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 Make no mistake, war is coming. The pieces are still moving into place, but there’s no doubting by the end of Game of Thronessecond season we’ll have seen more than a little blood spilled. There’s ample evidence of this in “Garden of Bones,” but it’s not an episode about war. This episode might be the most character-driven of season two so far, centering on the personal struggles of a select group of characters as they each battle to get what they want, while something much bigger bubbles under the surface.

(Warning: This review contains spoilers from the season so far. If you’re not caught up yet, read at your own risk.)

The Starks continue their successful campaign against the Lannisters, though it’s still largely happening offscreen. The King in the North, Robb Stark (Richard Madden), relentlessly marches against Lannister forces, while his mother Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) keeps working to forge some kind of alliance with Renly Baratheon (Gethin Anthony).

In King’s Landing, Robb’s continued success on the battlefield puts Sansa (Sophie Turner) at the mercy of Joffrey’s (Jack Gleeson) sadistic whims. When Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) tries to head off the boy king, we see a side of Joffrey we’ve never witnessed before.

In the Red Waste across the Narrow Sea, Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) finally sees a ray of hope in the form of an invitation from a legendary city.

On the Kingsroad, Arya (Maisie Williams) discovers the horrors of life as a Lannister prisoner.

And in the Stormlands, Melisandre (Carice van Houten) enlists Davos (Liam Cunningham) in a dark plot that gives us the most startling closing scene of any episode in the series so far.

Apart from brief glimpses into the Stark campaign, most of the episode is built on small but powerful moments between characters, some of which readers of George R. R. Martin‘s novels have never come to know so intimately before. David Benioff and D. B. Weiss are forging new ground here, diverging from the novels to create new inroads into some of the more compelling characters in Westeros. Readers of the novels have never been this close to Joffrey, and it’s both a blessing and a curse for viewers. A curse because he continues to be an insufferable little shit, but a blessing because he’s quickly taking over for his mother and uncle as the character we most love to hate. Cersei and Jaime always carry some small degree of sympathy. Not Joffrey. He’s become a titanic villain, and Gleeson relishes and completely owns the role. That makes it enjoyable even as we’re wishing death upon the kid.

Meanwhile, Daenerys is also beginning to move beyond the desperation she’s been carrying since the home stretch of last season. Until “Garden of Bones,” it seemed her dragons and what few allies she had left were her only strength. Here, it becomes clear that she’s got some strength of her own, and longtime fans of Dany will relish seeing the fire of the Mother of Dragons begin to bloom. Arya’s story is also getting more compelling. She’s in dark territory for a child, but Williams never shows weakness. She’s in this role deep, and it’s proof of this show’s astounding depth of casting.

“Garden of Bones” didn’t match “The Night Lands” (not for me, anyway), but it is the best example so far this year of how Weiss, Benioff and the rest of the Game of Thrones creative team are making the story their own. There are divergences from the source material that – while they don’t match the same kind of creative license of, say, The Walking Dead – are both inspired and true to the tone and overall direction of Martin’s story. Game of Thrones is still the kind of show that can please both diehard Martin devotionalists, but episodes like this are proof that it keeps getting better at standing on its own.

Next Week: Episode Five, “The Ghost of Harrenhal”

Thanks once again to HBO for giving me the opportunity to screen these episodes in advance. Unfortunately, this was the last one. Next week I’ll be watching right along with you guys, so look for reviews to appear late Sunday or early Monday.

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