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One of the most appealing things about Game Of Thrones as a fantasy narrative is the lack of magic at the core of its story. Magic exists on the outskirts of the world—Danaerys in the Dothraki Sea with her dragons, Jon Snow and the Others beyond, at the wall—but the bulk of the story, taking place in the Seven Kingdoms, has entirely revolved around human concerns. “Fantasy” as a genre usually means Tolkien-esque heroic quests, filled with prophecies, gods, and wizards, making Game Of Thrones’ focus on entirely human-scale drama a breath of fresh air. All that disappears in tonight’s episode, when Melisandre’s shadow Stannis assassinates King Renly.

The increased importance of Stannis and Renly as characters had built up dramatic potential in previous episodes. Both opposed the Lannisters, and both were sympathetic in many respects. But they also disdained Robb Stark’s claim as King In The North, and were more than willing to fight one another, proving that petty ambition mixed with righteous certainty could be a poisonous combination. That balance is gone, thanks to Melisandre, whose magical ability shattered the rules that govern Game Of Thrones’ world. It feels disappointing, more like a narrative cheat than a fascinating narrative twist. Out of nowhere, an interesting, major character like Renly is simply removed from the board. It feels like it breaks the rules of this world, which is negative, as opposed to Ned’s death, which was positive (if shocking) because it violated the expectations of narrative.

Despite the problematic nature of Renly’s death, it does help tie “Ghost Of Harrenhal” together. Arya Stark puts it best, if a little bit too blatantly: “Anyone can be killed.” The episode’s title comes from an alliance between Arya and Jaqen H’ghar, the odd foreign man she rescued from chains in the midst of a battle two episodes ago. Jaqen promises Arya three deaths for the three lives she saved. With her first, she asks for the torturer known as “The Tickler” to die, which happens. “The Ghost Of Harrenhal” is a pre-pubescent girl, acquainted with violence well beyond her years.

The chaos unleashed by the war and intrigue of Game Of Thrones doesn’t kill just “anyone,” though. It’s primarily the men that die. In some cases, it turns women into warriors. Arya Stark has killed before, stabbing a stable boy who attempted to capture her in the first season. Now she’s a righteous ghost, assassinating the most evil men when they hold too much power.

Brienne of Tarth, the show’s other female warrior, gets the spotlight in this episode. Serving as Renly’s guard when he gets assassinated by Melisandre’s shadow, she is instantly blamed for Renly’s death and is forced to kill two knights. She and Catelyn flee, and eventually, Brienne, confused about her future and shocked by Renly’s death, swears her allegiance to her fellow fugitive. It’s a wonderful little scene, about how war destroys the social order. The patriarchs—Renly and Ned, in this case—are dead, so these two women re-enact one of the strongest bonds of Westerosi patriarchy, the knighthood ceremony. Brienne’s confusion, and her immediate attachment to Cat’s strength, are more over the top than Gwendolyn Christie, but it works in the end: she really was that loyal to Renly, and that shaken up by his death. That scene appears below.

Two other women are thrust into power by death during this episode. Margaery Tyrell, with her husband dead and many of his lords transferring their loyalty to Stannis, has choices to make. Littlefinger approaches her and asks: “Do you want to be a queen?” “No. I want to be the queen.” His sly smile suggests a plan, and with Margaery embodying the powerful, wealthy House Tyrell on Game Of Thrones, this could be interesting as it develops.

There’s also Dany, a woman thrust into power by the deaths of two patriarchs: her brother Viserys, the former heir to the Targaryen crown, and her husband Drogo, the Dothraki Khal. Dany’s name, connections, and dragons maintain some level of power for her. But with only the power of influence, she has to negotiate constantly to maintain it, while increasing her more direct forms of power. I like where the show is going with Danaerys in Qarth. The city and its people are off-putting: her host proposes marriage, a warlock performs apparent magic for her, and a strange woman with her face almost entirely covered by a scaled mask talks to Ser Jorah. There’s a strong connection between the oddness of Dany’s surroundings and the precariousness of her situation. The foreign nature of Dany’s location of the story acts as an interesting balance to the more conventional culture of the Seven Kingdoms.

Anyone can be killed in the world of Game Of Thrones for any reason now, including magic. And while I may dislike the magical assassination that drives “The Ghost Of Harrenhal,” this is a story about the effects of war and death. If anyone can die, then anyone can pick up the pieces. And if it’s always the men who die, the pieces are left for the women.


Many of the best scenes in “The Ghost Of Harrenhal” were actually taken primarily from the novels, like Catelyn and Brienne’s exchange, instead of being created for the show. There were a few minor changes, but seeing Littlefinger start negotiating with Margaery and demonstrating the specificity of her ambition to become queen was the only major change.

The most successfully adapted scene, though, was in Winterfell, as Bran filled in as lord with more confidence, quickly responding to petitioners with apparently beneficial effects, as when he sent two orphans to help an overburdened shepherd. Bran is probably the character who has been treated the worst in the adaptation from page to screen, as most of his chapters were primarily internal monologues, as he comes to terms with his injury as well as his connection to his direwolf. It may be a little late, but it’s a demonstration that Game Of Thrones remembers that there are important characters and places away from the front lines.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance pop culture critic currently living in the Bay Area. He is a staff writer at The A.V. Club, covering television and literature. He also writes about video games for several different publications, including Joystiq and Paste Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser for unimportant musings on media and extremely important kitten photographs.

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