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.