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Shadows Dance: The Magic Lantern on Game of Thrones

In a series that's been full of mythical beings, prophetic dreams, wights, and dragons, this week's episode of Game of Thrones tipped the balance more firmly into the supernatural camp, giving us to date possibly the most visceral (and disturbing) reminder that magic is slowly creeping back into the Seven Kingdoms Westeros. Our reaction to that as viewers takes two directions: one is excitement, the other is dread. Some have convinced themselves that this isn't a fantasy series, and that's perhaps the wrong approach. While Game of Thrones is certainly populist fare, it's rooted in the fantasy genre and its slow integration of supernatural elements is to be applauded, though they were part and parcel of the series from the very first scene.

The White Walkers have always posed a threat to the Seven Kingdoms and therefore to the realm of man. Whatever happened thousands of years earlier to drive the White Walkers beyond the Wall and also end the reign of the Children of the Forest toyed with the natural order, casting out much of the magical nature of the world and granting dominion over the earth to that of mankind. But if George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire teaches us anything, it's that magic will out in the end. Dragons have returned to the world, borne out of smoke and fire and grief, children of a exiled princess already in widow's weeds. The White Walkers creep in snow and darkness beyond the Wall. And a red priestess, a glittering red ruby at her throat, has powers that can scarcely be described.

We've seen already that Melisandre (Carice van Houten) has abilities that set her beyond mere mortals. In her first appearance, she shrugs off an assassination attempt by drinking a chalice full of poisoned wine while her would-be killer bleeds out at her feet. Clearly, the Red Woman is connected to the natural magics of the world, and to abilities granted to her by the so-called Lord of Light, her deity R'hllor. In this week's episode, Melisandre makes a good point about duality: without light, there are no shadows. In a land as brutal as Westeros--which this episode went to great lengths to prove--this is especially important. How we define such attributes as goodness, peace, mercy, etc. are only in opposition to their counter-natures: evil, war, punishment. R'hllor himself is said to be locked in battle with his own nemesis: the Nameless One, whose dominion over darkness, ice, and death comprises the first half of Martin's "song." These notions are forever struggling both internally and externally: they posit change, transformation, destruction, rebirth. The wheel turns anew, the cycle perpetuates.

This week's episode of Game of Thrones ("Garden of Bones"), written by Vanessa Taylor and directed by David Petrarca, put the emphasis on the darker element of man, focusing on punishment, torture, and the erasure of morals and constraints. It's felt keenly throughout the episode, from the torture of the prisoners in Harrenhal--an effort to extract information about the "Brotherhood" and whether there is silver and/or gold kept in the village--and their needless execution for sport (hence the jocular savagery of the torture, accompanied by apple-eating by the interrogator known as The Tickler) to the cruelty of King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), his foppish crown worn in an effort to appear rakish, but whose deeds signal him as undeniably blackhearted and morally bankrupt.

Here, Joffrey is revealed to be a true sociopath. When he cannot torment poor Sansa (Sophie Turner) by humiliating and beating her in the throne room, Joffrey turns to the name-day presents sent to him by his uncle Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), two whores--Ros (Esme Bianco) and Daisy (Maisie Dee)--who are there to "unclog" the little king but who end up at the receiving end of his cruel nature. Rather than use the women for pleasure, he forces them to enact a terrible game of pain, pushing Ros to beat her companion with increasing brutality while he loads a crossbow and points it at her. While Ros admonishes the king for spoiling pleasure with too much pain, it's clear that the only pleasure Joffrey can experience is by seeing others humiliated or enslaved, beaten or goaded. (Interestingly, there's a thematic flip here: while it's The Tickler who is eating an apple at Harrenhal, it's poor Daisy who is eating one here when Joffrey enters the room. While the brutality is similar, it's directed in an inimical fashion.)

Joffrey orders his betrothed to be stripped in the throne room and beaten by a member of his Kingsguard, he claims in an effort to "punish" her for the victories experienced by her brother Robb (Richard Madden). But the nature of her punishment is just that: to punish Sansa simply because she is there. Whatever message Joffrey claims to be sending to Robb in the field, it's really just an opportunity to engage in some Caligula-like behavior. When he's thwarted in his exercise by Tyrion, he repays his uncle by tormenting the prostitutes sent to appease him. But the little king isn't one for the pleasures of the bedchamber. He craves the brutality of war, transforming his bed into nothing less than an instrument of torture, making him as bad as the Tickler, Polliver, and the others in Harrenhal. (Echoing this notion is Robb's bannerman Roose Bolton, who says that while a naked man has few secrets, a flayed man has none. But this is a man who wears a flayed corpse as his sigil, after all.) He wants Tyrion to find out what he's done; in fact, he craves it.

Civility is a flimsy facade. Even the most civilized here can be seen to be ruthless in their pursuit of their goals. Stannis (Stephen Dillane) breaks all manner of moral codes by ordering Davos (Liam Cunningham) to take Melisandre ashore, following a belief that the ends justify the means. Stannis proves himself here only too willing to ignore the articles of war and instead resort to both subterfuge and supernatural means of gaining the upper hand, sending Melisandre to birth a shadow creature--which takes the form of a man--and carry out his instructions. Melisandre herself believes in the justness of her actions and of what they do, seeing Stannis as the reincarnation of mythical hero Azor Ahai, but there's something deeply disturbing about what occurs in the cave beneath Renly's camp, the inky shadow spilling from her womb igniting a sense of revulsion and of horror in the viewer. It's unnatural and positions us as opposed to her form of fiery magic. While those shadows may not exist without the light of the lantern, which grows extremely bright, it represents the dark underbelly (no pun intended) to her supernatural abilities: something unwholesome, something less than sacred.

Likewise, it's the Thirteen of Qarth who prove that their own gentility is a false mask for unspeakable behavior. The titular garden of bones around the fabled walled city of Qarth grows more and more because the Qartheen deny entrance to their city to most travelers, allowing them to undergo painful starvation, dehydration, and ultimately death in the dessert, turning away their faces from the suffering they themselves caused. Its inherent cruelty is thematically linked with the other examples in the episode, demonstrating just what a harsh world this truly is, even far removed from the battlefields.

In denying Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) and her khalassar entry when she refuses to produce her dragons for their amusement. Daenerys' pleas--and then threats--fall on deaf ears until Xaro Xhoan Daxos (Nonso Anozie) pledges to take responsibility for their entrance. Whether it's an act of kindness or of more simple greed or gain remains to be seen, but it is an advantage for Daenerys, at lest.

Still, if we're to follow the notion of duality further still, there is also mercy to be found. Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) is certainly not someone from whom we'd expect to encounter this, but his mercy is a logical, rather than emotionally based one. He orders the movement of the prisoners of Harrenhal to actual cells and demands that they stop killing those interrogated and instead put them to work (saving the life of Joe Dempsie's Gendry in the process) and he recognizes Arya for what she is: a girl in boy's clothing. Removing her from shackles, he names her his new cup-bearer. (This is a significant change from the novel, where Arya may serve as a cup-bearer at Harrenhal, but never to Tywin. However, the change places her even closer to the belly of the beast and in even more danger of being discovered as Arya of House Stark.)

And then there's the mysterious "Talisa" (Oona Chaplin of The Hour), whose acquaintance Robb Stark makes on the battlefield and whose sense of mercy and kindness extend beyond familial boundaries. She travels the field of battle bringing comfort (and wielding a knife in the case of gangrene) to those in need. Her position about war is at odds with Robb's campaign, and her forthrightness is meant to demonstrate a clear sexual tension between the two. She is not afraid to point out the fallacy of Robb's belief that killing these men will
avenge his father's death, or that he needn't concern himself with who takes the Iron Throne after he's relieved Joffrey of his crown and his life. While she claims to be from Volantis, this appears to be a lie, along with her identity. Book readers will be only too aware of who Chaplin appears to be playing, though the circumstances seem to be quite different than what the reader is told in A Clash of Kings... That's all I'll say on that front for now.

A few other random thoughts: I loved the scene between Margaery (Natalie Dormer) and Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) at Renly's encampment. While he rather salaciously references the relationship between Renly (Gethin Anthony) and Ser Loras (Finn Jones) and tries to get a rise out of Margaery by explicitly stating that she is not sleeping with her husband. Margaery--in a little bit of Queen of Thorns mode--turns the tables on Littlefinger, reminding him of two truths: that he is himself not married and that he seems confused by the entire notion. "My husband is my king and my king is my husband," she said plainly. If that's not the best summation of the compromises we make in life, I don't know what is. Additionally, I loved seeing Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) quite so quick with that blade as she was, turning on Littlefinger for betraying Ned, and for the somber tenderness of the scene in which she finally received Ned's bones, so that they may be interred with his ancestors at Winterfell. Home is, after all, where the heart (tree) is.

What did you think of this week's episode, and of the overt move to supernatural elements? Were you put off by the brutality of several storylines? I'm curious to hear your reactions: head to the comments section and let me know your take on "Garden of Bones."

On the next episode of Game of Thrones (“The Ghost of Harrenhal”), the end of the Baratheon rivalry drives Catelyn to flee and Littlefinger to act; at Kingʼs Landing, Tyrionʼs source alerts him to Joffreyʼs flawed defense plan and a mysterious secret weapon; Theon sails to the Stony Shore to prove heʼs worthy to be called Ironborn; in Harrenhal, Arya receives a promise from Jaqen Hʼghar, one of three
prisoners she saved from the Gold Cloaks; the Nightʼs Watch arrive at the Fist of the First Men, an ancient fortress where they hope to stem the advance of the wildling army.

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