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Game of Thrones: Season 2 (Review)

I’ve always found that it’s the second season that makes or breaks or a television show. After all, the first season of a new television series has an air of novelty around it that can mask any faults, and it’s interesting to watch both cast and crew settle into new roles. The world and characters are to be defined, everything is possible, the potential is truly limitless. It is only in the second season where you really see the show crystalise into the form it will most likely remain for the rest of its run. You get to see the television show “settle” into its particular groove or comfort zone, once the initial novelty or excitement has worn off. Arguably Games of Thrones faces an even bigger challenge. After all, the climax of the first season saw the death of the show’s one true marquee name, Sean Bean.

So, it is a massive relief that, in its sophomoric year, Game of Thrones remains one of the best constructed and most compelling dramas on television.

Burn, babies, burn!

With each season of the show adapting roughly one book in G.R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire saga, I find it best to discuss and digest the series in chunks like that. Two years in, it seems almost like each year of the show is but a chapter in some gigantic epic that will eventually reveal its true shape – with a faint, yet impressive, outline presently visible. Of course, the seasons don’t exactly synch up with Martin’s books. The climax of the first season borrowed some elements from the second book – and ditto the second season and the third book. Similarly, the third book will reportedly be split over two full seasons.

Still, each of the first two seasons feels like an act insome grander sweeping epic, with the characters and events allowed room to breath. It’s a nice approach, and one arguably more respectful than most adaptations of such source material. Movies naturally have to trim a lot of the excess material from their original sources to fit within a two-hour story, occasionally omitting key characters or beats, or suffering from trying to hit so many of the key points in quick succession. I really like that Game of Thrones does afford its cast of characters and the epic scale of events room to develop and to grow, rather than simply aiming to hit a sequence of plot points building to the next climax.

She’s certainly bewitching…

Consider, for example, the character of Davos Seaworth. He is played here by Liam Cunningham, a veteran Irish character actor who seems to be gradually earning the respect he deserves. Seaworth is the former smuggler – “the onion king” – who has vowed to support Stannis Baratheon in his quest for the throne. He is developed as a major player, credited in the opening sequence and given his own supporting cast – including his son. He is also, rather brutally and randomly, removed from the action early in the penultimate episode of the season.

His absence is not noted by the characters. He is one of hundreds (if not thousands) of characters who are lost in the siege of King’s Landing. The character survives in the book, but his importance to this volume seems almost minimal when considered in retrospect. Certainly, his contribution to the season’s climax is not too significant. He is thrown overboard mid-sentence, just as he realises that he is walking into an ambush, trying futilely to save his son and a few of his men. I don’t believe Davos is mentioned after that. It would be understandable for an adaptation to skip over Davos. He is, after all, a supporting character to Stannis, another supporting character.

Man-not-quite-on-fire…

Sure, you might give a background character the name from the novel, but more pragmatic writers might suggest that character development is “wasted” on a character who serves to be ejected from the narrative without any real significance before the battle even really begins. However, if you ignored the character or insisted on a tighter focus, you’d lose some really nice character moments. Davos is an interesting character in his own right, regardless of what might happen to him and how randomly he might die. He provides a nice window into the world, exploring the more mundane and grounded view of this clash of would-be kings.

In fact, he serves to make a rather potent point about the nature of religion in this sort of world. Davos isn’t a noble man. He is the son of a poor crabber. Unlike his son, he is not literate. It’s an interesting connection made between religion and literacy. Many historians suggest that the Catholic Church, for example, played a crucial role in maintaining literacy in Western Europe during the Middle Ages, with the teaching of scripture teaching many peasants how to read. (In fact, it’s implicitly suggested that Davos’ skepticism is linked to his illiteracy – he wasn’t taught to read using the ancient religious texts, so he isn’t quite as indoctrinated.)

His cup overflowth…

Of course, Davos is just one of the countless members of the supporting cast who gets a chance to grow and develop, adding great texture to this world. Similarly, we get to know characters like the Hound and Bronn, even if they never truly drive the events of the show. Others, like Theon, have more significant roles, but never seem to accomplish anything of true significance in the grand scheme of things.

While the fact that so many stories unfolding in this world seem to end in death or destruction doesn’t mean that they aren’t worth telling. Just because the characters we follow don’t necessarily succeed in their goals doesn’t mean that they aren’t worth our time. It adds a sense of texture, and a sense of tragedy. In order for somebody to win, others must lose, and it’s fascinating to see the viewpoint of the losers. I love that about Game of Thrones – the idea that there isn’t necessarily one singular viewpoint of this massive world.

Oh, Wildling, you make my heart sing…

While there definitely are “outsiders” like the White Walkers or the tribes north of the Wall, most of those scrambling for the Iron Throne are developed and are given characterisation. It’s hard, for example, to pick a side to root for in Blackwater. We know that Joffrey is a tyrant, but we are sympathetic to Tyrion; at the same time, we understand what Stannis wants and know Davos to be a decent and honourable man. It’s a rather wonderful complexity that exists here. I’d make an argument that that complexity and development is the heart of the show’s appeal.

Naturally, a lot of the themes continue from the first season. Once again, we see that pragmatism is perhaps the cardinal virtue in Westeros, far more than honour or courage. Theon’s capture of Winterfell is doomed to failure as the Iron Islands can’t dream to hold a city that far inland. Margaery Tyrell is able to become a major player on the scene rather quickly through a willingness to do whatever it might take to secure her influence – moving on rather quickly from the death of Renly Baratheon and asking to marry King Joffrey. Indeed, even married to Renly, she’s pragmatic enough that she is willing to work within the confines of his homosexuality to produce an heir. (“Do you want my brother to come in and help?”)

Warlocked and loaded…

Throughout the season, it seems like the character who value pragmatism are more like to succeed and advance, rather than those aspiring to higher or nobler virtues. Appalled by the conduct of Craster, offering his male children to demonic beings, Jon Snow seems surprised that his commander knew of this. Morment responds, “Like it or not, we need men like Craster.” In fact, Snow even has to end the season murdering a close friend and ally in order to infiltrate the enemy camp, a pragmatic gesture that his victim accepts as completely necessary.

It’s interesting how the season contrasts the characters of Jon Snow and Theon. In a way, Jon Snow is a man without a father – he would have had no claim or legal title even before he joined the Night’s Watch. Despite the fact that his father was Ned Stark, he has no official position within the Stark household, and has been forced to make his own way in the world. In contrast, Theon is arguably a child with two fathers. He was treated so well by his adoptive family that those watching the first season might even have been unaware of his status as a hostage from the Iron Islands. When he returns home at the start of the season, despite his father’s disdain, he is given a chance to prove himself, and a few able-bodied men.

Not somebody you want to cross…

The irony, of course, is that despite having two families and claims to his name, Theon is far less of a man than Jon. Particularly towards the end of the season, as their treatment of Wildling prisoners is directly contrasted. Theon is seduced by Osha and made a fool of, while Jon is able to resist the advances of Ygritte. Theon seems unable to reconcile his two families and his obligations, but Snow is willing to do virtually all that needs to be done – only hesitating to kill a female prisoner.

Theon is especially fascinating because he’s essentially a hypocrite. He acts without honour – he ambushes Winterfell while the Starks are campaigning in the South and he executes and burns two innocent children to stop him from losing face. At the same time, he seems to expect and demand honour from those around him. He seems disappointed that the Stark children would flee from Winterfell, as if they broke a solemn honour oath. His sister even points out how irrational his disappointment is, “Your little boy prisoners made you a promise and you got angry when they broke it?”

Baptism of… er… water…

Towards the end of the season, Theon is once again contrasted with a more efficient and pragmatic individual. In this case, it’s Tyrion, the Hand of the King. Both Theon and Tyrion find themselves standing with armies that are seemingly hopelessly out-numbered, and both must address the troops to convince them to fight. Tyrion knows better than to appeal to his soldiers’ sense of honour or loyalty to a king they despise. Instead, Tyrion spurs his men to battle with more pragmatic motivations:

Don’t fight for your king or his kingdom. Don’t fight for honour. Don’t fight for glory. Don’t fight for riches because you won’t get any. This is your city Stannis means to sack. That’s your gate he’s ramming! If he gets in, it will be your houses he burns. Your gold he steals. Your women he will rape. Those are brave men knocking at our door. Let’s go kill them!

Tyrion shrewdly appeals to the self-interest of his army, and does succeed in leading them to battle.

“Well… there goes the budget…”

In contrast, Theon attempts a more straight-forward stirring speech to his diminished and surrounded force as he attempts to convince them to hold Winterfell. His appeals are more fanciful and less pragmatic than those that Tyrion offered, promising his men a place in history:

You hear that? That’s the mating call of the Northmen. They want to &#%! us. Well, I haven’t had a good &#%! in weeks. I’m ready for one. They say every Ironborn man is worth a dozen from the mainland. You think they’re right? We die today, brothers. We die bleeding from 100 wounds with arrows in our necks and spears in our guts, but our war cries will echo through eternity. They will sing about the battle of Winterfell until the Iron Islands have slipped beneath the waves.

Every man, woman, and child will know who we were and how long we stood. Aggar and Gelmarr; Wex and Urzen; Stygg and Black Lorren– Ironborn warriors will cry out our names as they leap onto the shores of Seagard and Faircastle. Mothers will name their sons for us. Girls will think of us with their lovers inside them. And whoever kills that &#%!ing horn-blower will stand in bronze above the shores of Pyke! What is dead may never die!

Naturally, Theon’s more idealistic appeal falls on deaf ears. He is clubbed unconscious immediately after finishing, before his men abandon their posts and head home. “Thought he’d never shut up,” one of Theon’s soldiers comments. Theon’s right-hand man (who did the clubbing) responds, “It was a good speech. Didn’t want to interrupt.”

I know that older brothers are supposed to pick on their younger siblings, but invading his city takes the biscuit…

There’s a similar subversion in the middle of the season, as Qhorin Halfhand gives a stirring motivational speech to Jon Snow (about the noble virtue of sacrificing their lives to save those south of the Wall), only to mock the young lad when he takes it at face value. “It’s just words, boy,” he tells Jon. “Keep us a little warmer in the night, make us feel like we got a purpose.” Similarly, the words of Varys are of scant comfort to the wounded Tyrion. Tyrion defended King’s Landing from an invasion, concocted a clever plan, and led the troops into battle when the king failed.

For his valour, he was removed from his position, denied any honours and left with a scar across his face. In a rare moment of what appears to be honesty, Varys assures Tyrion, “There are many who know that without you this city faced certain defeat. The King won’t give you any honors, the histories won’t mention you, but we will not forget.”One wonders, of course, if those words will amount to anything but a little bit of comfort to Tyrion. If even that.

The man who almost-but-not-quite would be king…

War was always present at the periphery of story last year, but here it arrives in full force. And, naturally, our cast discovers that it is not the glorious thing that songs and legends might make it out to be. Adapting to her role as ruler, Daenerys asks Mormont, “I promised our enemies would die screaming. How do I make starvation scream?” Renly Baratheon boasts that he has an army ready and willing to take the crown, reveling in playing at war though he has yet to fight a major battle. (Instead he hosts fights amongst his own knights for public spectacle.)

Visiting to discuss the possibility of making peace, Catelyn Stark calls him out on how unprepared he and his men are for the reality of warfare:

I have a hundred thousand men at my command, all the might of the Stormlands and the Reach.

And all of them young and bold like your Knight of Flowers. It’s a game to you, isn’t it? I pity them.

Why?

Because it won’t last. Because they are the knights of summer and winter is coming.

Even ruling is not as glorious as it might appear. Discussing the reality of governing a kingdom, Cersei explains to Tyrion, “This is what ruling is: lying on a bed of weeds, ripping them out by the root, one by one, before they strangle you.”

Ha, take that, Legolas!

The Hound seems to take pity on young Sansa (his “little bird”) who is solely unsuited to the harsh reality of life in the kingdom. She had dreamed of marrying a king and living an idealised existence as a queen of the realm. Naturally, that didn’t quite work out the way that she expected, if only because she was completely unprepared for the cruelty of the world around her. The grotesque and scarred Hound explains to her, “The world is built by killers. So you’d better get used to looking at them.”

The biggest cast change of the year was the decision to promote Peter Dinklage to the lead. Dinklage, deservingly, picked up an Emmy award for the role last season, and he’s every bit as good here. Tyrion is appointed the Hand of the King to Joffrey, succeeding Ned Stark to Robert Baratheon. In a way, the entire first season seems to exist solely to contrast Ned Stark’s actions and outlook to those of Theon. Stark was a man almost singularly unsuited to all the politics and game-playing of a royal court, and his rigid adherence to honour was what led to his unfortunate death in the penultimate episode of that season.

Surprisingly, not one of the “faceless ones”…

In contrast, Tyrion proves quite adept at playing politics within the walls of King’s Landing. “I’m not Ned Stark,” Tyrion remarks at one point. “I understand how this game is played.” A dwarf, he is obviously less suited to combat or physical competitions than most men, but he seems to thrive when confronted with an arena where mental prowess is far more important than any physical talent. When, in the final episode, Shae suggests that the two could retire to some island somewhere, Tyrion confesses that he actually finds his work here rewarding – despite the risks involved. He tells her, “I do belong here. These bad people are what I’m good at. Out-talking them, out-thinking them. It’s what I am. And I like it. I like it more than anything I’ve ever done.”

The cynical and manipulative eunuch Varys even offers Tyrion a genuine complement, explaining that Tyrion is far more suited to the role than either of his two predecessors. “You’re quite good at being Hand, you know?” he explains. “Jon Arryn and Ned Stark were good men, honourable  men, but they disdained the game and those who played. You enjoy the game.” Of course, one might observe that the eponymous “game”is fatal to pretty much all but its best players, and that perhaps there’s something to be said for Shae’s desire to cash it in and to move abroad. Dinklage is, again, nothing short of superb, and he handles the wonderful scripting with remarkable ease.

A slice of life…

Tyrion’s pragmatism extends to those who surround him, including Brion. The pair play almost perfectly off one another an make for one of the best pairings in the show. It’s easy to see why Tyrion keeps Brion around, as he shares the same harsh and realistic world view. When the possibility of a siege is mooted, Brion rounds up all the known thieves without due process. Reflectign on the king’s strategy to survive the assault, Brion is less than impressed with the mysticism. “Men win wars,” he remarks, “not magic tricks.”

Although appointed head of the city’s watch, he refuses to wear the ceremonial gold cloak. Not for principled reasons, of course. “A cloak slows you down in a fight, makes it hard to move quietly. And the gold catches the light, so you’re nice and easy to spot at night.”Pragmatism will out, after all – and the ceremonial and symbolic value of a gold cloak is undoubtedly important, it just isn’t worth the risk to Brion’s life.

The man is awesome…

While Tyrion might have learned from Ned Stark’s mistakes, it seems like Robb Stark might live to repeat them. The heir to the Stark name is shown to be quite the military strategist. By the end of the season, he has yet to lose a battle. However, he is undone by those around him – including his mother. Refusing to torture or execute prisoners, Stark is warned by his advisors, “The high road’s very pretty, but you can’t march an army down it.”

Indeed, Robb Stark seems to have no real plan beyond the war at hand. While some would argue that’s the sign of a noble heart – he doesn’t make war for his own benefit, and he does aspire to power – it also seems like a very short-sighted stratagem. “You’re fighting to overthrow a king, but have no plan for what comes after?”his lover asks him. Arguably securing the throne is the most straight-forward aspect of seizing a kingdom. It’s holding on to the throne that is difficult, and it’s arguably the same sort of haphazard lack of foresight that got Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark into this mess in the first place.

The Walker dead…

I suspect that Robb’s decision to marry the woman he loves, rather than to adhere to his agreement with House Frey. His agreement is of major strategic importance, as it allows his army ease of access between the North and the South, and is arguably crucial to his success. “You’re marrying her for a bridge?” his lover asks. He replies, “A very important bridge.” It seems highly possible that Robb could have married Lord Frey’s daughter and continued his affair with the nurse – but his honour, much like his father’s, would not allow such a possibility.

Although very much a tangential presence during the second season, Jamie Lannister continues to survive through sheer force of will, and refusal to accept any notion of honour when it stands in the way of his goal. Arguably more than any other character in the show, Jamie is completely amoral, willing to do whatever it takes to survive. He repeatedly claims to be one of the finest swordsmen in the kingdom, bettered by only one or two others, but his intellect seems to be far more crucial to his survival.

I’m sure they’ll Iron out their differences…

He rationalises his lack of morals remarkably well. “So many vows,” he tells Catilyn Stark, “they make you swear and swear. Defend the king. Obey the king. Keep his secrets. Do his bidding. Your life for his. But obey your father. Love your sister. Protect the innocent. Defend the weak. Respect the gods. Obey the laws. It’s too much. No matter what you do, you’re forsaking one vow or the other.”  He makes it sound so very rational, even though it masks a sociopathic selfishness. Perhaps that is how he has been able to keep his head for so long, while those around him are literally losing theirs.

Then again, it seems like the world of Game of Thrones is an incredibly cynical place, one where virtue is no match for wits. The second season, in particular, seems preoccupied with the notion of power, and where it resides. After all, there are no less than three rival factions competing for Joffrey’s throne, each making a credible claim. Varys, who seems to genuinely enjoy the company of Tyrion, makes some clever observations about the nature of power and where it might lie:

Power is a curious thing, My Lord. Are you fond of riddles?

Why, am I about to hear one?

Three great men sit in a room. A king, a priest and a rich man. Between them stands a common sellsword. Each great man bids the sellsword kill the other two. Who lives, who dies?

Depends on the sellsword.

Does it? He has neither crown nor gold nor favor with the Gods. He has a sword, the power of life and death. But if it’s swordsmen who rule, why do we pretend kings hold all the power? When Ned Stark lost his head, who was truly responsible? Joffrey? The executioner? Or something else?

I’ve decided I don’t like riddles.

Power resides where men believe it resides. It’s a trick, a shadow on the wall. And a very small man can cast a very large shadow.

There is nothing in the desert, and no man wants nothing…

In Qarth, Daenerys Targaryen gets a similar lesson. The city of Qarth is well-known throughout the kingdoms, as a city to be feared, but also a city of great wealth. She is welcomed into the city by Xaro Xhoan Daxos, who claims to be the wealthiest trader in the city. Initially, the city does look like a prosperous desert hamlet, but it’s revealed as an illusion as powerful as any cast by the Warlocks in the House of the Undying.

On taking back her dragons from the Warlocks, Daenerys opens Daxos’ gigantic vault only to discover that… it’s empty. His influence is build solely on the illusion of wealth and power. It seems like the rest of the city is similarly bankrupt, as Daenerys and her followers are reduced to stealing enough cutler and ornaments to pay for “a small ship” they can use to travel home. It’s a fascinating commentary on just how much of power is down to perception, and how much of it lies in the power of the beholder rather than anything that the person in question might hold.

The chains that don’t quite bind…

Aside from Peter Dinklage’s ascent to the top of the cast list, perhaps the most significant change between the first and second seasons of the show has to do with magic. For a fantasy epic, the first season of the show was remarkably low on supernatural elements. Barring the threat of the White Walkers, it seems that most of the magic was reserved for the final hour or so of the show, with the birth of Daenerys’ dragons, and the revelation that Bran’s dreams were prophetic. Throughout the first season, the impression was that magic had long left Westeros, and that mankind had succeeded in vanquishing all magical elements from the realm.

To an extent, that view is still held during the second season. Maester Luwin remains skeptical of Bran’s ability to foretell the future through his dreams. “What about all the dreams you had that didn’t come true?” he argues, rationally. He comments, “Maybe magic once was a mighty force in the world. The dragons are gone. The giants are dead. And the children of the forest forgotten.”However, one of the things I’ve really liked about the second season is how it has subtly and gracefully introduced elements of mysticism, without allowing them to overwhelm the plot.

Northern girls, eh?

Daenerys’ dragons, born from fossilised eggs, are perhaps the most obvious examples, but we are repeatedly confronted with imagery that it is impossible to rationally explain. In Qarth, the Warlocks are able to replicate and duplicate themselves seemingly at will. This is more than mere illusion, as it allows the Warlock to simultaneously assassinate all of Qarth’s ruling council. The Warlock seem to treat the birth of the dragons as the start of a new age of magic and mysticism – now in full swing.

“When your dragons were born,” they tell Daenerys, “our magic was born again. It is strongest in their presence.”It seems that the dragons are themselves symbolic of the rebirth of magic and mysticism in a world that seems to have forgotten about those spiritual things. The final image of the season is that of an army of undead White Walkers who appear to be marching South, bringing death with them.

Face-to-faceless-man…

Of course, magic isn’t isolated outside the kingdoms of Westeros. There are hints of strong pagan forces within the realm that are only revealing themselves now. Whether their increased presence is due to the birth of the dragons or merely due to the fact that we’re only noticing them now is a matter left unexplained. Stannis falls under the influence of a pagan priestess Melisandre. Although initially it appears she might merely be manipulating him, Davos does bear witness to her supernatural powers while infiltrating Storm’s End.

Similarly, Arya receives three favours from a man going by the name of Jaqen H’ghar. H’ghar proves to be an effective assassin, although his actions are – initially, at least – kept off-screen so it is possible that he is just a highly capable individual. However, he is ultimately revealed to be one of the “Faceless Men” of Bravos who worship “the Red God”, with the ability to alter his own face. Incidentally, I believe that G.R.R. Martin is a fan of Marvel comics (to the point that his first published work is a letter in a back issue of Avengers), so I can’t help but imagine the name is an affectionate shout-out to the (very different) “Faceless Ones” from Lee and Kirby’s work.

Putting Tyrion’s insecurities to bed…

There is a sense that magic is slowly returning to this world. Naturally, as with the first season, most of the cast are too busy dealing with their own petty politics to actually do anything about it. Daenerys’ dragons and the White Walkers are arguably a far greater threat to the people of Westeros than Stannis Baratheon or Robb Stark or even Joffrey. However, petty squabbles over the throne leave even the normally astute Tyrion completely blind to the external threats approaching the realm.

“A girl at the edge of the world is the least of our problems,” he tells Varys dismissively when news of Daenerys is brought to him. “One game at a time, my friend.”While he undoubtedly has more pressing and immediate concerns, it’s hard not to feel like the people competing in the competition for the Iron Throne are effectively fighting a zero-sum game and missing the two most significant threats. In fact, the invasion of the White Walkers or the arrival of the dragons will have a far greater impact on the people of Westeros than whoever happens to sit on a rather uncomfortable chair made from swords.

A Maester of the dark arts…

The rest of the cast also gets solid development. In particular, I’m delighted see more of Twyin Lannister, as played brilliantly by the sorely underrated Charles Dance. While a completely unscrupulous and brutal individual, Lannister remains strangely understandable, a man fixated on the idea of his own legacy and the mark that he will leave on the world. Nothing matters beyond that, and he believes that power is a viable end of itself. As such, he even seems to envy the Targaryen dynasty that brought much ruin and suffering to Westeros, explaining to Arya:

You think I’d be in my position if I’d lost a war? And this is the one I’ll be remembered for. “The War of Five Kings,” they’re calling it. My legacy will be determined in the coming months. You know what “legacy” means? It’s what you pass down to your children, and your children’s children. It’s what remains of you when you’re gone.

Harren the Black thought this castle would be his legacy. Greatest fortress ever built. Tallest towers, the strongest walls. The Great Hall had thirty-five hearths. Thirty-five, can you imagine? Look at it now. A blasted ruin. Do you know what happened?

Dragons?

Yes. Dragons happened. Harrenhal was built to withstand an attack from the land. A million men could’ve marched on these walls and a million men would’ve been repelled. But an attack from the air, with dragonfire… Harren and all his sons roasted alive within these walls. Aegon Targaryen changed the rules. That’s why every child alive still knows his name, three hundred years after his death.

He cares not a whit for his subjects, believing that his power and influence justifies such indifference, perhaps reflecting his own attitudes towards the gods. When he discovers his daughter praying following the death of her mother, he explains that the gods don’t care about the affairs of mortals. “The Gods have no mercy. That’s why they’re Gods.”

Royally screwed up…

Suddenly Twyin’s moral outlook and his fixation on maintaining his family’s power and influence make a lot more sense – he seeks to see his name elevated to that of a myth and a legend, regardless of the cost in human turns. I’d argue that, despite his brutality, Twyin Lannister is almost (but not quite) sympathetic, an old man desperately grasping for some form of immortality in the twilight of his life. After all, his main opponent in the war seems to Robb Stark, a young upstart, and Twyin seems to hate his adversary for his youth. In fact, Twyin appears to insist on taking a hands-on approach to war and conflict (even leading the calvary charge to King’s Landing himself).

We also get a slightly more developed examination of Cersei, Twyin’s daughter. While the first season portrayed her as a calm and calculating mother looking to secure the throne for her son, the second season suggests that Cersei is far more damaged and broken (and petty) than she would have initially let on. Played superbly by Lena Headey, Cersei seems a lot more vulnerable here. She’s openly resentful of Sansa’s poise and virtue (“you’re perfect, aren’t you?”) and unwilling to make the same compromises that she expects of others (notably she’s unwilling to marry off he daughter for political gain).

They truly have a production budget to make other shows green with envy…

Rather than a scheming and manipulative villain, Cersei seems more and more like a lost and confused girl stuck in a cycle of violence and retribution – still unable to deal with the fact that her father traded her to Robert Baratheon for a little more power and influence. Even at her most deadly – trying to assassinate Tyrion during the siege of King’s Landing – she doesn’t seem like a contemptible villain, more like a pathetic and broken person struggling to hold it all together.

The production values seem to have improved for the second season of the show – not that the first season seemed cheap or anything. Of course, the most obvious example of this is the penultimate episode, Blackwater, featuring a rather brutal battle between Joffrey’s forces and Stannis Baratheon’s invading army. The first season seemed to go out of its way to avoid showing battles (with Tyrion knocked out during one particularly epic confrontation), due to budget constraints. However, directed by Neil Marshall, Blackwater is a truly breath-taking piece of television. I can’t imagine how difficult that was to shoot and edit together – a genuine example of a movie-quality production for a small-screen television show.

Stannis and deliver…

However, even outside of that, the show looked fabulous. I’m a big fan of high definition, and Game of Thrones is undoubtedly one of the television shows where I feel like I’m getting my money’s worth. The show’s scope really seems to have broadened out during this second season. There’s a sense that we are really exploring a much larger world than we did last time – visiting locales like Qarth or the Iron Islands, and venturing a bit outside the major ruling families of Westeros. It creates the impression of a fully-formed fictional world, and the writers and production designers (and, of course, G.R.R. Martin) are all to be praised for their fantastic work here.

Game of Thrones remains one of the most compelling shows on the air, and a worthy successor to a long-string of superb HBO television like The Sopranos, The Wire and Deadwood. Long may it continue. Is the third season here yet?

You might be interested in our other Game of Thrones reviews:

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3 Responses

  1. Have you reviewed any other seasons darren?

    • Alas, no. Didn’t find the time. I do occasionally tweet about them.

      Hoping to do something when the show wraps up, but that’s a long way off at the moment.

      • Damn. Well, your past reviews are spot on. Quite astute observations on all the thematic elements involved. Personally i think its quite an accomplishment for a series to be so delightfully convoluted. There’s never a sense of bordom and drag in any instance because everything has a value or a place in the series and i think this is because- as u said– the dedication to developing the characters and the world around them.

        Hope u get to reviewing them soon enough.
        Kudos

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