“Another king. How many is that now?”
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.