HBO's Game of Thrones returned last week with "The North Remembers," its highly anticipated and long awaited second season premiere. On top of reviewing the solid opening episode, I also outlined where I stand with the books and how these recaps will function as a result. Having said that, the second season marches on to "The Night Lands" and while I was quick to dispel the show's common criticisms in my recap of "The North Remembers" - pointing out how the premiere managed to be a compelling hour of television, complete with exposition and character introductions, without using sex or violence like a crutch - I fear that this week fell prey to those devices on more than one occasion. But first, just like Episode 2, let's pick up where last week left us, travelling north on the Kings Road...
"A boy could make a friend."
I thought having Arya and Gendry hop onto the cart at the end of "The North Remembers" worked as an exciting cliffhanger for the season opener because we hadn't seen Arya so far this season and she's one of the series' favorite characters. Well, she's one of my favorites. It was also a great conclusion because we just watched the gold cloaks kill all the Baratheon bastards, and they're obviously now coming for Gendry. And that's pretty much where the "The Night Lands" opens, with Arya at the side of the Kings Road, having to pee in seclusion in order to hide her gender from the rest of the new members of the Night's Watch. And despite all the faults the episode might have - sexposition, inorganic structuring and even a lack of momentum - it does have a strong thematic core, focussing on gender roles and, more specifically, how women play the 'Game.'
However, the gender issues were not always as successful or delicately woven into the story as is the case of the playful and incredibly watchable scenes between the adorable Lady Arya, sorry, Arry and the very charming Gendry, one of (presumably) only a few remaining Baratheon bastards. The two scenes on the Kings Road work very well, probably because we get to come back to the location at least once to allow it time to breathe and change. Our first visit opens the episode with Arya peeing, then meeting Jaqen H'Ghar before being paired with Gendry right at the arrival of the Gold Cloaks. In the return to the location, the two boys (largely comic relief) discuss turning in Gendry, allowing Arya to easily asses the trustworthiness of her companions before being forced to come clean with Gendry and their ensuing discussion lays out the Westerosi gender roles for us, even if (and actually as) Arya continues to fight against them.
"They don't like the idea of a woman leading a Khalasar."
"The Night Lands" is not only concerned with outlining how the gender roles differ from region to region across the Game of Thrones globe but it also encourages audiences to ponder the show's overall thematic concerns - power, leadership, governance, honor - in gender terms as well. Leadership and power are not only a man's game, especially the case when the show joins our Khalessi across the Narrow Sea. However, even though the sequence in 'The Red Waste' manages to hit the thematic concerns on the head (or nose), just like last week it lacks narrative momentum and any sense of development (story, character or otherwise). The brief scene in the 'Waste' with Daenerys, Ser Jorah and her starving Khalasar would have been much better had it been paired with the similar one-off in the season premiere (a scene I said felt wedged in purely out of a need to satisfy audience dragon-lust). At least then the desperate and dire nature of their circumstances would have felt compounded by the loss of the blood of her blood and the scene would have had added dramatic weight and not just played like another obligatory visit across the sea.
"The one true God is between a woman's legs."
Salladhor Saan's comment may be a bit crude but it was a bit refreshing to hear two rational men talk about the irrationality of religion, another one of the big themes riding all the way through the Game series, one obviously closely linked with power. His comment is also perfect to kick off the Dragonstone sequence because it highlights sexuality as another kind of feminine power (even if he intends to, uh, take the queen), one that's especially familiar in the fantasy genre and highly relevant to this narrative thread. Melisandre is pretty much the embodiment of the seductress - with all her red and fire and mystery - so it's no surprise to see her use her feminine wiles on the rigid Stannis.
Davos is busy convincing his old pirate buddy to join their fight against Kings Landing as well as keeping his religious son from putting too much faith in, well, Faith. However, with the stunning show of hypocrisy that comes after - Stannis, the hater of all oath breakers breaking his marital oath by bedding Melisandre - perhaps it is Davos who is putting all of his faith in the wrong leader? While much of the rest of the episode felt a little bit flat, once again the Dragonstone sequences worked quite well, largely because of the performances and a sense that their story is actually progressing, laying down more set-ups (30 ships for an attack) while also paying off previous ones (Melisandre seducing Stannis). And while the pair actually having sex is another example of an implied relationship in the book made explicit in the series (remember Renly and Loras), it is a logical step for the visual version and impressive because the nudity is not used to mask exposition. And I wouldn't throw Carice Van Houten off my war table either.
"Did you pay the iron price for it or the gold?"
Too bad the same cannot be said of the trip to the Iron Islands. Let's just say, that when detractors refer to Game of Thrones' reliance on sex and nudity in order to cover up long stretches of exposition (sexposition), the first scene with Theon on the boat makes it hard to argue against them. I'll give the show credit when it comes to casting though, because that girl was just as goofy looking as described in the novel and certainly not the 'eye-candy' nudity we're used to seeing in mainstream media. However, that doesn't excuse the two or three minutes of pure exposition that Theon spouts while he and his boat-mate have sex in the bow. It was amusing to watch the proud Lord Greyjoy arrive to no pomp or circumstance, not to mention important for his character in immediately reshaping his expectations for what's to come in Pyke.
And sadly, the road to the capitol of the Iron Islands proves much more worthwhile in hindsight since in real time it plays as a very similar sequence to the one just witnessed - Theon sexually mistreating a woman while boasting info we need to know. It was refreshing that the sequence was eventually flipped on its head, providing a rather curious and intriguing introduction to the elder and female Greyjoy sibling (Yara), yet that doesn't necessarily excuse the scene's lacklustre play the first time around. If I hadn't known Yara's true identity, the added benefit of dramatic irony, I cannot imagine the exchange between Theon and the then stray woman would be all that dramatic. Thankfully all is saved with a terrific final scene between the King (well, Lord) Kraken and his returning heir first with the sister's reveal and finally, a secret plan. Balon Greyjoy will pay the iron price for his crown with his daughter (yes strong, sea captain daughter) leading the attack... but no one said anything about the Lannisters.
"Another King? How many is that now, five? I've lost count."
All four scenes in Kings Landing that contained Tyrion were really effective and not just because Peter Dinklage absolutely owns every moment on screen, even though he most certainly does. First Tyrion, whose whistle now precedes him like Peter Lorre's in M, comes home to find Varys visiting with Shae. The scene is rich with subtext and I love their exchange at the door, one finger stopping it from opening before the other. However, I do think that Shae is too smart to not pick up on the reality of the exchange, the members of the small council were laying it on pretty thick. Enjoyable none the less. This scene transitioned right into the Queen, sorry Queen Regent (a running gag much like the 'assistant to' joke in The Office) hearing and rejecting Robb's terms, despite Tyrion's pleas for her to stop ripping up all the paper. They also receive word from the Wall of the wights but, of course, Tyrion is the only person in Kings Landing with any interest in what the Night's Watch might have to say.
After the odd waste of a scene between pimp Littlefinger and Ros (snowball, gross), Tyrion invites the soon to be former commander of the city watch, Janos Slynt for dinner and, well, verbally reduces the man to rubble before stripping him of his titles and sending him to the Wall. It is always great fun to watch Dinklage's Tyrion play with scum like Slynt, but the scene was especially interesting because of the bitter taste incurred after poising the baby killing question to his new commander Bronn. That had to have been the answer he was expecting. Did he want it? And was he upset that he did?
Finally, we get another wonderful sequence between Tyrion and Cersei which somehow manages to take their already flaming hatred of each other to an even greater intensity. Yet again, even while the coals are burning hot there is certainly also a sense of sadness in that these are siblings spilling so much bile at one another, a pain written all over Tyrion's face even if not on his sister's. She's sick of it all falling to her. When they fight it is always great television but this was somehow even more powerful. A credit to both actors.
"If it's a boy what?"
The two sequences beyond the Wall were also quite good this week, even if the second was just a glorified tag and cliff-hanger for the next episode. While the boys talk shop and stare at some of Craster's daughter-wives, Sam is soon sent off to get more supplies for supper and here he happens upon Gilly and her, uh, problems. Ghost (not as convincingly CGI'd as Greywind), frightens the awkward wife-daughter which allows Sam to step in and play the hero, unfortunately for him he ends up with more heroics than he bargained for and has to turn to Jon Snow.
Jon's getting harder by the day - Kit Harrington's got the bags under the eyes to prove it - and he tries to talk some sense into both Sam and Gilly, eventually frightening the wildling girl away after she won't disclose what happens to the boys. When we return North at episode's end, it's now dark and Jon spots Craster making off into the woods with a newborn, so of course he follows. The baby is sacrificed up to something (any takers?) but before Jon can do anything he's knocked unconscious. Two short but effective scenes in the cold.
The second episode manages to find some thematic consistency but overall its sprawling and oddly paced (and plotted) structure makes "The Night Lands" less effective than the season premiere, despite a handful of strong scenes. The show is always well acted, with beautiful locations and amazing art direction, so even these slight misfires are easy to watch, however, that doesn't forgive the sometimes ineffectual, tension-free storytelling that appears in The Night Lands. In the grand scheme of the serialized show, I have no doubt that some of these poorly inserted sequences, like the short time spent in 'The Red Waste,' will have much more dramatic weight when paired with previous (and future) scenes but it's up to the writers to make each individual episode as stunning and compelling as the whole puzzle. In fact, I bet had HBO ran "The North Remembers" and "The Night Lands" as a two hour premiere, both episodes would have been better for it. I'm starting to worry that the world is too big to tell in one hour installments. I will say this though, that was some good cliffhanging. Jon better be a tough bastard.