Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 2–The Night Lands

“Another king. How many is that now?”

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With the season premiere having firmly planted the pieces in place, Game of Thrones’ second episode sees the plot beginning to really move. Taking in fewer of the players than last week, series creators David Benioff and DB Weiss were able to focus more closely on those we did see, giving us some meaty conflict between the well-drawn characters, and giving depth to some of those who’d previously had little attention.

Most notable of those was Theon Greyjoy, who had so little to do last year that you could have been forgiven for wondering why he was there. Having been held hostage since childhood by Ned Stark against his rebellious father’s good conduct, this episode saw him returning to his ancestral home of Pyke on the Iron Islands, introducing yet another player into the game.

But before we reached the Iron Islands, the viewer would need some instruction as to the culture of yet another region of Westeros. How best to explain the Ironborn’s rugged, seafaring ways? Ah yes, the show’s tried and trusted ‘sexposition’ tactic. Lest we get bored with Theon’s explanation of how his culture works, it was delivered while he was busy having sex with the daughter of the captain of the boat taking him there. You had to admire Theon’s power of concentration at being able to deliver a sociological lecture while having some pretty vigorous sex.

It’s easy to have a teenage smirk whenever the show does one of these scenes, and they certainly do seem like titillation, but they’re very much part of the show’s established style now. The main problem, I suppose, is that the more frequent they are, the more the show runs the risk of slipping into self-parody. It’s not there yet, though, and this viewer at least was happy to be titillated by the surprisingly buff Alfie Allen as Theon. I seem to recall that last year, he was one of the only main male cast members to appear full frontal nude. Which was nice, given that the other one was Hodor.

Anyway, having arrived at the Iron Islands, we got some faithfully recreated scenes from the book as Theon was reunited with his family – in the case of his sister, quite unknowingly. Yara Greyjoy (renamed from the book’s ‘Asha’ lest she be confused with wildling Osha) is plainly another formidable player in the game, and not above some fairly dirty ttactics. Having been flirting unwittingly with her as they rode to the castle, to the extent of having a hand in her pants, Theon looked pretty queasy when he realised who she was. It was blackly amusing, as if Luke and Leia from Star Wars had done far more than kiss before realising they were siblings.

We also met Theon’s father, the bitter and formerly rebellious Lord Balon Greyjoy. As played by Patrick Malahide, Balon’s an unforgiving, harsh, proud man, who’s less than happy with the seemingly soft, spoiled boy Ned Stark has turned his son into. It’s clear that (unsurprisingly) Balon Greyjoy is not going to forget the past and ally with Robb Stark, the son of the man who ruthlessly crushed his rebellion and killed Theon’s brothers. Catelyn’s advice to Robb in that regard was spot on. What’s less clear is exactly what Balon is intending to do with the fleet that Yara’s been put in command of…

Over at Dragonstone, ships were also much in the minds of Stannis Baratheon and Davos Seaworth. As in the books, Stannis is a cold, remote figure, and hard to empathise with. This is why his more moderate, sensible aide Davos is more usually given screen time, and Liam Cunningham has already established him as a much more likeable character.

Davos and his son Matthos (Kerr Logan) meet with flamboyant pirate Salladhor Saan, in the hope of gaining his ships’ support for an attack on King’s Landing. Salladhor is one of the book’s most memorable characters, despite being fairly minor, so it was nice to see the writers giving him a pretty good amount of screen time as he declared that his condition for agreeing was to be allowed to “fuck the queen”. Not ‘rape’ – actor Lucian Msamati made it clear that this likeable rogue believes he can charm anyone into sex. As he remarks to the uptight, unconvinced Matthos, “I haven’t tried to fuck you yet.”

It was a good scene, that did much to establish the history and nature of the relationship between Davos and Stannis, despite the latter’s absence; but I did think the sudden switch from the bleak seaside locale of Pyke to the bleak seaside locale of Dragonstone was potentially a little confusing for viewers. The locations were so similar that it only remembering which characters were based where made the distinction clear.

Not much scope was given this week to Daenerys Targaryen and her small tribe of Dothraki over the Narrow Sea, but their one scene continued to show their privations in the Red Waste. Dany was dismayed to receive the severed head of the faithful Rakharo, which caused much lamenting from her handmaids that the manner of his death barred his entry from the Dothraki afterlife – the Night Lands, from which the episode’s title was drawn. Rakharo’s death is a significant deviation from the books, where he lasts a good deal longer; but it works because he’s made a much more significant character here, so his death has a lot more resonance. As he plays no particularly notable part in any of the books’ plots, it’s a good gambit for the screenwriters to build him up and then kill him off, yet another sign that nobody is safe in this game.

Given similarly short shrift were the Night’s Watch, still quartered with the loathsome Craster in the North beyond the Wall. Deftly signposted last week, this episode showed us more of Craster’s fearful daughter Gilly, and her fear as to what would become of her soon-to-be-born baby if it was a boy. Gilly is played by Skins’ Hannah Murray, who I’m glad to see back on the screen after a long absence to, presumably, finish her education. There’s the beginning of a nice relationship between her and loveable ‘coward’ Sam Tarly, as he first rescues her from Jon’s impressively realised direwolf Ghost then lends a sympathetic ear to her troubles.

The normally heroic (but fallible) Jon is less than eager to help, presumably remembering the earful he got from the Lord Commander last week about pissing off Craster, but it doesn’t take long before he’s reverted to heroic type and off to nose around the woods as Gilly’s baby is born, getting clobbered by Craster for his pains. This is a small but important plotline in the book, so it’s good to see it getting a fair shake of screen time – even if viewers might be impatient for the Night’s Watch to get a move on with their mission of investigating the sinister happenings in the snowy North.

Those concerns are also echoed in King’s Landing, as Cersei summarily dismisses an urgent message from Lord Commander Mormont, pleading for more men to help with the cold, blue-eyed walking dead. She thinks it’s all just superstition, and Tyrion must be a fool for giving it any credence.

But Tyrion’s no fool, as this episode again makes clear. We got a terrific scene between him and Varys (Conleth Hill), as the softly spoken spymaster implicitly threatens to reveal the presence of Tyrion’s whore Shae to his disapproving father. As Tyrion reminds Varys (and us), unlike Ned Stark he is no honourable man, and smart enough to see how the game is being played. Having already banished City Watch commander Janos Slynt for his part in Joffrey’s slaughter of the innocents, Tyrion makes it clear that if Varys threatens him, he can expect something similar or worse. Varys, typically, is unfazed, and points out his continued survival when so many more visible players in the game have fallen. It was a powerful scene between these two most devious, cynical men, reminiscent of Varys’ more veiled exchanges with Petyr Baelish last year.

Lord Baelish himself got one of the episode’s other great scenes, as he dealt with young Ros’ grief over last week’s slaughter of one of the brothel’s babies. At first seeming uncharacteristically sympathetic, his soft tones belied the increasing harshness of the story he told; of how an unhappy whore is, for him, a pretty bad investment, and one that can be easily disposed of by pandering to some of the clients’ scarier sexual peccadilloes. No fool herself, Ros got the message. She’d get a day off to grieve, and then be back at work – and happy. It was a cracking scene, one of those created solely for the screen version of the story that work so well; a similar highlight last year was the temporary truce and neutral discussion of their relationship by Robert and Cersei.

Arya Stark, meanwhile, was still headed north with Yoren’s Night’s Watch recruits, and we got to see her first encounter with the mysterious Jaqen H’gar, a caged charmer played by German actor Tom Wlaschiha. As Arya, Maisie Williams is one of the show’s best child actors, and it’s god to see her continuing to have such a prominent role. We also got to see more of Gendry, the fugitive bastard son of the dead king, who’s realised his travelling companion Arya is really a girl – and is soon informed that she’s a noble to boot. Not that being addressed as “my lady” pleases her very much. Arya and Gendry look to be shaping up into another of the show’s effective double acts, and it’s nice to see another Skins alumnus, Joe Dempsie, getting more to do as Gendry than he did last year.

It was another great episode from a show that shows no sign of flagging in quality. The pacing is excellent, with the plot beginning to move but still not too fast; there’s still plenty of time for the character building scenes that Benioff and Weiss do so well. The writers have also taken it upon themselves, as last year, to take some of the books’ more implicit plots and make them explicit; last year, it was the relationship between Renly Baratheon and Loras Tyrell, this year it’s the sexual coupling of Stannis and Melisandre. This has been a divisive tactic for some of the books’ fans, but I think it works well and is justified in this different medium of storytelling. Check back next week for, likely, more fulsome praise.

Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 1–The North Remembers

SPOILER WARNING – I’M GOING TO TRY TO REVIEW EACH EPISODE AS SOON AS POSSIBLE AFTER ITS U.S. BROADCAST. IF YOU’RE IN THE U.K., AND WATCHING THE SKY ATLANTIC SHOWING THE NEXT EVENING, DON’T READ THIS REVIEW UNTIL AFTER SEEING IT, AS MAJOR PLOT POINTS WILL BE DISCUSSED.

“There’s a king in every corner now.”

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After Mad Men last week comes the return of another much-anticipated, highly acclaimed show – HBO’s Game of Thrones, based on George RR Martin’s massive, convoluted fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, is back. It’s got a lot to live up to; its first season was widely touted as the latest contender in legitimising genre television as serious drama, after the likes of Battlestar Galactica and The Walking Dead.

HBO is used to critical acclaim and viewer respect, but I wonder if even they were quite prepared for the smash hit of Game of Thrones’ first season. Fantasy is generally the most looked down on of genres, after even science fiction and horror. The problem really is that JRR Tolkien set the standard with Lord of the Rings, and so many fantasy novels written after that are perceived as pale imitations. Cheap fantasy B-movies (often made by Italians) compounded the problem, with the genre becoming disparagingly known as ‘sword and sorcery’.

I have to admit, I felt much the same. I tuned in to the first episode of Game of Thrones expecting little, and having not read a fantasy novel for years, for exactly these reasons. Ten gripping, complex and violent episodes later, I picked up Martin’s books and devoured all five within a space of months. The TV series is a very faithful adaptation, as the books (at least the early ones) come fully formed as thrilling stories of political intrigue, backstabbing and internecine warfare.

Significantly, the overtly fantastic elements are used very sparingly. There is magic, but not much. There are dragons, but they don’t even hatch until the climax of the first season. And the dead walk, which is a signifier of the real danger hanging over the inhabitants of Westeros – but not often. Instead, the story focuses much more on the feuding Houses of Westeros, in their struggle to gain the upper hand and win outright rule of the country’s Seven Kingdoms. It’s heavily influenced by the English Wars of the Roses – the leading Houses even have names reminiscent of that struggle’s combatants. The more sympathetic, aggressively northern ones are the Starks (York), and the sneering, coldhearted rich southerners are the Lannisters (Lancaster).

The season 2 opener has a lot to catch up on, establishing where all the major players are now after the tumultuous events of season 1, and introducing a few new ones along the way. This opening episode manages that surprisingly well. We get to see what’s happening with almost every main character, along with introducing the oft-heard of but never seen brother of dead king Robert, Stannis Baratheon – technically the true heir to the throne.

Queen Cersei’s incestuous son Joffrey is still ruling at King’s Landing, his capricious madness an uncontrollable factor in her Machiavellian schemes. His hostage bride-to-be Sansa Stark is already learning how best to deal with his unpredictable cruelty, manipulating him into sparing hopeless chubby knight Ser Dontos, who he was about to have killed on a whim. Cersei, used to having control over her spoiled son, has not learned the lesson so well; slapping him for impudence, she’s genuinely frightened as he coldly reminds her that he could have her executed for it. Jack Gleeson is a really nasty piece of work as young Joffrey, with the impulsive nastiness of a Caligula in training.

Thankfully, his uncle Tyrion has turned up at King’s Landing to deputise as Hand of the King in his father Tywin’s absence, and may be able to keep Joffrey in line. Instantly the fan favourite after season 1, Peter Dinklage is still superb as Tyrion, and gets rather more screen time this week than a lot of others. His dry, barbed wit is still very much in evidence, never more so than in the Small Council scene as he takes his place with his outraged sister, Cersei.

In the North, Robb Stark is still waging war for northern independence, with Cersei’s brother (and lover) Jaime as his captive. Obviously heir to the same dry wit as Tyrion, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau continues to make Jaime an intriguing character, and more sympathetic than the standard villain. He’s actually rather more interesting than the conventionally heroic Robb, though Richard Madden is certainly very nice to look at. Robb’s direwolf has grown too; after criticisms that the direwolves in season 1 looked a bit too much like cuddly dogs, this time we see a genuinely huge beastie menace Jaime. It’s presumably a product of the same very impressive CG that realises so many of the series’ settings, but it’s so well done you could really believe it’s actually there.

More CG is to be found across the Narrow Sea, where last Targaryen (and another claimant to the throne of Westeros) Daenerys is trekking across the desert with her newly-hatched dragons. Again, the dragons are used sparingly, in fact we only see one of the three, perched cutely on Daenerys’ shoulder before being locked in a little cage.

What remains of Dany’s Dothraki tribe are struggling through the Red Waste, a parched piece of desert with seemingly no end (actually Malta). As she sends her riders off to search for some sign of life, she reaffirms her friendship with exiled knight Ser Jorah. Seemingly hard to connect to the events across the sea in the first season, this narrative thread is one of my favourites. As a little-experienced actor, Emilia Clarke is stunning as Daenerys, and Iain Glen is reliably good as Jorah. I was a little sad, therefore, that this plot strand only got one scene this week; but with so much to cram in, it’s hardly surprising that some characters get little more than a cursory nod.

Given similarly short shrift, sadly, were Conleth Hill as oily spymaster Lord Varys, and Jerome Flynn as Tyrion’s mercenary bodyguard Bronn – again a shame, as these too were fan favourites last year. Varys barely gets one line, and Bronn no more than that either. But I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of them as the year goes on. Robb Stark’s mother Catelyn at least gets a whole scene, with actress Michelle Fairley making the most of her limited screen time.

A little more time was devoted to events beyond the Wall, as Jon Snow and the Night’s Watch trekked into the icy wilderness to discover why dead men are walking and attacking people. Robert Pugh popped up as nasty piece of work Craster, who marries his daughters then impregnates them to give him more daughters to marry, and so on. This led to some tense scenes as Craster took an instant dislike to pretty boy Jon (well, to be fair, Kit Harington is pretty).

As Craster, the usually aggressively Welsh Pugh was affecting no less a convincing Northern English accent than the rest of the Watch. More thought has clearly gone into the accents than simply allowing the actors to use their own; aside from Pugh, Night’s Watch Commander Mormont is played by the very Scottish James Cosmo, and he still sounds like he’s from Yorkshire. The more posh Lannisters have cut glass south eastern accents, and would sound quite at home on the current Conservative Party front bench – aside from, perhaps, Peter Dinklage as Tyrion, who for all the excellence of his performance, hasn’t quite mastered a consistent English accent.

Elsewhere, we were introduced to a new set of players, as we cut to the castle of Dragonstone, home to another contender for the crown – Robert Baratheon’s elder brother Stannis. As portrayed by Stephen Dillane, Stannis is a stern, unyielding man, as in the books. We establish this pretty early on with his overly literal pedantry about the propaganda letter to be sent out to Westeros – “strike out ‘beloved brother’. It’s not true.”

Stannis is accompanied by the sinister priestess Melisandre, devotee to a new, fierce religion worshipping the Lord of Light. We first encounter them both symbolically burning the idols of traditional gods the Seven, to the consternation of Stannis’ Maester, who then perishes in a futile attempt to poison the priestess – both drink from the same glass, but only the Maester dies. Incarnated by Dutch actress Carice van Houten (previously seen in Paul Verhoeven’s wartime thriller Black Book), Melisandre is clearly a force to be reckoned with, and has Stannis in her thrall. His more reasonable adviser Davos, played by the reliable Liam Cunningham, is clearly going to have a fight on his hands to moderate her influence.

The usual massively graphic violence was present and correct from the outset, as tournament knights cheerfully slaughtered each other for Joffrey’s entertainment. Also predictably present was the gratuitous sex and nudity for which the show has become
(in)famous. A tour of one of Lord Baelish’s brothels was introduced by yet more instruction in the art of shagging for money, with the participants very much in the forefront of the frame.

This scene led to into the episode’s climactic montage, as Joffrey, concerned by the possibility of the late King Robert’s bastards laying claim to the throne, started his own slaughter of the innocents. It was a genuinely shocking moment when the King’s Guard slashed the throat of that young whore’s baby, one even this series had to leave offscreen. But the mother’s reaction was shocking enough. This was followed by yet more scenes of children being violently killed; proof, if you still needed it, that this is not fantasy for the faint at heart.

But Joffrey can’t get them all. As we saw at the end of last year, blacksmith’s apprentice (and unknowing heir to the throne) Gendry has headed off north to join the Night’s Watch. Gendry is incarnated by the very attractive and personable Joe Dempsie, late of Skins and The Fades; unfortunately, he doesn’t get so much as a line this week. But it’s a good cliffhanger as we see him, together with Ned Stark’s other daughter Arya, heading away from the city amid a stream of refugees.

A sterling season opener this, written by series creators David Benioff and D B Weiss. It hits the ground running, with all the quality, thrills and sometime flaws of the first season. My only complaint would be that perhaps it tries to take in too much, with various characters left virtually mute even if we see them. There again, I was a little disappointed not to see Charles Dance pop up as the arrogant Lord Tywin Lannister, or Gethin Anthony as the pretty (and gay) pretender Renly Baratheon. So clearly, even the writers thought it was biting off more than they could chew to fit in every major character.

I have a bit of a dilemma reviewing this series episode by episode. Because I’ve now read all the books in the series that Martin has written (so far), I obviously know what’s going to happen, since the show is almost completely faithful to the source material. So my solution is this: I’m going to review each episode as though I didn’t know, trying to see it as someone who was seeing the story for the first time. Equally, I’m going to avoid referring to anything that happens in the books after the point the series has reached; I don’t want to spoiler anyone, as I know many people are watching this show having never read the books. It’s going to be an interesting exercise in self-discipline – check back in coming weeks to see how it works out!