This review may contain spoilers.
Last week's startling birth of Melisandre's (Carice van Houten) demon-like entity leads to an equally impressive opening scene this week as Renly Baratheon's (Gethin Anthony) quest for the Iron Throne comes to an abrupt and bloody end.
Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) may not want to admit it to his seasoned advisor Ser Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham), but Melisandre's assassination of Renly foreshadows a grim cost might be looming; after all, her magic certainly carries a malevolent vibe and she could even upstage Stannis in the eyes of his men with such impressive displays of power. You can almost imagine the Baratheon bannermen enthusiastically scrambling to shed their religion in favor of the red priestess' blessing.
Renly's death also sends Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer) and her brother Ser Loras (Finn Jones) fleeing back to their homeland as the bannermen around them declare support for Stannis. Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish (Aidan Gillen) sees first hand that Margaery has her eyes firmly locked on the Iron Throne too and that the Tyrell family remains a key player in the politics of Westeros. It'll be interesting to see Margaery's next move -- and especially Loras, who is one of the Seven Kingdoms' most fabled knights.
Melisandre's attack also impacts Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) and Renly's hulking bodyguard Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie). They are the only ones who witnessed the assassination and appear to be prime suspects since the entity vanished moments after slaying Renly. Fortunately, they flee the camp and head north toward Robb's (Richard Madden) army. It's on this trip that Brienne pledges her service to Catelyn. Considering Brienne defeated Loras in a sword fight, Catelyn couldn't have gained a more capable protector.
In King's Landing preparations for Stannis' impending attack are underway. Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) learns that his sister, Cersei (Lena Headey), is manufacturing large stores of "wildfire," a highly unstable and flammable fluid that may be the key to repelling Stannis. But first, Tyrion decides to wrestle control of its production from Cersei. That act marks another smooth move by Tyrion, who may have saved the city from a disastrous attempt by Cersei to use it in battle.
At Harrenhal, Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) encounters Jaqen H'ghar (Tom Wlaschiha), one of the men she saved in a fire following the Lannister's attack on the Night's Watch caravan. He appears to follow R'hllor -- the same religion that Melisandre serves -- and asks Arya to select three people for assassination. H'ghar claims that the act will repay the "Red God" for not being able to claim their lives in the fire. This R'hllor religion is getting more creepy by the moment.
Meanwhile, Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) receives word that one of the north's strongholds is under attack. Little does he know, it's the Ironmen and Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) that are attacking, not the Lannisters. Theon just seeks a little respect, and he hopes this bold move will earn him glory on the battlefield. Once again, the Stark's are kicked in the gut.
Finally, Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and the Sworn Brotherhood of the Night's Watch scout the fringes of the wildling army north of the great ice wall, and across The Narrow Sea, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) woos the elite of Qarth and receives a marriage proposal from the wealthy merchant Xaro Xhaon Daxos (Nonso Anozie).
POINTS OF INTEREST
1. The leader of the Undying Ones in Qarth adds to the show's growing displays of supernatural power as he greets Daenerys.
2. Bran describes his dream of the sea flooding Winterfell just as the Ironmen start their attack on the north.
3. The superstitious population of King's Landing have nicknamed Tyrion the "demon monkey."
"The Ghost Of Harrenhal" marks a high point for Season 2. In a series that is so consistently good, that may not be saying too much, but the whirlwind of captivating story arcs are starting to bristle with tension. There is just so much that can go wrong for so many of the players in this dizzying game of thrones. And Renly learned that the hard way.
The scenes filmed with the Night's Watch north of the wall -- short on location in Iceland -- looked fantastic and added to the show's epic feel.
Several character moments shined in this episode, including Ser Jorah Mormont's (Iain Glen) moving belief that Daenerys is an unprecedented ruler with heart and Brienne's unexpected pledge to protect Catelyn at all costs.
Can Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) get any cooler? Everything he says in this episode is spot on, and he is a great strategic thinker. His exchange with Arya is also fascinating. It's easy to see where Tyrion got some of his smarts. With more screen time Dance could land an Emmy too.
And once again Tyrion steals some of the episode's best moments. His amusing threat to have Bronn kill Lancel Lannister (Eugene Simon) is a standout.
Also, Tyrion to Lancel: "Even torturing you is boring."
WHAT DIDN'T WORK
My big disappointment: the fact that we are at the halfway point of the season.
GIVING CREDIT WHERE CREDIT IS DUE
"Game of Thrones" stars Peter Dinklage, Lena Headey, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Emilia Clarke, Michelle Fairley, Maisie Williams, Sophie Turner, Kit Harington, Harry Lloyd. "The Ghost of Harrenhal" was written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, and it was directed by David Petrarca.
"Game of Thrones" airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.
See our Season 1 episode reviews for "Winter is Coming," "The Kingsroad," "Lord Snow," "Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things," "The Wolf and the Lion," "A Golden Crown," "You Win or You Die," "The Pointy End," "Baelor" and "Fire and Blood."
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