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.

nullThe 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.


  1. New forums about the books and the tv show are open.

    Its basically a forum for people that cant find a right free place to
    comment on game of thrones and the books without being required to say
    how awesome it is every two sentences.

    Its not limited only to that, as you can already see, but the rest will be expanded further.

    I just thought this day is very auspicious for the "big" opening.



  2. Much better episode than the last one which was the worst yet. And possibly the worst in the whole series so far.

    There are a few things that were missed again and turned out as lesser quality, again. Not just because they were changes, as others such as changes to Qarth and Xsaro Xsoan Daxos worked reasonably well enough, but because they were simply not good or sufficient.

    There was no Loras rage – at all. The death of Renly, how ever much i welcome the death of this fake Renly, was subpar to the book version.
    The continuation with Catelyn urging Brienne to run away looked unconvincing as result and their interaction later, including Briennes vow to Catelyn almost made no sense except superficially.

    Bravery? What bravery? What did this Catelyn show of it?

    Charless Dance is always great… but thats not Lord Tywin Lannister. This is some well meaning grandad. Its the failure of the script. Again.

    Very nice work by Maisie Williams there. Finally we see the girl can go deeper too. And thus deserves to be have Aryas name more than just superficially. I did like her from the start but her role was scrpted badly in the first few episodes. Until this one.

    The new Jaqen Hghar, Tom Wlaschiha, continues to do well enough, also.
    Very, very close to the original character.

    Ironborn are not so dirty and have no reason to be, mkay? That just looks silly and Daghmar Cleftjaw is a much bigger and better character than that.
    The man is an Ironborn living legend almost. But we could put that as one of the changes in scope that are necessary. Even if it could have been easily pulled off.
    Not to mention someone very well known to Theon.

    Beyond the wall was nice and good. No major bad things as that horrible encounter with ridiculous tv version of Others Jon had at Crasters.
    Dolorous Edd and Sam helped a lot. And another shot of Ghost who was visible even in all of that snow, for once. eh?

    I did like the "exchange" between Jorah and Daenerys, especially as it wasnt cheap, shallow and blatantly in viewers faces as most of the show is.
    Wish there was more of it.

    Bran chapters work reasonably well as excellent Isaac Hampsted Wright and 🙂 maester Luwin hold it together, despite all the changes to it.

    I would argue that as characters, the ones that got the worst of it are Catelyn, Renly, Tywin Lannister, Clegane brothers and Littlefinger. Fortunately Renly is gone and Littlefinger had very little to say this episode, even more fortunately, without Ros anywhere near.


  3. I really enjoy your recaps, but

    That balance is gone, thanks to Melisandre, whose magical ability shattered the rules that govern Game Of Thrones’ world.

    I can't really agree with this. I wasn't delighted by how the shadow-baby was implemented visually and otherwise, but the return of magic to the realm has been a theme of the show since the very first episode.

    To keep the magic out of the central political conflict and war would be even more artificial – the two need to engage for the story to be what it is. If anything, what I appreciate about the magic in Game of Thrones is that it mostly serves to create problems, rather than solve them a la Harry Potter. And while the shadow-baby may seem "overpowered" in some ways, it still operates by the fairly rigid rule that has been used to explain magic elsewhere – having to pay for life with death, or for death with life.


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