Game of Thrones: Season 3, Episode 8–Second Sons

“We do not choose our destiny. But we must do our duty now. Great or small, we must do our duty.”

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With dozens of intermingling plotlines and enough major characters to fill a small army, Game of Thrones rarely gets to linger on any one setting or group of characters in much detail. When it does, as with this week’s episode, it’s always a treat, allowing the treacherous characters and their Machiavellian schemes greater depth. And despite the fact that not a one of them can be trusted (except perhaps poor, naive Sansa Stark, who somehow still doesn’t get it) I can happily watch this lot showing us more of themselves.

This episode focused on just three of the ongoing plotlines, bookended by brief visits to two of the others. The Second Sons of the title were a group of mercenary sellswords whose favours Daenerys Targaryen was trying to sway against the slavers of Yunkai; but more than that, second sons – and their often unpleasant duties – were everywhere. Poor old Tyrion, despised by his manipulative father, is one; so is the stern Stannis Baratheon, who for all his unyielding nature is looking rather like the best candidate for king right now.

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Sandor Clegane, too, is a second son, but one who’s decided that duty isn’t worth its salt. A brief scene at the outset caught us up with him and his reluctant travelling companion Arya, as she tried (unsuccessfully) to brain him with a rock. Since that’s basically the way characters get to know each other in this show, it was hardly surprising that they seemed to forge a grudging respect for each other. “You don’t want to be alone out here girl,” he rasped to Arya, “someone worse than me will find you.” Averring that no one was worse than him, she was met with a contemptuous snort. “You should meet my brother.”

Arya wasn’t entirely unhappy though, as the Hound revealed that he was taking her to the Twins, thence to be reunited with her family at the joyous occasion of her uncle’s wedding to one or other of the Frey daughters. Maisie Williams’ look on hearing this was a nice subtle bit of acting as she tried unsuccessfully to contain her relief and happiness. And who doesn’t love a wedding?

With Tyrion and Sansa’s much-unwanted wedding finally taking place, the lion’s share (as it were) of the episode was in the Royal Court. Everyone was there for the wedding, regardless of whether they actually had any lines. Varys was seen briefly, Bronn raised a smile to his friend/employer on this most ‘joyous’ of occasions, and even grumpy old Maester Pycelle was to be seen, Julian Glover frowning with the best of them to make up for not actually having anything to say.

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And what bride wouldn’t be delighted to be given away by the King of the Realm? Well, this one, certainly. Joffrey was at his most unpleasant this week, walking Sansa down the aisle because, as he reminded her, her father wasn’t around any more. And who’s responsible for that, Your Grace?

Sansa wasn’t the only one to be on the receiving end of his smugly vile attentions though. He can’t have forgotten being slapped more than once by his uncle Tyrion, even after he’d become King; now he took the opportunity to relish and magnify his uncle’s humiliation. Tywin Lannister just doesn’t care that his schemes make people unhappy, but Joffrey actively relishes their misery. And does what he can to increase it, further humiliating both his uncle and his former fiance by removing the stool Tyrion needed to drape a cloak around Sansa’s shoulders. What a dastard.

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Cersei, of course, has all this to look forward to. She may not be a second son, but as a daughter in this medieval world, her lot is actually worse. She’s got her upcoming nuptials to a man who isn’t interested in women, and she’s seen her cherished position as Regent diminished first by her father, and now by Margaery Tyrell, who’s already exerting a better hold on Joffrey than she ever did. No wonder she was bitter.

Cersei’s been rather neglected of late, having little to do but sulk at her lost power and her unwanted engagement. So it was nice to see Lena Headey back on form as the embittered Queen Regent decided to show the calculatedly nice Margaery that she’s not as toothless as she may seem. Explaining the story behind Lannister anthem The Rains of Castamere, she told the story of how her father had ruthlessly slaughtered House Reyne, then the second wealthiest family in Westeros (“Aren’t the Tyrells the second wealthiest now?”), finishing up with a smiling threat – “If you ever call me ‘sister’ again, I’ll have you strangled in your sleep.”

Margaery was visibly disconcerted, no mean feat given how skilled an operator she is. So her brother didn’t stand a chance, trying to make peace with his reluctant fiance by means of an anecdote. “I don’t care what your father used to say,” snarled Cersei before he could even finish a sentence. Poor old Loras. He may be skilled at armed combat in the field, but he’s totally lost in the kind of combat here.

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A wedding enjoyed by none of the participants (except, perhaps, Joffrey) was followed by an equally joyless reception. Olenna Tyrell at least was having fun, working out the labyrinthine family relationships that would result from all of this; Loras, for example, would be both the brother and father-in-law of the potential Joffrey/Margaery progeny.

Tyrion, for his part, did what he does best. He got drunk. Drunk enough to once again try taking Joffrey down a peg, threatening the smug, sneering boy tyrant with castration just to shut him up. I doubt the Royal Court has ever heard such a tense silence, but luckily for Tyrion, Joffrey can still be overruled by Tywin, the real power in the land. Charles Dance was as commanding as ever as the elder Lannister, effortlessly taking charge of the situation and contemptuously ordering his drunken black sheep of a son to bed with his new bride.

Luckily for Sansa, Tyrion wasn’t just drunk – he remains, at heart, fairly decent (by Westeros standards). It was a touching scene when he conceded that he would never hurt her, and chose to sleep on the couch rather than work on producing the heir his father was so keen on; “And now my Watch begins,” he slurred, making a deliberate parallel to the sworn celibacy of the Night’s Watch. Shae, at least, seemed relieved.

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Stern, unyielding Stannis Baratheon can’t be doing with the empty pageantry of the Court – I wonder what it would be like with him as King? We caught up with the dark doings at Dragonstone at some length this week, as Melisandre arrived with the baffled Gendry in tow, the better to further her sinister mysticism.

Stannis knows exactly what Melisandre wants with Gendry, recognising his lineage instantly – “half Robert, half low-born”. He was therefore a little surprised when she ordered the boy treated like an honoured guest. Why not just get on with it and kill him? Of course, Melisandre isn’t that direct. Telling a charming story about how soon-to-be slaughtered lambs can have their meat soured by sight of the butcher’s blade, she plainly had more subtle means to extract what she needed from Gendry without slaughtering him.

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As something of a fan of Joe Dempsie (which I may have mentioned once or twice) I wasn’t entirely unhappy that her chosen method involved taking his clothes off and dragging him to bed. A shirtless Joe Dempsie is always worth a look; though if you like the ladies, Carice van Houten wasn’t shy either. Pity it all had to end up with leeches – but then, it’s his blood she really needs, for spells which may promise death to the “usurpers” Robb Stark, Balon Greyjoy and Joffrey Baratheon. Since her Red God actually does seem to come up with the goods, those three should be worried. As should Gendry – his blood supply isn’t limitless.

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We also got to catch up with Davos Seaworth, and Liam Cunningham was as charismatic as ever as the down-to-earth Onion Knight. It was sweet to see him patiently plugging away at learning to read; but he was direct and thoughtful when Stannis came down to release him, theorising that his former liege really needed him as a conscience. What else could stop him murdering (sorry, “sacrificing”) his nephew?

It’s hard to tell how much attention Stannis was paying; Stephen Dillane is magnificently hard to read as the stone-faced pretender. He got to do the old “end justifies the means” speech rather well, and once again, the Red God’s prophecies seemed pretty accurate. He foresees a huge battle in the snow – and that’s where the real enemies of Westeros are massing. But is even stern old Stannis unyielding enough not to break before those cold, blue-eyed demons?

Dany Targaryen too is getting pretty hard and unyielding. In the warmer climes of Essos, she was faced with the challenge of an army of sellswords hired by the Yunkish slavers – 2000 in all. Hardly a match for her 8000-strong army, but a problem nonetheless. Her solution – invite them for a drink.

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Emilia Clarke’s getting the whole ‘Warrior Queen’ thing down pat, remaining unflappable even in the face of the loutish Mero, commander of the Second Sons. His suggestion that she should “show me your cunt” was met with a condescending smile; but as soon as he left, she was ordering Ser Barristan to “kill that one first”. Mero did have a point though – you’re not going to get very far as a mercenary if you allow your clients’ enemies to outbid them.

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The only one of them that seemed to have any real mettle was the hunky Daario Naharis (Ed Skrein), who Dany kept making bedroom eyes at. Well, we know she likes beefy, long-haired killers. No wonder he was so entranced with her as to lop off the heads of his comrades and join her cause. One more victory for the Targaryens.

If only Dany wasn’t so taken up with her whole abolition of slavery obsession, she could probably take Westeros right now. Those dragons are plainly going to come in useful at some point, as this week we got to properly see the real Enemy – the mysterious White Walkers.

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In a coda to the episode proper, we finally caught up with the fleeing Sam Tarly and Craster’s former wife/daughter Gilly. They got a sweet scene together as they discussed naming the baby; though Gilly’s utter ignorance of something as simple as names (the only male name she knew was ‘Craster’) hinted at a horrific upbringing.

They look to be getting along very well. But any incipient romance was nipped in the bud by the sudden arrival of a flock of ravens, like extras from Hitchcock’s The Birds. And behind them was the demonic figure of a Walker, come to claim Gilly’s baby.

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This is only the second time we’ve got a good look at them, and I have to say, this one looked rather more convincing than the slightly cartoony one seen in last season’s finale. It died well too, as Sam discovered what the black dragonglass knife he’d found was really for; stabbed in the back, it cracked and shattered like ice. It was a terrific effect, putting some of the earlier CG to shame.

Sex and violence

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Plenty of sex this week (as ever), but for once it wasn’t nameless extras or minor spear carriers cavorting naked – it was some of the main characters. Principally, of course, it was Joe Dempsie and Carice van Houten as Gendry and Melisandre. Both have form at this kind of thing.

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Dempsie seemed to spend about half of Skins naked, showing off more flesh than the rest of the cast combined, while van Houten debuted in a Paul Verhoeven movie – Zwartboek – which required her to graphically demonstrate how she dyed her pubic hair to avoid detection by the Nazis.

Previously, the only main male cast member to show off his… er, member was Alfie Allen; that record remains unchallenged, but director Michelle McLaren seemed to be having fun dancing around that area of Joe Dempsie, shots cutting as the camera reached mere millimetres from his groin.

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Titillation indeed. But if you thought it was erotic, think again – the scene ended with him having a leech lowered onto a sensitive area and crying out, “No! Not there!” Ouch.

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For all Joe Dempsie’s heroic willingness to get his kit off though, female nudity still won out this week. Not only did we see pretty much all of Carice van Houten, but Emilia Clarke also bravely (and equally gratuitously) bared all. Tempted by the hunky Daario’s romantic gift of his former comrades’ severed heads, she rose dripping from the bathtub to show him pretty much everything (though I’ve a feeling the shots from behind were a body double). Who said romance was dead?

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And the violence? Well, the leeches weren’t very nice, and the White Walker met a crumbly end. But probably the most gruesome shot was the aforementioned severed heads, so realistic that one of them was very recognisably actor Ramon Tikaram out of This Life:

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With showrunners Benioff and Weiss on scripting duties, this was actually – in my opinion – a better ep than the one last week that was actually penned by George RR Martin. The choice to limit the focus to just three of the story’s multifarious plotlines was a good move, allowing the characters and settings to really breathe. As ever, the most fun was to be had with the treachery and backstabbing of the Court at King’s Landing, though the intimate three-handed drama at Dragonstone was quite effective too. Of the three, possibly Dany’s liberal crusade was the least enthralling; but it looks like she may have found a new squeeze to replace her beloved Drogo.

Only two more eps to go this year – and three more weddings in the offing, at my count. If they’re all as dramatic as this, it’s hard to see how the show can go wrong.