Winter is coming, but not soon enough. So to help pass the time until season seven of Game of Thrones, we’re doing a weekly re-watch of the series, episode-by-episode, with the knowledge of what’s to come and—therefore—more information about the unrevealed rich history of events that took place long before the story began. Be warned, though: that means this series is full of spoilers for every season, even beyond the episode itself. So if you haven’t watched all of the show yet immediately get on that and then come back and join us for Game of Thrones Re-Throned.
Because the next best thing to watching new episodes is re-watching old ones.
Season 2, Episode 5: “The Ghost of Harrenhal”
After so many years, and with numerous viewings of every single episode under your belt, it’s hard to always remember specific hours of Game of Thrones. You might know all the main points covered in Tyrion and Cersei’s relationship during season two, but which of those moments were paired in single episodes with the Great Ranging beyond The Wall, or happened in conjunction with Daenerys’s experiences in Qarth may be tougher to recall. That blurring of events over time makes a full re-watch after all these years rewarding in surprising ways, because sometimes episodes catch you off guard as being far more important than you might have guessed. But even better are the moments that now have a resonance that they couldn’t before, because we didn’t know everything we know now.
Which is why even in this excellent fifth episode of season two, “The Ghost of Harrenhal,” which has so many important and wonderful scenes—Xaro Xhoan Daxos of Qarth asks Daenerys to marry him; the Night’s Watch reaches the Fist of the First Men (what a beautiful, terrifying location); Theon sets a plan of attack on Winterfell, which Bran envisions though he doesn’t know it; Jaqen H’ghar kills the Tickler for Arya, who is serving Tywin Lannister; Tyrion learns about wildfire(!)—it’s something else that stands out, entirely because of its newfound emotional weight.
Last episode ended with Melisandre giving birth to Stannis’ shadow baby, which begins this episode by entering Renly’s tent and killing him in front of Catelyn Stark and Brienne. It’s the single most important plot point of the episode short term and long term, as it sends Renly’s sworn bannermen to Stannis’ side, and sets the Tyrells on a course to join forces with the Lannisters, which will bring ruin on their house.
But it’s not the scene’s importance to the story that makes it feel different now, it’s what we know about Brienne’s past, and about the man Renly was, that gives it a genuine sadness it didn’t have before.
Renly was clearly presented as a good man, though misguided in his claim for the Iron Throne, but at the moment of his death it wasn’t exactly clear why he was a person deserving of our adoration. Ned hugged him when he saw him at the Small Council, so that said a lot about him, and Loras said the common people loved him, though he had some biases (clearly). But for most of his time on the show what we were supposed to think about Renly Baratheon didn’t feel earned. He was petulant at times, and he could be biting and short, even a bit nasty, since many of his scenes were under less than friendly circumstances. For instance, speaking with Littlefinger, or watching his brother die, or failing to convince Ned to back his claim, and gearing up for war against his brother.
His death was always more shocking, because of how he was killed, than it was devastating.
Yet, re-watching it now I found myself tearing up over the sequence, because we do know Renly was truly a kindhearted man. What’s more, the person that knew that more than anyone, and loved him for it, was there to see him die.
When Brienne of Tarth first joined the story she always seemed off, like she was a broken and lost soul without a purpose. Her devotion to Renly was completely unexplained, and when he died and she swore her sword to Catelyn, it seemed to affirm that she was someone in the wind, desperately looking for a place to settle and be comfortable. It made sense, seeing as how no one else is quite like her, and Westeros is a world where fitting in your ascribed role is more important than anything, but it left her motivations a mystery to us.
But now that we know where her devotion to Renly came from, it made her screams as she held his dying body feel like one of the show’s worst moments.
In season two she tells Podrick how she came to be in Renly’s service.
When I was a girl, my father held a ball. I’m his only living child, so he wants to make a good match for me. He invited dozens of young lords to Tarth. I didn’t want to go, but he dragged me to the ballroom—and it was wonderful. None of the boys noticed how mulish and tall I was. The shoved each other, and threatened to duel if they thought it was their turn to dance. And whispered in my ear how they wanted to marry me and take me back to their castles. My father smiled at me and I smiled at him. I’d never been so happy—’til I saw a few of the boys sniggering. And then they all started to laugh, they couldn’t keep the game going any longer. They were toying with me. “Brienne the Beauty” they called me. Great joke. And I realized I was the ugliest girl alive. A great lumbering beast. I tried to run away, but Renly Baratheon took me in his arms. “Don’t let them see your tears,” he told me. “They’re nasty little shits. The nasty little shits aren’t worth crying over.” He danced with me and none of the other boys could say a word. Renly was the king’s brother after all.
Then, when Podrick points out Renly wouldn’t love any woman in that way, Brienne adds:
Yes, Pod, he liked men, I’m not an idiot. He didn’t love me, he didn’t want me, he danced with me because he was kind and he wouldn’t see me hurt. He saved me from being a joke. From that day until his last day. And I couldn’t save him in return. Nothing’s more hateful than failing to protect the one you love.
The scene is crushing, and explains perfectly why Brienne wanted nothing more than to keep Renly safe. Her love for him was pure, it was good, and it came because Renly, a truly kind man, kinder than we knew when he was alive, wanted to protect a little girl from the cruelty of the world.
So watching him die now, and hearing Brienne’s screams, knowing they came from a place of true love, unencumbered by any desires or wants, is so much worse. She wanted to protect him from the world, the way he had for her, and she couldn’t do it.
The depth and emotional resonance of that scene can only be appreciated by going back after all these years, because while “The Ghost of Harrenhal” was a great, important episode with lots of significant plot points, Renly’s death maybe being the most important one of them all, it’s the human element of that moment, knowing just how Brienne came to be in his tent, holding a good person as he died, that makes it meaningful for far different reasons.
What did you think of this episode? Did Renly’s death feel different knowing what we know about his past with Brienne? Tell us what you think in the comments below.