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“The Ghost of Harrenhal” marks the midway point of Game of Thrones season two, and it rises to the occasion as perhaps the most plot-heavy episode of the season so far. We’re reaching a kind of precipice in this year’s story, a tipping point. Pieces are locking into place for something big, the blade of change is cutting its way through the characters, hard choices lie ahead, and someday soon we’re going to see it all come together in a wash of fire and blood. At least, we hope so.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!

With one dark knife in the night, the rivalry between Renly (Gethin Anthony) and Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) is at an end. Renly lies dead (a victim of Melisandre’s CRAZY naked shadow magic), and his bannermen begin to flock to his brother almost immediately. Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) flees the Baratheon camp immediately along with Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie). Both are suspects in the death, and Brienne has already sworn a vow of vengeance against Stannis. Margaery (Natalie Dormer) and Loras Tyrell (Finn Jones) also flee, taking their soldiers back to Highgarden to plot their next move. Stannis plans to strike at King’s Landing, while Davos (Liam Cunningham) warns him against letting Melisandre (Carice van Houten) get too close to the assault.

At Harrenhal, Lord Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) grows ever more frustrated at his losses to Robb Stark (Richard Madden), and Arya (Maisie Williams) finds an unlikely ally amid the dark keep. In the Iron Islands, Theon (Alfie Allen), hopes to overcome the lack of respect his father shows him with a single ship and a plan to strike at the North. At Winterfell, Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) shows promising new signs of leadership as the sole Warden of the North, even as an unknown enemy closes in. Beyond the Wall, Jon (Kit Harington) volunteers for a dangerous mission to cripple the Wildling threat. At King’s Landing, Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) tries to uncover Cersei’s (Lena Headey) potentially disastrous scheme to defend the city from Stannis’ now-superior forces. And in the fabled city of Qarth, Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) mingles with the rich and magical, and receives an offer that could see her sailing for Westeros sooner than she’d ever hoped.

And just like that, Game of Thrones slaughters another major character. Fans of the novels won’t be surprised at all, but viewers who know the story from the series alone will likely be settling in now to the truly merciless approach of these stories. You might have written off Ned Stark’s beheading last season as a kind of shock tactic to keep you intrigued, or to just get you talking. Trust me, this is just the nature of this particular beast. It’s also a kink in the works of this War of Five Kings we’ve been building up to all season. Now the kings number at four, and the dynamic of each man’s force is forever altered by the fall of Renly Baratheon. Stannis is now perhaps the greatest threat in Westeros, and “The Ghost of Harrenhal” sets the stage for the dramatic march on King’s Landing we’ve all been waiting for.

Of course, Renly’s death not only creates a power vacuum within the story, but a vacuum within the cast. Anthony was at work on one of the more interesting (or at the very least amusing) characters season two has offered us. Renly’s army was massive, his charm seemed boundless, and he had  a compelling thing going with the odd little love triangle between his wife and her pretty brother, the Knight of Flowers. Now that’s all wiped clean, and just as Stannis gets to swoop in and take Renly’s soldiers in the show, so too does Dillane get to swoop in and seize the chance to win over all those viewers who were hanging on Renly’s every move. Until now he’s had to be the boring old guy following a much more interesting (and sexy)  priestess with a few tricks up her sleeve. Everything interesting about Stannis was either coming to us through Melisandre or Davos. Now he’s got center stage, and so far Dillane is making it count. In a single scene you see Stannis’ character make a potentially powerful turn, and suddenly he’s much more compelling.

Dinklage continues to steal every scene, including those he shares with the always fascinating Headey, and Clarke also finds room to run as Dany settles into Qarth and finds her world opening up to many more intriguing (and dangerous) choices. For the first time since Drogo’s death, she’s got real power in her hands. She can try to mold it to her will if she can, but she may be out of her element, a contradiction that Clarke plays perfectly. The real star of the episode, though, is Williams. Arya’s story continues to get darker as she’s forced to embrace a web of shady and powerfully deadly characters as part of her new home. Plus, she got to steal a scene from Charles Dance. This is the man who made Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime Lannister) look like a sniveling boy in a single moment last season, and here Williams is with a chill-inducing scene that makes you more interested than you ever knew you were in the fate of the youngest Stark daughter.

If you’re one of those viewers who was complaining not enough was happening in the season’s early episodes, “The Ghost of Harrenhal” is the cure for what ails you. It’s got buckets of plot (at least, when compared to other Game of Thrones episodes this year), and none of its segments are weak. The fascinating thing about this show is that every time a character is removed from the picture – either by death or by simply not appearing in the episode (No Joffrey’s House of Pain playtime this week, I’m afraid.) – another character fills the void with an equally compelling addition to the overall story. It’s also very likely that when the season is done, we’ll look back at this episode as the one where the hinge was built, the one where everything started to move swiftly and dramatically forward.

 

 

 

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