Amid all the scheming and plotting that swirls through the dizzying world of “Game Of Thrones,” there is nothing quite as complicated as the gender politics that distinctively and often unpleasantly affects the show’s characters. “Second Sons,” the eighth episode, brings a closer, oft-uncomfortable scrutiny to bear on not just these frequently unusual relationships, but also all of the love and lust and sex that runs rampant through these lands — not to mention the fear and happiness and fury and bitterness that is often created as a result.
We began with a most surprising new pairing — the strange and menacing companionship of Arya and the Hound. Two of the most bitter and angry characters on the show — with one genuinely loathing the other, who in turn genuinely loathes himself — holds great potential for the future. Arya is forced to confront her hatred head-on, first by her refusing to risk attacking him, and then, by the sudden re-ignition of hope, something she had all but given up on. Suddenly, Sandor Clegane is the unlikeliest of saviors, proving that in the world of “Game Of Thrones,” fate has a queer sense of irony indeed.
Meanwhile, in Dragonstone, the slithery, sinister plans of Melisandre continue in full. There is a terrifically rendered dichotomy between the two counselors that bookend Stannis — the ruthlessness and seductiveness of the Red Woman versus the boundless loyalty and perhaps naive dedication of Davos Seaworth. And while the initial meeting between Melisandre, Stannis, and Gendry was intriguing enough, it was Stannis’s nighttime visit to Davos’s cell that was one of the episode’s high points. It was a perfectly acted scene, with Stephen Dillane capturing the both the fevered irrationality of the true believer he has become as well as the anxious cautiousness of the pragmatist he once was. And despite all he has lost, all he has been subjected to, Davos remains steadfast and honest to a fault. The dialogue between them was some of the most real and honest the show has had, truly feeling like two friends with a vast chasm between them, each unsure how to reach for the other. In the end, we find Stannis, mouthing the words of a zealot, while at the same time seeking the wisdom of a friend.
Yet while that happens, there was the heated and grotesque sequence between Gendry and Melisandre. Generally speaking, I haven’t been a huge fan of her character, though I don’t necessarily blame Carice van Houten’s performance. She’s devoured the character voraciously enough, I suppose — it’s just that all of the even tones and smoky seductiveness never quite worked for me. This week, her performance rang far truer than in the past, and perhaps it was because the character works best when her madness is shining through. That madness, much as it was displayed when she bore the shadow creature before Davos’s horrified eyes, was on full display here. What makes it so powerful and affecting is that in spite of all that was happening — stripping herself bare, the overcharged sexuality of the whole scene, which was graphic even by “Game of Thrones” standards, the bondage and leeches — she remains calm and focused and absolutely single minded. Yes, there was an element of gratuitousness to the scene, but Van Houten made it work — aided by a solid depiction of Gendry’s heady combination of lust and terror by Joe Dempsie.
In King’s Landing, the wedding of Tyrion and Sansa serves as a perfect backdrop for the uneasy alliances and unwanted unions that the Sansa, the Lannisters, and the Tyrells find themselves embroiled in. This entire sequence — the wedding itself as well as a supremely awkward and uncomfortable reception — did an excellent job of showing just how fragile and downright uncertain Tyrion can be beneath his arrogant, acerbic facade. At the same time, it gave us yet more reason to find Joffrey Baratheon to be the most contemptible, disgusting and downright disturbing character in quite some time. From his childish cruelty towards Tyrion at the altar to his horrific promises to Sansa at the banquet, Jack Gleason yet again nails his character perfectly. As for Tyrion himself, the engagement and the wedding have brought out sides of him we’ve seen little of to-date. Tyrion is a genius, a schemer, a manipulator and a survivor. Yet he is also someone who understands what it means to be tormented, to be abused and neglected and as such, he has a surprisingly deep well of compassion and empathy for young Sansa Stark, leading to a display of purposefully drunken buffoonery that masks a curious and gentle sense of chivalry.
Of course, the other side of that coin is Cersei, whose bottomless contempt is barely masked at all anymore. Her hapless lack of control over Joffrey, coupled with her righteous fury over her new betrothal are creating a storm inside of her, and as a result she has abandoned all pretenses. For every bit of subtlety and doe-eyed, saccharine-sweetness that Margaery has, Cersei has venom and bitterness to match it. The chess game between them feels as though it is coming to a head, and Cersei’s gruesome history lesson and vicious threat shows that perhaps she may not play the game as well, but she’s still a dangerous force to be reckoned with.
Perhaps the most intriguing storyline this week was found at the other end of the world, as Daenerys Targaryen bides her time at the outskirts of the walled city of Yunkai. In an episode with several solid vignettes, Dany’s meeting with the Second Sons was another of my favorites. The overt, obnoxious bluster of Mero, The Titan’s Bastard, matched by the sultry slyness of Daario Naharis, created a delicious sense of tension as they all lazily, laconically threatened each other’s lives. In the center of it was Daenerys, with another marvelous performance by Emilia Clarke (I reiterate that she has improved exponentially since her first season), quietly and calmly holding the anger of Mormont and Selmy at bay while remaining a bastion of self-contained and calculating nobility. Her winsome smile as she makes both offers and threats was effectively disarming, as was her steely eyed request that Selmy “kill him first” once they depart. Yet the final moments between her and the peculiarly devoted Daario (played by Ed Skein) were the most intriguing, as his odd mixture of steamy sexuality and hunger for violence present an all-new challenge for her — in more ways than one.
Lastly, we travel north to visit Sam and Gilly. This was one of the few times that I’ve enjoyed a scene with Samwell Tarly, and it wasn’t just because he killed a Walker in spectacular fashion. Sam’s admissions about fathers and their various cruelties made his vulnerabilities and weaknesses seem disarmingly earnest and tragically honest, rather than annoyingly clumsy as in the past. There’s a gentle sweetness about Sam, something that’s so radically out of place that it’s almost shocking at times. His conversation about the importance of names was genuinely and charming, and one of John Bradley-West’s finer moments in the show. Yet it’s that final moment where we learn many things — that there’s also a courage hidden in that self-professed craven, that there are terrifying creatures foretold by those ominous gatherings of crows, and that the death of the undead is possible — and that such a death can be both beautiful and horrifying. What that means for the future of Westoros will be very interesting indeed.