Don't read this unless you've seen Season 2, Episode 5 of "Game of Thrones," entitled "The Ghost of Harrenhal."
A few weeks ago, after the first couple of episodes of "Game of Thrones'" second season had aired, I heard from someone on Twitter who was on the verge of checking out and giving up on the show. I don't remember exactly what the wording of his or her question was, I just recall that the query was along the lines of, "Does it get much darker than this?"
Those of us who have read the books are inclined to chuckle ominously at such questions -- certainly not to mock the questioner, because I absolutely understand and empathize with where that question came from. But it's hard not to look at the sweep of George R.R. Martin's tale and say, "This is the fun part!"
I kid (a little), but I understand why, for some people, what transpires in this story might just be too hard to take. I stopped watching "Breaking Bad" for a while after a certain event that occurred in that show's second season; it was too grim, too hard, too much for me to deal with at the time.
I bring all this up because, while I respect where that question comes from and I know that we all have different lines in the sand when it comes to these matters, I don't actually think "Game of Thrones" is too grim. It's not just that we're getting, in addition to the rather dark and dangerous tale, spectacular vistas, great acting and the occasional dash of well-calibrated black humor. Certainly those things help take our minds off the characters' utter desperation from time to time.
But, as is the case with one of my favorite shows of all time, the rebooted "Battlestar Galactica," there is hope embedded in the story. This is a very unsettled world; this isn't like "Parenthood" or "The Good Wife" or even "Homeland," where the characters know what bed they'll be sleeping in that night and where they're going to get their next meal. The "Game of Thrones" characters don't always know what's coming next, but it's not as if what happens next is always terrible. They might still be stuck in a bad situation, but sometimes help is around the corner or over the next hill.
Arya is certainly in a nightmarish situation, but she's able to gain a measure of control over her fate via an alliance with the mysterious Jaquen H'ghar. The look on Arya's face as she stood over the hated Tickler, knowing she had caused his death, was mesmerizing; it was a terrific moment. It wasn't just that she was happy this torturer was dead, she was realizing that she had a measure of autonomy and agency that she hadn't had before. What's great about the uncertainty that the characters face is that they are often as surprised as we are when things go their way; the unsettled nature of events adds a great deal of tension, some of it quite pleasurable, to the proceedings.
But for me, the most moving scene -- the one that spoke most directly to what is valuable about this tale -- was the forest scene between Brienne and Catelyn. They're on the run, their lives are in danger, they barely know each other, and yet they are able to forge a connection that is real and that may sustain them both. It wasn't just a great scene because Gwendoline Christie and Michelle Fairley gave such committed and passionate performances, though of course that was a big part of it (we knew Fairley could deliver emotional moments, and Christie proved the same in this hour).
That moment spoke to me (and it underlined what's hopeful about this story) because it showed that, even at the darkest of times, hope and friendship are still possible. Brienne is still able to cling to the ideals of noble knighthood that are so crucial to her identity by pledging herself to Cate. This heartbreakingly selfless knight is able to find a place in the world, which she needs now more than ever. With her family scattered and everyone she knows at war, Cate is in equal need of a trusted friend. And so the woman who grew up without a mother and the mother whose daughters are in terrible danger are able to form an emotional bond that each desperately needs. And that's beautiful.
Perhaps what drives Brienne to pledge herself to Cate is a grief-stricken need to believe in something after the death of her beloved king. Perhaps Cate is merely taking pity on one more soul who needs her particular brand of "woman's courage." But so what? Don't we all do that? Aren't we all driven by our own personal needs to forge connections and to find meaning in our relationships? And these characters, no matter how bad things get, still have that option. Terrible things happen, but there's still the possibility that they can find others to rely on, whether those others are new or old gods, friends, family or even near-strangers.
Not every alliance or connection is fruitful or successful, of course. Daenerys is tempted by the idea of a marriage of convenience to Xaro Xhaon Daxos, but Ser Jorah Mormont is able to tap into her own misgivings (and in the process, saying more than he meant to about his own deep feelings for the khaleesi). Tyrion tries hard to get Cersei to see that they can accomplish more by working together than they could by pursuing different agendas, but his increasingly bitter sister isn't having it; she's obsessed with blocking his every move, even if it puts King's Landing in danger. Littlefinger sides with Margaery Tyrell and convinces Loras to leave his dead lover behind, but the upshot of the slippery advisor's dealings with House Tyrell is far from clear.
Many of the characters constantly struggle with decisions about what to do next: What is tempting in the short term is often less wise than what is smart in the long term. That adds another note of thrumming tension to the proceedings. We're constantly figuring out who these people are based on the decisions they make (and they're figuring that out too; very little is pre-determined or predictable here). Arya will kill and have others killed, if that option is open to her (and who can blame her?); Tywin is proud and arrogant but he's not stupid and knows he has to come up with a better plan for defeating Robb Stark; Tyrion knows his sister will do everything to obstruct him, so he finds a way to get control over the wildfire situation without her knowing what he's up to.
Even Stannis isn't as hard and unmoving as we might have suspected. Because he forged a real connection with Ser Davos -- the kind of honest, useful alliance that other characters have been relying on or pursuing all season -- he's finally getting some unvarnished feedback about how Melisandre's assistance is seen by the rank and file soldiers. Stannis may not be easy to like, but at least he's not a tyrant who won't listen to anyone else.
Is this tale too dark? Not for me, not when so much is unsettled and so many powerless people often turn the tables on their oppressors and their "superiors" in unexpected ways. Not for me, not when I look at the absolutely spectacular shots of the Fist of the First Men and my breath is taken away by the sheer beauty of that windswept spot.
Just think back to King Robert's jousting tourney from Season 1. As I wrote then, it was a paltry, disappointing affair; something that came alive as a spectacular and exciting event in the book looked scanty and bland on the screen. It's been a few years since I read the books, but I don't have to consult my copy of "A Clash of Kings" to know that the scenes set north of the Wall in this episode blew whatever was in the book out of the water.
The setting and the way it was shot was absolutely stunning, and it's that kind of harsh, unforgettable beauty -- along with the complicated mixture of hope, pragmatism and despair that fuels the characters -- that draws me ever more deeply into this tale.
A few more notes:
- Check out my recent interview with Emilia Clarke, who plays Daenerys.