King’s Landing hosts a wedding, and Tyrion and Sansa spend the night together. Dany meets the Titan’s Bastard. Davos demands proof from Melisandre. Sam and Gilly meet an older gentleman.
“Second Sons”, written by Benioff and Weiss and featuring director Michelle MacLaren’s second episode in the series, is a welcome episode in a number of ways. The last two episodes were relatively quiet episodes, and had their issues which we’ve discussed at length, but after a two episode lull it’s clear that the producers are now shifting gear back towards the end-game of the series. This isn’t an episode heavy in “action”, but it is filled with irrevocable choices, both by old established characters and one brand new one. Some have tried to dismiss critiques of “The Climb” and “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” on the basis of people just wanting fight scenes, but the truth is that what viewers generally want is a sense of progression. It took browsing Film Critic Hulk for me to really think of this issue as one of act breaks: every story (and Game of Thrones is a story made up of a number of sub-stories) can be divided up into acts, in which each act closes by something happening which is irrevocable, where you can’t go back to where you were before.
This can take many forms, but at the end, a new act comes when the state of the previous act can no longer exist—the plot and/or the characters have moved beyond it in a fundamental way. Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, for example, sees the first act end when the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears to him, revealing he was murdered, and commanding Hamlet to avenge his death; this knowledge cannot be forgotten, and sets Hamlet on a course for revenge. Each step of the way, one or more characters are committing themselves to irrevocable actions or receive knowledge that propels them. These last pair of episodes largely eschewed commitment from characters—the bear pit and Arya inadvertently falling into Sandor’s hands were as close as we came to irrevocable choices by volition in the last episode, as an example—and instead seemed more interested in simply expanding on relationships without moving them in any direction. The lack of commitment in these episodes, the sense that most of the storylines were basically in a holding pattern in a way seen last season when characters such as Arya and Jon Snow were left to repeat scenes they did before, biding time until the producers were ready to move forward.
But Benioff and Weiss have decided to move forward at last, and all the better. One reason it works well for this episode is simply that some storylines are skipped—there’s no Jon, no Bran, no Catelyn or Robb, no Theon —and the focus is tightly on King’s Landing and Yunkai, with interludes beyond the Wall with Samwell and on Dragonstone. Cohesion of story has always been something that the show has struggled with, adapting such an expansive series, but this episode manages to side-step the issue. This is not to say that as an adaptation the episode is flawless, however, as certain trends seem to be confirmed. Among them? The deliberate and significant effort to improve Tyrion Lannister’s moral strength, and at the same time more of an effort to make Sansa a (somewhat) more willing collaborator in a marriage she did not want. We have previously noted how Tyrion on the show has been far more reticent to wed Sansa than the character in the novels, whose ambitions and lusts proved more than able to outweigh his virtuous intentions, and the that continues here as Tyrion becomes far drunker in distaste for what he is doing than Martin’s original character. Similarly, Sansa’s anger at the marriage is turned quite naturally at Tyrion to some degree, but that disappears as she seems willing to kneel down to don the marriage cloak whereas the original character is unwilling and a stool must be contrived (by using Ser Dontos Hollard, the knight who Joffrey made into his fool and who has not appeared this seaosn) on which Tyrion can stand. These seem like little details, but the truth is that the writers have used many such little details to create a more clearly “good” Tyrion Lannister this season.
One might speculate as to the reasons, such as a belief that an audience will not cheer for a character of ambivalent morality (this seems unlikely, given cable TV and the great popularity for characters such as Tony Soprano, Al Swearengen, Don Draper, and Walter White), or perhaps that they mean to later create a contrast by putting him at extremes (though this seems a disservice to the idea of complexity and subtlety in characters). Regardless of the actual reasons, however, it does take something away from the rich depiction that might have been possible. Still, Peter Dinklage was, is, and will forever be a truly exceptional actor, and manages to play Tyrion’s drunken frustrations exquisitely, while Sophie Turner deserves credit for a careful performance that turns very much on her expression and the way she holds herself.
Elsewhere, on Dragonstone, nudity for the sake of nudity is once more presented to the “perverts” in the audience, with as little justification as last episode’s quota of T&A. In this, I am not complaining about Daenerys’s moments of nudity—in a lot of ways, that scene actually turns on a combination of her personal strength and a budding interest in the handsome sellsword who has come bearing gifts—but rather than of Melisandre. We have already remarked that the producers made a smart adaptation choice in bringing Gendry to Dragonstone, at least in the short term. However, the obvious pandering to a certain segment of the audience is clear enough, as the logic of the scene surely could have worked just as well if some excuse was made to have a maester draw blood from Gendry . It’s grown extremely tiresome to see the show parade naked flesh—male or female—for no purpose other than to have it there on screen; had I wanted to watch Spartacus, I would be doing so. It’s not as if the novels lack in nudity, but generally it’s an incidental detail rather than reason in itself to be present. It brings down what is otherwise fine work from the actors in the Dragonstone scenes, especially the talk in the cells between Stannis and Davos; Stephen Dillane and (especially) Liam Cunningham continue to turn in exceptional work as their characters argue over where the line should be drawn between doing one’s duty and doing what’s just.
Outside of Yunkai, a very different argument is going on as Daenerys decides to meet with the sellsword captains who support Yunkai, and we discover them to be as grasping and crude and ready to kill for pay as… well, as Bronn is, truth be told; note how similar some of Mero’s remarks are to Bronn’s in prior seasons. Daenerys lays out reasons for why the Second Sons should reconsider fighting for Yunkai, while among themselves the captains of the company prepare a plan to side-step a military engagement (which they seemed sure to lose, given the show’s depiction of he relevant military details) through murder. But as it happens, their plans come to nothing when the Second Sons come over to Daenerys thanks to the betrayal of Daario Naharis. We have remarked previously on our issues with certain choices related to the character. The way he and even other characters in Essos (just look at the camp follower!) have been costumed as if they were extras from the recent Jason Momoa Conan film, or some similar sword-and-sorcery dreck, and the general sense that the show has refrained from the full shabby foppishness of the character which stands at deliberate counter-point to his apparent martial skill and ruthlessness (I’ve said it before and will say again that Tim Roth’s Archibald Cunningham in Rob Roy is a fine example of a ridiculous dandy who also turns out to be believably dangerous), has been an annoyance.
But Ed Skrein, to my eye, does very well in presenting this supremely arrogant professed aesthete. The line in which he states he always has a choice, on the strength of who he is and nothing more is breath-taking in its overweening pride, and is delivered with decisive certainty in a way that makes it half convincing. The show’s Daario may be less grandiloquent and certainly much less the popinjay than Martin’s character, but he leaves a suitable impression… and it becomes believable, I think, that Daenerys (still a young woman, remember, who in this very episode reminds us of Drogo, and by extension the lack of Drogo or anyone else like him in her life) seems to immediately respond to the roguish smirks and the unabashedly appreciative gazes.
Notably, none of Daenerys’s scenes feature her dragons, unlike the previous episode’s very impressive use of them and in a departure from the novels. But this lack of another example of the special effects wizardry that puts the show in the forefront of productions is made up for by the closing scene, as Samwell Tarly and Gilly meet their “older gentleman” (as HBO’s original logline describes the white walker in the episode). The little character beats here are some of the better writing the producers have given this season, as they tease Samwell’s propensity for “fancy words” and his relationship to his cruel father, though the dialog is surely elevated by John Bradley’s sensitive portrayal. And when it’s time for Samwell to take up a sword and try to defend Gilly, it comes off as a convincing act of courage in desperate and frightening moment. The cries of the ravens, the crack of ice as the white walker begins to fall apart, the crunch of snow as Sam and Gilly run, and the flap of many wings as they’re pursued—it’s an excellent, rousing finale to an above-average episode of the season.
The episode covers the following chapters of A Storm of Swords: Arya IX, Daenerys IV, part of Davos VV, Sansa III, and part of Samwell I and Samwell III.
Changes of note, chapter-by-chapter:
Cersei and Margaery: Unbeknownst to the writers of the show, Cersei’s account of the fall of House Reyne is substantially out of line with what Martin has revealed to us for The World of Ice and Fire, but even without that, there is one clear contradiction: in the novels, the Reynes rebelled against Lord Tytos, father of Tywin Lannister, rather than against Tywin himself as Cersei claims. This may be an error, or it may indicate that the show has somewhat reimagined the timeline. Otherwise, the depiction of Cersei’s reactions to Margaery swing rather wildly away from the novels—Cersei certainly greatly dislikes and distrusts her, but at this point she would not make such a threat simply out of annoyance.