The One Where: Renly is assassinated, Tyrion plans the defence of King’s Landing, and Daenerys settles into life in Quarth.
Verdict: Powerhouse plotting, topped and tailed by dramatic deaths and stuffed full of stand-out moments, “The Ghost Of Harrenhal” carries on the Game Of Thrones trend for each episode topping the last.
After Melisandre’s jaw-dropping birth last week, any questions as to the sinister smoke-monster’s purpose are immediately answered as Renly succumbs to a blade made of shadow. It’s a fantastic turnaround – just as soon as Renly looked set to claim the throne and grant Robb the North, he’s ripped out of the picture, reminding us – as if we’d forgotten – that no one is safe when the likes of Stannis play the game. Littlefinger’s chat with the newly widowed Margaery reveals the pretty Tyrell to be every inch as capable as any of the lords of the land, Natalie Dormer exuding a steely-eyed ambition that we’ll no doubt be seeing plenty more of. Brienne's heartbreaking reaction to Renly's death is in great contrast to her ability to slaughter armoured knights at will, and her new friendship with Catelyn hopefully indicates we'll be seeing a lot more of the wonderful Gwendoline ChristieGethin Anthony’s Renly is only the latest in a string of strong, likeable characters to bite the dust, but there’s no time to mourn him. There’s a war on, after all.
It’s a war that Stannis is looking increasingly likely to win, now that Renly’s bannermen have flocked to his standard, and the implacable Baratheon’s position has never been stronger. Davos manages to convince him to send Melisandre away, but digs himself a deeper hole – the look on his face when Stannis orders him to lead the attack on King’s Landing is priceless, Liam Cunningham looking shocked, surprised, terrified even.
He’d be in an even worse state if he knew what the Lannisters have in store for him. The stocks of wildfire that Tyrion discovers will no doubt come in extremely handy, and although he’s got his sister and deviant nephew to contend with, the Imp is clearly the voice of reason in the capital. Tyrion and Bronn’s wander through the squalid streets of King’s Landing makes good use of the odd couple’s comic chemistry, the Life Of Brian style street preacher giving ‘evil monkey’ Tyrion pause for thought. And I never thought I’d say it but Jerome Flynn is smashing it out of the park as Bronn, his foul-mouthed asides becoming instantly quotable episode highlights.
Over on the Iron Islands, Theon learns that he’ll need to do more than wear fancy armour to impress his new crew, Alfie Allen’s bruised ego given an earthy foil with the arrival of Dagmar Cleftjaw. Theon’s cunning plan to take Torrhen’s Square has repercussions for Bran up at Winterfell, the younger Stark looking older and wiser by the second, but as the fog of war descends on the North it’s anyone’s guess what Theon has planned.
Arya’s new role as Tywin Lannister’s cup bearer is rewarding us with some superb moments straight away. Maisie Williams is nothing short of spectacular as the wayward Stark sister, effortlessly holding her own when sharing scenes with Charles Dance’s ruthless Tywin. Arya’s deal with the mysterious Jaqen H'ghar (Tom Wlaschiha) has immediate results, and the Tickler’s death proves that she’s not afraid to take the steps she has to in order to get what she wants.
In that, Arya is not alone. There’s a Targaryen across the seas who shares the same traits, and she has dragons. As Dany settles in to life behind the walls of Quarth, we’re rewarded with some of the most intriguing scenes of the series so far. Who is the masked woman with concerns for her welfare? What do the warlocks want with her? Will she accept Xaro Xhaon Daxos’s offer of marriage and a chance to sail home to claim the Iron Throne? Emilia Clarke hasn’t been given much to do so far in season two, but given more screen time she shines.
The most striking scenes of the episode were north of the wall though, with Jon and the rest of his brothers of the Night’s Watch. It’s as if they’re on a polar expedition, and the Icelandic backdrop is nothing short of breathtaking. The snowy wastes shiver off the screen, the cast’s red raw faces testifying to the freezing conditions. The Fist Of The First Men is an epic setting, and now that Jon is off on an ranging with Qhorin Halfhand, things look set to hot up quickly in the sub-zero climate.
The Fight Stuff: Brienne proves that she’s just as good in a tight corner as she is in a tournament, dispatching Renly’s guards with a swift, deadly efficiency.
Don’t I Know You? Dagmar Cleftjaw, Theon’s new first mate, is none other than Ralph Ineson –Amycus Carrow in Harry Potter or, of course, David Brent’s motor mouth salesman mate Chris Finch in The Office .
Best Line: Littlefinger: “Don’t you want to be a queen?”
Margaery Tyrell: “No, I want to be the queen.”