May 2, 2012

Game of Thrones, Ep. 15, "The Ghost of Harrenhal"

Photo by HBO
This week's Game of Thrones post gets real spoilery, real fast. If you haven't seen Episode 15, "The Ghost of Harrenhal," I suggest you watch it first. Otherwise, enter at your own risk (seriously, spoilers abound).

Goodbye, Renly Baratheon. We hardly knew you. The youngest brother of a dead king, you loved dudes, cloths, parties, and the thought of ascending to the Iron Throne. Alas, your other brother had sex with a Red Woman, sired a smoke monster, and had you killed. You will be missed.

Renly's death marks the biggest plot development so far this season, yet the writers seemed to almost rush through it these past two episodes. In the War of the Five Kings (Joffrey Baratheon, Robb Stark, Stannis Baratheon, Renly Baratheon, and Balon Greyjoy), Renly is the first to fall (spoiler: he's not the last). After having assembled one of the war's largest armies, and the capital to back it, through his political marriage to Margaery Tyrell, Renly falls prey to the most fantastical bit of magic we've yet to witness.

The story of Catelyn treating with Renly, followed by the arrival of Stannis, and ending with Renly's assassination proves a challenge for the show. The story a) introduces two major new characters in Brienne and Margaery, b) is the only time we spend with Renly before he's killed, c) reveals the depths of Melisandre's creepiness, driving a wedge between Davos and Stannis, and d) takes Renly off the board, thus rearranging a slew of relationships, including pairing Catelyn with Brienne, and leaving the Tyrell's hanging after supporting the wrong king. That's a lot of ground to cover.

The ground upon which this story takes place - the actual geographic location - proves an important detail from the books left on the cutting room floor, and one I wish the writers had decided to include here. On the show, no one ever specifies where exactly Stannis and Renly's armies meet. They're simply in some green fields by the sea. The implication is that they are far enough south not to get caught in the Stark/Lannister battles, and for Renly to have to march north to take King's Landing. Besides those generic details, the rest is left to the unknown. This is a mistake.

In the books, Renly is the Lord of Storm's End, the ancestral seat of House Baratheon. Storm's End is a formidable stronghold on the eastern coast of Westeros, south of King's Landing (the region ruled by the Baratheons is called the Stormlands). Though Renly does spend much of Book 1 in King's Landing sitting on the Small Council, his actual home base is Storm's End, his family seat. Storm's End would have been Robert's castle, but since he became king, he didn't need it, and so he bequeathed it to his youngest brother. This appointment, of course, bothers Stannis, since as the elder brother, Storm's End should have been given to him. It's an insult to Stannis that Robert passed over him to give Renly their family's legacy, leaving Stannis the island of Dragonstone, a place formerly kept by the deposed Targaryens. If I've confused you, the point is this: there was no love lost between Stannis and Robert, and Stannis feels as though his brothers have long denied him his proper inheritance and the respect he deserves.

That's why Renly's claim as king bothers Stannis so spectacularly - not only did Renly get Storm's End, but now he's vying for Robert's throne. Stannis loves rules, he's a letter-of-the-law kind of guy. He does things the way they are supposed to be done. He loves order, and chain of command. He is rigid and unmoving, he abhors chaos. By right, the Iron Throne should be his. Legally, he is Robert's heir (Joffrey and Tommen are bastards, Renly is the younger living brother). Stannis doesn't understand why so few have supported him - he has the best claim, who cares if he's not well liked?

In the books, Renly's army camps on fields not far from Storm's End. The brothers don't meet on a random green hill, they meet on the doorstep of their childhood home, the first birthright Stannis feels his brothers denied him. This is significant, and adds additional layers and history to the confrontation between the two men. These layers and this history are lost by not specifying where exactly in Westeros the brothers are meeting. In a sense, Stannis is the stereotypical middle child, finally getting his due. By the end of this episode, both his brothers are dead, and Storm's End and the lords who swear fealty to the Baratheons are his. But at what cost?

The Tyrells prove the other family most affected by Renly's death. Margaery and Loras are the family Renly chose, Loras for love and Margaery for power. In the books, Loras goes into a blind rage at the loss of his beloved, attacking anyone and everyone around him in a wild expression of grief (it's very Achilles after the death of Patroclus from The Iliad). He also believes Brienne to be Renly's killer. On the show, Loras sadly, though calmly, sits beside Renly's corpse, absolving Brienne of any responsibility. I'm not sure why the show decided to change Loras' reaction - it's less melodramatic, sure, and it depicts the Tyrells as calculating power players, but we've already seen that type of behavior from Margaery. As she tells Littlefinger, she doesn't want to be a queen, she wants to be the queen. That kind of bald admission of ambition is a far, far cry from her characterization in the books. I still like what they're doing with her, but I'm worried the show is going to condense the other important members of the Tyrell extended family into these two characters. Later in the books, we meet the siblings' father and grandmother, one a bit of a buffoon, the other a master manipulator. I'd be sad to lose them both for the sake of slimming down the cast.

Renly's death occurs at the halfway mark in the series' second season, and with it you can feel various plot lines begin to shift toward their second half conclusions. With a bolstered army at his back, Stannis marches on King's Landing; the Lannisters prepare for his arrival. Theon and his family move to attack the defenseless North. Daenerys finds herself in a strange city at the end of the world, wondering how she will ever take back the Iron Throne. North of The Wall, Jon and his brothers embark on a dangerous mission to infiltrate the wildling forces. Though the show has strayed further from the books this year (with some changes successful, and some disappointing), the writers have successfully cultivated a sense of rising action, heightened stakes, and potential disaster. As we charge toward the season finale, I, for one, cannot wait to see what happens next.

Random thoughts/notes/observations:
  • Bran is one of my favorite characters in the books, and I like how the show has portrayed his story so far. I'm interested to see how they handle what's coming.
  • I loved the scene where Brienne swears fealty to Catelyn. Wonderfully played by both actresses. I wasn't crazy about Michelle Fairley as Catelyn last season. I didn't think she and Sean Bean fit well together. That said, she's really elevated her game this year. She shows the pain constantly lingering just beneath Cat's resolve so well. Lady is tired.
  • Maisie Williams as Arya might be the best casting on the show. They are doing a great job with her. The added scene where she stares down Tywin Lannister was bad ass (Arya is actually supposed to serve Robb's bannerman, Roose Bolton, but I like the switch to Tywin, especially since I can't remember why she didn't just tell Bolton who she was).
  • Nice to see Daenerys get a fair bit of screen time, and a fair bit to do, now that she's out of the Red Waste. They succeeded in making Qarth feel exotic, even though they filmed those scenes in the same city in Croatia they use for King's Landing.

No comments:

Post a Comment