If there’s one thing “Game of Thrones” doesn’t do, is waste time. Last week’s episode closed with shots of sorceress Melisandre birthing some monstrous shadow, a wispy, manlike demon summoned for some mysterious bidding. This week’s episode, “The Ghost of Harrenhaal,” opened rather routinely: Catelyn and Renly were chatting about kingly things while Brienne helped Renly remove his armor. And then, with a fellow swoop, the shadow demon entered, stabbed Renly, and fled. All in the first five minutes.
The abruptness of the deed was cold, indeed. Brienne cried out in horror at the loss of her king, and was met by a few members of Renly’s army who ran in to see what all the fuss was about. Cradling Renly’s body, Brienne looked the likeliest suspect, but before the men could take her away and punish her, she crushed them all in a staggering display of girth and power. Brienne, we now know, is not to be f***ed with.
I was sad to see Renly go. Like I said last week, I found him the most capable of all the contending kings. Stannis summoned the demon in his own particular breed of crazy, proving that his destiny on the throne would be wrought with uncertainty (the next Mad King in the making?). Joffrey is obviously uncapable, Robb is busy trying to survive, Dany has her dragons and Theon is… Theon. Renly was the only one who served on the former king’s council, the only one with any experience in politics and the only one thoughtful enough to suggest letting Robb keep his King of the North title as a civility. He might not have changed the world, but he could have at least kept it going.
His new widow, Margaery, doesn’t seem too upset, though. When Littlefinger found Margaery and brother Loras at Renly’s deathbed (Loras more distraught at the loss of his lover than his sister), he asked her if she still wanted to be a queen. “No,” she responded. “I want to be the queen.” Terrific. Now we’ve got these two conspiring together for some mysterious deed, with Loras wedged in the middle.
Loras isn't the only one in a state of grief. Brienne, who harbored something romantic for Renly, is distraught by his death, telling Catelyn of how the shadow figure looked so much like Stannis. Without the support of an army or the mercy of her king, Brienne decides to pledge her duty to Catelyn and the North, an honor Catelyn gladly accepts. But on one ground: "Promise me that when the time comes, you will not hold me back from Stannis," Brienne asked. Catelyn promised.
Back in King's Landing, Tyrion tried to get to the bottom of Cersei's mysterious plot against Stannis. He's still using Lancel, Cersei's lover (and cousin - she's got a thing for blood relatives, that Cersei), to get insider scoop. Unfortunately, Lancel's a crap snitch. He doesn't remember much and stammers when he tries. But Tyrion's able to get at least one piece of useful information out of him: Cersei's planning a cannon attack on Stannis's army.
With the help of Bronn, Tyrion seeks out an elderly alchemist who's brewing a potion for Cersei. "Wildfire," it's called – a potion that burns through iron, wood and flesh. It's all very Weapon of Mass Destruction-y, and Tyrion (in a very Littlefinger-esque fashion) lets the alchemist know he's no longer working for Cersei – he now works for Tyrion.
We get a few brief check-ins with some other characters. Jon Snow heads off with the rangers beyond the Wall, on a secret mission to locate wildlings. Theon and his crew are off to battle. Bran shares his dreams of the three-eyed raven and the flooding of Winterfell to Osha, who seems more disturbed than intrigued. And in Harenhaal, Arya – working as a servant for Tywin – glens some inside information about her family. When Tywin asks her what she knows of Robb Stark, she tells him that Robb is said to ride into battle on the back of a direwolf, and that he supposedly can't be killed. "Do you believe this?" Tywin asks. "No," she responds. "Anyone can be killed." Looks like Tywin just moved to the top of her hit list.
Turns out Arya's hit list is actually a worthy investment. The man she let out of a burning cage a few weeks ago corners her and tells her he plans to repay her debt – the saving of one life means the murder of three, where he's from. So in exchange for his life, he'll kill three people for Arya. Whoever she wants. For her first hit, she names the Tickler, the man who tortures people. Tywin will likely be another. So who's the third lucky fellow going to be?
My favorite part of the episode happens in Qarth. Dany is assimilating to her temporary home, wearing a new dress from Xaro and attending parties in fine company. She chastises her Dothraki men for trying to scavenge a gold peacock, and make chums with a warlock man, who shows her gems that make him appear twice – once in the foreground and once in the back. Optical illusion? Twins? Magic? The warlock also invites Dany to the House of the Undying. With a name as, um, inviting as that, it's likely some tantalizing trek for another day. Xaro is quick to dismiss any magical activity – instead, he leads Dany to a secret chamber that he says is full of treasure that can buy Dany all the armies she needs to take back the iron throne. All she has to do is marry him.
I like Qarth because it's the first outright magical place we've seen so far. For a fantasy show, "Game of Thrones" has been pretty light on the fantastical. Sure, we got a shadow baby birth last episode. And dragons last season. But the duel warlock (and another mystical character – a masked woman who warns Jorah to protect Dany) feels like a little shove toward the more outright magical. As much as I love the politics of kings and the epic battlegrounds, the show feels the most exciting when it dips into the unexplained. That's what separates "Game of Thrones" from, say, "The Tudors."
And yet the characters are reticent to accept magic. They acknowledge dragons, but they laugh at warlocks. They dismiss the wildlings. They think potions are the mumblings of crazy people. Perhaps the long, stagnant summer has, in turn, fizzled their imaginations.
What remains to be seen is whether or not magic had anything to do with the episode's ending: with Arya's new three-count death put into effect. The Tickler is struck dead on the floor of Harrenhal. When Arya looks up to the rafters, she sees her new kill friend smiling back at her.