"Game of Thrones" is nothing if not expansive (understatement of the century). Characters who get the silent treatment for long drags of time have a tendency to crop up as soon as they’re forgotten. That reinsertion takes centerfold in this week’s installment, with Renly Baratheon’s quest for glory as the overarching storyline.
Like his brothers, Robert and Stannis, Renly is a noble man, a little too proud and a little too stubborn to assume the leadership role he so rightfully seeks. With bastard child Joffrey at reign, Westeros is in the thick of an ugly war, new enemies and allegiances cropping up every few minutes. Renly, by his nature, is a peacekeeper. We see him this week in his most vulnerable role yet – newly married to his lover’s sister (his lover being a man, a knight, named Loras Tyrell) and yearning for the crown. Renly’s shoved back into relevancy in a scene of battle – a tournament for his Kingsguard leadership, a role won by Brienne of Tarth, a lady knight who defeats Loras by sheer size and willpower. Loras is humiliated by this defeat, which puts him in a tricky place with Renly and his sister, Margaery, who we learn rather quickly is in on the gambit: she knows about Renly and Loras’s affair, and she’s fine with it (even offers to bring Loras in to their bedroom to help Renly make more efficient love to her), so long as she bears Renly’s son and unites House Baratheon and House Tyrell, a move that could spread a wave of peace throughout a worried nation.
Of all the little armies and causes making their way through Westeros, Renly Baratheon’s crew is the most interesting yet. Unlike Stannis, the Lannisters and Robb Stark, we’ve seen the softer sides of Renly. We know he’s a closeted homosexual who’s uncomfortable with authority. Loras urged him to seek the crown last season, but is now angry at his disposition. Renly's army is led by a woman warrior and anchored by his clever wife. Their misfit crew seems almost destined for failure, but of all the lost causes, theirs is the most harrowing because theirs is a team of good people about to face the harshest of realities. Renly’s scenes are practically teeming with uneasiness, but it’s that very quality that makes him so interesting.
Over in King’s Landing, Tyrion is carrying off a master scheme to sniff out his sister’s snitch. Unlike Ned Stark, who fell victim to Cersei Lannister’s watchdogs, Tyrion is careful to know his place. He lets word of his plans for Princess Myrcella’s betrothal hit a few different Small Council ears, each with a different potential husband. When Cersei comes to Tyrion, furious at the news of her only daughter being shipped off to Dorne, it’s Pycelle, not Varys and Littlefinger, who betrays himself. Pycelle isn’t much of a threat, but Tyrion can breathe a minor sigh of relief in knowing that the eunuch and the brothel bigwig aren’t whispering plans of attack with his sister. This doesn’t bring them to the clear – Varys and Littlefinger remain the most untrustworthy characters on the show – but it eases the tension a little.
My favorite scene in the episode indirectly festoons from this thread. Tyrion’s lover, Shae, is made handmaiden to the brittle Sansa Stark, so worn from her placement in Joffrey’s evil reign that she warms – in her bitter Sansa way – to this new presence immediately. Shae is ill-equipped for this position, not knowing that she needs to change Sansa’s bedpan and brush her hair, but the idea of these two bonding under posterity is a striking one. If Sansa Stark needs anything right now, it’s a friend.
Elsewhere in Westeros, Jon Snow is dealing with the fallout of last week’s cliffhanger, when he came upon Craster’s baby exchange program: baby boys are left to the ghouls in the deep wood, Craster gets to keep all of his young daughters to himself. Not much happens here – Jon gets a slap on the wrist, and the creepiness ensues – but we get the sense of foreboding progress. We also check in with Bran, who’s convinced his POV direwolf dreams mean something more than an ordinary nightmare. And over in Pyke, Theon abandons all hope to reunite with Robb, deciding instead to conquer his adoptive land of Winterfell with his newfound father and sister. Instead of warning Robb, as he intends to do with a letter, he burns any idea of it and sets out, unrelenting. Of all the broken allegiances, this one hurts the most: even lifelong bonds are off limits here.
The episode closes with the death of Yoren at the hands of the brutal Lannister men, but not before he gets in a quick round of wisdom with Arya. Arya lies awake at night, unable to sleep because of all she’s seen in the last few days, from the death of her father to the bloody battle lines. She asks Yoren how he does it, how he moves on in spite of the horror of the world. Instead of a poetic seed of advice, he shares a story about his vengeful slaughtering of the man who killed his brother when they were kids. Cruel reciprocation is the only way to get over loss in Westeros, it appears. Yoren’s death, and Arya’s capture by the Lannister men in the final moments, is just the sort of hopeless reminder the audience needs: it doesn’t matter what you used to think about fantasy literature’s happily ever afters. If you seek a pleasant turnabout, “Game of Thrones” is not your cup of tea.