“Game Of Thrones” showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have done something quite remarkable, something that stands out as even more so after the recent conclusion of another fantastical genre series, “The Walking Dead.” Both properties are based on hard-hitting, wildly popular series that have rabid fan bases. Both have deep histories, strong characters, and intricate plotting. “The Walking Dead” has been terribly inconsistent, with episodes and story arcs ranging from phenomenal to flat-out awful. What makes “Game Of Thrones” so impressive is that they’ve somehow managed to condense George R. R. Martin’s sprawling saga into almost a series of short films, throwing out entire plotlines and characters, zipping around the chronology crazily, introducing new characters and new story lines seemingly every few minutes — and yet, the show never fails to impress. It’s the best 60 minutes of the week, and this week’s episode, “Garden Of Bones,” was no exception.
It was a decidedly unpleasant episode, as if they wanted you to look back on all of the woe and ruin of the prior ones and realize that, frankly, you ain’t seen a damn thing yet. “Garden Of Bones” was where we learn that the world of “Game Of Thrones” isn’t just harsh, but it’s also repugnant, cruel and vicious. It’s easy to see the despicable King Joffrey as the chief culprit for that, for this was the episode where we see the real truth about Joffrey. He isn’t a power-mad petulant child. Not by a long shot. There is something broken inside him, a roaring, boiling darkness where his soul should be. It wasn’t just his venal, twisted treatment of poor Sansa Stark — in fact, it goes even deeper than that. It was a surprising deviation from the novels, the scene with the two women in his bedchamber, but the scene — as awful and gut-roiling as it was — truly painted the full picture of him. Joffrey isn’t just mean and petty — he may well actually be evil.
But King’s Landing hardly has the monopoly on evil, as the miserable scenes at the looming, gloomy Harrenhal showed quite plainly. Arya’s tumultuous journey continues, now chained in the grim yoke of the Lannister army. Under the gigantic terror that is Ser Gregor Clegane, aka The Mountain That Rides (recast with actor Ian Whyte), we see that there is a whole other kind of cruelty awaiting the characters we love. The scenes in Harrenhal were stomach-turning, but they were also some of the best in the episode, thanks to the horrifically bored performance of the man known only as The Tickler (though I don’t believe he’s been formally named in the show yet). The Tickler (Anthony Morris) seems possessed by an entirely different kind of madness — he’s a complete and total sociopath. Pain doesn’t get him off like it does Joffrey — no, it’s simply something he’s good at, and that’s in many ways scarier. Maisie Williams once again shone as Arya, her gaze fearful but unwavering as she watched every gruesome moment, storing it all up as she is slowly consumed by a helpless rage. Shivering in the raining muck, muttering the names of those who’ve wronged her, Arya makes for a fascinating contrast — full of fury and vengeance while utterly hopeless and helpless.
The other standout in that scene was Charles Dance’s Tywin Lannister who really, truly demonstrated the glowering menace and wicked intelligence of the real head of the Lannister family. Tywin isn’t merciful, he’s practical, and as he purposefully strode through the mob, Dance conveyed that beautifully with little other than a few calculated lines, a narrowed gaze and an even tone.
But wait! The horror doesn’t stop there, because “Garden Of Bones” was determined to be the most disturbing hour of television you’ve ever seen. Unknowingly, the final nightmare started with the meeting between Gethin Anthony’s Renly and Stephen Dillane’s Stannis Baratheon, where each captured the essence of their character so perfectly — the insouciant insolence of Renly and the dour bitterness of Stannis — two personalities that had no hope of ever coming to terms, with poor Catelyn Stark caught in the middle. In its aftermath, a darkness was born — quite literally, this time. The… birthing scene? Is that what we’d call that? OK, the birthing scene was, despite its nastiness, devilishly well-conceived and shot, full of flickering shadows and tricks of light, as Melisandre became the wicked note on which we closed this horrible chapter, all as the steadfast Onion Knight watched haplessly and helplessly.
It wasn’t all savagery and awfulness, though. There appears to be hope on the horizon for Danaerys Stormborn Targaryen and her desperate band of followers. At the gates of the magnificent city of Qarth, Emilia Clarke capably showed everything that makes the character great — the doe-eyed compassion, the rosy charm, and the steely, vengeful determination. Dany has been neglected of late, and it was nice to see her not only back on the main stage, but growing more and more into herself as a woman and as a queen. And let’s not forget the joy of seeing Littlefinger get his ass verbally handed to him by two different women, something that was quite enjoyable.
A quick aside — I haven’t really paid enough tribute to the production values of the show, and this was one episode that really showed how spectacular they are. The costuming continues to be stunning (I’m still bitterly resentful towards “The Borgias” for stealing the costume design Emmy), but I was particularly captivated by the brief but fascinating glimpses of the two newest settings — Harrenhal and Qarth. Mere paintings for the most part, I’m sure, yet they felt real and perfectly caught the image I had in my head from the novels. Most impressive.
A second aside — there’s been an ongoing discussion about the arguably excessive nudity in the show, and there’s something to be said for that criticism. This week was a whole other ball of wax — I doubt anyone was even remotely titillated by the sadistic Joffrey and his terrified whores inflicting agony on each other, or the grotesquery that was Melisandre’s delivery scene. It was a stark contrast to the merry nakedness of prior episodes and as hellish as it was, I found it an interesting technique, as if to show that even the few things about the show that are beautiful can be corrupted and made disturbing. I’m still not thrilled about Rose the Exposition Whore, but at least for once her presence actually mattered. It wasn’t just a convenient excuse, but an almost necessary thing to demonstrate just how revolting young Joffrey is.
We’ll close on a pleasant note, which is, of course, Tyrion. Unlike the shrill and desperate Cersei, the brooding Starks and Baratheons, or the glowering Tywin, Tyrion is the only one who can make these Machiavellian machinations seem delightful. He’s a schemer, a snake in the grass whose cunning is perhaps unmatched, but Dinklage infuses him with a sense of sharp playfulness that manages to be endearing at the same time. His scene with the pathetic young Ser Lancel Lannister was marvelous, and I sometimes want to just play his dialogue on a loop. Yet his shining moment was his rescue of poor Sophie Turner’s (an actress who is growing more and more capable with each week) Sansa from the public shaming and punishment of Joffrey, showing a strength and fury that makes the character that much more real.
“Garden Of Bones” was one of the best episodes yet, in spite of — or even because of — how shocking it was. It was the episode where everything got turned on its head, where we began to see that there’s more darkness in this world that that created by war and politics. We no longer know what’s more dangerous — the darkness of war or the darkness of madness, gods and monsters.