of the 'oh, man, that was some battle you just missed' approach to the large scale conflict, so it was nice to see how brutal and chaotic the riot scene was. Good direction from TV veteran David Nutter ("The X-Files," "Smallville").
– Titles: "The Ghost Of Harrenhal" presumably refers to Arya's ninja pal, but what about "The Old Gods And The New?" There's been a fair amount of discussion about religion in the show (as best as we can tell, the Starks & co. worship older, nature-based gods, while there's a more recent religion in the South. And Melisandre seems to be part of something new, worshipping 'the Red God.'
– Joffrey Death Day-Dream Of The Week: Remember in the first season, when Khal Drogo ripped out that guy's tongue through his throat? That, but for 'tongue' read 'teeth.'