Although I’m now a huge fan of the show, I joined the Game of Thrones train a little late, somewhere between Season 4 and Season 5. The show is famous for its merciless killing of beloved characters. For most, their “Game of Thrones moment” was either Ned Stark’s death in Season 1, or the Red Wedding in Season 3. Unfortunately, a friend spoiled both of those for me (we no longer speak), so I never really had a true “Game of Thrones moment,” while watching the show, at least until Season 2 Episode 5: "The Ghost of Harrenhal".
"The Ghost of Harrenhal" took place at the Stark and Lannister forces at Harrenhal, the Night’s Watch north of the Wall, King’s Landing, and the Stormlands. Arya serves as Tywin Lannister’s cupbearer and learns about Jaqen H’ghar, who serves the Many-faced God. Daenerys adjusts to life in Qarth and Jon is on an expedition North to the Fist of the First Men. Theon deals with toxic masculinity at Pyke, and Renly is killed in the first five minutes of the episode by shadow-baby-daddy Stannis, forcing Catelyn and Brienne to flee.
Because I knew what was going to happen to Catelyn, Robb, and Ned, I was never invested in their characters from the beginning, even though they were main players in the early seasons. Instead, my favourite character was, and still is, Renly Baratheon. I even have fan art of him in my room. I rooted for Renly because I wanted a gay character to win the Iron Throne. He was kind, charming, funny, and f-cking sexy, and I was obsessed with his relationship with Loras. Remember that softcore porn scene in season 1 where Loras shaves Renly’s chest? If you watch it again, it’s just full of innuendos about gay sex. It’s also where we learned that Loras was into hairless, white twinks, which eventually brought about his demise and most of the elite in King’s Landing. Aside from the raw sexual energy, the shaving scene was also a tender and intimate glimpse into Renly’s and Loras’s relationship. Gay love on screen: groundbreaking!
Renly is also the character who delivered the best line in the entirety of the show:
Stannis was unlikeable, Renly was lovable, and I think most people were rooting for him to defeat his brother. I too was rooting for Renly; Danaerys was still annoying at this point, and I knew Rob was going to die. Renly dying in this episode absolutely gutted me (like shadow baby did him), and I legitimately screamed at the screen and paused the episode to compose myself. I was literally Loras crying over Renly’s body and being the Dramatic Gay™ that he was. It was heartbreaking. Renly dying was MY “Game of Thrones moment,” a moment when I finally felt some comradery with other GoT viewers.
Aside from Renly’s death, this episode also features key moments for many of the characters in the show. Tyrion sets up the Lannisters to decimate Stannis’s forces with wildfire. Arya discovers the powers of Jaqen H’ghar when he promises her three lives in exchange for saving him and his friends. Arya is clever and resourceful in the show, but this is the moment where her potential is revealed. Her interaction with Jaqen H’ghar will eventually lead her to Braavos and the Church of Cutting People’s Faces Off which of course makes her into the terrifying badass that she is now.
Jon joins a party led by Qhorin Halfhand to attack a wildling outpost amidst the larger threat of a Mance Rayder’s wildling army. This decision eventually blooms into the best romance in the entire show: Ygritte x Jon. Even though she’s dead, Ygritte will always be Jon’s true love in my mind, at least more-so than his so-called lover-aunt (thanks for the term, Sarah).
Finally, this episode is a pivotal moment in the development of Brienne’s character. When she wins the tournament against Ser Loras, Brienne asks to be in Renly’s King’s Guard. In her mind, like mine, she has backed a winning team and the rest of her life is mapped out: Brienne will serve Renly, even to the death. All of that is taken away when Renly is killed by a shadow creature. In that moment, she has to reconsider everything she’s ever wanted in her life, including her love of Renly. It’s an identity crisis that leads her to swear her loyalty to Catelyn, and eventually her daughters, an oath eventually brings her to Winterfell.
Brienne of Tarth is a character that I am eager to see on Sunday. She’s always been a skilled fighter, and her trials as a woman in a male-dominated profession have taught her to be tough and resilient. However, the profound loss of Renly in "The Ghost of Harrenhal" made Brienne a realized character, one who was capable of having compassion for Jaime, carrying out her vengeance against Stannis, and cherishing her relationships and loyalties even more than she did before. There’s a quote from Brienne in Season 5 that’s appropriate here:
"Nothing's more hateful than failing to protect the one you love."
She knows that feeling, and she’s determined never to feel it again. That’s what drives Brienne, and that’s what (I’m hoping) we’re going to see come to fruition in the final season.