Episode five this week, “The Ghost of Harrenhal” is the other foot dropping, the big exhalation, the extroverted sibling — whatever metaphor suits you — to last week’s somewhat grinding set-up. Much and more goes on with some decisive turns, if you can keep up with them. This is where perhaps the clever map of the opening credits comes in handy, to spatialize the drama and ease the sense of narrative whiplash. The show has many balls in the air, some will say too many, and the most significant casualty if they mishandle the ensemble will be, well, significance itself. This week also loads up on zingers, so let’s see if they’re enough to rescue character motivation, empathy, and a sense of narrative purpose.
Casting issue: resolved.
First and foremost, Renly’s (Gethin Anthony) complexities are behind him. “He would have been a true king, a good king,” laments Loras (Finn Jones), and luckily for those who cast Gethin Anthony and wrote his dialogue, we’ll never know. While the threat that anyone may be snuffed out bestows a sense of precarious dread on the audience or reader, the flaws of George Martin’s anti-narrative tactic carry onto screen. TV-Renly was nagged by family ties, hard decisions faced with a magnanimous demeanour, an ambivalently scheming but supportive wife, an insecure jerk-off boyfriend, inner demons about his sexuality, and surely a gaggle of tawdry gossipers and lordly homophobes. Sounds interesting doesn’t it? Too bad, he’s dead. So all the potential and wonder — not just what would happen if he lived, but our stimulation over what could happen — gone.
Ten new characters can (and will) fill the void, but they all start from scratch. The fresh-struck bond between Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) and Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) almost moved me, but how much can we care about this giantess so far? We need time. Time allows change, and we got some with Renly (my objections about his portrayal notwithstanding) and that trajectory is snuffed out. What will Margaery (Natalie Dormer) and Loras do now? Who cares? They’ll probably go with Baelish (Aidan Gillen), and what he does with them will interest me because he’s earned my alignment through time spent. She’ll probably get her boobs out, but I hope it doesn’t kill the drama like it did last week.
I felt the same with Viserys (Harry Lloyd) in season one (about him dying, not his boobs), because his expectations conflicted so strongly with his environment, and the heady possibilities were ultimately traded for a gripping spectacle and moral about humility. Ned I was happy to see go — it stayed true to his unyielding morality and methods, and his conflict wasn’t going anywhere.
And speaking of not going anywhere — someone send a raven to Theon (Alfie Allen) and tell him to get a wriggle on. The whole spurned-by-his-crew thing was weak; it would have been improved by coming off the back of a village raid, but then that would have meant culling another dreary one-dimensional scene of sibling rivalry. WE GET IT. Move on. Theon hatches a great plan with Dagmer Cleftjaw (Ralph Ineson) before so much as wetting a boot, but this should have developed out of Theon’s experiences and frustrations, after proving his proficiency at these measly raids. As it stands, he did nothing to earn Dagmer’s old-mate kindly ear; apparently it just happened to be time for him to run into someone nice before he got a chance to finger them on a horse. He made his hard choice last week — he should have torn into it this week, the point of no return.