Manners. They matter.

Episode 2 of season 2 of Game of Thrones is slightly more focused than the first one. This is because the important work of rallying the narrative forces and propelling them forward into the new cycle of the story is largely done. With more room to get into what this season is going to focus on, individual scenes are longer and have more room to breathe which means that there are a few less of them in this episode than in the previous one. That said, this is another episode written by Weiss and Benioff which means it’s more than adequate at juggling all the disparate characters and subplots that make up the ugly, beautiful web of Game of Thrones. Dany only gets one scene this time while Robb, Catelyn, Joffrey/Sansa and Bran/Winterfell are left out altogether. When the show is able to shuffle things around in order to focus, it is truly at its best. Even reducing or removing a couple of threads temporarily makes for a less breezy, more substantial episode.

The episode opens a little ways from where the last left off. Arya is still on the road North with her King’s Landing friends and Yoren the Night’s Watch recruiter watching her back. We’re shown how Yoren is not just watching Yoren’s back, but everybody’s and to the potential detriment of his own. Yoren is a good character in the books, but he lacks a certain vitality that the actor playing him brings to the table. TV Yoren is fatherly and commands loyalty with his uncouth sense of honor and his true belief in the redemption offered by his order. These ragamuffins, thieves, and scoundrels all rally behind him even as the Goldcloaks offer a reward to anyone who will turn Gendry in. Potentially the last Baratheon bastard, Gendry is their target even as Arya fears they’re onto her. Anyway, Yoren is a great example of how the show is able to up the profile of secondary characters without sacrificing anything. Yoren is one of the main character’s in Arya’s story, at least during this phase, and that is how the show treats it.

Is that you, Dax Shepard?

Jaqen H’ghar also is introduced during this bit. Jaqen is a character they unequivocally got right. Everything from the accent, the allure and seductive quality of his gaze and voice, to the red-white hair. It’s exciting seeing this exotic, interesting character brought to life on the screen and it’s also intriguing to think about how it’s always Arya’s mentors who are the strangest and most colorful characters, often coming from places other than Westeros which we have not yet seen. More on that in future recaps, though.

Following Arya on the road is another introduction, but this time of two established characters who have not yet had a chance to feel each other out. Varys shows up at Tyrion’s to send a message, but also to extend an invitation. There’s a lot of catty doublespeak and witty innuendos here, but the takeaway is that Tyrion still doesn’t have his full footing and he mistakes Varys’s hand of friendship for a veiled threat predicated on the secret of Shae. Though the Varys we know perhaps means well in the end, Tyrion still counter-threatens him and reveals just how much Ned Stark’s betrayal and death weigh on him in his new role. Varys, however, gets to return with “Storms come and go, the big fish eat the little fish, and I keep on paddling”. It’s one of Varys’s nonthreatening threats, demonstrating that he is the far more capable hand. Get it.. hand? Nevermind.

Tyrion on the small council. Um, shit.

Next up, Tyrion gets another taste of politicking King’s Landing style. Robb’s demands have been received but Cersei don’t give a fuck. She still has the power to rip up paper and make dismissive comments and she still has the influence to ensure that all the other councilors basically follow suit. No one cares about the North, not Robb Stark’s independence movement and certainly not the Wall where Jeor Mormont has asked for help on account of a Wight getting burnt up in his bedroom. Only Tyrion takes any of it seriously, at least in the open, as the rest try to keep and curry favor with Cersei. They’ve bet on the blonder, bitchier horse it seems and I think by the end of the meeting Tyrion has a better idea of that being the case. Meanwhile, the North will get nothing from King’s Landing which tells us something about why the Northerners are always so contemptuous and suspicious of the Southerners.

Speaking of the North and the Night’s Watch, we join Gren, Dolorous Edd, and Sam as they enact a scene that is familiar and resonant for a continent in wartime (and I’m not just talking about Westeros). What is more germane to war stories than a bunch of youngish soldiers swapping sex stories and peeling potatoes? And finally, I get the Edd I’ve wanted. I missed this while watching the show the first time around and believed that they just hadn’t even bothered giving Edd Tollett any of his trademark sense of humor. Some of it has made it to the show however and I can only say yay.

Sam is still thinking about girls all the time.

Sam is kind of a sweetheart. In the books, more was made of his cowardice than his shy but insistent horniness. Now that he’s around girls, it’s all he can think about and we’re reminded of his introduction in season 1 where he bonded with Jon over medieval teenage virginity, which is pretty much the same everywhere. Sam’s curiosity about Craster’s wives would seem more creepy and leering if he didn’t insist to Jon later that women are not goats and therefore can’t be stolen or possessed. He’s sure this is the case, not even arguing but simply reminding his friend that it’s so and thus reminding Jon that his sense of right and wrong goes beyond doing what he’s told.

Anyway. Sam’s encounter with Gilly with whom gorgeous CG Ghost is getting friendly is a nuanced departure from the books if only because Gilly calls Sam brave and seems to be seeing something in him right away, more than a chance at her own salvation. In the books, Gilly isn’t really a character until much later but this scene echoes her importance in the first episode, where she alone of Craster’s wives has some dialogue.

Fuck yeah, direwolves!

Sam promptly takes Gilly to Jon, hoping the braver boy will help them figure some way to save Gilly who is pregnant. Now we are getting a further sense of unease from whatever it is Craster does with his boys. Sam wondered and now Sam has a little evidence that it can’t be good. Meanwhile Jon is still stinging from Mormont’s admonishment and coldly turns Gilly away because she won’t explain what she’s so afraid of. It’s here that Sam reminds Jon that girls aren’t goats and we’re given a gentle reminder of why these two are friends. See, Jon is a lot more interested in the appearances of being a man and of getting respect. Sam is way more comfortable with himself and his potentially naive morality. Jon shares the same views as Sam, though, at least at this stage, and Sam reminds him of what really matters. It’s easy to see why Jon feels kinship with Sam with a scene like this one.

Back to Dany, who finally receives one of her outriders… except it’s just Rakharo’s head in a bag. This is frustrating for more than just Dany. Rakharo is a character that survives all the way to the present tense of the series. He isn’t a major character, but he’s always around and always dependable. Killing him now has the double effect of neutering any greater significance he might have had in the books and therefore the show, but also revealing to readers once and for all that there was never going to be any. Of course, there didn’t have to be, but it’s weird to kill a character like Rakharo when there are other unnamed bloodriders around to off. Maybe I’m remembering this all wrong though. Anyway, one of Dany’s handmaidens had something going on with ol’ Rakki and she is really worked up over his head being in a bag. This, it seems, has to do with the sacredness of cremation in Dothraki death rites. Unburnt and dismembered as he is, Rakharo’s soul has been killed and can never enter the “Night Lands”, the Dothraki afterlife from which this episode gets its title. Dany tries to comfort her but is woefully out of her depth both in this level of commiseration and leadership as well as her knowledge of and respect for Dothraki beliefs. She tells the weeping girl that his soul can’t be killed and it’s the first whiff of the Dany of Game of Thrones season 2, the petulant and insistent Dany who seems to think the world will be exactly as she says it is just because she’s a Targaryen and shit. It’s a far cry from the much more canny character of the books and where it’s taken in this show is my major complaint about the season. But of course, we’re not quite there yet.

A shot that uses the location shooting for more than just authenticity: we really get a sense of the isolation of the rogue khalasar and the desolation of this loss.

Now we’re to Theon, setting his sights on Pyke for the first time since childhood. Theon is continuously the most interesting of the secondary characters, perhaps because they managed to translate him into main character status seamlessly from season 1 to season 2 and from book to TV show. He fucks the ship captain’s daughter in one of the most unsexy sex scenes in the show. There’s a parallel being drawn here as she begs him to make more of her, to get her out of her station. Theon describes the Ironborn ways as if he practices them. He has a false bravado and pride in it that masks what he’s really doing, what he really wants: to make more of himself, to get out of his station. That he misses this and is so dismissive toward her, all puffed up as the prodigal son returning, says really everything about how Theon is self-deluded.

It almost goes without saying at this point but fuck do they ever get every major location exactly right.

One of the places we spend a lot of time in which was a lot less substantial in the books is Littlefinger’s brothel. Here we see more fucking and a chain of voyeurship that extends finally to Peeping Petyr (memefuel) himself. This little piece wordlessly shows one of the ways he gathers information on people in the city, a likely source of his power, influence, and ability to generate capital.

Things go wrong though, as Roz the whore cries and turns off a client. Petyr shows an astonishing and creepy balancing act between paternal sympathy and ruthless business policy as he tells Roz that he hates a bad investment… they haunt him. He tells her a horrifyingly specific and threatening story about another unhappy whore who wasn’t worth the money he put into her. In spite of his threats, Littlefinger may have some degree of compassion, twisted though it might be, for Roz. He gives her the night off to make her happy, which he says will make him happy. There’s something in his look as he says this that is asking for her to be happy for him, to acknowledge that it’s him making her happy. This is a bit of masterful subtlety and culminates what is likely Aiden Gillen’s best scene in the show so far. You can easily draw the line that connects this moment to his issues about Catelyn Stark but they don’t make us listen about it to sell the point.

Peeping Petyr, hooker-eater, had a Tully and couldn’t keep ‘er.

And yes, yes, yes, one of my favorite parts of the season is Tyrion continuously outmaneuvering potential threats and scum in King’s Landing. The first salvo was a misfire: he didn’t need to threaten Varys. The second, though, is right on the money. This next scene is the one where Tyrion deals with Janos Slynt and has him sent to the Wall, a deed which will have repercussions much later on. For now, we also get to briefly see Podrick and be introduced to the idea of Bronn as the new Goldcloak captain. I love this change because though Ironfist and Aurane Waters were colorful D-list characters, the whole defense of King’s Landing bit was tedious enough without more tertiary characters to deal with. Having Bronn take that on keeps him in the game and around Tyrion which the show wisely knows the two characters need more of before they are inevitably parted. Bronn is also the uncomfortable reminder that Tyrion’s power is usually bought, and his asking Bronn whether he’d kill a baby for him and that Bronn answers with “how much?” drives the point home. Bronn and Janos are not so different and the time may be coming where Tyrion has to think about how much a cutthroat can ever really be his cutthroat.

For a show as often devoid of humor as it is, Game of Thrones can occasionally bring the funny. The “Armor Bit” is hilarious and also informative: not everyone in Westeros understands the way things work like an involved audience might, or how certain characters do. Their ignorance tells us how things continue to be so unbelievably shitty for the common folk and how people like Cersei and Tywin and the Targaryens got away with so bloody much.

Gendry is Arya’s older brother figure, a much needed sort of friend.

Inasmuch as Yoren is fatherly toward his company, and to Arya, Gendry is the Jon of her new little family. An older brother type with whom she can be herself, pal around with, and confide in. Because she now knows they are both fugitives from the same place and people, she can be honest with him. Besides, he’s already figured out she’s no boy. Gendry and Arya are the focus whenever Arya is chumming with her fellow Night’s Watch boys. In the books, more time is spent on Lommy and Hot Pie but here I think it’s smarter to keep it on Gendry as he is by far the more compelling character. I say that having also said that few of the characters in this show are representative of the common population, as Hot Pie and Lommy are. I guess it’s a story of secret princes and the daughter’s of lords and that’s maybe all there is to it?

Balon looks more like I would have expected from Aeron Greyjoy, the Damphair. Makes me wonder what kinda crazy looking fuck they’ll dig up for him. Let alone Victarion.

Theon tries to impress his fellow Ironborn with his rank and his dress and finds them not all that interested. An old man says he never liked wine anyway, it’s a woman’s drink. Theon gets the wrong message here, though, not understanding that mainlanders value different displays of rank and authority than his own people do. Yara shows up, pretending to be some girl, and plays right into Theon’s assumptions by giving him a token of the regard he expects and thinks he automatically deserves. Yara is far less seductive and overtly sexual toward Theon as she is in the books, if she’s flirting it’s very veiled but Theon just tries to dominate her because it makes him feel more princely or something. She lets him have a go, presumably seeing just who her little brother has become, before finally revealing herself in Balon’s chambers after the once-king himself treats Theon with dripping contempt.

It’s an interesting dynamic because it’s a bit different from the books. Theon is more slimey in the books, probably more expectant that his father will have no interest in allegiance with the Starks. TV Theon believes in Robb and actually thinks his father will listen. He’s as shocked by Balon’s dismissiveness as by the reveal that Yara is his favored child. Unlike in the book, Theon is not completely spineless but throws Balon’s bitchiness in his face by reminding him that it was he who traded Theon away to be a hostage. Though his son reminds him of his failures and the peoples of mainland Westeros that he despises, it was his doing that made Theon other than what he’d have him be. It’s a bit of hypocrisy that makes Balon immediately detestable and ups the sympathy for Theon that the show generates. Theon is left in the cold, bamboozled by his own family and people. Yes it’s partly his own fault, but you can’t help but wish he’d run back to Robb and be a good friend right at this moment.

Also, how about that bit of “what is dead may never die”, said like an “amen”. Nice touch, guys.

Another tertiary character they got absolutely correct.

It’s great to see Sallador Saan behing himself. This scene is all about Davos and how he knows exactly how to recruit his eccentric friend into his king’s war. Davos is competent and skilled, more than he himself believes or knows, humble as he is, and this scene shows it. The Davos chapters in the books drag for me as he is almost always reacting to the actions of others and ruminating on his loyalty, his wishes for his sons, etc. He’s kind of a boring character, really, but Liam Cunningham has infused him with a blue-collar, unpretentious veneer that totally fits the character as written and also serves to make him eminently watchable. We also here get some more of why Davos is so loyal to Stannis, explaining to his son Matthos that Stannis is his God and responsible for all the good in his life. There’s a history between the two men that is more talked around than about, but the details are there and all played more intriguing than they are when flat out told to you via (s)exposition in the show or book. Saan gets to set up Davos’s criticism of religiosity by dismissing it as foolish where Davos more evenly prefers to place credit where he can tangibly place it. He never really interacts with any of his sons in the books, from what I can remember, but it’s nice to see the show pause to comment on the clash between old and new, pragmatism and idealism, through Davos and Matthos.

Their scenes should have been way more electric and intense than they are.

Now is the first of what was on first watch a series of repetitive, boring scenes between Tyrion and Cersei (I’ll be discussing them as they come and why I have problems with them… but maybe a rewatch will change my view!). Both of them are flexing their muscles here, trying to outwit and outmanipulate the other first by an exchange of values and finally with an exchange of insults. Cersei again shows her contempt for the common folk, getting off the great line, “this is what ruling is, laying on a bed of weeds ripping them out one by one before they strangle you in your sleep” which is as succinct and singular an expression of her attitude and essential failing as a person as you’d need.Too bad they dwell on it so damn much. That said, I like Lena Headey a lot better this season and you’ll see why as we get closer to the end.

Cersei acknowledges that it was Joffrey who killed the bastards, something Slynt hinted at accidentally. This is the preamble for the change in how Cersei deals with Joffrey’s increasingly rogue, damaging acts. Putting Cersei in as the mother whose lost control of her son but loves and supports him anyway, on principle if nothing else, does a bit more to make her more sympathetic. She does believe the thing about the weeds, but she’s not stupid nor needlessly cruel (at least not in the show so far). Tyrion and Cersei can hit each other where it hurts, they’re siblings, and they know how to make each other bleed on the inside. On its own, this scene would be enough to demonstrate that and suggest that the rift between them is not going to be easily healed or even laid aside for larger concerns. I’ll comment more on this for future episodes and we’ll see if the shading and development the writers seem to have intended here actually goes anywhere.

Slightly NFSW but it’ll make you sing Asshai, Asshai all right.

One of the more controversial changes in the book to show this season is the scene where Stannis fucks Melisandre across his table, which also happens to be a beautiful map of Westeros, the land he means to rule. The symbolism is delicious but what bothers people is the explicit sexualization of their relationship. It’s heavily implied in the books anyway, much like Loras and Renly’s game of gobblecock. It also makes sense as the magic in this series has always been base and fleshy when not earthy. Melisandre is indeed working a kind of magic on Stannis here, tempting him with power and glory and daring him to see past the less meaningful, less destined aspects of his duty and honor. The argument is that Stannis is too honorable to ever do something like this. Well, bullshit. Stannis has a sense of duty and honor, yes, but it’s thin and so hard precisely because it’s thin.

Where in the books, the ways Melisandre manipulates and supports Stannis are less direct, the show calls attention to that Melisandre plays directly into Stannis’s self-importance and nascent delusions of grandeur. He thinks he is the rightful king, he thinks he’s always been passed over, and he thinks the world owes him something. He is a version of Joffrey, all grown up. I happen to think Stannis’s weaknesses humanize him and make him a better, more intriguing character in the show (at times) than he is in the books.

Episode 2 closes on Jon chasing Craster through the woods, obviously too heroic to let Gilly’s fears go unanswered. He’s got to investigate, rather urgently too once he hears a baby crying. Jon looks a little silly, and you think “oh Jon Snow” as he traipses through the woods looking more scared than anything else, his big darn sword out and everything. When he finally sees some shit, he isn’t sure what to make of it but he knows it’s bad. He knew it was bad anyway. Then he gets clobbered by Craster and that’s all she friggin’ wrote.

Until episode 3 anyway.