It is almost beyond comprehension that the second season of Game of Thrones is already older. I know that I was still in NY when the season began (and I’ve been back home for a couple weeks now), but honestly, I can’t remember the last time a season of television seemed to fly by more quickly. Perhaps, the final season of Lost because although it was only about 16 or so episodes long, I was so excited to see the conclusion of what was arguably my favorite (if not quite what I considered the best) television program of all time. Still, the wait between episodes that season seemed excruciatingly long. So, I’m going to stand by my assertion that no season of TV has ever just seemed to happen as quickly as Game of Thrones season 2. That’s what happens when you HBO delivers week after week of truly exceptional and character-driven storytelling. While I might posit that I enjoyed A Game of Thrones more than A Clash of Kings (the individual books that Seasons 1 and 2 were based off of respectively), I think it’s safe to say that this season of Game of Thrones was an improvement over the original season (I’m probably letting the immense accomplishment that was “Blackwater” carry too much weight in that decision). HBO took a serious risk when they chose to adapt George R .R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, and fans of the books knew that Season 2 was when Martin’s infamous labyrinthine complexity could become an issue. Yet, despite making some changes here and there (some minor, some pretty massive), Game of Thrones has maintained the breadth of character and literary ambition at the key of the novels, and I know that it’s going to feel like a Westeros summer as I wait for the next season to arrive.
The episode was 70 minutes long and had a significant amount of plot territory to cover (to draw all of the season’s various stories to a close) so I apologize in advance for how lengthy the recap section of this post will be. Speaking of Lost earlier in this post, the episode started out by taking a page straight from the Lost playbook. We begin the episode with a close-up shot of Tyrion’s eye (don’t worry non-book readers. He survived that wound last week) as he wakes up in a cramped room in King’s Landing with an obviously scheming Maester Pycelle standing over his bed. Covered in bandages, he looks a little bit like an extra from The English Patient. Pycelle informs Tyrion that after the arrival of Tywin Lannister (with the help of the Tyrell forces), Tyrion will no longer be the Hand of the King. Instead that office is held by Tywin himelf. After briefly ensuring that Pod finds Brom and Varys (and lets them know Tyrion’s alive so that no one tries to make it look like he died from his wounds), we transition to the throne room where a royal procession has begun with Joffrey naming Lord Tywin the new Hand of the King (and we get one of the many shocks of the finale). I could have probably done without the graphic shot of Tywin’s horse shitting though. Joffrey also bestows other honors by promoting Littlefinger to Lordship and granting him the castle of Harrenhal as his new home (as in the shithole where Arya has been staying half the season). He also grants Ser Loras any one wish his family desires as recompense for helping to defeat Stannis’ troops. As part of an obviously pre-arranged scene full of overly dramatic (intentionally and in-universe) theatrics, Margaery declares her love for Joffrey and her desire to be his Queen. After some false speechifying about honoring his engagement with Sansa, Joffrey announces his betrothal to Margaery. Sansa thinks she’s finally free of Joffrey’s evil grasp but Littlefinger is quick to remind her that she’s still a hostage in this castle.
This extended stay with the King’s Landing nobility is followed by two short though ultimately important scenes (well the latter anyways). Varys visits Ros in her room at Littlefinger’s brothel. We haven’t seen her since Cersei threatened to kill her (and is it an episode of Game of Thrones if Ros doesn’t take her top off at least once?) and begins to recruit her to be one of his spies. Next, we find ourselves somewhere in the middle of Westeros as Brienne and Jaime continue their journey to King’s Landing to negotiate for Arya and Sansa’s freedom. They come across three women hanging from a tree with the sign “slept with lions” hanging around them. The Starks troops murdered them for sleeping with Lannister soldiers (which is all about obliterating the black and white moral lines between the Lannisters and Starks). As Jaime is hectoring her and Brienne is stopping to give the women a proper burial, three Stark soldiers arrive and quickly suss out that Jaime is in fact the Kingslayer. Brienne kills them with brutal efficiency (and makes the last one really pay for it for hinting that he raped one of the women first). At the Stark camp though, Robb is informing his mother of his plans to not marry Lord Frey’s daughter because he’s in love with Lady Talisa. She tries to tell him how reckless his decision is which gives him the opportunity to immediately throw back her own poor decision making skills in her face concerning freeing Jaime. At Dragonstone, we see that Stannis was able to escape his failed siege of King’s Landing. After berating Mellisandre for her prophecies turning out to be false, he starts choking her in a murderous rage asking where her god is. After she says it’s inside of him, he releases her, and Mellisandre shows Stannis a vision in the flames (which we don’t get to see) that convinces him of the actuality of her powers.
At Winterfell, Roose Bolton’s son, Ramsay Snow (even if we never actually see him in person), has finally arrived with his troops and has surrounded Winterfell in a siege. After finally realizing that he’s been what can only be described as a massive douche this season (but knowing it’s too late to make up for it), Theon ignores Maester Luwin’s counsel to flee Winterfell and take the black at the Wall. Instead, he rallies his men the next day to go out in an honorable blaze of glory. But in the middle of his fiery speech (one of Alfie Allen’s best scenes of the season), his men turn on him and knock him out and throw him in a bag (presumably to turn over to Ramsay Snow to secure their own safe passage out of Winterfell and back home). When Luwin tries to protect Theon, he gets a spear in his belly for his trouble. We return to King’s Landing where Tyrion is about to get some really bad news. Varys lets him know what everyone watching the show already suspected. The knight that tried to kill him last week was acting under the orders of his sister. Plus, Tywin has fired Brom as the head of the Gold Cloaks, and all of his Hill People have left King’s Landing after Tywin finally payed them. Tywin went from one of the most powerful and dangerous people in the capital to now being one of the most vulnerable and hunted. Varys lets Tyrion know that their friendship is over for now (because Tyrion has too big of a target on his back). We think Shae is going to abandon him too (especially after we see the massive Omar Little-style scar that Tyrion has running across his face) but she nearly strikes Tyrion for assuming she’s only stayed with him for the money and she offers to run away with him. Tyrion stays though because this political scheming is all he knows even if it will be the death of him.
Back at Robb Stark’s camp, he marries Lady Talisa. Yeah, that’s not going to cause any huge problems later in the series. We briefly return to Qarth where Dany and Ser Jorah arrive at the House of the Undying. There are no doors into the tower but as Dany and Jorah walk around the building, Dany disappears into the building and continues her quest to find her dragons. We move to the wilderness around Harrenhal. Arya spies Jaqen H’gar on a cliff top and before you can say “disapparate” (I’m mixing my fantasy metaphors here), he appears behind her. Arya wants to learn the secret to Jaqen’s assassination skills, and he offers to take her with him to Braavos to be a “Faceless Man.” She wants to but declines in order to become reunited with her family. Still, Jaqen gives her a coin and tells her that if she ever decides to join him, to give that coin to any man from Braavos and say the words “Valar Morghulis” (my inner book nerd squealed when I heard those words said out loud). He seemingly magically changes his appearance and bids his farewell to Arya. Back at Winterfell, Bran, Rickon, Osha, and Hodor emerge from the catacombs to find the castle burnt to the ground. At the Godswood tree, they find Maester Luwin, dying, and they bid farewell (and he has Osha give him a quick and clean death). Luwin’s last advice to his young charges is to head north because there’s no way they’ll survive a journey to get together with Robb again. In Qarth, Dany explores the decrepit halls of the House of Undying. She opens a door and finds herself in the snow-filled, destroyed ruins of the King’s Landing throne room. After being tempted with the Iron Throne, she hears her baby’s crying and continues on. She leaves this room only to find herself North of the Wall in the snow-filled wastelands. She finds a tent beyond the wall, and when she enters that room, she finds Khal Drogo and her son that was never born. After being tempted again with another of her greatest desires, she leaves once more to the sound of her dragons’ cries. This brings her to the center of the Tower where her dragons are chained. The warlocks torment her with being their prisoner forever and wraps Dany in her own chains. However, she gives her dragons the order that she has trained them with to burn things, and they set the warlock on fire in an impressive display of pyrotechnics (and these dragons are tiny. Imagine what they’ll be able to do when they’re fully grown).
And of course the season finale would create the longest section of recaps yet. Five paragraphs. Sweet Jesus. We’re almost there though. I promise. North of the Wall, Jon Snow and Qhorin Halfhand are being led in chains by the wildlings (including the fiery Ygritte) to be presented in front of the King-Beyond-The-Wall, Mance Rayder (and if the casting rumors are true, he’ll be played by Rome‘s James Purefoy next season). The Halfhand finally decides it’s time to implement his time to get Jon accepted into the Wildlings group (even if Jon doesn’t really know what’s happening). He picks another fight with Jon and steals one of the wildlings swords. The Lord of Bones decides to let the two fight to the death, and after Qhorin makes one too many cracks about Jon being a bastard, Jon finally kills him (and I believe he tells Jon that he’s now the Night’s Watch’s last chance). The Lord of Bones cuts the ropes binding Jon and declares him the man that killed the Halfhand (something no Wildling had ever accomplished [obviously I guess]). We return to Qarth where Dany storms into Xaro Xhoan Daxos’ quarters (where Dany’s servant Doreah has already started banging him). They drag Xaro to his supposed treasure room which we finally see opened and discover that there’s nothing in it. The vengeful Mother of Dragons locks Xaro and Doreah in the vault alive as punishment for their betrayal. They ransack Xaro’s home with the hopes of getting at least enough money to buy a ship so they can return home. Finally, to close out the second season, we get the BIG twist of the finale. Sam and other members of the Night’s Watch are digging latrines Beyond the Wall when they hear the horn blow once. This means rangers are returning home. Then, it blows a second time. This means wildlings. Then, it blows a third time. The horn never blows three times. That means White Walkers. Sam’s brothers flee as any one with common sense would. Sam doesn’t have that kind of energy and he collapses in tears. Suddenly, we get our first real look at the White Walkers who are in a full blown zombie army mode. One of them, a blue-skinned demon looking thing (cause there are different types of White Walkers), stares at Sam and gives the command for his army of Westerosi zombies to march, and there are a fuck ton of them.
(Was there any way I wasn’t going to use that amazing CGI shot of a White Walker in this episode?) So, we’re already at 2200 words and I’ve hardly done any actual critiquing of this episode. No one is actually going to read all of this. Yet, I must persevere. First things first, while I still believe that Peter Dinklage is the best person in the cast and he’s likely going to win an Emmy every year that this show is on, if anyone else is going to get an Emmy nomination this season, I really hope it’s Alfie Allen. He had the most morally complex role of the series, and in one single episode, we saw virtually every single side of his character. The show even took the opportunity to have Theon deliver a William Wallace style inspiring speech (except here Theon knows he’s going to die) only to have the show brutally subvert the blaze of glory Theon thinks he’s going to receive. Theon is only eclipsed in assholery by Joffrey, but Alfie Allen makes every second he’s on screen an interesting study in what it means to be torn between loyalties (as well as turning Theon into a poster child for daddy issues). The scene where Peter Dinklage breaks down in the arms of Shae as he realizes just how far he’s fallen (and how she’s the only good thing left in his life [a whore that he has to pay]) was seriously excellent, but for the second week in a row (last week it was Lena Headey’s drunken confessions to Sansa as Cersei), he’s been outshined by this show’s truly excellent cast that is honestly only rivaled in consistency by The Wire and Oz. It has the best ensemble cast currently on television, and this was the season that confirmed it.
I’m not generally one of the people that takes every opportunity to nit pick all of the changes the show made from the books (this season made a lot of changes), but there was one aspect of this episode that I was really frustrated by. One of the turning points of the entire series and arguably the most important scene in all of A Clash of Kings (besides the Battle of Blackwater) was Dany’s trip to the House of the Undying and the various prophecies that she received while she was there. There’s a valid point to be made that they were just temptations given to her by the Warlocks, but considering that everything she saw in that house decided virtually every action Dany takes over the course of the next three books (which equates to the next four seasons of the show since Book 3 will be two seasons), it’s fair to argue that they’re central to her entire character arc for the rest of the show. So, when the series drastically changed the visions she had (and completely removed any mention of the three-headed dragon), it’s marked one of the biggest and most potentially drastic deviations from the source material yet. The visions she had were cool (especially the one with Khal Drago), but it’s going to have to wait to see whether or not this doesn’t cause massive discontinuity with the canon of the A Song of Ice and Fire books down the road once George Martin finally gets down to publishing Books 6 & 7. Also, Xaro is in Book 5 (sorry spoilers I guess). Unless, he escapes that vault, the series also just removed another potentially massively important part of another book. We’ll see how it works out.
Is it weird that the scenes between Brienne and Jaime were some of my favorite of the episode? Probably not since Jaime becoming a point of view character in A Storm of Swords was one of the best decisions that George R. R. Martin made in the series. Still, their playful antagonism matching up Brienne’s almost comical stoicism and seriousness against the roguishness and at this point, nihilism, of Jaime Lannister makes for the best “odd couple” in the franchise. We’re going to be seeing a lot more of Brienne and Jaime next season, and it’s good to have this early bit of proof that Gwendoline Christie and Nicolaj Coster-Waldau have great on-screen chemistry. I was also really impressed by the way that the show finally took the chance to show that the noble Starks aren’t all perfectly clean. Yes, every Stark we’ve ever met is a good person (even if Arya is on track to crazy town and being a teenage assassin), but they’ve sided themselves with some very questionable people. And one of the major themes of the books is the price that the common people of Westeros have to pay for the ultimately petty squabbles between the noble lords, and we got our first taste of that this episode. When Beric Dondarrion and the other outlaws who are fighting for the people begin to show up next season (assuming they do), we’ll get an even better picture of the sort of hell that Westeros is becoming all so that rich noblemen can fight for honor and their own power.
Okay, I’ve reached three thousand words about this episode. I think that’s probably a record for the longest post I’ve ever written for this site. I won’t punish my readers anymore (presuming any of you even made it this far). At the end of the day, it was an excellent episode even if I was disappointed with aspects of it because they didn’t leave up to the dream standards I had set in my head for the way the show would handle the House of the Undying. It managed to provide plenty of resolution to many of the show’s storylines while simultaneously putting the pieces in place for where the show is going to go in its third season (A Storm of Swords is my favorite book in the series by far and I’m incredibly excited for its prospects of being adapted to TV). Game of Thrones is going to be gone for a while. Winter will come and go. We will have a dream of spring before it returns (that was a play on the anticipated title of the seventh and final book). I doubt Martin will finish any of the other books before the next season begins. Yet, the excellence of this season and the strength of HBO’s vision in bringing Martin’s work to life means that the wait will be well worth the wait. I’m going to miss delving into the dirty world of Westerosi politics, but give it time. We will return.
Final Score: A-