In the wake of a bloody purge in the capital, Tyrion chastens Cersei for alienating the king’s subjects. On the road north, Arya shares a secret with Gendry, a Night’s Watch recruit. With supplies dwindling, one of Dany’s scouts returns with news of their position. After nine years as a Stark ward, Theon Greyjoy reunites with his father Balon, who wants to restore the ancient Kingdom of the Iron Islands. Davos enlists Salladhor Saan, a pirate, to join forces with Stannis and Melisandre for a naval invasion of King’s Landing.
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“The Night Lands” is an episode that features some of the best and worst features of Game of Thrones as a dramatic series and as an adaptation. On the whole, is a moderate improvement on the difficult, not-entirely-successful premiere episode, but the very best scenes are largely those that are drawn directly from the novel, and the least successful are brand new material. There’s a certain sophomoric crassness in this episode that bears discussion as well, as gratuitously off-putting visuals or visual humor sometimes seems expected to stand in for meaningful commentary in a way that’s not wholly successful. Lets start, however, with the positives.
The interplay between Arya and Gendry would bring a smile to any face, Tyrion’s cleaning house in King’s Landing is handled with aplomb and helped in no little part by giving Bronn one of his key lines from the books that does so much to give a sense not only of character but of time and place as well, and (particularly) the arrival of Theon Greyjoy at Pyke and his interaction with his family are largely just as any fan might hope them to be: intriguing, well-written, introducing new characters with a certain flair. The scope of the story expands just a bit more than it did from the rush of new characters from the previous episode, but this time it can sustain it without undue stress and complaint. Scene shifts still come fast and furious, but this episode feels largely more unified than the previous episode, even as it pays more attention to Arya’s story while retaining all the other story-threads.
Five significant new characters are introduced in this episode. The one seen most briefly, Jaqen H’ghar, is a fan favorite… and given that his role is largely to be a mystery man with quirky diction, Tom Wlaschiha pulls that role off with flair. We’ll certainly be seeing more of him in future episodes, and we’re certainly looking forward to it. On Pyke, Asha—that’s Yara on the show (a silly decision on the part of the powers that be)—is seen a bit more than Jaqen, but so far we’ve only really scratched the surface of the character. She may draw some criticism besides the name of the show’s version of the character, as Gemma Whelan plays her in a more restrained way than the novel’s very brash character (in that, Asha is very much like her brother), but on the whole we find that the character retains the core spirit of what Martin meant to convey, simply with a slightly different outward approach. Asha Greyjoy is a popular character with many fans, and we suspect with time that her TV show doppleganger will win not a few fans with more exposure. Balon Greyjoy? No complaints whatsoever, as Patrick Malahide manages to convey the bitter harshness of the Lord Reaper of Pyke. Hannah Murray as Gilly (first seen and heard from last episode, but really introduced in this one) was appropriately frightened and vulnerable, and had both one of the great visuals of the episode (Ghost is huge) and one of its funniest lines (“You’re very brave.”)
And last, but not least, Lucian Msamati does just what I expected: play Salladhor Saan with a great deal of roguish charm. He’s a wonderful actor, able to convey zest and shrewdness with great facility, and he does a fine job as this grasping pirate who out of friendship and greed commits himself to supporting Stannis Baratheon. Of course, those who’ve read the books or follow the site know that Msamati’s casting did raise a question from us regarding the consistency of world-building. From his manner and his accent on the show, it looks to us as if the show has taken a solution we’ve suggested before: while this version of Salladhor Saan may be based in Lys and be considered a Lyseni pirate… he seems to be from somewhere else. Having seen the first four episodes, we’re even going to go out on a limb and guess that his background is from the Basilisk Isles or perhaps the Summer Isles. How does that sit with us? Pretty well, actually. We would have preferred it if they had been explicit that he was from elsewhere, of course, rather than implied in a way that only readers with more extensive knowledge of the setting might understand… and better yet, we think it probably would have been worthwhile changing his name entirely.
Because the thing is, though his Salladhor Saan is very charming, and even has some of the same impulses as the book character, he’s really very different. Msamati’s Saan is colorful, but the novel’s character is outright eccentric. Msamati’s Saan is a friend of Davos’s, but in the novel Saan is actually a deal older than Davos, and plays at being something of a mentor and father-figure for the former smuggler. There’s enough changes in the character that we wonder why they’ve bothered keeping the name the same? It’s true that he doubtless carries out the same plot functions, broadly speaking, but if the character is sufficiently different, there’s no great reason to stick to their name. Especially when, as noted in the previous link, the Saan family in the novels is particularly connected to Lys and Valyria. If that bit of detail ever comes up, we suppose they’ll then have to change the name of the family and basically fob that backstory off that way, but it would have been easier just to call Salladhor something else… (Or maybe not—the writers have not shown a great facility for making up names, it must be said).
There are two big changes from the novels in this episode that should be mentioned before we dig into a particularly egregious problem with this episode. First, of course, is the death of Rakharo. In the novel, all three of Daenerys’s bloodriders are alive and well after their searching through the red waste. Why the change? It certainly serves as a strong reminder of the danger Daenerys still faces from the Dothraki. It’s also quite interesting, the way the Dothraki opposition is framed: they disapprove of a khaleesi leading a khalasar. That’s consistent with the novels, but just the episode before a more looming problem was presented: they’d kill Daenerys to get her dragons. In fact, one supposes this event begs the question of why the Dothraki did not follow the horse (or force Rakharo to lead them) to seek out Daenerys and accomplish just that. A minor weakness, and doubtless some ready explanation can be found. There may be a more pragmatic reason for the change, however: Elyes Gabel landed a significant role in World War Z, the Brad Pitt zombie movie that filmed during the summer of last year very much at the same time as production was on-going on Game of Thrones. It seems likely to us that a tertiary role in a regular series (even a prestigious one) didn’t trump a notable role in a potential Hollywood blockbuster, and that’s fair enough. Gabel’s presence will be missed, not least because he breathed life into the Dothraki scenes in a way that no one else has quite managed.
The other change, one of the most contentious points of the episode for us, is the fact that Cersei did not order the killing of Robert’s bastards as we were initially led to believe. In the novel, it’s all Cersei’s doing. Here, Joffrey did it, and Cersei ends up struggling with that fact and letting herself be blamed. We find this change difficult, on the one hand: it removes something integral to the character from the novel, namely an utter disgust with Robert that survives him and takes itself out on his bastard daughter (in the novel, only Barra is known to have been killed at Cersei’s command, although she sent gold cloaks after Gendry as well). The character is, by inches, being partially sanitized, made more easily palatable than the character in the novel, who is unlikable and yet strangely compelling with her neuroses, her awful upbringing, her difficult place in a misogynist society, and her sociopathy. Worst of all, it reduces her agency: now it’s her son making the “necessary” decisions. This strangely (or perhaps not so strangely) mirrors one of our notes about the previous episode, namely the fact that Robb is given Catelyn’s idea of going to Renly. In both cases, the choices and actions of the characters are being fobbed off onto their sons in a way that undermines them as agents of their own will, while building up their sons as having greater autonomy from their mothers.
And yet, to a certain degree, this makes sense: Joffrey is not a 13-year-old on the show (at least, I trust he isn’t), and you’d have to think that when Joffrey reaches that age in the novels, he would start to increasingly assert himself. Given that he is, if anything, even more vicious than his mother, this would certainly have caused some genuine problems that Cersei probably was too short-sighted to foresee. So, we can’t blame the writers for making the decision to highlight this fact since the character is a bit older and consequently more assertive. But did he have to receive one of Cesei’s most infamous acts in the series? Why not find some other source(s) of conflict, so that Cersei retained that ugly, jagged edge to her character?
And finally, the biggest problem we had with this episode, the sophomoric crassness we mentioned earlier: in the screener, there are three sex scenes in a row. Theon with the captain’s daughter was largely drawn from the novel (and, hey, look—missionary, until he remembered that missionary doesn’t exist yet in Westeros!), with his internal thoughts turned into “sexposition”. There was an unsentimental lack of passion in the scene—Theon’s just having his way with this foolish young woman, one he doesn’t even find physically appealing—that’s appropriate; it’s not a “sexy” scene at all, and builds on his character. Fine.
But then we cut to an erotic tableau in Littlefinger’s brothel, very much voyeuristic soft-core pornography… and we cut to a much less erotic, even more brazenly sexual display as Aremca orally pleasures the voyeur while Littlefinger, in turn, watches them. There may be something to be said for the scene reminding us that viewers are partaking in a voyeuristic experience, but mostly getting hit over the head with three sex acts in a row before the next bit of dialog felt like a poor editing choice. (Of course, given Myles McNutt’s experience with the disappearing chyrons from episode one, it’s always possible that our screener did not contain a final edit and this will be corrected).
Worse still… the visual “joke” with Aremca may have been, in its way, very honest and unsentimental about what’s going on, but it was also very much turned into a joke (when she’s hastily cleaned up and then immediately starts kissing the complaining customer) that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Farrelly Brothers movie. It was played for shock value, and I’m not sure that informs us or makes us think any more about the ugliness of the sex trade. Surely the scene between Littlefinger and Ros did that very well on its own, without the graphic visual? We’re not ones to complain about sex and nudity generally speaking, but the motives for this choice seemed dubious to us. It’s hard not to imagine one of the writers pitching the idea as funny, and maybe as some sort of response to last year’s criticisms over the depiction of prostitution, and little more being thought of it. It didn’t sit very well with us, and we’re generally not ones to complain about sex of any kind in films or television (we live in Sweden, after all!)
Still, the Ros and Littlefinger scene—entirely invented, after all—does provide revealing character moments for both characters, while acting as a commentary on Ros’s situation. It may be strange to imagine this version of Littlefinger to be so very much of a pimp and panderer, since that detail is not very much explored in the novels, but Aidan Gillan sells it with frightening intensity as he speaks about how bad investments “haunt him”. We’ve no real idea how this moment might tie into later plot events…. and that’s as it should be: if it does tie in, it’ll be a subtle thing, something which last week’s episode was anything but when it came to Littlefinger. More scenes like this would be appreciated, and hopefully they’ll help explain to nay-sayers why Ros is as a part of the show. Esmé Bianco did a good job, conveying her character’s distress… and then the dawning realization that Littlefinger only cared about her tears in so far as it affected his bottom line. Good work by both actors, and by the writers.
To wrap up, there’s one more sex act that probably needs to be discussed: Stannis and Melisandre. We discuss the change rather more below in our book-to-screen analysis, but yes, this is one of those cases where subtlety was dispensed with entirely in favor of explicitness (in more than one way). The fact that Stannis sleeps with Melisandre is something that is, basically, never absolutely confirmed in the novels… but it’s certainly implied from around the half-way point in the second book. Making it clear seems not much different than last season’s decision to make the canonical Loras and Renly relationship more explicit as well. Perhaps how it comes about—how Melisandre persuades him—would have been better left a mystery, as it is in the books, because it seems rather ... trite, that she simply says she’ll have a son and Stannis finds this answer so overwhelmingly trustworthy that he immediately forgets his wife and his vows. Perhaps leaving it to a whisper we don’t hear would have been better, a whisper that would later be explained as being a promise of a son?
In the end, this is a solid episode, and we think that now it’s laid down the full ground material for what comes after, whatever its problems. In that, Benioff and Weiss deserve plaudits for having covered so much ground in just two episodes, easing the way for Bryan Cogman (episode 3) and Vanessa Taylor (episode 4) to start knocking it out of the park.
The episode covers the following chapters of A Clash of Kings: Arya II, Tyrion II, Arya III, Theon I, Daenerys I, Jon III, Theon II, a particular scene from Arya V, and elements of Tyrion V and VI.
Changes of note, chapter-by-chapter :