Game of Thrones: "Garden of Bones"

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There are table-setting episodes, and there are table-setting episodes.

HBO has -- by necessity -- had to cram a lot of activity into each of this season's installments. Four kings are vying for the Iron Throne, after all, and there are attendant subplots and intrigues aplenty. That said, last night's ep took a bit of a breather, moving the pieces into place for the various contenders and preparing for the second half of the season.

Even so, "Garden of Bones" ended on what Rick from Casablanca might have referred to as a "wow finish." Though some today are probably referring to it more accurately as an "eww finish."

Harrenhal and Qarth have been added to the opening credits, which can only mean more Arya and more Dany. And more debates over pronunciation of place names.

"The high road is very pretty, but you'll have a hard time marching an army down it." Those are the words of Lord Roose Bolton (Michael McElhatton), one of Robb Stark's (Richard Madden) aides de camp, following another victory over the Lannisters. Bolton recommends torturing some prisoners for information about Lord Tywin's plans. He's fond of flaying (ew), but Robb points out such tactics might have negative ramifications for his sisters (he and Catelyn are still under the impression that Arya is in King's Landing, a notion Cersei is not likely to disagree with). He then has to see to a battlefield amputation performed by the comely Lissa (Oona Chaplain) from the free city of Volantis, who mouths off to Robb about his apparent shortsightedness (Robb reveals he has no plans to sit on the Iron Throne, only to kill the Lannisters). It's nice to see the King in the North can still feel...stirrings.

Down in King's Landing, King Joffrey isn't doing anything to earn the love of the people. Angered at Robb's "treasons," he has Ser Meryn Trant (Ian Beattie) beat Sansa to send a message, that is until Tyrion and Bronn show up (the Imp also provides Ser Meryn with an education on delivering a threat). He also privately offers to end her engagement, but Sansa insists on going through with marriage to her "one true love." Afterwards, Bronn suggests all Joffrey needs is to get some stanky on his hang-down (I believe that's how the kids refer to it) to relieve his tensions.

Enter Ros -- of course -- along with another working girl, who try to get his motor running. This backfires (another auto reference!) when Joffrey has Ros use a belt to beat the other girl. Then a sceptre. To be fair, he does appear to enjoy it.

Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) arrives at Renly's camp in the Stormlands, ostensibly to treat with Catelyn for the release of Jaime, but also to intimate to the younger Baratheon that there might be more support for his claim in King's Landing than he realizes. He also meets with Queen Margaery, clumsily (it seems to me) needling her about her "marriage" to Renly. For someone trying to insinuate himself into Renly's good graces, all but calling him a poofter to his beard's face seems like an unsound strategy. To be fair, it *was* a long ride from King's Landing.

In keeping with this trend of bad decisions, he also visits Catelyn (Michelle Fairley), who seems strangely unwilling to forgive his treachery even after he confesses his love. He tries a different tack, offering Sansa and Arya for Jaime (how he plans to engineer a transfer without providing both daughters remains a mystery). He also returns Ned's remains (or so I assume is in the box brought in by the Silent Sisters).

Across the Narrow Sea, something finally happens. The last of Danaerys's riders returns from his reconnaissance, when he tells her of the city of Qarth, three days away. Its elders, the Thirteen, would welcome the "Mother of Dragons," but Jorah feels the need to inform her the desert around the city is known as the Garden of Bones, thanks to the remains of those the city closes its gates to.

They arrive at Qarth -- "The Greatest City that Ever Was or Ever Will Be" -- and are met by the Thirteen, who balk at letting Dany and company in unless she shows them the dragons. Words are exchanged, and a solution to the impasse comes in the person of the merchant Xaro Xhoan Daxos (Nonso Anozie), who agrees to vouch for Dany and her entourage. The gates are opened, and it's pretty impressive. Even if it is "only a model"/matte painting.

Arya, Gendry and Hot Pie are brought to the caste of Harrenhal. What's left of it, anyway. Some time ago, the mighty structure was destroyed by dragons, and the melted stone towers were never repaired. Following a particularly ugly interrogation scene, Arya says her new prayer as she goes to sleep. A recitation of the names of all the people she's going to kill (Joffrey, Cersei, Ilyn Payne, the Hound). Remember, Yoren taught her the technique last episode.

Their captor, Gregor "The Mountain" Clegane (Ian Whyte), picks a different prisoner every day for interrogation. One of their techniques is that old classic: placing a rat in a bucket on the subject's stomach and heating it so the rat has no choice but to gnaw into the victim's abdomen (they learned that from the Japanese in WWII, I guess). And Arya has a couple new names for her prayer.

King Renly meets with King Stannis (that sounds weird), who gives his little brother a choice: strike his banners and bend the knee before and he can have his old seat on the Small Council. Otherwise, something bad will happen. Renly demurs. Melisandre (Carice van Houten) is ominous.

Meanwhile, Gendry (Joe Dempsie) is picked for interrogation, but is saved by the arrival of Lord Tywin (Charles Dance), who sets things straight, putting Gendry to work in the smithy and selecting Arya for his new cupbearer. Given the eyeing of her stolen sword, that might turn out poorly for him.

No, seriously, you'd give a prisoner, kid or not, with possibly vengeful memories of what your men have done, access to your food? There's a guy with a pretty impressive opinion of his own...impressiveness.

Lancel (Eugen Simon), King Robert's former squire and now a knight (his reward for services rendered), comes to deliver an order to release Grand Maester Pycelle from the Queen Regent, but quails when Tyrion susses out he's been banging Cersei. His groveling is amusing, but Tyrion has other ideas: namely, turning Lancel into an informant.

And finally, Stannis tasks Davos (Liam Cunningham) with taking Melisandre ashore in the predawn hours. After a brief discussion of philosophy, she gives birth to what can charitably be described as an abomination: a shadow creature. We end on that, but its purpose -- given Stannis's ultimatum -- is pretty apparent.

Notably absent this week: Theon, Jon and Bran.

Next week, Jaquen H'ghar is back, and he owes Arya a few favors.

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