And just like that, HBO’s “Game Of Thrones” comes roaring out of the gate. After a good, if unspectacular season premiere that was necessarily thin overall in order to establish a host of new characters, the series came back with an episode that was equal parts exhilarating and appalling. This was one of those episodes where every single interaction was a marvel to watch, a testament to the strength of the show’s writers. The plot is propelled forward through strength of character and intense, sometimes harsh moments of conversation coupled with confrontation.
Family has been a pervasive and fascinating theme for the show as the writers envision how powerful a bond it can be as well as how easily that bond becomes corrupted Episode 2, “The Night Lands,” was a complex and intense examination of many families, be they real, imagined, or created. The Lannisters are steadily being torn apart by their own bitter arrogance, even as Tyrion desperately tries to pull them from the brink of self-destruction. Faced with the unconscionable massacre of Robert Baratheon’s bastard children, his frosty moment with Cersei brilliantly demonstrated each one’s flaws and strengths. Cersei’s unshakable devotion to the detestable Joffrey serves as a sharp contrast to her disdain for Tyrion. Meanwhile, Tyrion wants Cersei to begin to see the dangers of their paths — ignoring the needs of the people, ignoring the warnings and calls for aid from the Night’s Watch, and of course, the danger of what Joffrey will become.
Yet of course, Tyrion is plagued by more demons than just his family, and Dinklage once again excels at displaying the combination of subtle cleverness and dangerous risk-taking that he cannot stop himself from. Women are clearly his weakness, and his relationship with Shae (and unfortunately, Turkish actress Sibel Kekilli is failing to truly engage the audience) has him on a razor’s edge, and his entendre-laden repartee with Varys was a masterfully filmed scene, replete with subtle threats and barely-constrained anger. While we’re on the subject, it’s worth mentioning that one of the actors who we’ve been neglecting to give his due is Conleth Hill, who is fantastic as the conniving, obsequious yet cunning Lord Varys. He’s almost exactly as described in the novels, and his performances have truly impressed, and he’s become one of the few actors who isn’t overshadowed when he shares a scene with Dinklage.
On the other side of the coin, Tyrion’s encounter with Janos Slynt, the now-former Captain of the Gold Cloaks, was simply beautiful and delicious, vintage Tyrion. Dominic Carter captured the sneering arrogance of Slynt quite well, but the scene was all Dinklage. I could watch him declare, “seeing as how you betrayed the last Hand of the King, well, I just wouldn’t feel safe with you lurking about” a hundred times and love it every single time. His delivery of “lurking” (“llllurking about”) brings me endless chuckles.
But we can’t dwell on Tyrion, for there were other families and characters to find. The blood-related ones inevitably fare the poorest in Martin’s world, as if he wants to prove that a person is so much more than the blood in their veins. When you look at some of the strongest bonds — The Brothers of the Night’s Watch, Daenerys’ adopted denizens (not to mention her dragons) who she sees as her children, the growing rapport between Gendry and Arya — it’s hard not to contrast it with the vileness of the Lannisters, the indifferent, disdainful, and brutish Greyjoys, and the ongoing tragedy that is the Starks. And that doesn’t even scratch the surface of the truly horrifying Craster, a monster of a human being who beds his daughters and sacrifices his sons to the white walkers.
The show’s continued displays of incest, however condemning, are… unsettling.
Regardless, there were other standout moments. Arya, Gendry and the rookie Black Brothers were terrific in their standoff with the Kingsguard, with their snarling, fiercely loyal leader Yoren getting to strut a bit. Yet it was Arya’s revelation of her true name to Gendry that was wickedly funny, yet also a bit nerve-wracking. Arya stands to lose everything if she tells the wrong people, and her trust of Gendry is an interesting, if potentially complicating decision. That scene, coupled with her interaction with the caged convicts — the mysterious, enigmatic Jaqen H’ghar (Tom Wlaschiha), the obscene and terrifying Rorge (Andy Beckwith) and the hideous Biter (Gerard Jordan) — was yet more examples of why Maisie Williams has become on of the things that I most look forward to on the show. Her blend of cocksure precociousness and vulnerability make the character one of the few truly likable ones.
Oddly, it was the Greyjoys that intrigued me the most in this episode, simply because it was a radically new end of the family spectrum. Theon, bolstered by his newfound respectability among the Starks, comes prancing into the bleak, grim Iron Islands ready to take up his inherited mantle, only to find a surly, venal father who loathes what his son has become. And Yara Greyjoy (called “Asha” in the books), played capably by Gemma Whelan, was a swaggering, wickedly smart foil to the Theon’s blustering sense of entitlement. One thing that’s been quite enjoyable to observe is the strength of the female characters in “Game Of Thrones.” While there are some painful exceptions — Shae as well as Rose The Expository Whore — characters like Yara, Arya, Melisandre, and even Catelyn show a dedication to not only refusing to neglect female characters, but also to not let them fall into the conventional archetypes too often. It’s quite refreshing.
There’s so much more at play — the solid scene with Davos Seaworth (one of my absolute favorites in the novels) and his old pirate friend Salladhor Saan, the shocking and unsettling seduction of Stannis Baratheon, the growing bonds and horrific discoveries of Jon Snow and the Night’s Watch — and yet unlike the premiere, “The Night Lands” didn’t feel rushed. Was it over too soon? It always is. But it was a return to form, an excellent episode that showed the growing conflicts and dangers of this new world, wrapped within an examination of family bonds that was both captivating and horrifying.