A Brief Treatise on the Rules of Thrones 2.05: The Ghost of Harrenhal


State of Play

The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly:

Lions of King’s Landing: Tyrion Lannister, Cersei Lannister
The Direwolf, Catelyn Stark
Dragons of Qarth: Daenerys Targaryen
The Mockingbird, Petyr Baelish
Direwolves of the Wall: Jon Snow
Lions of Harrenhal: Tywin Lannister
The Ship, Davos Seaworth
Kraken of Winterfell or maybe Pyke: Theon Greyjoy
Archers of the Wall: Samwell Tarly
Direwolves of Winterfell: Brandon Stark
Direwolves of Harrenhal: Arya Stark
The Burning Heart, Stannis Baratheon
The Rose, Margery Tyrell
Bears of the Wall: Jeor Mormont
Chains of King’s Landing: Bronn

The episode is in fourteen parts. The first is four minutes long and is in sections; it is set in Renly Baratheon’s camp. The first section is three minutes long. The opening image is of a bustling path through the camp. It features the death of two of Renly’s Kingsguard, stabbed by Brienne of Tarth, and of Renly Baratheon, killed by a shadow. The second is two minutes long; the transition is by music, with Stannis Baratheon’s theme playing over Renly’s body and then over Stannis’s fleet as it sails to claim the camp. 

The second part is three minutes long; it is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by dialogue, from Littlefinger saying “the queen” to the queen, and by dialogue, with her and Tyrion talking about Stannis. 

The third is two minutes long; it is set in Renly Baratheon’s camp. The transition is by dialogue, from Tyrion talking about defending King’s Landing from Stannis’s inevitable assault to Stannis, and with Stannis planning his assault on King’s Landing and both talking about religion.

The fourth is two minutes long and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by dialogue, from Stannis and Davos talking about attacking King’s Landing to King’s Landing and Tyrion talking about defending from Stannis.
The fifth is four minutes long and is set on Pyke. The transition is by dialogue, from Tyrion being called a demon monkey to Theon. 

The sixth is six minutes long and is set in Harrenhal. The transition is by dialogue, from Theon talking about the Starks to Arya, and to Tywin talking about the Starks.

The seventh is six minutes long and is set north of the Wall. The transition is by family, from Arya to Jon Snow.

The eighth is three minutes long and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by hard cut, from Jon Snow to the window of the pyromancer’s lair. 

The ninth is six minutes long and is set in Qarth. The transition is by dialogue, from the pyromancer talking about wildfire and the Targaryens to Daenerys and her dragons breathing fire. 

The tenth is three minutes long and is set in a forest. The transition is by theme, from the Warlocks of Qarth’s magic to a discussion about Stannis’s. 

The eleventh is three minuets long and is set in Winterfell. The transition is by family, from Catelyn to Bran and Rickon. 

The twelfth is three minutes long and is set North of the Wall. The transition is by family, from Bran to Jon Snow, and by dialogue, from Osha and Bran talking about life North of the Wall to the Halfhand talking about Wildlings.

The thirteenth is five minutes long and is set in Qarth. The transition is by family, from Jon Snow to Daenerys Targaryen.

The last is one minute long and is set in Harrenhal. The transition is by image, from Daenerys, Mother of Dragons surrounded by candles to Gendry pulling a red hot sword from the fire. The final image is of Arya Stark, smiling like she’s just solved a riddle whose answer is chess. 


“Even torturing you is boring,” Tyrion says to his cousin at one point, and feels dangerously close to expressing a more basic sort of ennui. Structurally, this episode is beating a tired drum. It’s framed by two magic-enhanced murders, the first by the Lord of Light, the second by the Many-Faced God. Within are mainly politics. 

In practical terms, the most interesting element is the death of Renly. Those who watch television with an eye towards production details will, of course, have read no small amount into the fact that Gethin Anthony was not elevated to a season regular, particularly given that Natalie Dormer debuted as one, a fact that flagged him pretty clearly as a dead king walking. All the same, his death is structurally well-played, resolving last episode’s cliffhanger of suddenly erupting magic within the heart of Westeros instead of at the edges of the board, and, more to the point, putting a shock beat at the exact opposite end of an episode from where it would normally be expected. 

His death also allows the season to start the countdown to Stannis’s attack on King’s Landing, the imminence of which will provide a major dramatic engine for the back half of the season. This gives Tyrion something to do, but also means that his scenes are less rawly entertaining than in the first section of the season. In the first four episodes, Tyrion’s goals within a scene were generally constrained, if not to that specific scene, at least to the episode. This means that Tyrion achieves victories in the same episode he sets out for them, which is a sort of dramatic pleasure distinct from plots that span multiple episodes. As of this episode, the implications of Tyrion’s actions are generally left for future episodes - case in point, his cryptic and implication-laden declaration that the Alchemists will be making wildfire for him.

It is no coincidence that the episode in which Tyrion’s plot stops being the central dramatic appeal of episodes (or, less charitably, the sugar with which one’s medicine is delivered) is also the one in which several other characters see their plots reach new gears. Daenerys is now in Qarth and interacting with plot, for instance. It’s already clear that Qarth is going to be at least partially pared back from the books, as Quaithe, who in the books gives Daenerys the cryptic instruction “to go north, you must journey south, to reach the west you must go east. To go forward you must go back and to touch the light you must pass beneath the shadow,” only encountering Jorah here and not Daenerys. But it’s still actual things happening to Daenerys.  Likewise, Jon Snow is no longer faffing about at Craster’s Keep, but is off in the Frostfangs setting off on adventures with the Halfhand. Winterfell is still stalled, but even it’s started to move.

And, of course, there’s Arya, after whom the episode is named (albeit cryptically - the phrase is her self-description in the books of how it feels to be able to pick off people within Harrenhal, but without this context one is more likely to assume it refers to Jaqen). She is at this point firmly ensconced in Harrenhal, and interacting with Tywin. This last point is interesting, in that it does not happen in the books. A similar plot exists where she is briefly Roose Bolton’s cupbearer, but it is a fleeting moment, whereas Arya and Tywin will be a dynamic that stretches out over the next four episodes, making this the single largest change to the plot thus far.

It is, of course, easily understood. It would be ridiculous to have two major characters in Harrenhal never interacting, and Tywin really does need someone the audience is more familiar with to anchor his scenes. Moving Arya to his cupbearer is an eminently sensible decision, especially given how much of Arya’s plot, in general, is constrained to the inside of her own head. In the books, her plot is basically to work in the kitchens and reflect on how she’d rather be killing people. So as changes go its pragmatism is boundless.

But what the pragmatic justifications don’t get at is how utterly fun it is. Tywin’s failure to realize the prize in his grasp marks the first time that the character is in the least bit showed up by anyone, and it’s quietly delightful that it is Arya of all people who outwits him. And the dynamics of Arya’s cleverness are truly satisfying, as she simultaneously makes huge and near-fatal mistakes (such as her attempt to claim she’s from the Riverlands instead of a place she’s more familiar with) and gets wonderful barbs like “anyone can be killed” in. It is one of the most satisfying double acts, not just in Season Two, but frankly in the whole of Game of Thrones.

And, of course, there is the dualism implied by the two-deaths frame. That the Lord of Light and the Many-Faced God are a dualism is never made entirely clear - curiously, despite the fact that R’hllor is part of a dualistic theology opposed to death, the Many-Faced God is pointedly not the other half. And yet their introduction this season is paralleled, so that Mellisandre’s shadow assassin and Arya’s first name are visibly two sides of the same magical coin, tacitly echoing the ice/fire dualism of the first season in a new frame. 


Alex Antonijevic 5 years, 7 months ago


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Alex Wilcock 5 years, 7 months ago

My husband had been watching the series and I'd been half-following it while doing other things. While the relentless horribleness of a lot of it still puts me off, it was the Arya-Tywin scenes that got me hooked (and I still am, despite everything). Never mind nudity (I can get that at home), violence (I'm happy not to) and special effects (even the ads do those), I'd watch an entire spin-off series of those two talking in a room.

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Aylwin 5 years, 7 months ago

despite the fact that R’hllor is part of a dualistic theology opposed to death, the Many-Faced God is pointedly not the other half

Yeah, that is messy, though diegetically it could make a kind of practical sense from the red people's side - given their seemingly rather assertive approach to people they don't approve of, if they decided the Faceless Men were basically a cult of devil-worshippers, might they not feel obliged to do something about it? And who would want to pick that fight? Better to studiously ignore them. The great thing about the White Walkers as a nemesis is that they're not supposed to be around any more.

What really confuses me is that Jaqen calls the entity with whom he's doing his carbon-offsetting "the Red God". Which would be Rhllor, no? So rather than horse-trading deaths with his own death-god, he's doing it with somebody else's nominally anti-death god (at least, anti-death in metaphysical principle - he seems quite keen on killing people in practice). Presumably it's due to the fact that they were going to die by fire, but it still seems odd. And given that the Many-Faced God remains so long unmentioned, I was left with the impression that Jaqen and Melisandre adhered to the same religion, which I imagine was not an unusual assumption. Which obviously removes any sense of dualism from the proceedings. All very muddled.

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Aylwin 5 years, 7 months ago

Speaking of dualism, do you have any plans to touch on Manichaeism in the LWiA? Obviously the War is a dualistic conceit in itself, and as a prophet-painter (whose oddly literal theology of light and darkness has been linked to his visual imagination) and the single-handed inventor of an elaborate mythology, Mani seems to offer some interesting resonances with Blake and the principals. Though I realise lack of source material might be rather a problem, as none of his pictures (or even copies of them) survive.

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Aylwin 5 years, 7 months ago

There is something brilliantly apt about the particular type of magic that first intrudes into the centre to make very drastic alterations to the material political game of the mainstream, in that (though we only learn this next season) it relies on royal blood.

That is to say, it draws its power from something that is a source of immense power in the political world, and more particularly from the political power-source that is by its nature the most "magical", the thing that, for all the pragmatic sense the hereditary principle makes, is hardest to justify objectively as part of a rational way of running the world, the thing most dependent on mystique. That, one might say, makes it the political world's most vulnerable point, where its material reality is most susceptible to the intrusion of a more literal kind of magic.

And the specifics of it draw out the analogy further, in its mechanisms (the fundamental role of royal procreation and the fact (revealed next season) that royal blood is not only a source of power but something it can be extremely dangerous to have in your veins), and in its impact (the fact that one man's death can so totally transform the political landscape, and not for incidental right-place-right-time reasons but because his birth makes him a fundamental fact of that landscape).

And by making the magic literal, it draws attention to the genuine oddity of the material reality from an off-kilter angle.

It's a great move. Shame it means we didn't get more Renly though.

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Daru 5 years, 7 months ago

I remember when I was watching this episode for the first time, I definitely thought that that Jaqen was another agent of the same deity that Melisandre worshipped - simply because the colour red was used as the main identifier. I hadn't read the books at the time, so I'm not sure it it was made any more clear there.

Maybe this was a misdirection, to make us wonder who was worshipping which deity?

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Daru 5 years, 7 months ago

One the things I really love about the Harrenhal episodes is the set of Harrenhal itself. It has such a creepy, broken presence and feels almost alive and as strong a character as everyone who inhabits it -it feels, as the camera moves through almost like like we're seeing the the decaying interior of one of the great dragons.

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Daru 5 years, 7 months ago

"That, one might say, makes it the political world's most vulnerable point, where its material reality is most susceptible to the intrusion of a more literal kind of magic."

I like this thought very much. In fact blood magic is seen in many ways throughout the show isn't it? We have Melisandre's shadow, the funeral Pyre of Kahl Drogo, and probably other examples.

I do as you say, like how the whole structure of royalty is in effect made vulnerable by the existence of this kind of magic.

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Daru 5 years, 7 months ago

And yeah, shame there wasn't more Renly.

That actually reminds me, I was thinking the other day of people's reactions to Stannis sacrificing his daughter. I suppose he was shown to us as from the beginning making terrible choices, as early on here he killed his own brother using blood magic. Probably his choice shocks us again in this season as we have on occasion gotten closer to him and he was appearing more humanised.

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