‘Game of Thrones’ – ‘The Ghost of Harrenhal’: Three deadly wishes

A review of tonight’s “Game of Thrones” coming up just as soon as I’m able to kill people with my mind…

“Anyone can be killed.” -Arya

“The Ghost of Harrenhal” brings us to the halfway point of season 2, and about the only thing that’s certain at this stage of the season is that everyone – us included – has to get used to the idea that plans can (and often need to) be changed at a moment’s notice, and that what we believed to be true may be anything but.

The hour’s biggest shake-up comes early, as the shadow thing that Melisandre gave birth to stabs Renly to death, taking one potential king off the board and vastly upgrading Stannis’ own forces in the process. Though Renly had the charm and guile to amass his 100,000-strong army, he was also too cocky, and more interested in the trappings of power than in the necessary steps to gain and keep power. As his new widow puts it – in a clear-eyed exchange that suggests possibilities to Littlefinger – “Calling yourself king doesn’t make you one,” nor is there much value to being a queen as opposed to the queen.

And the victory proves to one of mixed value as far as Davos is concerned. Melisandre may or may not be using her magic to cloud Stannis’ mind, but anyone who saw her give birth to New Smokey – and who has lived in a world where magic’s been absent for a thousand years – would understand the danger of allowing such a mystically powerful woman anywhere near a position of political and military power. Stannis reluctantly changes his plans at Davos’ urging – more out of pride, it seems, than a belief in Davos’ doomsaying – but I don’t know if the red-headed witch is going to go along easily with the switch.

North of the Wall, the Rangers’ campaign to find Benjin’s group shifts from a large-scale military campaign to a stealthy commando mission, and in the process, Jon Snow is able to get out of steward’s duty and back to his fighting destiny. And way off to the southeast, Jorah convinces Dany to decline Xaro’s marriage offer – for both his stated reason (there will be more value in building an army within Westeros’ borders than hiring one from without) and because of his own feelings for the mother of dragons – and let him find them a ship back to their home country.

Some of the revised plans are barely a sketch at this point. Desperate to prove himself to his father and the rest of the skeptical Iron Islanders, Theon decides to ignore his intended target and go after one closer to Winterfell, presumably to leave Bran, Hodor(!) and company vulnerable to sneak attack. Tyrion, meanwhile, seizes control of the alchemical Wildfire that Cersei had ordered into production, but it’s not clear what he intends to do with it, since he agrees with Bronn that attempting to launch it from catapults would do as much damage to King’s Landing as Stannis’ fleet.  And Tywin Lannister at least recognizes that Robb is better at warfare than expected, even if he doesn’t quite have a new strategy to make the King in the North beat himself.

And still others mainly involve a switch in loyalty. Arya is just trying to stay alive now that she’s in Tywin’s employ, but she gains an unexpected ally in the charming criminal she freed a few episodes back, who grants her the power of death over three of her many enemies. I would say choosing The Tickler for one of them was a poor choice, but I can see the value in starting out with a target close at hand so she can be sure her new pal can do what he promises. (Had she named, say, Joffrey first, who knows how long it would have taken, or how she would have gotten proof?)

Renly’s death, meanwhile, leaves Brienne of Tarth cursing herself for failing to protect him, but she finds a more temperamentally-matched new master in Catelyn Stark. Brienne swore her undying loyalty to a shallow man, where you can see in the oath scene in the woods that Brienne and Cat share a very serious attitude towards the lives they have chosen.

The women of Westeros don’t dominate every story this week, but they have enough strong moments – Brienne killing three of Renly’s soldiers in a combination of self-defense and grief, Mags impressing Littlefinger, Arya impressing Tywin, every man in Qarth trying to win Dany’s favor (and Jorah holding her out as the one claimant on the Iron Throne who deserves it by both blood and behavior), and that fantastic oath scene with Gwendoline Christie and Michelle Fairley – that I’m reminded once again of how absurd and myopic that infamous New York Times review of the show was. Why would women want to watch fantasy? Maybe because it provides more strong female characters, played by a host of impressive actors, than most dramas set in something more closely resembling our world?

Some other thoughts:

* Who knew baby dragons could be that adorable?

* In our discussion a few weeks ago about which characters had appeared in every episode, several of you pointed out that Joffrey had that distinction. Well, that ended tonight, which leaves Cersei as the last one standing, right? UPDATE: As others have pointed out, Cersei was recently absent, so there’s no one who’s been in every episode.

* Where Jon is eager to get back into a fighting position, Sam seems perfectly content as a steward, and continues to establish his rep among the men as someone better-educated (or, at least, better-read) than them. Though the show can occasionally bog down in discussing the history of Westeros, I quite enjoyed Sam and then Jon musing about what the First Men thought when they stood on this spot waaaaay back in the day.

* I have to either credit or blame Grantland’s Andy Greenwald for making me unable to look at Xaro anymore without imagining that his name is “Zarozan Ducksauce.”

* More Qarth-ian credit/blame goes to Fienberg, who watched the scene where the warlock tries to impress Dany and immediately told me “It’s Jim Rash as the warlock of Qarth!” Wonder if this guy’s also into furries.

Finally, my attempt to keep these comments free of book spoilers has been mostly successful, but some people just don’t seem to get it, or care. Once again, let me remind you of the spoiler policy as it relates to this show: we are here to TALK ABOUT THE TV SHOW AS A TV SHOW, AND NOT AN ENDLESS SERIES OF COMPARISONS TO THE BOOKS. If you want to talk about things from the books that haven’t yet appeared on the show – whether they are plot points, characters we haven’t met yet, still-to-be-explained motivation, etc. – please do so in the message board topic I set up for this episode. I don’t care how clever or oblique you think you’re being: NO BOOK DISCUSSION IN THE COMMENTS. PERIOD. Anything even vaguely over the line gets deleted, and if anyone notices a comment before I do, feel free to email me.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com