It began and ended with brutal murders, but the scariest things in this week's episode of Game of Thrones were the ones that haven't happened yet. Doomsday weapons, ominous invitations, vows of vengeance, secret plans, bad dreams – characters all over the Seven Kingdoms and beyond received serious hints that there's darkness just over the horizon and closing fast.
But despite being the most menacing episode of the season, "The Ghost in Harrenhal" – written by showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and directed by David Petrarca – told its story through smiles and smirks. Characters' happiness with their current position showed on their faces time and time again, sometimes about a secret only they possess that puts them ahead of the game, other times reflecting an ignorance of the terrible truth they can't see coming.
The late King Renly wears the smile of a born winner, until his brother Stannis' shadowy "son" ended his march to victory – and the quite reasonable offer of alliance with Robb Stark – with a stab in the back. Littlefinger smirks at Margaery Tyrell when she tells him she'd rather be the Queen than a queen, but it's a smirk of recognition – here's someone power-hungry enough for a glutton like Littlefinger to really do business with. Theon Greyjoy grinned like the king of the world when he got a glimpse of his ship, scowled when his crew and his sister Yara laughed in his face, and turned that frown upside down yet again when he and his first mate Dagmer figured out a plan of attack with a goal far more grand than the one his hateful father Balon had in mind for his prodigal son. Ser Rodrik Cassel beamed with pride at his young lord Bran Stark's decision to send reinforcements to his beleaguered bannerman at Torrhen's Square, neither of them realizing they were walking into Theon's trap. Queen Cersei couldn't help but smirk at her brother Tyrion while denying him the information he needed about King Joffrey's secret battle plan, thrilled to finally be a step ahead of the razor wit she finds so infuriating in her little brother – though of course she has no idea her cousin and lover Ser Lancel Lannister is giving up the goods to Tyrion. Tyrion laughs it up with Bronn as a street preacher mocks the "demon monkey" who pulls Joffrey's strings, only to have the smile wiped off his face when he finds out he's the demon monkey in question. Even the humorless King Stannis allows the ghost of a smile to flit across his face after his loyal servant Ser Davos Seaworth tells him what the men are saying about Lady Melisandre's influence over him, a quiet and rueful acknowledgement that it's truer than they know. Arya Stark and her friendly neighborhood murderer Jaqen H'ghar share a knowing smile over their secret shared power of life and death, first exercised against the grinning Lannister torturer known as The Tickler. Across the sea, the smile almost never leaves Qartheen one-percenter Xaro Xhoan Daxos' face as he attempts to woo Daenerys with his rags-to-riches background and the just-plain-riches in his vault. The smile on the face(s) of his fellow aristocrat, the warlock Pyat Pree, is a shakier thing, though it's tough to say whether the warmer, handsomer Xaro has Dany's best interests at heart when he dismisses the mysterious magician. And beyond the Wall, Jon Snow allows himself his first smile of the season when he's selected to go on a vital raid with legendary ranger Qhorin Halfhand; let's see if he's still smiling when the cold and the wildlings and whatever the hell else is out there get through with him.
As you can probably gather from that paragraph, which if strung end to end would be about as long as the Wall itself, a freaking lot happened in this episode, to a lot of people. And aside from the shocking, very Game of Thrones premature death of Renly, very little actually happened to any of those people. The payoff for Bran's premonition, Tyrion's wildfire, Theon's sneak attack, Pyat Pree's invitation, Xaro's proposal, Mance Rayder's reported army of wildlings, the alliances between Littlefinger & Margaery and Brienne & Catelyn, even the remaining two murders owed to Arya by Jaqen, is all in that dark future I mentioned up front.
And yet I didn't get bored or impatient once. Game of Thrones keeps more balls in the air for more episodes at a stretch than any other show on TV, yes. But it works so well as entertainment because it's not afraid to light a few of those balls on fire while we wait, in the form of shots and lines and set pieces and moments that elicit the full Chris Farley "Remember when…? That was awesome" response.
Some of that was performance-based. Aiden Gillen and Natalie Dormer emitted ambition from their pores like a fine musk during their brief scene together as Littlefinger and Margaery. As Brienne, Gwendoline Christie managed to seem devastated by the death of her beloved Renly even while establishing the warrior woman as an absolutely terrifying killing machine, shouting in anguish with each slash and stab of self-defense against her fellow Renlyites. Her later scene with Michelle Fairley's Catelyn took me a while to come around to, but come around I did – her stiffness fit well for a person with no real place in this society, while Fairley quietly conveyed the idea that at this point Catelyn's happy to have a surrogate child to replace the one's she's lost to the enemy, the distance, or the pressures of royal command.
Speaking of those kids, how about actress Maisie Williams? As Arya, she's already found the role she was born to play just a few short years after she was actually born – holding her own in a scene with freaking Charles Dance as Tywin Lannister, then pretty much going through puberty on camera while eyeing the glorious beefcake of Joe Dempsie as Gendry, Harrenhal's sexiest shirtless slave-laborer. And kudos to the show for its gutsy script-flip of the much-quoted line from this season's trailers, "Anyone can be killed." What we'd all expected to be a declaration of badassery transforms into a fatalistic acknowledgement that her own brother could be dead at Tywin's hands any day now.
But there were visuals that will stick with me just as long, and all of them touch on the supernatural. We get our first glimpse of dragonfire, and it's adorable, but it also makes real the devastation we saw in the ruins of Harrenhal. We discover the existence of wildfire in a Raiders of the Lost Ark-style warehouse, a sort of napalm on magical steroids that Tyrion and Bronn both believe could destroy the entire city. We meet that creepy warlock Pyat Pree, who's shot to look as though he's staring right at us, and who with his pale skin, dark eyes and lips, and party-crashing doppelganger comes across like a refugee from David Lynch's Lost Highway – another major tonal disruption from the show's usual down-to-earth vibe. Most impressive of all are the astonishing vistas of the snows, mountains, and stormclouds of the lands beyond the Wall. Shot on location in Iceland, they're Led Zeppelin's "No Quarter" come to life. Winter is coming, and that's what winter looks like. Now that the season's half over, the big question – maybe the only question – for the back half is who'll be ready when the storm hits.