Garden Of Bones was perhaps my least favorite episode of Game Of Thrones, period. The show has been such a success that seeing it struggle so much is a surprise. It’s still competent and watchable, but Garden Of Bones was frayed at the edges.

nullThe novel this season of Game Of Thrones is based on is called A Clash Of Kings, which makes the story clear: that of the civil war that followed Cersei’s coup and Ned’s execution. Despite the presence of multiple kings, none of them have “clashed” directly, either with blades or with words. Ever since the trailer showed bits and pieces of Stannis’ confrontation with Renly, I’ve been waiting for this scene, prepared to do an in-depth analysis of how it demonstrated the show’s themes surrounding power and legitimacy. Instead, what I got was an example of what’s wrong with Garden Of Bones, which could also make bigger problems for the show in the future.

Watch the scene here:

Two narrative questions arise immediately with the scene: why are Stannis and Renly fighting each other, and where are they fighting? Game Of Thrones’ issues with geography are highlighted here: we don’t know where Renly’s camp is, so we don’t know why this confrontation is meaningful. Shouldn’t Renly be surprised that his brother is attacking him, instead of the Lannisters? But there’s no buildup in either case—previous scenes from Renly’s camp are about the presence of Littlefinger, and it’s the first time in the episode we see Stannis at all. The stakes of this meeting are as high as any we’ve seen in the show, and instead, it’s confusing. 

Clarity has been lost in the translation from the page to the screen. In the novel, location questions are clearly answered. Renly has the strength of two of the Seven Kingdoms, Stannis, one weak kingdom. So Stannis launches a surprise attack against Renly’s capital, which makes Renly stop his march against Joffrey in the capital. There are both strategic and character-based reasons for the confrontation. The location is unclear, which tends to be when Game Of Thrones is at its weakest. (This is worsened in the episode’s final scene, when Davos smuggles Melisandre . . . somewhere?)

Once the characters start speaking, the confrontation becomes more he-said-she-said than tense and meaningful. Stannis makes small talk with Catelyn, she responds. Renly teases Stannis, he responds. More teasing, and Melisandre responds. It sounds a little bit like a radio play, where the actors record their lines in a studio at different times. This may be an intentional choice by the director: the Baratheon brothers have never gone to war with one another, so perhaps Game Of Thrones is portraying their internal struggle as externally stilted.

And it rings falsely. The worst offender is Cat Stark, whose “Listen to yourselves. If you were sons of mine I would knock your heads together until you remembered that you were brothers” is monumentally misguided (though the line is from the novel, it’s taken almost entirely out of context here). So far this season, Catelyn has been the voice of reason, telling Robb that sending Theon to Pyke was a bad idea, and recognizing Renly’s “summer knights” last week.  Here she comes across as peevish and undiplomatic, ruining whatever tiny chance this meeting had at being good for the realm.

Stephen Dillane’s performance as Stannis also leaves something to be desired. He’s supposed to be rigid, so certain of his claim to the throne that he doesn’t comprehend anything else. But what comes across is confusion and boredom. He tells Renly, “You think a few bolts of cloth will make you king?” and tilts his head like a cat. There’s no anger here, nor really anywhere in the entire scene, which would help it make more sense.

Some drama is salvaged at the end, after Stannis delivers an ultimatum. Melisandre turns to Renly and says, “Look to your sins, Lord Renly. The night is dark and full of terrors.” This is the first thing that gives any of the four characters speaking in the scene any pause, as Renly finally realizes the implications of the civil war he’s engaging in.

This scene isn’t the only weak one in Garden Of Bones. Robb Stark returns to our screen, winning a battle and then dealing with the aftermath. First he meets with one of his bannermen, a flaying-happy Lord Roose Bolton, then he meets a woman aiding the injured. I suppose we’re supposed to see some romantic chemistry here, but it comes across as just one more thing to keep track of.

Littlefinger’s visit to King Renly’s camp was dull as well. Why he’s there is never made clear—is he upset at Tyrion’s withdrawn promise of a new lordship? And how long did it take him to get to the camp? Is Renly so close to the capital? His scene with Margaery Tyrell frustrates as well. He bothers her about Renly’s sexuality, but this is such an ill-kept secret that Lannister soldiers were joking about it at the start of the episode. And there’s no real conclusion to the episode, simply Melisandre giving “birth” to something supernatural. It’s ominous, but detached from the story. Garden Of Bones has no narrative arc.

The other half of the episode does far better. Dany’s introduction to the city of Qarth, “the greatest city that ever was and ever will be,” gives it an immediate sense of place. Tyrion’s attempts to combat the worst impulses of Cersei and Joffrey are as entertaining and tense as ever, and he gets the line of the night with, “That was a threat. See the difference!” And Arya’s introduction to the Lannister stronghold of Harrenhal is ominous enough before she gets invited to be Lord Tywin Lannister’s cup-bearer. Garden Of Bones lays the groundwork for dramatic things to happen later with Robb Stark, Danaerys discovering Qarth, and Arya in the belly of the Lannister beast, but it’s worrying that the episode botches the most important scene of the season .


Littlefinger’s presence in Renly’s camp at this point is a huge deviation from the novels, possibly the biggest of the series to date. It’s also an entirely negative deviation. The scene with Margaery was unpleasant. It’s his explicit offer to Cat from Tyrion that changes things the most, although most of that will take place in the future.

On the brighter side, I’m all for Arya interacting with Tywin Lannister, something that didn’t happen in A Clash Of Kings. And the depiction of Joffrey’s sociopathy, forcing prostitutes hired by Tyrion to beat each other for his pleasure, was different from the page in a way that was fairly necessary, since it had been shown previously via memory.

Still, I can’t help but compare the Stannis/Renly confrontation and shake my head at the missed opportunity. In the book, Renly eats a peach in the middle of it, adding an air of symbolic ambiguity that haunts Stannis afterward. There’s no peach on-screen, even though it probably would be better visually. And poor Cat looking like an idiot compared to lines like this:

“This is folly,” Catelyn said sharply. “Lord Tywin sits at Harrenhal with twenty thousand swords. The remnants of the Kingslayer’s army have regrouped at the Golden Tooth, another Lannister host gathers beneath the shadow of Casterly Rock, and Cersei and her son hold King’s Landing and your precious Iron Throne. You each name yourself king, yet the kingdom bleeds, and no one lifts a sword to defend it but my son.”

Where was this depth on the screen?


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.


  1. The characters can be confusing at first and I really do hope that Joffrey gets what’s coming to him real soon. I wish I got the chance to watch this on TV last Sunday, but I did get a chance to watch it yesterday using HBO GO through Dish Online, it’s a place I can go to find new entertainment as well as catch up on TV shows I’ve missed on TV. As a Dish customer and employee I have access to a ton of movies and TV shows that I can access anywhere I’m connected online (and this is also for non Dish customers too). As far as Game of Thrones goes, it’s the one of the best shows out there right now and I really like it, and I can’t wait until the next episode.


  2. I loved your interesting review. Your the first reviewer who I have read that had something negative to say. I too disliked this episode but for different reasons. Joffrey's scene made me so uncomfortable that I found it hard to watch. I don't enjoy watching things that extreme and if I did not love the books so completely I would stop watching the show.
    Littlefinger was at the camp b/c Tyrion asked him to go convince Cat to release Jamie. But how did he know where she was? And I agree how did he get there so fast!! That was just silly.
    Thanks for the interesting review.


  3. A surprisingly good review.

    Im especially surprised that someone spoke about failed Stannis-Renly scene, which i have been saying from the first preview of it while hoping it wont turn out that bad.
    I never really hoped for the peach since that kind of depth (pretty simple and effective actually) is just beyond this show reach or grasp.
    It was however very disappointing i turned out to be right in the end.
    Catelyn included although i dont expect any depth from that character in the show since the devaluation from the first season.

    I would add that this episode did not infact had a good second half. Daenerys-Qarth scene was bad from Qarth and her perspective.
    There was no reason for thirteen to come out in front of the walls to see her or to demand seeing the dragons. There was no reason for her to come in front of the walls – beginning.
    not only its unseemly but its tactically outrageous. She is effectively putting herself and everything she has at mercy of a vast city she knows nothing about and its armies.
    (representatives of the city could have easily come to her with her scout coming back, similar as in the novel, regardless where she is waiting for them)

    The Thirteen can see dragons easily once that rag tag group was inside and in clutches of their combined power, anyway.

    In the novel it all works because her entrance into the city is arranged well before she comes to it and then is reinforced by the power structure within the city who work with and against each other to maintain the balance. And almost religious tones she has as an actual Mother of dragons for those more esoteric or mystical among them.

    Lets not forget that awful "if you dont let us in we will die" followed by "if you dont let us in we will come back and burn the city down".
    Also the "where i come from…" line. She doesnt come from anywhere. She was a refugee all her life, hiding and being constantly relocated around by her brother.

    Something similar can be said about the Harenhall scene and Tywin being turned into a reasonable grandad figure who goes around taking random girls to be his cup bearers where they can be privy to all his meetings and dealings and plans.
    Like – yeah right.
    Pull another one tv show, wont you?

    As for Littlefinger tv clone his worst offense was, in my opinion, coming onto cat while proclaiming it was destiny that her husband was killed so they two can … be together?
    I mean… Hahahahaha?

    This Littlefinger is just ridiculously incapable and so openly a general asshole that i cant, for the life of me figure out why isnt he killed outright since long ago.
    But i guess i resigned about him being some other kind of Baelish since the first season so i dont even look at his scenes seriously anymore.
    These however went several notches above the worst example from the previous season.
    Shame for a waste of an excellent actor, really.

    I would say im finding the Hot Pie boy great so far, and especially Sophie Turner as Sansa – who grew the most of all actors from the first season.
    Isaac Hampstead Wright is equally excellent and awesome continuously since the beginning and new Davos Liam Cunningham is keeping the candle glowing for those other two as much as real one ever did.


  4. Rowan, I enjoy your reviews, and agree with this one particularly. However, I think the unclear geography surrounding the Davos/Melisandre smuggle and demon birth sequence was fine, as it adds to the suspense of the shadow's exact function leading into next week. As readers, we know this particular event happened under Storm's End, which was apparently cut to streamline the story. In the show, we know from the landscape and green screen shots that Renly's camp is on the coast, so it's plausible for the viewer to assume that the seaside grotto lies somewhere beneath or nearby the camp.

    But, yes, the Stannis/Renly parle was very disappointing for the character reasons you describe. And narratively, it was an opportunity to summarize the status of the war for the viewer. Cat's book quote you excerpted would've fit wonderfully in this episdode if not for the very reason we see both Robb and Tywin this episode. The show is typcially great at transitioning from scene to scene and gluing the story lines together. That line would've tied together a breathless episode. Also, Cat's political competence was most prominent in COK, and to continually see her character watered down — the object of manipulation rather than an agent of reason — is unfortunate.


  5. I definitely understand the points made here, especially when it comes to an unclear geography. However, I don't think it handicaps the show that much. From a reviewers aspect, details like this become nitpicks to hang on to, for the average viewer I don't think it becomes that big of an issue. I haven't read the books, nor do I focus too much on the geography of the show. The north is the north, and as a viewer I've just accepted that there will be run-ins with sometimes little build up or clarity as to location or circumstance.


  6. "And the depiction of Joffrey’s sociopathy, forcing prostitutes hired by Tyrion to beat each other for his pleasure, was different from the page in a way that was fairly necessary, since it had been shown previously via memory."

    This is false. The scene is entirely new. In the book Tyrion thinks to himself that perhaps getting some whores smuggled into Joff would calm down his nephew, but he never does it (he's trying to think about how to get the Hound out of the way).

    Now Joff is a few years older in the show. But still, it was a completely unnecessary scene.


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