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Hard Truths: The Ghost of Harrenhal on Game of Thrones

"Hard truths cut both ways..."

These words, uttered by Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane), are brimming with power and potency and an absolute truth of their own: the hardest truths are the ones that cut us the deepest, that remind us that our perceptions are faulty or our world is off-kilter, that serve to wake us up to some reality heretofore unseen or unrealized.

And, yes, the sharpness of the hardest truths--as fine-edged as a Valyrian dagger--can cut more than just the utterer to the quick. In the case of Stannis and his Onion Knight, Ser Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham), the reality of their situation injures them both. As Davos tries to demonstrate his loyalty to his king by sharing his concerns about Melisandre (Carice van Houten), it's Stannis who takes umbrage at his comments, refusing to discuss just what happened in the cave (see last week's review), refusing the acknowledge the inherent truth of what Davos is saying. ("I've never known you to hide from the truth," he says sadly.) But sometimes those hard truths aren't just sharp, they're often invisible to the naked eye, a fire in the snowy distance, a shadow on the wind. And, like an assassin in the night, they can shatter our lives forever.

On this week's sensational episode of Game of Thrones ("The Ghost of Harrenhal"), written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and directed by David Petrarca, several characters had to face up to some harsh truths about themselves and their potential fates, amid a sweeping change that may have come as a surprise to viewers who haven't read George R.R. Martin's novels. The death of Renly Baratheon (Gethin Anthony) kicks open a host of possibilities, even as it shatters the rivalry between the two Baratheon brothers. It's no mistake that the inky shadow, born from the womb of the red woman, takes on the form of Stannis before it murders poor, doomed Renly before the eyes of Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) and Brienne of Tarth (Gwendolyn Christie).

It's significant that the assassination of the would-be king occurs in front of two characters, aligning them closely with the audience's experience: after all, we too act as unwitting witnesses in the crime, unable to stop what's unfolding before us, forced to watch something that's incomprehensible and seemingly impossible. Shadows do not kill, regardless of any ill wind that brings the inky intruder into the tent of the king. Just as Brienne and Catelyn are shocked into action, we too are awakened from our own viewing slumber, watching a king die and these two women suspected of the horrific crime of regicide. It's Renly's death that also likewise demonstrates the depths of Brienne's feelings for the fallen stag, holding Renly in her arms as life flutters out of his body. It's Catelyn's force of will that snaps Brienne out of her grief and out of doing something foolish. "You can't avenge him if you're dead," she says, stating the obvious in a way. But for honor-bound Brienne, self-preservation would take a back seat to her own sense of vengeance.

(I loved the later scene between the two women, where Brienne pledges her fealty and service to Catelyn and admits her love for Renly: "I only held him that once as he was dying." Christie is superlative here, rendering a tragic air to Brienne even as she remains honorable, strong, and courageous... and even a little misogynistic, such as when she declares Catelyn's courage to be womanly, rather than the courage of the battlefield.)

It's the same truth that's presented before Ser Loras (Finn Jones) and Margaery (Natalie Dormer) as well. Now that Renly death has traveled around camp, the Tyrells are in serious danger. Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) presents but two options: stay and die or flee and live. Catelyn's words are echoed by Margaery's here to her brother ("You can't avenge him from the grave"), which establishes that both Loras and Brienne loved Renly in their own ways, though it was Loras' love which was returned by the king. The truth is that Renly would have made a good king, though he was motivated by pride in certain circumstances, and he clearly underestimated his brother's ruthless cunning.

But it's Margaery who embraces the notion of hard truths here, giving Dormer a chance to shine in the scene. "Calling yourself a king doesn't make you one," she says without a hint of irony (she's correct: you can crown yourself anything you like, but it doesn't bring with it any real legitimacy), and, ultimately, that her desire is bigger than one might have suspected. "I want to be THE queen," she tells Littlefinger. In the War of Five Kings, that's saying quite a lot about both her ambition and her drive, yet another example of the Queen of Thorns persona that's been fused here with Margaery. She's got her eye on the ultimate prize and won't settle for marrying well. She wants to be the most important woman in the Seven Kingdoms. Given her thirst for power, she's one to keep in the crosshairs. She's proven here just how dangerous she could be.

The notion of truth is wound throughout the episode: Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and Lancel (Eugene Simon) engage in a discussion about truth and honesty; Osha (Natalia Tena) and Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) call each other liars and conceal elements of truth from each other; Davis and Stannis square off over Melisandre; Ayra (Maisie Williams) faces an uncomfortable truth; Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) realizes the truth about what Jorah (Iain Glen) feels for her; and Theon (Alfie Allen) realizes that his men don't respect him a jot.

It's Dagmer (The Office's Ralph Ineson) who opens his eyes in that instance, telling Theon that the Ironborn will not respect him until he can prove himself. That's true as well of Lord Balon (Patrick Malahide) and Yara (Gemma Whelan) as well. But it's more than just a matter of Theon proving his worth: he needs to prove his loyalty and his sense of identity. Is he an Iron Islander or a ward of the North? In stumbling onto a plan to take Torrhen's Square--just 40 leagues away from Winterfell--Theon discovers a means to obliterate his past and prove his value to everyone around him. Rather than pillage the Stony Shore, this gambit strikes a brutal blow to the North, and sadly it's Bran who plays into Theon's hands.

Like his father, Bran has a deeply ingrained sense of honor and responsibility. He is a Stark and he sees his feudal duty in much the same way that Ned did. He believes he has an obligation to his bannerman just as they do to him. The attack on Torrhen's Square warrants a response in turn; his people need him. So Bran sends a troupe of men to push back the attack, unaware that the attackers are not Southerners but the Ironborn. It connects deeply to Bran's own prophetic dream of the sea spilling over the walls of Winterfell, emptying the sea into the castle. The Iron Islanders, of course, represent the flowing sea, and the fact that the three-eyed raven appeared in this dream make it more than just mere nightmare. Osha is unwilling to tell Bran about the true nature of the three-eyed raven, though she's clearly shaken by the symbolic meaning of his dream. And we should be too, particularly the death of Ser Rodrik (Ron Donachie) and the implication that the Ironborn will attack Winterfell directly, bringing Theon against the "brothers" he was raised with. Will his willingness to take command conflict with any genuine feeling he has or had for Bran, whose life he saved last season? Hmmm.

I loved the amazing scene beween Arya and Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) at Harrenhal. Catching Arya in a lie about where she comes from, the scene not only connects to the early episodes of Season One--in which Arya moaned about her sigil lessons--but also proved not only the insight of Tywin (last week, he knew she wasn't a boy; this week, he knows she's not from Maidenpool) but also the burning heart of Arya Stark. At her enemy's table, her words are more than mere trifles when she says that "Anyone can be killed." Tywin may be asking about Rob Stark, but her comments can be taken to be far more general than that. We've seen a king die in this episode alone; last season, both Robert (Mark Addy) and Ned (Sean Bean) were killed off. In a world as brutal and unpredictable as this one, anyone can be killed: a pauper or a king, a whore or a general. No one is safe and none of us can ever escape death in the end. Williams is amazing here, holding her own with Dance, her words carefully measured and loaded with meaning, a cupbearer who on the surface agrees with her lord but who has a holy vengeance in her heart.

It's that fire that leads her to Jaqen H'ghar (Tom Wlaschiha), with whom she crosses paths immediately after the scene with Tywin Lannister. I'm loving Wlaschiha as Jaqen; his words are whispered smoke on the air, coiling their way around the ears and minds of those they encounter. Here, he tells Arya that because she took three lives from the "red god" (Melisandre's R'hllor again), they must give them back, and he offers her a Faustian bargain: she can give him the names of three people to kill and he will do so. She doesn't hesitate when she offers up The Tickler, and at the end of the episode, their tormentor is dead at the hand of Jaqen, who gives Arya a subtle confirmation, a single finger on his cheek. The titular ghost has risen in the burned castle.

That sense of dread connects to Jon Snow (Kit Harington) at the Fist of the First Men, beyond the Wall. While the others imagine what could have led the First Men here, Jon says simply, "I think they were afraid." His truth connects both to a deeper truth and an inner one. They're all out of their element, vulnerable and cut off from civilization, in enemy territory where the enemy isn't just a wildling with a sharpened spear but something ancient and evil as well. There's a tremendous sense of foreshadowing here when Sam (John Bradley-West) recounts just what all of the horns are sounded for: one for friend, two for wildling, and three for "white walkers." (Likewise, speaking of foreshadowing, there's this instance, Bran's dream, and then the Tyrion/Bronn scene with the wildfire "bomb" under the city, each of which screams out for resolution.) Jon finally casts off his role as steward to fulfill his dream of becoming a ranger, and following in his uncle Benjen's footsteps. While we just get a little bit of Qhorin Halfhand (Simon Armstrong) here, I think he's fantastic.

(Aside: I loved the glacier scenes that were shot in Iceland and which revolved around the men of the Night's Watch here. These types of stunning shots and sweeping expanses are something that Game of Thrones does so well, shooting in far-flung locations rather than just doing CGI for everything and shooting it green-screen style in a warehouse. You can't approximate the sort of majesty and magic that is accomplished by putting your actors in the actual environment, as they've done here, and the show and HBO deserves to be applauded for that.)

While Qhorin fit with the mental image in my head, I can't say that I quite pictured Quaithe (Laura Pradelska), the masked woman who approaches Ser Jorah at the party, in the way that she's depicted here. While the voice and acting were perfectly suitable, the mask threw me off because in the books it's described as being a lacquered wooden mask, which wasn't at all what was depicted here. While I'm typically not one for crying out when an adaptation differs in terms of the physical representation of the characters, this was one case where I was confused a bit, as Quaithe is wearing something closer to a balaclava than the mask that Martin describes. It seemed a little out of place and odd here, I suppose, and took me out of the reality of the characters a little bit, particularly as Quaithe is meant to be mysterious and unknowable; it seemed to reduce her to something not all that memorable or otherworldly. (Book readers: what did you think? Was I the only one put off by Quaithe?)

Still, that's a minor quibble when it comes to an episode this strong and compelling. It was fantastic to see Daenerys and the Dothraki khalassar moving among the terraced gardens of Qarth and attending a civilized party held in her honor. From the first scene of Dany, her handmaidens, and the dragons--with its own sense of truth ("Men like to talk about other men when they're happy")--to the proposal scene, it's a different side of Danaerys than we've gotten to see much of, beyond the pilot, in the series thus far. The reappearance of Pyat Pree (Ian Hanmore) here was a welcome addition, connecting to her "welcome" by the Thirteen in last week's episode and setting up the notion of the House of the Undying, a place of study and contemplation for the city's fabled warlocks. While Xaro Xhoan Daxos (Nonso Anozie) believes that their magic is nothing more than "parlor tricks," we've seen now firsthand that magic has been returning to the world once more. Why should Melisandre have a monopoly on such power?

While Xaro sees Daenerys as a conquerer, she sees him as one too, albeit one without the ambition that she has. But even as Dany sees in him the potential for wealth with which to launch an attack on Westeros and reclaim her rightful place on the Iron Throne, he sees her as a means of obtaining power for himself and his offspring. Which is why Ser Jorah tries to convince Danaerys to find another way. But even as Danaerys is blind about Xaro's intentions, she has misread Jorah's, laughing off Xaro's insistence that her advisor has feelings for her.

Jorah's speech to her reveals the hard truth about his own feelings for the khalessi. "You have a gentle heart," he says. "There are times when I look at you and I still can't believe you are real." It's perhaps one of the most honest and pure statements within the show to date, a confession of love and devotion that goes beyond mere fealty. Just as Brienne fell in love with Renly, so too as Jorah for Danaerys. But a queen isn't just a woman, but a ruler and rulers often have to make hard sacrifices in order to ensure the safety of themselves and their people. Danaerys isn't free to give her heart away, just as Jorah isn't free to ask for it. If that isn't a hard truth, one that definitely cuts both ways, I don't know what is. And sadly it's all the more likely that there will be anguish and pain for both in the days to come.

On the next episode of Game of Thrones ("The Old Gods and the New"), Theon (Alfie Allen) completes his master stroke; in King’s Landing, the Lannisters send Myrcella (Aimee Richardson) from harm’s way in the nick of time; Arya (Maisie Williams) comes face to face with a surprise visitor; Dany (Emilia Clarke) vows to take what is hers; Robb (Richard Madden) and Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) receive crucial news; Qhorin (Simon Armstrong) gives Jon (Kit Harington) a chance to prove himself.

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