"What is dead may never die but rises again, harder and stronger."
HBO's Game of Thrones has returned quite strong. The second season so far, even if only consisting of two episodes, well three, after tonight's similarly solid "What is Dead May Never Die," has been very good but not great. Like I said, solid. The new season has introduced a lot of information, locations and characters as well as satisfyingly addressing the conflicts born out of last year's final episodes. For the most part creators D.B. Weiss and David Benioff have done this quite well, juggling world building and moving the narrative forward. However, I would be lying if I said that I didn't have my qualms about being spread too thin in both the second season premiere and, even more so, with last week's "The Night Lands".
This made me question if it's unavoidable. If it's just the nature of the beast when adapting of George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire?" It's huge and there are so many locations, characters and conflicts that it's bloody difficult to weave them all together in a coherent, causal and most importantly, compelling way all within the time allotted. With that in mind, they do a surprisingly excellent and commendable job in "What is Dead May Never Die," but at the expense of seeing a lot of our favorite characters (some we haven't seen now for two weeks running). The beginning may have been a tad sluggish but as you could start to see the larger story lines brewing and worlds preparing to collide, the momentum kicked in about mid-episode providing the spark for (or promise of) some really compelling conflicts. Winter is coming.
"Whatever it was, I dare say you'll see it again."
This week opens pretty much right where we left off at the end of "The Night Lands." After watching one of the baby boys get abandoned, sorry offered, in the woods, Jon Snow was thumped upside the head by Craster, who then rolled him wounded back into his Keep. Obviously, the old pervert prefers people not poking their noses in his affairs and so it's time for the Night's Watch to keep on moving. And North, which means that Gilly cannot come with, but the lovestruck Sam gives her a token of his affection and assurance (insurance) that he'll return for her and her baby.
Commander Mormont and John again have words, a short scene pretty similar to one they had upon their arrival at Crasters's Keep. The first was imparting the idea that Jon needed to learn to follow in order to lead, this time the lesson is that sometimes you have to put up with and rely on despicable scumbags for the greater good. We also get Jon and Mormont's acknowledgement of something supernatural lurking in the woods beyond the wall. Could it be the white walkers? Not only did the sequence do a nice job of subtly amping up the fantasy but also to starting the episode with an overwhelming sense of doom. We don't return north of the Wall for the rest of "What is Dead May Never Die" but, considering the hint of the wights and walkers, it's definitely an apt title for this location.
"Old Nan used to tell me stories about magical people who could live inside stags, birds, wolves."
And the more fantastical side of the series continues in our brief visit with Bran after the transition to Winterfell. Not only do we get to see a series' favorite, even if only for a second (Hodor!), but I also loved the handling of the wolf-dream. The style set by Alan Taylor works very well - the stalking low POV camera - and it was smart of them to continue to stress the visual connection between the wolf and the boy, especially to counter the few minutes it's about to take to tell you that this kind of magic is long gone from the world. I think the chemistry between Maester Luwin and Bran is great and, since it still feels like a pseudo-homebase, I always welcome the trips back to Winterfell. Bran's a smart and strong young boy and his resolve seems to be growing the more he embraces and believes in Old Nan's stories. Hodor!
"The plans are made, it's time you heard them."
Before heading down south, there is plenty brewing in the northern waters at Pyke, the capitol of the Iron Islands. Last week we were introduced (and what an introduction) to the Greyjoys - first, to Theon's scary sister Yara and second, to his equally scary father Balon. The Greyjoy sigil is the Kraken and they were definitely released, much to Theon's dismay. The siblings bicker in the castle halls before Lord Balon enters with the Iron Born's plans to sack the north while Robb 'the young pup' is busy fighting his war in the south. Theon is clearly torn between trying to push the alliance (and keep his 'brother's bond') with Robb and trying to please his demanding daddy.
To be fair, Theon's completely right when he lashes out at his family for condemning his return after it was them that gave him away, however, that doesn't excuse his betrayal of the Starks. This sequence bugged me a little and not just because Theon is being a right prick in order please his father (let's be honest, Balon is not the man Robb is, much less Eddard), but also because it's the first time I thought the production looked a little cheap. The episode was directed by Alik Sakharov and while he's a very experience director of photography, not to mention has directed a handful of prestigious HBO shows, some of the sequences seem very, uh, old British television. The same or a similar aesthetic and staging as those cheap Shakespearean dramas. Only a few sequences, first in in Pyke (the first exchange between Theon and Yara and the letter burning) as well as the beginning of the events south of Kings Landing.
"Don't worry my Lady, our war is just beginning."
The first scene on the beach is one that immediately came across as strikingly inadequate. For a show that (rightfully) prides itself's on the locations, and more importantly the way that the art direction and CGI are incorporated into the natural spaces, these few sequences stood out as poorly shot and staged. Or at the very least compared to the usually stunning work Game of Thrones puts on screen. Thankfully there is a lot going on, so the awkward first fight sequence as well as the exchange between Catelyn and Renly (et al) on the beach quickly fades out of importance. Although, I did enjoy Cat's shot at Renly for playing at war, a comment very reminiscent of her lat husband Ned's comments to Jaime in Season 1. As for the story that unfolds in the South, some very intriguing events are beginning to take shape and we met a few new (major) characters.
The first new character that we get to meet is Brienne (of Tarth) but don't call her lady. A highborn girl who happens to dwarf most men and prefers chain mail to skirts, she is clearly infatuated with King (or Lord) Renly. I was really excited for this character to come to the series but so far, I'm disappointed with the portrayal from Gwendoline Christie. She certainly has the size and look but there's something lacking, perhaps she's just not as game an actor as the rest of the great ensemble. And speaking of the great ensemble, the addition of Natalie Dormer as 'Queen' Margaery Tyrell is certainly welcome. I loved her performance as a smart (and sexy) woman who certainly knows how to play the Game, much like Cersei Lannister without all the sinister. A baby Baratheon boy would certainly add credence to Renly's claim considering Stannis' inability to have an heir and, well, the whole incest thing with Joffrey and the other 'Baratheon' children.
"Power resides where men believe it resides. It's a trick."
Once again Kings Landing serves as the most frequented location and the only narrative thread to be woven throughout (almost) the entire episode. I'm not fond of the scenes between Tyrion and Shae but they are important to the story in that he need's something to lose beyond just his own life. She adds an element of danger to Tyrion's existence as the Hand and yet their scenes feel a bit like a waste until he sets her up as Sansa's handmaiden (a clever adaptation from the novel that expedites the conflict). Sansa also had a tough go at dinner with the Lannisters (sorry, Baratheons), which was more interesting because the show is starting to develop the young lions, Myrcella (more like her mother) and Tommen (soft and gentle). Besides the scenes with Sansa (and/or Shae), the rest of the time in Kings Landing was focused squarely on Tyrion.
Tyrion's narrative serves as a strong thematic centre for not just the episode but the series. His clever plan for Myrcella (and to test his surroundings) puts many of the thematic aspects at play in Game of Thrones on display, showcasing how the most political of moves are also personal. No one save Eddard Stark can remove all personal qualms from their duty, and Tyrion's ability to rule with as much honor as the position allows, but not an ounce more, not only earns him the respect of Varys the spider but puts both Little Finger and Grand Maester Pycelle in their places.
Is Tyrion arranging Myrcella's marriage for the good of Westeros? For himself? For her? Or just to piss of the Queen Regent? Probably all of the above which makes Tyrion perhaps the most fitting choice to rule. At least smart enough to throw his hat in the ring. The scene between Tyrion and Varys was perhaps lacking a little subtlety but I relished in the not so subtextual dialogue and explicit discussion of what the show is really about.
"It got to the point where I would say his name every night before I went to bed. 'Willem. Willem. Willem.' A prayer almost."
The end of "What is Dead May Never Die" takes us back to the Kingsroad, a place that is quickly becoming one of my favorite locations largely because of Arya, as well as her great relationship with those new members of the Night's Watch. Obviously, everyone was talking about the great chemistry that has developed between her and, her fellow fugitive, Gendry, but this week focused more on her and Yoren in what turned out to be a final conversation. As far as long monologues go, I was quite involved in the man in black's tale of revenge, and certainly sad to see him get the sword. But at least he took about ten of Ser Armory Lorch's men (another slight change) with him when the Lannister outlaws came for the Baratheon bastard. Arya helps the 'bad' men, one being Jaqen H'ghar, out of the burning cage but it's all for naught because the lot of them are rounded up and taken captive. Well, except for Lommy, "carry him, he says." I don't think these lot mess around.
When I look back on last week, one thing that seriously annoys me is when time, that I have hopefully by now stressed is precious, is wasted on overlong, on-the-nose or extraneous sequences. Fortunately, unlike the Ros and Littlefinger exchange, or the obligatory dragon shot from the premiere, very little of the episode was wasted. It was a very lean, well structured show (even if the form may be inherently flawed with a increasingly sprawling story and the exact same amount of screen time. It's time for more choices. And like George Martin, the show cannot be shy about putting more of the novel's characters and story lines to the chopping block, some before they even debut on screen. And that's exactly what they've begun to do and to great effect so far.
"What is Dead May Never Die" was excellent storytelling in its sparse adapting and more heightened focus even if some of the scenes oddly seemed less cinematically polished than usual. The look was little lacking but the drama and acting superb as well as, most importantly, the writing. I'll leave you with a riddle: "Three great men sit in a room. A king, a priest and a rich man. Between them stands a common sell sword. Each great man bids the sell sword kill the other two. Who lives, who dies?
Preview next week's episode here!
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