Why I Don’t Like Qarth: Journey to the Throne S2E4-6

This is the seventh post in a series I’m staring on this blog called Journey to the Throne, reviewing previous episodes of the show Game of Thrones before its eighth and final season. To view the previous post, click here: The Season of Tyrion: Journey to the Throne, S2E1-3

Since the goal of Journey to the Throne is to consider the show as a whole leading up to its end, please be advised that this post will contain SPOILERS up to the end of Season 7.

Game of Thrones, Season 2, Episode 4, “The Garden of Bones”

Synopsis: In King’s Landing, Joffrey finds that Tyrion has sent two whores to try to seduce him; Joffrey forces the one woman to beat the other. In another plotline, Tyrion blackmails Cersei’s lover-cousin Lancel after he discovers that they are lover-cousins. After debating the perks of torturing prisoners with Roose Bolton, Robb Stark talks about the morality of war after watching a nurse – Talisa from Volantis – amputate a foot off an enemy soldier. The Arya/Gendry/Hot Pie gang arrive at the cursed Harrenhal, only to find that people get tortured and killed daily, until Tywin Lannister shows up and has them put to work instead. In the Stormlands, Renly and Stannis meet to have peace talks, but both insist that they are the right and rightful kings of Westeros (respectively). Later on, Davos watches Melisandre give birth to a Shadow-monster that resembles Stannis. Daenerys and her Khalassar arrive at the walled city of Qarth, where their rulers – the Thirteen – at first bar them from the city, before one of the thirteen steps forward to vouch for Dany.

This is a pretty standard middle-of-the-season episode. It’s nothing thrilling, but altogether pretty good.


One neat element is this season’s first appearance of the larger-than-life Tywin Lannister. He shows up to take control of the Lannister garrison at Harrenhal, and we can actually start to sympathize with him because he isn’t the most sinister character in the scene. He’s acting against minor villains such as Polliver (the one who took Arya’s sword) and the Tickler (the one who coordinates the torturing). He seems actually, fairly likable. When Polliver threatens to beat Arya, Tywin intervenes and not only tells him he’ll do no such thing, but also points out that she’s a girl, which no one else realized. Arya knows Tywin is a villain, and so does the audience, but you start to like him.

This is the first episode with Roose Bolton and Lady Talisa. They both have philosophies that contrast with Robb. Roose thinks he’s not being cruel enough, and recommends killing and torturing prisoners. Talisa, on the other hand, tends to the wounded and hates war. The two help bring out both sides of Robb; the honorable, which maintains that even prisoners should be treated with dignity, and the realistic, which knows that he cannot achieve what he needs to without people dying. It’s a very well-written scene.

In the Stormlands, there’s a powerful scene where we see Stannis and Renly have a summit, with each trying to explain to the other why they deserve to be king, while Catelyn tries to explain to the two of them why they should come to some kind of peace agreement.

I try not to make any comment about why a character should or should not have done a certain thing, but I can’t help here. Renly is a damn fool in this situation. Stannis says “Strike your banners, come to me before dawn, and I will grant you your old seat on [the Small Council]. I will even name you my heir, until a son is born to me.” That last part is the most important. Here is Stannis, whose wife has given him three stillborn sons and one very frail daughter, and both of whom are very old – you think he’s having a son anytime soon? Not likely. Combine their forces and march on the Iron Throne! Stannis might die in battle, or maybe a few years later. Then all of Stannis’ supporters would support Renly! I get that Renly thinks Stannis would make a bad king, but like, put up with him. Eh, I don’t know.

Let’s venture to King’s Landing for some NSFW scene analysis.

Thrones gets an unfair mount of heat for having sex scenes that offer nothing to plot or character. And yes, Joffrey with the two women that Tyrion sends is difficult to watch. But it’s supposed to be. Up to this point, we’ve seen many scenes in which Joffrey has shown his capacity for cruelty, but none as dramatic as this. Perhaps the most mystifying part of the whole scene is Joffrey’s somewhat sexual love for violence. He takes no interest in the women, but he loves the violence, which is terrifying. It’s hard to tell if he actually feels an arousal at watching the violence unfold before him or if he’s just doing it because he knows these women are sent by Tyrion. But his disinterest in the women is something we see in perhaps no other (human) villain in the series. Viserys, who was despicable in every single scene he had, still had a romantic scene with his sister’s handmaiden. Ramsey, who many consider to be more evil than Joffrey, still had Miranda, his love interest. In a series that makes such a big deal about the sex its characters are having, Joffrey’s lust for violence is truly unsettling.

Also in King’s Landing, a definite episode highlight: Tyrion blackmailing Lancel.

Favorite Line: From the above Tyrion scene, his subtle threat to Lancel, “I could swear that I had not harmed a single hair on [Grand Maester Pycelle’s] head but – that would not strictly speaking be true…”

Favorite Scene: The conversation between Renly and Stannis. Their conflict is one of the more interesting elements in the War of the Five Kings, and this is its climax rising action.

Season 2, Episode 5; “The Ghost of Harrenhal”

Synopsis: In the Stormlands, Stannis’ shadow kills Renly. Catelyn and Brienne are the only people to witness it, so they run away. Littlefinger appeals to Renly’s widow and her brother, Margery and Loras Tyrell. In the Iron Islands, Theon’s men don’t respect him, but his first mate suggests that they attack Winterfell after attacking a nearby town. In Winterfell, Bran hears about Theon’s attack of the town, but they don’t realize who it is. North of the Wall, the Night’s Watch meets up with Qhorin Halfhand, a legendary ranger. Qhorin suggests that the only way they can combat the King Beyond the Wall is to send a small, covert group to kill the king and break up his army. Jon Snow volunteers to join this group. In King’s Landing, Lancel informs Tyrion that Cersei is stockpiling a dangerous flammable substance called Wildfire. At Harrenhal, Arya speaks with Jaqen H’gar, the mysterious man she saved when Lannister soldiers attacked their caravan. He believes in what he calls the Red God, who he claims was owed three deaths – so Jaqen will give Arya those three deaths, by volunteering to kill three of her enemies. She asks him to kill the Tickler, who tortures Harrenhal’s prisoners. The episode ends with the Tickler being found mysteriously dead. In Qarth, the Dothraki have to be told that they can’t steal stuff and Xaro Xhoan Daxos, who vouched for Daenerys at the gates, proposes marriage to her in exchange for his support to take the iron Throne. Jorah is not impressed.

This episode has the payoff of last episode’s scene between Tyrion and Lancel – Tyrion interrogates Lancel, who reveals that Cersei has been stockpiling an explosive and dangerous substance called Wildfire. The interrogation scene is hilarious, and shows Tyrion’s affinity for cruelty. He really seems to delight in torturing Lancel, until it gets boring. It’s just a very funny scene.

This is an episode highlight that really plays to Game of Thrones‘ strengths, by just pairing together two characters and sending them on a journey. This is a formula that works particularly well for Brienne as we see for the first time here and we’ll see again and again throughout the show. In this case, Brienne and Catelyn are thrown together by being the only two people to witness Renly’s murder.

The pairing of Catelyn and Brienne doesn’t seem like one that would organically work at first. But as you start to think about it, the friendship seems a little more organic. Catelyn sees Brienne’s desire for revenge, and is reminded of the way her family reacted to the death of Ned. Brienne admires what she calls Catelyn’s “woman’s courage,” and likely some of the same courtly composure that she appreciated in Renly. And this is never said (at least I don’t think) but I believe that Catelyn sees something of Arya’s tomboy tendencies in Brienne.

Let’s go south to King’s Landing to talk about how we frame characters.

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The above shot really makes Tyrion look like a sinister character, and that is where the framing of Tyrion’s story really becomes more important. It’s important to occasionally look up and ask, “Is Tyrion a good guy?” In the presence of his wit and humor, it’s easy to forget the more unsavory elements. Here he is, imprisoning a frail old man like Pycelle, extorting his cousin, sending his niece to live with a family that hates their family, and keeping a hired killer by his side. The relocation of Myrcella seems particularly risky – as we’ll learn in Season 4, the Martells and the Lannisters have quite a bloody history. Assuming that Myrcella will be safer there than King’s Landing is a bold – and perhaps foolish – move. Is it a cruel thing to do? I might say so.

Do we consider him a good guy just because he’s surrounded by characters like Cersei and Joffrey? The audience clearly identifies those two as villains and Tyrion as a hero, but perhaps there is less of a gulf between the two than we might think.

Favorite Line: I laughed a lot at the exchange between Sam, who is amazed by everything, and Dolorous Edd, who is irritated by everything, as they spoke at the top of the Fist of the First Men:

Sam: Thousands and thousands of years ago, the First Men stood here, where we’re standing, all through the Long Night. What do you think they were like, the First Men?

Edd: Stupid. Smart people don’t find themselves in places like this.

Favorite Scene: Tyrion interrogating Lancel to discover the cache of wildfire; and later, speaking with the Pyromancer.

Season 2, Episode 6: “The Old Gods and the New”

Synopsis: In Winterfell, Theon takes Winterfell for the Iron Islands, and the Northerners feel betrayed. He executes insubordinate Ser Rodrik Cassel. Bran, Rickon, Osha, and Hodor escape. In Robb’s camp, he flirts with Talisa, and Catelyn (who’s back from the Stormlands) reminds him that he’s promised to Walder Frey’s daughters. They receive words of the attack on Winterfell, and his bannerman Roose Bolton offers to send his bastard son with a small army to fight on Robb’s behalf. In Harrenhal, Arya, working as Tywin’s cup-bearer, sits in on a meeting between Tywin and Littlefinger. Littlefinger seems to recognize her. She takes a letter from Lord Tywin’s chamber and intends to burn it, but is caught. She then uses the second of her three deaths to kill the Lannister soldier who catches her. Tywin takes the attack personally. In King’s Landing, there is a public ceremony to send Princess Marcella to Dorne, but it is soon met with rioters who throw a “cow pie” (read as: shit) at Joffrey. Things get messy, but most of the major characters get away safely. Sansa is set upon by would-be rapists, but is saved by Sandor “The Hound” Clegane. Beyond the Wall, Jon talks with Qhorin Halfhand about serving in the Night’s Watch. They attack a wildling group, and Jon is tasked with executing a wildling woman named Ygritte. She escapes, and he recaptures her and rather than killing her, tries to take her back to Halfhand’s group. As night falls, they are forced to cuddle for warmth. In Qarth, the Spice King won’t support Daenerys’ claim to the Iron Throne. Xaro Xhoan Daxos is still irritated Dany won’t marry him. The episode ends with Dany finding that her three dragons have been stolen and members of her Khalassar killed.

This series of mine has mostly been to praise the series, and in the early seasons, I think there is relatively little negative criticism that can be offered outside of “There’s too much going on right out of the gate.” So let me offer my first substantial negative criticism (phrased in the nicest way possible): Qarth is definitely weaker than everything else this season and begins to feel like filler. (It’s this season’s Dorne.)

Qarth just feels like a filler location from the start. I love a good establishing shot, and so does just about every other location in Game of Thrones. But Qarth doesn’t really. And at first that makes sense, since most of what we hear about Qarth is that it’s a city with these impenetrable walls, so it makes sense that our first shot is just the city wall.

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And surely, once we get inside the wall, we should surely see some great lively streets and some impressive towers or maybe a statue of an important figure to the city? Or their goddess? Maybe something like we see atop the pyramid in Meereen. They call Qarth “The Greatest City That Ever Was or Ever Will Be,” but the most we see of the city is just a few shots of the garden where people are having a party. If you literally google image search “Qarth” you’ll find the above picture mixed in with cool art derived from the books.

It’s not as though this city has no memorable sights. Episode 6 Ends with the Dragons being taken to what we’ll later know is the House of the Undying, which makes for something of a cinematic shot; so why not have an establishing shot with the Qarth skyline with this unique-looking tower?

But this is nitpicking, and it’s easy to forget that for the first two seasons, the budget was lower than the astronomical amount allotted later on. (Consider this season was supposed to be a horse-mounted joust.) Maybe they just didn’t have a budget to create a skyline shot of Qarth. Establishing shots aren’t really that important in the grand scheme of a show.

On the other hand, something that greatly tarnishes my enjoyment of Qarth is the would-be cliffhanger ending of someone taking the Dragons somewhere but we don’t know where. Let’s treat this the way the show wants to; as a mystery. Who took the dragons?

There are less than ten named characters in the Qarth storyline, most of whom we can eliminate as suspects pretty much immediately. It’s not Daenerys, obviously, and it’s not Jorah. One of her handmaidens is dead and the other is implicated (but not really important). There’s Quaithe, but the show refuses to give her the same importance that the books do, so it’s not going to be her. So who does that leave us with? Well, Qarth’s rulers, the Thirteen. How many of the Thirteen do we know? Three; the Spice King, Xaro Xhoan Daxos, and the warlock Pyat Pree. The Spice King has made it abundantly clear that he isn’t interested, Pyat Pree has made it abundantly clear that he is interested, and Xaro is mad that Dany rejected his marriage proposal. If you think about the answer for about 30 seconds, you’re not going to have the answer perfectly right, but you’ll be close.

One good thing is some great micro- and macro-level acting from Emilia Clarke, who bristles when Daenerys is called a “little princess” by the Spice King. She makes the below facial expression in which she tries (and fails) to look interested in what a patronizing man tries to praise her beauty while not giving any credence to what she is saying. In this scene, Clarke begins acting on a micro level, with small, irritated facial expressions. But soon, they give way to the melodramatic macro-level acting where she makes her passionate speech: “I am not your little princess! I am Daenerys Stormborn of the Blood of Old Valyria, and I will take what is mine! With fire and blood, I will take it!” (But even this monologue is a little hollow, since Dany isn’t the one who makes the Spice King pay for his arrogance. Her monologue here is a threat that we don’t really get to see payoff.)

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“Are you kidding me right now?” – Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen

Again, this doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, but how about this scene with Robb and Catelyn. Catelyn chats with her son about how he’s not free to marry whoever he pleases. There’s no discussion about where Catelyn was – nothing about the failed negotiations in the Stormlands, nothing about her being implicated in Renly’s death, and no questions about “hey, who’s that tall blonde woman with you?” And that’s likely because the show wants to focus here on more North-related plot lines, but still. When you know this series well, something can feel missing here.

That being said, don’t let my meaningless complaints take away from what about this episode really hit it out of the park. This is when we see Theon’s issues really make him spiral. He’s so desperate for respect that he executes Ser Rodrik, who would be a valuable hostage, just for spitting on him. The execution scene is one of the most gruesome executions in the series, with Theon needing four swings of his sword to take Rodrik’s head.

And it has one of my favorite early beats for the Hound. During the King’s Landing riot, he saves Sansa from her attackers in the riot and seems both brusque and gentle; the way he hoists her up onto his shoulder is maybe being seen as a rough and indifferent, but the way he tells her “it’s all right, little bird” is almost affectionate. When Tyrion tells him he did well, Clegane quickly snarls, “I didn’t do it for you!” despite the fact that Tyrion never said that he did it for him. It’s as though he’s trying so hard to seem like an unfeeling, unaffected killer. The Hound doing his best to seem like he doesn’t care is an interesting stepping stone on his redemption arc.

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Favorite Line: Perhaps I’d give this to Dany’s melodramatic “I WILL TAKE WHAT IS MINE,” but I’ll opt for Cersei’s quiet and collected threat to Tyrion: “One day I pray you love someone. I pray you love her so much, when you close your eyes you see her face. I want that for you. I want you to know what it’s like to love someone, to truly love someone, before I take her from you.”

Favorite Scene: Seeing Tywin’s small council, and the fun game of “Does Littlefinger recognize Arya?”

One thought on “Why I Don’t Like Qarth: Journey to the Throne S2E4-6

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