Jon won’t be pretty much longer at this rate.

It’s been a while but I’m back with episode 3 of Game of Thrones season 2. This episode picks up right where the last one left off with Jon receiving a stern lesson in the difference between what is right and what is expedient, and how they are seldom the same thing in Westeros. The Old Bear knows Craster is up to no good, but the man is a necessary evil while the Watch focuses on much worse shit. Including the shit Craster pays tribute to. White Walker shit. Shit.

This is all part of Jon’s education not only in leadership but also on the role of heroics in a world like his. Jon’s a romantic at heart but it’s being slowly worn out of him by all he’s experienced since leaving Winterfell. The show makes his story feel a lot more clearly one about “coming of age” than the books did. I’m sure I’ll talk more about it, but it’s one of the key reasons I think Jon is a more immediately likable character in the show. I didn’t really get into Jon until even after the Qhorin Halfhand stuff (later in Season 2, you’ll see!) where most people, especially young men, like him right away because he represents something of ourselves. I never got that with the books so much. Jon always felt like the vanilla protagonist that usually centers fantasy stories, even my own. I always thought that was boring for A Song of Ice and Fire but Martin always meant for us to see Jon grow up into the man he’ll eventually become.

Sam and Gilly. What, that’s who they are.

Next scene is Sam macking on Gilly some more. Oh I kid because I love. Really, I actually appreciate what they’re trying to do with these two in the show. It sets up events that will probably fall pretty late in Season 3 but it makes some of the stuff that happens between them in the books a lot less jarring. Giving Gilly a bit more attraction to Sam, which is how this seems to be going, makes it a bit less of a convenience thing when they get together later. It may be less true to Martin’s world, but it’s nice when a little awkward romance manages to see the light of day. Besides, it’s not like things aren’t fucked up for them.

The thimble from Sam’s mom is cute. I guess it’s kind of a Peter Pan thing, too, like Sam is giving Gilly a kiss. Sam’s gentle nature and his respect for women, something they’re really emphasizing and I applaud that, come from his mother. It’s a nice touch that is sort of in the books but blossoms here just because it can’t be buried under tons more exposition about the characters that the show doesn’t have time to bother with. Overall I just really like Sam in the show. I liked him in the books too, but I always figured he was an obvious insert of Martin or, you know, the stereotype of the books’ demographic.

Damn, hate how dark this shot is.

There are two nice little cinematic flourishes in this episode. One is how the wolf dream is handled, with our perspective (and Bran’s) coming from the wolf until it leaps up onto Bran’s bed. That moment must be a crazy one for Bran, and the way it’s done here completely sells the fear, disorientation, and instant calm as the wolf stares down at him like it knows (cuz it does). What an elegant way to visually express their connection.

As Bran explains the dreams to Luwin, we get some nice backstory and a bit of the philosophical skepticism of the Maesters. They do have a chain link for magic, made of the much-mentioned Valyrian Steel, but it’s all either nonsense or faded form the world. Like the giants, the children of the forest, etc. Like the dragons. Except we know the dragons have returned and magic is working in the world once again. So you’re left with that moment of wondering just how much Luwin is wrong about and it’s a great tease for stuff we may or may not see later on.

Missed ya, Renly. Not sure what they were thinking with Margaery’s dress.

The Catelyn/Renly’s Army subplot is one of the two story highlights of the episode. It’s a big bold sequence, showing off more scale and impressive location scouting (seriously, that snatch of coastal cliffs always in the background? awesome). We also get two key character introductions here, as well as reintroduction to Renly and Loras.

This part begins with a duel fought between Renly and a mysterious knight with very distinctive armor. They really raised the bar even higher, which is crazy, on the costuming for this season. All of the armor pops, as it did in S1, but even more so because there’s so much more of it. It’s so great that they’ve kept up the trend of giving different factions distinctive dress and it’s a really solid creative decision from the audience’s point of view as it helps us to immediately orient scene changes and background elements/characters. Very good work. Seeing personalized armor like Renly’s, with its little metallic flowers, is immensely satisfying for a fan.

Seriously, how great is that armor?

Anyway, the mysterious knight is none other than Brienne. They uglied up Gwendoline Christie to play Brienne and she owns every scene she’s in, stealing the spotlight from every other actor she’s linked with and always exuding a weird sort of chemistry that is perfect for this character.

Brienne just wants a  place in the world and has secured one by beating down Renly’s boyfriend. Loras is upset, of course, and looks a bit different. I think the actor must have beefed up cuz it’s definitely the same guy but I actually had to check. Anyways this is all good fun and a great introduction to one of the best characters in the series. Then Catelyn shows up and ruins it. She’s all grumpy and demands the same courtesy she fails to bestow on Renly. She’s a shitty diplomat, basically, berating Renly like he’s one of her sons. Catelyn’s flaws are a lot more evident in the show, somehow, like there’s this sense that we’re supposed to understand she is flawed. In the books, it often felt like Martin was working to angle Catelyn’s perspective as the right one but it so often isn’t even when her instincts are ultimately correct much of the time. The show gets this more, I think, or it may be yet another element that benefits from condensing.

“I’m no lady.”

Catelyn sort of runs roughshod over Renly some more until he finally dismisses her. Then we get the first evidence that my claims above about Christie’s performance are true. She gives Brienne a chemistry with Catelyn that is perfect. Catelyn is a strong woman but she isn’t quite sure whether to talk to Brienne like another strong women, or like she would a warrior son. I think Catelyn seems like she knows she screwed up a bit with Renly and is trying to gain an ally in Brienne. Though their relationship evolves a lot, the early stiffness is perfect. Catelyn needs to quickly find a place in Renly’s entourage in order to accomplish her mission and it seems like she’s picking Brienne as a way to do that. This might seem cynical but Catelyn is shrewd about the mechanics of diplomacy and rule, she’s just not great at the charm which actually favorably differentiates her from oily characters like Littlefinger.

One of a few examples of this shot composition: subject in foreground with conflicting characters representing different choices or points of view over each shoulder.

In Pyke, Theon is trying to find a place among his people too. He wants in on his father’s war plans. He wants to be the heir. He’s kind of being shafted on both fronts and it seems like it’s Yara doing the shafting so he lashes out first at her then at her father. TV Theon isn’t going to take all this shit laying down.

A probably necessary evil, though, is Balon’s glossed explanation of his battle strategy. I’m sure there are viewers who don’t care or who pay enough attention to the opening to sort of get what he’s saying (I doubt this). On the other hand, I think if you haven’t read the books it is very unclear how Balon’s strategy works with the terrain of the North. The Neck is a place we haven’t been yet in the show and this scene might be the first direct reference to it and it’s sloppy. It’s an important piece of land, and whoever holds it can effectively divide the two hemispheres of Westeros.

Anyways it’s clear now that Balon intends to attack the North. Theon has objections and still doesn’t understand who the Ironborn are or what they think. This is another of the two story highlights in the episode as Theon gets a stern infodump from daddy about just that subject. This helps us understand not only how the Ironborn are different from the other people we’ve met, but also how poorly Theon gets them, how much he is like a mainlander, and how this is totally obvious to the Ironborn and a lot of the reason he has been eating so much shit from them. As Balon gets all disrespectful, Theon starts on the backtalk which he never did in the books. The shot I inserted above is of Balon’s stricken face as he is truth-punched by Theon saying to him exactly what every reader of the books must have thought every time Balon is a jerk to Theon about being foreign raised. At the end of the day, Theon still sucks but look what he came from.

Shae lookin’ all sweet and servile.

Meanwhile in King’s Landing, Sansa is still suffering indignities and constant testing while Shae is being tested. Their scenes are sorted together in the episode because one of the big changes from the books is that Shae becomes Sansa’s handmaiden. This is a great change as it keeps up with giving Shae a larger profile in the show. It also layers Sansa’s characterization nicely, contributing to one of the show’s big coups over the books: Sansa is way, way more likable in the show.

Anyways it’s always nice to see scenes with Shae and Tyrion. They sound so couply as they argue. It is weird, though, that they reduced “my giant of Lannister” to “my lion”. I think maybe the writers felt like that was just a weird nickname in the first place but who knows. It always seemed odd to me that Tyrion would appreciate Shae’s irony in the books (if it’s even meant to be ironic). The name would work a lot better in the show, with the smarter and much more ironic Shae they’ve crafted. That said, the argument feels a bit false too because it seems like Shae understands the situation she’s in with Tyrion. Getting all haughty about the scullion thing makes sense, but being upset that she can’t be seen in public too much? Bah, feels a bit silly but that’s a minor gripe.

Back to Sansa. It’s good to see them expanding her suffering past Joffrey and into other areas of castle life. She has to eat with Cersei and Joffrey’s kinder siblings. Tommen is a little hero when he tells his mother that he wouldn’t like it if Joffrey killed Robb. Tommen is such a nice kid that you just get mad at Cersei all over again, but also feel a bit more sympathy for her and her prime directive: protect her fuckin’ kids. They really went with the lioness stuff for Cersei in the show. Book Cersei was a lot more self-involved and power hungry. TV Cersei seems more like the classic villain who flies their villainy on a pole made of good intentions.

When she meets Shae and sees that here’s a woman who doesn’t know her place, Sansa suddenly remembers her own and gets all petulant-authoritative and it’s a solace for her. Her situation is so out of control that it’s a perfect moment of reprieve for her to take control back, even if it’s paltry and small. Shae may not get it but it seems like there’s a foundation being laid here for some kind of understanding between them. Mostly because while it seems like all Sansa needs is a servant to blow off some steam, what she really needs is a friend.

Pycelle is the worst.

Now we get our second cool flourish, with Tyrion trying to catch out whoever is informing to Cersei by presenting three different versions of a marriage scheme to the three different advisors whom we all know have been duplicitous as all hell. Tyrion is specifically after whoever it was who betrayed Ned Stark and it’s a bit of genius to not only give us his ploy all condensed like this, but to fold the narrative so that the whole thing is unfurled over the course of one conversation that is had with three different men. It’s really well done.

The interesting thing here, too, is the use of marriages as a diplomatic tool. So far Sansa has been the one over whom marriage status has been held. She’s been the bargaining chip but we shouldn’t forget that Cersei’s union with Robert Baratheon came under similar circumstances and she was eventually just as unhappy as Sansa is with Joffrey. That the Lannisters will also use their own this way makes it clear that this practice is normalized in Westeros, deplorable as it is. This is also probably why they’ve upped Theon’s angst about his origins, also. Theon being traded away is not dissimilar from Cersei, Sansa, or now Myrcella.

Littlefinger gets to toss it back at Tyrion that Harrenhal and his word aren’t worth much after Slynt. Being a bit dishonest about it, I think, Tyrion tells him that he didn’t need Slynt. I think it’s clear, though, that Tyrion has a sense of honor and fairplay but knows those are sentiments best kept hidden. That Slynt murdered a bunch of innocent kids and that he was key in Ned Stark’s betrayal bothers Tyrion more than that the guy is Cersei’s first and simply untrustworthy. There’s a sense of score settling with what he does to Slynt, especially because everyone knows Jon Snow is on the Wall.

Anyways, all this mention of Harrenal is foreshadowing also because we’re going to be spending a significant amount of time there this season. Littlefinger says it’s cursed! Intrigue!

Loras and Renly get their fuck on.

Well, they try. Then they are interrupted by reality: Renly needs to get himself an heir or his power means little. In this bit, we return to the episode’s central theme: what is power? Loras reminds Renly of what he already knows: feudal power is largely determined by dynasty, continuation, lineage. Therefore, without a son to follow him Renly is in a weaker position than he would be otherwise. It’s worth mentioning that the urgency with which they are treating it is a bit odd considering that none of the other Kings has an heir either. The real issue is that Renly is probably widely rumored a homosexual among his own men, something that is probably easy to ignore as long as there’s an heir and an appearance of normative kingly heterosexuality.

Loras shows a bit of a pragmatic streak. Renly just wants to get busy but these Tyrells appear to be canny folk. This is underscored when Margaery shows up to get with child and openly tells Renly how it is. She knows he’s into Loras, and she doesn’t even mind, as their union is about power and especially the appearance of power. Margaery is smarter than she is in the books here, or at least more open about her political skill. She’s younger in the books so it’s weird to see her all naked and seductive. They are definitely beefing her character up, though, which is good. By season’s end, I wasn’t convinced that I like the direction they took Margaery but on this second go-round I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on it and exploring my reaction.

Cersei, why you so violent?

First time through this season, I kind of started to hate the Cersei-Tyrion scenes because they all felt sort of same-y to me. I wasn’t really sure why they were rehashing the relationship so much. I don’t remember exactly how many of their little arguments this season actually has but this one at least feels like it fits. I wonder if the others will two on second watch. We’ll see.

In this one, Cersei is turbopissed that Tyrion is going to trade Myrcella for an alliance with Dorne. This shows us that it was Pycelle, of course, who done talked. Once, Cersei was a chip on the table between Tywin and the Baratheon rebellion. It was Cersei’s hand that made the alliance with the Lannisters, who we’ll remember betrayed the Mad King at the last minute, would hold during Robert’s reign. Even though it’s easy to understand why Cersei is so pissed, and her anger really highlights the injustice of the practice, Tyrion is able to counter with the practical considerations. For all their faults, both want to protect their family and Tyrion knows this is the best way to do it for Myrcella given the war. Of course, when it comes to her kids, Cersei don’t give no fucks and is just raw hate. She knows she can’t stop it, probably knows she shouldn’t even, but it doesn’t stop her from taking it out on Tyrion even though he’s right.

This all serves to give us some nuance into Cersei and the strategy the showrunners are using to make her a more sympathetic villain. She is irrational about shit, but it often comes from an understandable place. The books served her less well and I find even Lena Headey’s performance growing on me. Something I thought I’d never say. Making Cersei more obviously out of her depth with all her scheming and bullshit just works better, even with the obviousness with which Headey plays the part.

The scene also develops her relationship with Tyrion, between the lines, something I may not have really acknowledged the first time I watched this episode. They spar constantly and are really vicious, Cersei even threatening Tyrion with clear reference to Ned Stark, but they are stuck with each other. You get a sense of how people not getting around themselves long enough to serve the common good is a major theme of the elites in this world. And thus a major theme of the story, broadcast notably in this episode.

The Ironborn stuff is consistently great in the show. In the books, I think it was boring for most readers.

The Theon subplot concludes this episode with his final choice. He burns the letter he wrote to warn Robb and is rebaptized into his peoples’ religion. The music is actually fairly stirring in this sequence, which is kind of ironic since the Ironborn are such pricks and Theon is basically cementing his tragic arc. They treat it like it’s a rousing climax of some kind, which I think is a totally deliberate choice on the meta level. Theon certainly feels like this is his moment and the show is drawing attention to that definitely.

I don’t think his baptizer is supposed to be Aeron Greyjoy (Balon’s crazy religious brother, whose chapters are some of the worst in the whole series). Maybe, though. Guess we’ll see if they keep this guy around for Season 3. I like the extent to which they are fleshing out the cultural and religious differences. It’s important to see a distinction between the Ironborn and other Westerosi going forward and it also sets up a nice parallel with Melisandre and the Red God.

Fuck you, Pycelle.

Tyrion gives Pycelle his comeuppance and it’s another totally satisfying settling of scores. We now learn a bit more about Pycelle’s role in all the intrigues and murders and other shit going on. He does it out of loyalty to the Lannisters, he says, but he picked the wrong Lannister to be most loyal to. Pycelle serves whoever has the most power (thematic!), but he’s a survivor and a rat. The doddering old man act becomes reality as he is totally terrified of Tyrion.

Next up we get Varys congratulating Tyrion where Littlefinger was mostly furious but unable to resist getting caught up in another of Tyrion’s schemes. Varys and Littlefinger now understand there’s a new player in the game, maybe equal to them, and react in very different ways. Varys gets to unload the episode’s theme in a great from-book riddle about the nature of power. Of everyone, it always seems to be Varys whose in the most wise philosophical place. He tells us that power resides where men believe it resides, which is both an invitation and a warning to Tyrion. He is helping, having set up Shae in with Sansa after their previous semi-antagonistic conversation, but we’ve already seen how Varys conducts helping. He’ll go only so far.

This is similar to how Varys treated Ned in that Varys wanted to endorse him and help but Ned didn’t listen. Is Tyrion smart enough to listen to Varys? If he is, does it mean Varys will truly get behind him?

It’s okay Arya, you’re a badass.

Ah, we are approaching Yoren’s awesome death. There’s a lot of love for the character in this show and he gets to go out in style. First there’s a bit of backstory where he explains to Arya about revenge obsession. He’s being all fatherly again, giving her the practice that will become tradition for her: listing the names of all the people she wants dead before bed time.

It’s a bit of a nitpick but they start talking openly about that day in King’s Landing when Arya saw the first of the horrible shit she is soon going to be seeing on a regular basis. The other people are sleeping, I guess, but it still seems a little careless for them to be discussing who she is. Then again Arya is beginning to trust people around her and relax her guard. This is such a great scene for the actor playing Yoren, too. He really gets the perfect send off.

Yoren is the best.

Yoren takes a crossbow quarrel to the chest just cuz he can. The Lannisters have shown up to back the Goldcloaks and Yoren manages to kill a handful of them before they bring him down. Amory Lorch is there, but at first I thought it was the new guy they got to play The Mountain. Guess not.

Rallying the recruits around him to go meet the enemy, Yoren says one of the great lines of the season: “Those men out there want to fuck your corpses. Outside!” and then he goes and dies like a champ. The battle is brief and not good for the fledgling Watch recruits, with only Gendry really seeming to know what he’s doing. Before joining the fight, Arya pauses to save the three caged men including Jaqen H’ghar, an action that probably saves her own life.

Aside from Yoren, Lommy is also killed. I believe this is a bit earlier than when it happens in the books, but it makes sense because they never did much with Lommy anyway. It’s a brutal scene, too. Kid death is hard to take unless it’s funny (and it seldom is) and the casual brutality of Lommy’s murder and his total inability to understand the situation he’s in just turn the stomach. Well done,Game of Thrones. Just when I thought I was desensitized!

I thought this was another really solid episode of the show. There’s a lot of unevenness to come, but for now they are following up on all the things that made the first season so good while also managing to improve weaker elements (scale) and improve on the storytelling here and there. Watching this episode again really solidified why this is probably the best adaptation of anything that I’ve ever seen. Then again, there are problems on the horizon. So stay tuned.