I have read all the books but nothing that we haven't seen in the television series will be discussed (same goes for the comments folks). And in that vein, I won't be speculating as to what may happen to any of the conflicts, characters and/or narrative threads (like other series I've recapped), instead only what has been shot, set-up and/or suggested in each show as well as how skillfully (or not) it has been brought to the small screen. And to that effect...
"Every time the Qarthian shut their gates on a traveller, the 'Garden on Bones' grows."
First, I have to say it, Wow. And lead a big slow clap for D.B. Weiss and David Benioff. Okay, now having done that, no episode is perfect. We may get so wrapped up in a show's narrative momentum that its flaws simply fall by the wayside, blemishes easily forgotten in love at first sight. Game of Thrones definitely brought brevity and spectacle this week but when the smoke cleared you have to question whether that was just 'cool' or a compelling narrative that fits into the larger series scheme? Well, I watched it twice and without question "Garden of Bones" is the first great episode of the second season.
Like I said, no episode is perfect but this episode felt like it 'in the moment.' The way it moved as well as the tone and atmosphere created by the beautiful shots, the muted color palette, and finally, the ominous yet beautiful score underlining almost every scene. Once again, as will be the case every week, in the service of telling such a sprawling tale, some of our favorite characters did not make an appearance but "Garden of Bones" was quick to reintroduce Robb Stark and his storyline back into the second season after the King in the North's absence from "What is Dead May Never Die." No Jaime though. Pity.
"The high-road's very pretty but you'll have a hard time marching your army down it."
"Garden of Bones" opens in a Lannister camp in the Westerlands with two soldiers discussing who's the best swordsman in the realm (and also make it very clear that Renly and Loras' secret affair is actually public knowledge). Suddenly, Greywind, King Robb and the North descend upon them and the entire camp. I really loved the rack-focus shot, revealing Robb and his bannermen in line in the rain right before they marched into battle, "the King in the North!" Sparing us the actual fighting (probably because of budgetary issues as big battles do not come cheap), the scene quickly shifts to Robb and Roose Bolton discussing how to handle the prisoners now that the Wolves have won. With so little time to visit the various locales, choosing whether to lead directly into the next scene or spread two across the episode is a decision constantly on the (editing) table and this time not coming right back to the battlefield might have helped hide the fact that we didn't get to see the battle.
In the second part, we also met two more new characters. Roose Bolton is Lord of the Dreadfort and their sigil is a flayed man - as you heard him say, "a naked man has few secrets, a flayed man none" - which should tell you a little about how hard and cruel they breed them at House Bolton. He jabs at the Young Wolf ("we're not in the North") but Robb's eye instead falls to a young Florence Nightingale tending to enemy wounded. The King of the North quickly helps the beauty saw off a boy's leg, which for some reason, seems to turn him on, forcing him to followup with the nurse.
Her first name is Alyssa, but she refuses to divulge her last. She may be a little taken with Robb though, as this seems like more than just a chance encounter, especially since (SPOILER... kind of) that was Oona Chaplin (yes, of the Charlies) playing 'Alyssa.' So, expect the girl from 'Volantis' (a city among the Free Cities) to return for at least another episode and possibly some more erotic amputation. Speaking of the Free Cities...
"She is the mother of dragons, you expect her to watch her people starve without breathing fire?"
After a week off from Daenerys' struggles in the Red Waste, we revist the Khalessi and her Khalasar in the storyline from which the episode's title is taken. But before we get to the "Garden of Bones," first Dany, Ser Jorah and the rest of her sad sack are wasting away in the desert when suddenly another one of her scouts returns. And this time with his head! Right away, things are looking up! He's riding a brand new horse and bringing news of the Thirteen's invitation for the Mother of Dragons to come to Qarth, the greatest city that ever was or will be, however, half an episode later when they arrive, the welcome isn't exactly warm.
Of course, Dany is quick to heat as well and soon fed up with the The Princess Bride-like exchange with the Wallace Shawn impersonator (I was just waiting for him to say 'inconceivable!') she threatens to lay waste to the city if denied entry. I don't know why she didn't just flash them a little dragon but still, Xaro Xhoan Daxos soon vouches for the Khalessi, much to the chagrin of Wallace Shawn, and into Qarth they come. However, nothing comes without a price so what might Daxos be looking for in return for sticking his neck out to save all their lives? We also get a brief glimpse of Qarth which does look like an extraordinarily beautiful city, something carved right out of Ancient Rome. A nice place for a Queen. For now.
"There is no cure for being a cunt."
While the 'Dothraki' Queen is moving into Qarth, the current King of Westeros is busy blaming his future bride for her brother's conquests in the north-west. Joffrey sits on the throne playing with his crossbow and listening to lies about Robb's latest victory, all while Sansa is forced on her knees in front of the entire court. Oddly, Joffrey mentions how his 'mother insists' that he keeps the eldest Stark girl alive, 'odd' because he seems well past the point of listening to mommy and definitely wouldn't admit to submitting to anyone else's demands. However, the scene is still very well executed and demeaning for young Sansa, once again saved by the grace and timing of Lord Tyrion. Tyrion, and Kings Landing in general, doesn't play as large a part in "Garden of Bones" as the rest of the season thus far but Dinklage still manages to steal a few scenes. No Cersei though, pity.
After adequately shaming, sorry, educating Joffrey in court (not to mention Bronn's utter emasculation of Ser Meryn), Tyrion arranges for a a few pros to come by Joffrey's room as a belated name day present, olive branch and hopeful cure to his, well, as Bronn said, there is no cure. However, what we get is probably the most sadistic scene in the series' history and young Jack Gleeson once again shines as the cruel King. I also finally figured out why the writers have added Ros to the series, she's the 'whore we know.' Anytime we need to empathize with one of the series' whores, we now have Ros! A baby needs killing in a brothel, find Ros! In "GoB" she's put in the unenviable position of 'signing and delivering' Joffrey's sick thank you card for his uncle's present. We return to Kings Landing once more (only briefly) so Lancel Lannister can enter Tyrion's chambers like a Lion only to leave like a lamb, unwrapped from the Queen Regent's finger and now coiled tightly around the Hand's.
"Where is the brotherhood?"
The minute I saw Harrenhal brought to life on-screen, I think I actually said 'awesome' out loud. The CGI and art departments once again did a fantastic job in creating a location that not only feels real but also conjures the exact sense of desperation and death that I wanted from the twisted black towers of Harrenhal. It also doesn't hurt that our introduction to the setting was Arya's 'I smell dead people' followed by the off-screen sounds of torture and the vacuous old woman. Before she tries to sleep, outside and in the rain, Arya recites her bedtime prayer, "Joffrey, Cersei, Ilyn Payne, The Hound." When we return to the castle, we witness the interrogation (well, torture) selection process and Hotpie's inside information goes south when the insider is the one selected. Hot rat, bucket torture. That is a new one. And two new names are added to the prayer, "Joffrey, Cersei, Ilyn Payne, The Hound, Polliver, The Mountain."
In the third scene in the haunted castle, Gendry gets picked for the torture and receives the same questions about gold, silver, gems and this mysterious brotherhood. The Lions seem quite interested in finding this brotherhood but they also failed to realize that torture works best when there is an incentive to tell the truth and, after watching a man die even after he came clean, that, well, doesn't foster much trust in the torturer-torturee relationship. In a nice reversal of fortune, Tywin Lannister of all people arrives just in time to save the day and recognize that Arya is actually a girl. Having her become his cup-bearer (even if quite a change from the novels) is a really interesting move and only ups the intensity and drama from the original arrangement when she was paired with... hm, better not say. Maisie Williams' Arya is probably my favorite character, so having the action in Harrenhal serve as one of the main threads throughout "Garden of Bones" was more than fine with me.
"Look to your sins Lord Renly, the night is dark and full of terrors."
The Storm Lands, south of Kings Landing, serves as the other central location for "Garden of Bones." The first few scenes in the there, however, are not nearly as exciting or central to the episode's story as the latter sequences. If there was one thing that didn't really play in this show it was the scenes between Littlefinger and the Southern Royalty, starting with his encounter with King Renly, followed by his even flatter 'spat' with Queen Margaery. I mean, if there are soldiers in the Lannister camp laughing at Renly's homosexuality, I don't see how it could serve as leverage for Littlefinger. I really like Natalie Dormer's take on Margaery and want to see her as much as possible, but these scenes just seemed extraneous and there's places to be and people to meet.
On the flip side, where his scenes with the King and Queen seemed like a waste, Littlefinger's scene with Cat felt very central to the narrative but overly expositional. Cat is growing more and more anxious about her girls being kept in Kings Landing, especially now that she believes Arya to also be there alive and well. And shortly after the Stark siblings lives are negotiated for, the Baratheon brothers take a turn at talking with a parle before their potential war. I really loved this exchange between Stannis and Renly, I only wished Cat was as forceful and convincing as she was in the novel (but I don't give a damn about the peach). The two brothers' characters were put fully on display in this exchange and after Stannis' stoicism and Renly's jests, Melisandre shatters the calm with her own warning. Renly's confession of once having loved his brother was also rather powerful, especially since Stannis was probably never aware that was the case. He ain't heavy... after I kill him.
"Shadows cannot live in the dark Ser Davos. They are servants of light. The children of fire. And the brighter the flame, the darker they are."
It's also clear that Stannis is very much entranced with his Red Priestess, like literally entranced as his face on the ship had a certain hypnotic gleam. And Stannis' honor is not just called into question but completely shattered ("cleaner ways don't win wars"), once again highlighting the hypocritical nature of his supposedly to the letter character. Davos is blinded by his love for his King and all he's done for his family so he accepts the mission and smuggles Melisandre ashore. Carice Van Houten is mesmerizing as the seductress and the final scene, one I was worried they would fail to be able execute satisfyingly on screen, was magical. And by magical, I mean freaky, weird and rad. The fantasy may comes in spurts in GoT but, just like the dragons at the end of the first season, when it does it can be quite breathtaking. I loved the shadow birth, a true highlight in the series' entire run thus far.
Once Greywind bared his jaws at the beginning, "Bones," grabbed ahold of me and never let go, and we're talking well after the final frames dissipated, and the same aforementioned haunting score ended alongside the closing credits. "Garden of Bones" was the most gripping episode of the season so far (and the year is young), with the narrative seamlessly crossing worlds while simultaneously ratcheting up the intensity until the fantastic final frames. And while the powerful ending does not forgive some of the minor quarrels that came with the episode, I couldn't be more exited to see how HBO brings to life everything that lies ahead. Like I said, the season is young and it is also only the beginning of the "Song of Ice and Fire." If something is becoming abundantly clear, it's that Game of Thrones the show is not scared of the source material. Fidelity does not seem to be a major concern for the writers but they also make sure to stick to canon when it counts.
Watch the preview for next week's episode here!