With “The Ghost of Harrenhal,” David Benioff and D.B. Weiss try too hard to introduce an elemental aspect to Game of Thrones’s focus on the nature of power. A veiled, unidentified woman tells Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) the reason Qarth’s residents lust after Daenerys Targaryen’s (Emilia Clarke) dragons is because “dragons are fire made flesh. And fire is power.” Fire is thus associated with strength in “The Ghost of Harrenhal” and water represents powerlessness.
Benioff and Weiss go out of their way to unite the episode’s events with this deceptively simple dynamic, even going so far as to conspicuously set an important conversation between Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) and Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) by a noisy brook. So while it stands to reason that Daenerys’s power, being associated with her baby dragons, is suggested to be in its nascence, it’s a bit of a stretch to insinuate that Mance Rayder, the so-called “King Beyond the Wall,” is powerful because he rouses his people to arms by signaling them with—you guessed it—fire. Pitting water against fire is clever in theory since it unifies the show’s characters using a pointedly basic dichotomy, but it’s a concept that, when put into practice, doesn’t work because of how Benioff and Weiss’s ludicrous use of imagery.
For the most part, the characters associated with water are the ones whose forced thematic proximity feels the most distractingly tidy. By contrast, it’s not unbelievable to think that Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) has become more powerful after making an allegiance with the pyromancers Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) previously tasked with making wildfire for her. Wildfire is extremely powerful (it can melt steel and flesh), so Tyrion’s power play essentially exemplifies how “fire is power.”
What’s unbelievable, however, is the strained correlation between Catelyn and Brienne’s brook-side exchange and the deal that Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) makes with Jaqen H’ghar (Tom Wlaschiha), the titular ghost, right as she’s about to serve Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) some water. It’s especially frustrating to see such a sweeping connection link these sequences through such simplistic symbols as fire and water because the thematic implications of such symbols seem totally underdone. So Arya serves water and Catelyn is near water because they’re both powerless—or something? It’s as if the episode was loosely organized by a palm reader instead of professional TV writers.
Take for example the way water is associated with Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) and Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), two characters who now have power, but who are uncomfortable wielding it. Davos may be a sea smuggler, and hence is comfortable being the captain of a ship, but he tells Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) that he’s not so sure if he should lead Stannis’s fleet. But how does Davos’s connection with water make him like Theon, who plans on trying to take over Winterfell? Theon’s takeover is foreshadowed by Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright), who describes a “green dream” he had of a tidal wave overtaking Winterfell. People who’ve read George R. R. Martin’s source books know, and can appreciate, the extra layer of meaning to Bran’s prophecy that’s set up by the Benioff and Weiss’s water/fire motif. But even then, teasing viewers with the suggestion that Theon’s power is fleeting (it’s not real power and hence is water and not fire) makes an attentive viewer feel like they’re watching Nostradamus’s Game of Thrones.
Still, Theon’s failed attempts to prove that he’s really not the emasculated man his family thinks he is makes him a complex character. Theon’s strength as a leader has always been illusory, going as far back as when he was taken captive by the Starks and then treated like an honorary member of their family. Now that he’s returned home, his dismissive father and sister only entrust him with the command of a rinky-dink ship (his sister scoffs that her ships couldn’t fit in such a “narrow” berth as the one Theon’s ships are docked at). Theon’s not someone that can be easily reduced to fire/water associations, as will become clear once his impending actions start to have serious consequences. He’s a great example of how overwrought Benioff and Weiss’s latest attempt to tie everything together in “The Ghost of Harrenhal” really is.