Roose Bolton, super duper not nice.

It’s been an even longer time since I wrote one of these. In fact, I was going to give up but I’ve been thinking of the show lately and how I still haven’t managed to get in a complete second viewing. Also, Justin convinced me I should keep writing these so here we are.

Episode 4 opens with a couple of regular old Lannister bannermen having a chat about who the best knight in the Seven Kingdoms is. This is a nice touch as, like I’ve said, so much of this show deals with the title-holders and lords and ladies of the realm. This little scene gives us some insight into how the common soldiers views things: not all that different from spectator sports.

Whoever the best knight is, Robb Stark don’t care cuz he ain’t even a knight. He shows up and there’s one of the trademark Game of Thrones fade-to-black-battles in which we hear just enough to tease a battle but see nothing. Whimper. I really do wish they’d have found a way to show small skirmishes that imply larger battles, just to give us something to show for Stark’s oft-discussed victories. This is not dissimilar from how it works in the books, true, but I still like it when the show shows instead of teases.

In general, Garden of Bones follows the same format as the last couple of episodes. It ditches a few storylines and concentrates on others. Unfortunately, it’s also the episode where Game of Thrones starts to veer off in a bad direction with a few things. This is the first sign that some of the choices being made behind the scenes may not have been smart or even necessary. More on that as we go, of course, but the very next scene features the introduction of a character who basically represents my attitude.

The shame of the new character is that she is a good character, well acted and well written.

So this is the episode where we are introduced to Talisa Maegyr, a Volantene nurse who basically takes the place of Jeyne Westerling (from the books). I get that the whole Robb and Jeyne thing wasn’t exactly the most critical story in the books and it also happened largely “off-screen” so they could have basically done anything if they wanted to expand on it. My first thought was that Talisa would turn out to be Jeyne under an assumed identity, hiding who she is to avoid getting into trouble due to her family’s Lannister affiliation. This did not, as season 2 came to a close, turn out to be the case. Instead, Talisa is just a brand new character.

And the writers, on one level, know what they’re doing with her. She is headstrong, speaks up for herself, and challenges Robb. Robb is immediately attracted to her and can’t help but talk to her even as she mocks him and dresses him down for not having any clear plans for after the war. Talisa disapproves of war and Robb’s motivations. Unbeknownst to him, she isn’t unlike Catelyn in terms of personality if not beliefs and this is probably key to how she was written and why it makes sense that Robb would be into her.

Still, in future recaps we’ll get to know Talisa more and learn a bit about her history. I want to criticize that she looks/sounds exactly like a Westerosi but I can’t remember if they deal with that in a later episode. For now, the only thing to point out is that this is a major change from the books and stamps a great big question mark on how they’re going to handle future consequences of changing Robb’s story.

It isn’t a NERF gun but I guess it’s cool, Joff.

Joffrey has heard of Robb’s victory and is pissed off. He takes it out on Sansa, naturally, humiliating her in front of his court by having Ser Meryn beat the shit out of her with the flat of his sword. Episode 4 gets a little cartoonish, if not repetitive, with Joffrey’s evil deranged ways but as per usual, the performers and thematic intentions of the writers sustains it. Joff is being a prick in this scene, mirroring behavior he has demonstrated before but there are a few things to note.

Meryn Trant is an asshole.

First is that it’s all escalating. This is the Joffrey is a sadist episode and the opening salvo is this scene. It exists partially so that a later scene can be solidly believable. I’m not sure it wouldn’t have been anyway, but Joffrey fucking with Sansa’s day yet again serves other purposes too. It’s also about letting Tyrion swagger in to put a stop to it, first laying down the obvious (but important) comparison between Joffrey’s attitude and that of the Mad King. Second, it lets us again see Tyrion’s regard and kindness toward Sansa, foreshadowing how their relationship develops in the future and adding a nice note of extra tragedy to how that shit goes down. Tyrion also gets to develop some audience-surrogate respect for Sansa as she continues to manage her beyond shitty position intelligently.

Word, Bronn. Word.

Leaving the room after saving the day, Bronn and Tyrion pause to brochat about Joffrey’s fucking issues. Bronn says he’s a cunt, but maybe some cunt will fix him. They innuendo their way to agreeing that the best plan for now is to get Joffrey some whores. But it backfires.

Joffrey likes only pain!

So this scene is a little controversial. In fairness, there are a lot of ways to take it. For one thing, it’s a bit cartoonish. We know Joffrey is a twisted little monster but this scene, original to the show, really runs that point all the way to the neighbor’s. I mean, he’s a total sadist apparently. He doesn’t want these two hot naked chicks to touch him, but instead wants to watch Roz (the ever-present redheaded whore) beat the holy shit out of the other one. With a scepter that has antlers on it. The antlers are probably metal.

Now you might think this scene is shocking and appropriate, especially when Joffrey makes it clear that this is at least somewhat about sending a message to Tyrion. He is enjoying himself, though. Being that he’s a kid, the scene takes on a bit of risk. People got pretty upset about it, some saying it’s just typical HBO preoccupation with fucking, others saying that it’s an example of the fucked up sexual politics of HBO, the show, Martin himself, etc. I think outrage is the wrong reaction. Thematically, the scene is a continuation of what the previous scene began: the escalation of Joffrey’s autonomy. The forms Joffrey’s will to power is taking. That’s the point.

Peas in a pod?

Littlefinger arrives at Renly’s camp. Flexing his muscles in a beta-male echo of Joffrey’s insanitywolf demonstration, Renly lets Littlefinger know just what he thinks of him. Undismayed, LF maneuvers away by making a promise that recalls Tywin Lannister’s storied actions during the Robert Baratheon rebellion. Like Tywin before him, LF offers to open the gates. Again a mad king on the throne, again a Baratheon admitted to conquer.

LF and Margaery hang out a bit, LF pressing her the way he does with people, trying to find some angle to manipulate her. He decides on Renly’s sexuality, the worst kept secret in Westeros I guess, but Margaery lets him know she’s on to him. I think the actress playing Marg pretty much knows what she’s doing. This is not the book version of Margaery Tyrell and this actress makes that okay it turns out. She manages to let us, and LF, know that she isn’t keeping her mouth shut for loyalty but for her own maneuvers. It is with respect and probably inspiration that LF looks on her at the end of their discussion.

Then split from Westeros for a second so that Daenarys can receive a rider who has kept his head. This guy brings news of a city nearby, called Qarth, which invites the Mother of Dragons to its walls. Jorah has only heard that the desert outside is called the “Garden of Bones” (and bam, episode title) which is pretty ominous. Not just for them, but for the audience too. Qarth is the most problematic part of Game of Thrones and is going to be the stage upon which many of my Season 2 frustrations, complaints, and criticisms are set.

Lookitchoo Harrenhal!

It is by now a bit of a show trademark to do one big establishing shot of a new location. Harrenhal has been captured perfectly by the art department, as you can see. It’s a shot that completely sets up the tone of the place and the bad shit surrounding it while also again reminding us of the implications of dragons returning to the world.

The people in Harrenhal are under Lannister control and being terrorized. At night, we hear that Arya has borrowed Yoren’s death mantra ritual. In the book, it’s purely her own invention. Some purists might not like that in the show, Arya learns it from someone else. I like it, though, as it sidesteps having to explain why she suddenly starts doing it (no prose to do that job). It also extends naturally from the beautiful work they did with Yoren. Anyone who thinks that scene where he explains the ritual to Arya didn’t earn this change can go blow.

Catelyn has no time for hugs.

Littlefinger pays Catelyn a visit. I was stoked for this scene and loved its inclusion very much. It is brief but the show seems to do its best work when brevity is a must. Here we see an honest, emotional side of Littlefinger that we’ve never seen. Somewhere in his secret boyish heart, he hopes that Ned’s death means Catelyn might make room in her life for him again. This incredibly awkward, desperate moment is as close to the real Petyr Baelish as we ever see. Catelyn, of course, totally blames him for her husband’s death. He’s already thought about this moment though and is ready to defend himself. When you plan for emotional exchanges though, your plans always run awry and there is a great little escalation of sloppy behavior, uncharacteristic of him, motivated by his desperate yearning for Catelyn. When he touches her and she pulls a fucking knife on him, cuz this is emotional for her too, he resorts immediately to his duplicitous and scheming ways.

Dangling lies about her daughters, he offers Ned’s bones and asks her to consider letting Jaime go in exchange for the girls. He comes to her, not Robb, because he knows his lady. In the books, letting Jaime go is something Catelyn just ups and does. I think there are reasons, for Catelyn fans, to be upset that this was something the writers of the show felt like they needed to better/more clearly motivate. However, I like it as I felt like Catelyn was constantly doing preposterously stupid things in the books without much thought to the long-term consequences. The thing about that is, it clashes with her other core character trait: her strong sense of how to rule. It’s supposed to be some fundamental conflict that all her sage advice for Robb or Ned falls apart when it comes to her own kids, but it isn’t executed well in the books or the show. Given later events and the whole Lady Stoneheart thing, I sort of think that Catelyn was supposed to be a woman coming undone by grief and so on, but this is also not handled well if the case. In any event, giving her a good basis on which to believe letting Jaime go will accomplish anything like what she hopes it will was not a bad move.

Catelyn’s not the most consistent character, but this is one of my favorite acting moments in the whole show.

Struggling with her emotions, Catelyn buries her immense grief and asserts a resolute strength and self-control over herself. It’s a great moment that I wish was a more significant marker of the character. If Cat was more consistent, this bit would be expected and lose some of its power maybe, but the Cat who shakes off the sight of her husband’s skeleton doesn’t feel like the Cat who takes LF/Tyrion’s offer. Then again, the show is comfortable not really letting us know what she ends up doing with Jaime until we need to so maybe the idea is that she changes her mind in the moment. I like that idea. More on this when we get to the episode!

This torture method, I have scene it before.

The new actor playing The Mountain kind of sucks. He is tall and gangly and it looks like they never resized the armor so it dangles on him like a Walmart Halloween costume. One of the physically striking characters is Gregor Clegane and they got him so right in Season 1. I don’t know why the recast happened but I do know that it sucks. I think they must know it sucks, too. They keep the actor in the shadows or in the periphery of scenes a lot. This when he should be striding around being absolutely menacing. They must have known they had problems.

Anyway, this scene involves the Tickler and his fucked up rat-centric torture shit. The main thing here is that it sets up some foreshadowing for season 3. Tickler is interrogating random people not only because he gets off on that stuff, but because he is trying to find any and all info he can about The Brotherhood. We don’t see those guys in season 2 but don’t worry, they are coming.

This is just a glorious character shot. Used heavily in the marketing too.

One of my favorite scenes in the book is where Renly and Stannis meet on the field. In the show, the scene is truncated somewhat by two omissions. One is the lack of any huge army to back up Renly’s confidence. I know they’re off in a camp somewhere conveniently off screen, and I also know that it makes more sense for a small retinue to come with the respective leaders when they are doing the parley. But compare this to a similar type of scene in Kingdom of Heaven. When Saladin and Baldwin meet, you don’t need to see them fling their armies at each other to know how much power over life and death, let alone destruction, is in the hands of each of these formidable men.

The second omission is the one that actually stings. Part of the reason this was always one of my favorite parts of the book was Renly’s bit about the peach. It’s a great little speech and carries forward into one of Stannis’s very few moments of doubt later on. Without the peach and the Stannis moment it affords, a lot of nuance between these characters is lost. Anyways. We get the line about Stannis being a ham which is all right, I guess.

He would have killed the peach speech too.

Cutting into all this kingdealing is Catelyn dispensing some more of her fucking mom wisdom. She’d bash their heads together and remind them that they are brothers, she says. Maybe they should remember but why either one tolerates Catelyn’s remarks is beyond me. Everybody just sort of uncomfortably ignores her which makes me think, why even bother then?

All the talk of claims and heirs makes me want to play Crusader Kings 2 anyhow.

A sidenote about costume design: The Dragonstone armor looks a bit like form won over function, which happens a bit on this show. The armor is supposed to resemble dragon scales what with the interlocking plates on the chest and back. However, there’s only what looks like leather at the sides and that seems unlikely for a knight or soldier. I love that they differentiate the uniforms for different factions and I love that they thought through how to express themes and motifs in the designs, but still.

Are those Unsullied?

And then we get to where the problems start. First, a good thing. The Qartheen are supposed to be white so I kind of expected British actors with more exotic costumes. There’s a bit of that, but there are also later characters, such as Pyat Pree, who looks weird enough to give the place some flavor.

The first of the 13, whose name is unpronounceable, looks like this:

Sorta like Varys’s brother.

This guy speaks in a British accent that, while untouched by some of the regionalism they use for Westerosi, is still bit too “normal” for a guy who claims his name is impossible to pronounce for foreigners. This just rings completely false. The actor is also super cartoonish and all of a sudden I feel like I’m watching an episode of Star Trek featuring a planet of absurd silk people. Things are not improved much by the quick lesson in how to pronounce “Quarth” or how fucking out her depth Daenarys seems when confronting this fat fuck.

She’s in the hot seat, I get it. She needs inside that city and isn’t sure how to deal with these foreigners. Viserys style petulance doesn’t seem the way to go ever, though, but that’s what she goes with here. And over and over again throughout the rest of the season. It’s fucking awful. They never make the connection to Viserys and the bullshit that got him killed and anyway, this is not who Dany is. Not even this early in the game.

Besides being a tedious scene anyway, this introduction to Qarth seems poorly thought out “karth” vs. “kwarth” and the differences between Westeros host/guest etiquette and that of the Qartheen. The whole thing also plays out between Emilia Clarke’s quaivery IM SRSLY HRE voice and the ridiculous accent/tone of Captain Qarth.

Xaro Xhoan Daxos. Nice bit of casting here.

The only member of Qarth’s ruling council of 13 merchant-kings is Daxos, who immediately goes to bat for Dany using some unknown ritual to vouch for her. There’s something about all this that still rings false. It feels more like a contrivance in a bad fantasy novel in love with its own world-building than something that belongs to Game of Thrones. I can’t quite put my finger on why it doesn’t feel at all right, especially considering that this is a fantasy epic with made-up cultures and magic and so on.

Anyway, Daxos wins the day and Dany’s entourage is admitted to the city.

This shot, though beautiful, serves now to remind me constantly of what a mixed bag the Qarth stuff is.

So enough about Qarth for now. Believe me, I’ll be talking about it plenty if I keep up with these recaps.

Back in Harrenhal, Gendry is next on the Tickler’s interrogation list. All that gets interrupted by the triumphant entrance of Twyin Lannister.

He always sells every scene he’s in. Charles Dance, mahfuckas.

The gritty spookiness of Harrenhal is a nice change of pace after weirdo Qarth. Now that Tywin is back, he is going to make all the Lannister trains run on time. His first edict is that Tickler stop that shit immediately. All these people he’s torturing and killing are able-bodied laborers, some with trades. He saves Gendry because Gendry was a smith. I wonder if he’d even care that Gendry is Robert’s bastard. Probably. Tywin may not be as bloodthirsty as Joffrey but he’s ever the pragmatist.

This scene also sets up one of the best character pairings in the show. Though they don’t spend near as much time together in the books as it seems they do in the show, Tywin and Arya just works. Noticing she’s a girl immediately, Tywin picks up on Arya’s intelligence and makes her his new cupbearer. Double-edged sword for Arya.

Tyrion gets a new pawn!

Tyrion is a smart motherfucker and he’s determined to survive being the Hand. As such, his season arc is largely composed of his maneuvers to get power over Cersei and keep himself alive by doing so. Lancel Lannister is a dumb motherfucker and can’t lie for shit. His existence serves his relatives, the smarter and more cruel ones. Tyrion gets Lancel to admit he’s banging Cersei as some effeminate Jaime surrogate. Using this as leverage, Tyrion now has an informer to make sure he can keep track of his sister’s incredibly unsubtle schemes. I mean seriously, you just have to look at Lena Headey’s face to know she’s up to some shit.

Other than that, this scene presents a nice new angle on Tyrion’s conflict about his family. He both loathes his family and is unerringly loyal to them. Though his actions are often unflattering to them, they always serve the greater Lannister interest. But he knows they’re mostly monsters so he does his level best to constrain and control them. It’s an interesting element that scenes like this one get to explore. Tyrion is always in the toughest moral positions, it seems. Though he’s essentially a good man, he is also Ned Stark’s opposite when it comes to his willingness to use what’s at his disposal to do the right thing.

Liam Cunningham continues to class shit up in that unobtrusive, blue collar acting way he has.

Stannis and Davos are classic pair in this series. In this scene, we get a bit more about their history as well as Stannis’s secret mission for Davos. Of course the mission involve Melisandre so Davos is unhappy. TOO BAD.

The little pieces of Stannis Justice that gush from these scenes are always nice. When paired with Davos’s loyalty and humility, there’s a romance in Stannis that really works to make him a bit sympathetic. Since the show wants Stannis to be partially sympathetic, getting Cunningham was a coup. You want to like anyone Davos likes. More than that, there’s an equation involved with how audience investment in Davos leads to investment in Stannis. See, this is the kind of situation where a smart audience knows it’s all doomed but Davos doesn’t and even if he did, you get the idea he’d be loyal and true anyway. Which makes you like him more. So you don’t want bad things to happen to Davos, which means you don’t want bad things to happen to Stannis. Davos’s earnest belief in Stannis becomes our investment in the relationship and thus the less likable of the two characters. It’s beautifully orchestrated, really.

Of course, Melisandre ruins the day for Davos and us with her naked sexy shaman thing.

All Davos really knows about this secret mission is that it’s a smuggling job. Executed a bit murkily, it seems that Davos and Melisandre are going to some kind of sewer system. This confused me some because I didn’t remember the geography of Renly’s camp from the book and the show doesn’t even bother. Why is there a sewer or whatever under a camp? I get that Stannis’s peeps are aboard ships offshore from wherever Renly’s army is, but why the sewer thing? Is it a secret way to the beaches? What?

Anyway it doesn’t matter because Melisandre. She starts probing at Davos, looking for an angle exactly how LF does but with less subtlety and more religion. She isn’t even worried about him, he’s small potatoes, but she has this agenda or whatever which involves getting people on her side. She looks for common ground first, positioning herself as a “sort of knight” to see if that stirs Davos’s interest. When it doesn’t, she hits him closer to home and resorts to her sensuality.

Just when we’re like “oh snap, Davos is gonna fuck Mel now”, this happens:

Game of Thrones used CREEPY SHADOW BABY! It was super effective!

End episode, roll credits, audience pick your jaws up off the ground.

Well fucking done, Game of Thrones.