Just when we thought that three episodes all culminating in the murder of children was enough, Game of Thrones turned up the unsettling factor to 11. A teenage psychopath-king forces one prostitute to beat another at crossbow point while, in another part of his kingdom, a form of torture is employed in which a panicked rat claws its way desperately into a prisoner’s abdomen. Rolling Stone critic Sean T. Collins has already commented upon the similarities with the novel American Psycho; even if the version of rodent-based torture utilised at Harrenhal is not quite as depraved as serial killer Patrick Bateman’s, it makes for no less unsettling viewing. As Game of Thrones once again reminded us, though, this world of questing knights, rival kings and wars of righteous vengeance is an unsettling place indeed.
This fact was made clear early on as Robb Stark (Richard Madden) won a smashing victory over the forces of House Lannister at the Battle of Oxcross. “Five Lannister dead for every one of ours”, drawled Northern lieutenant Roose Bolton (Michael McElhatton), before proposing that they flay the Lannister officers alive for information. “A naked man has few secrets,” he adds, “a flayed man, none.” Robb, because he’s the closest we come in this war to the Good Side, rejects Lord Bolton’s approach. Weighed against Joffrey’s (Jack Gleeson) abuse of Robb’s sister Sansa (Sophie Turner) and the prostitutes Ros (Esmé Bianco) and Daisy (Maisie Dee), as well as the rat-wielding Lannister torturers at Harrenhal, the King in the North comes off rather well here. And yet the comments of the nurse from Volantis (Oona Chaplin) gnaw at him like…well…a rat gnawing into a defenceless prisoner’s innards. If he wasn’t fighting this war, she wouldn’t be amputating the limbs of fishermen’s sons who had the misfortune to be drafted into the Lannister ranks. Nor would the happy flatulent watchman who opened the episode have been mauled to death by a direwolf. When she asks him what he’ll do after Joffrey has been toppled from the Iron Throne and killed, Robb admits that he has no idea. Now, pertinent analogies to American interventionism aside (and let’s keep those to a minimum), this is a Good Question – for the Good Guy.
“So, once all of Rome is yours you’ll just…give it back?”, asked Senator Gracchus (Derek Jacobi) of Maximus (Russell Crowe) twelve short years ago, receiving the gruff response that those were the wishes of Marcus Aurelius. Perhaps Robb presumes that after his victory a decent king will simply step up to rule over the
Seven Six Kingdoms. The last king on Game of Thrones‘ Iron Throne wasn’t an enlightened philosopher-emperor, however, but Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy) a warrior unsuited to rulership who grew to become a friendless, overweight hedonist. The king before him, lest ye forget, was a pyromaniacal mad man. And if Westeros lacks decent leadership in its monarchs, it’s not as though their advisors are any better. The council that both kings oversaw is still populated by sycophants and self-serving artists of deception, best embodied in the figure of Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen), whose lies about Arya’s safety sank him to new depths this week. It’s not like there is a bevvy of great kings waiting in the wings either. Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) has allied himself with a sorceress (Carice van Houten), a black magic woman tryin’ – successfully – to make a devil out of him. Meanwhile brother Renly (Gethin Anthony) seems to believe that kingship is about pomp, pageantry and people liking one another. “The night is dark and full of terrors”, Melisandre warns Renly, and she couldn’t be more right, even if the only thing that’s dark and full of terrors is Melisandre’s – (that’s enough. Ed.)
But seriously, who should rule and how are central questions in HBO’s Game of Thrones and inevitably we look to Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), back on our screens this week as the rightful heiress to the Iron Throne. She would take what was stolen from her with fire and blood, when her dragons are grown. Lay waste to armies and burn cities to the ground. Destroy those who have opposed her. These statements, iconic though they may be, are not those of a benevolent queen. In fact, they sound a lot like the absolutes in which Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) deals. Daenerys’ journey through hell has left her with little except the promise of vengeance. Righteous vengeance, in which she is restored to the Iron Throne, would technically see the Starks, the Lannisters and the Baratheons all destroyed, and cities, like Harrenhal, reduced to melted stone. Although Daenerys’ threats may have been made in desperation, we saw last season how the daughter of the Mad King Aerys does not stint on vengeance, burning the witch Mirri Maz Duur (Mia Soteriou) alive in punishment for her betrayal. “You are a true Targaryen”, the spice lord of Qarth (Nicholas Blane) observes. What a compliment that isn’t.
Another candidate for rulership is Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) who continued this week to demonstrate his artful cunning and statecraft. Breaking Lancel Lannister (Eugene Simon), who was reintroduced rather suddenly and still seems a character ripe for the editorial chopping block, was another sage move, but it seems that even Tyrion underestimates the depravity of his nephew Joffrey. There is, as Bronn (Jerome Flynn) observed, a poison deep in the young king. See it when he flinches away from the touch of Ros, (another great moment from Jack Gleeson) preferring to indulge instead the sadistic streak that places him above mortals and their petty desires. Surrounded by individuals such as these and surely questioning what kind of world it is in which kings must operate, Tyrion’s enlightened rulership cannot extricate him or those he cares about from the risks of unfettered power. As Cersei warned him last week, Tyrion’s remit is a piece of paper. He must work hard to establish a power base before he can even begin to resolve the wrongs in the kingdom. He can at least spare Sansa, who continues to play the role into which circumstances have forced her. “Lady Stark,” Tyrion murmurs in admiration. “You may survive us yet.”
Survival, yes. But at what cost? Arya (Maisie Williams), is surviving, holding herself together with her ambitious list of targets, murmured in prayer each night on the floor of a filthy stockade. There is so much damage creeping in. Arya watches as torture is casually employed upon people who know nothing. All she can do is pray for justice. Not from a king, though, and certainly not from her ironic saviour, Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance). Ever the ruthless pragmatist, Tywin wants the prisoners put to work rather than tortured. The just king, as Davos Seaworth so fervently believes, is Stannis. “The good act does not wash out the bad; nor a bad the good”, the eldest living Baratheon proclaims, but would we really want Stannis on the throne? An unfeeling man (though I like to think Stannis’ eyes were a little moist as he dispatched Davos and Melisandre to kill his brother) who understands that “cleaner ways don’t win wars”, Stannis possesses no charisma. His judgement, and his belief that the ends justify the means, is flawed. So, instead of praying for justice from a king, Arya prays for the power and the opportunity to unleash her own. A war of righteous vengeance that would see those who have wronged her meet a violent end. Now where have we heard that before?
Taking a break from justice, power and rulership, it seems fair to say that Garden of Bones continued in the rich vein of What Is Dead May Never Die (and keeps up with the grim episode titles too). The new sets, Qarth and Harrenhal, were as stunning as one could imagine and beg the question as to how much the show is costing HBO. So long as we keep out analogies to contemporary politics and retain the quality of dialogue and acting that we saw this week, the second season will continue to be a blast. Special mention to Hot Pie (Ben Hawkey) who stole the show as he stood squinting nervously/boldly at Gregor Clegane (Ian Whyte), belatedly realising that he had wet himself in his terror. If you wanted to go a bit meta, there was also some good old fashioned symbolism. If food is power, the old woman begging for bread has nothing; Renly selects and ponders his perfect apple, but never bites into it; while the Tickler casually chomps away, enjoying his exercise of dominance. “Is there gold or silver in the village?”
“I’m not from the village,” Gendry (Joe Dempsie) replies. If only the world of Game of Thrones were sane enough to care.