Game of Thrones

HBO's 'A Song of Ice and Fire' TV Show


EP308: Second Sons

Written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss
Directed by Michelle MacLaren

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.

Book to Screen

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:

  • Arya IX: As in the novel, Arya does indeed attempt to sneak up on the Hound and hit him with a rock, but in the novel he takes the rock from her at which point she kicks him. Arya’s confusion about the river being the Blackwater and their destination is King’s Landing is accurate. Similarly, the Hound indeed boasts of having saved Sansa, although in the novel he also notes that she sang a song for him. Finally, one odd discontinuity is in the fact that the Hound notes Arya has never met Ser Gregor, a fact which (in the novel) Arya immediately says is untrue, informing him that Gregor had caught her and her companions for a time to Sandor’s great amusement. On the show, she does not remark on the matter at all.
  • Daenerys IV: In the novel, two companies—the Second Sons led by Mero of Braavos and the Stormcrows co-led by Prendahl na Ghezn and Sallor the Bald—are hired by Yunkai. The leaders each meet with Daenerys, who plays up her youth and inexperience in war. The Stormcrow leaders are adamant in their refusal to accept her offer, though Daario Naharis later kills them both and brings the company over to her. Mero is played much as in the novel, but when Daenerys gives him a wagon full of wine, it is part of a deliberate stratagem. Having given them a day to consider, she orders an immediate night attack to take the Second Sons by surprise after they have gotten drunk on her wine. As in the show, Daario appears in her camp, although in fact he is found—or allows himself to be found—by guards who bring her to Daenerys. At her request, he agrees to have the Second Sons attack the Yunkish host by surprise, a detail not yet shown on the show. Finally, there is no sign in the novel that the Stormcrows plotted to murder Daenerys, and Daario’s decision to kill the captains is not thoroughly examined.
  • Davos IV: As in the show, Davos is imprisoned—along with Stannis’s former Hand, Selyse’s uncle Lord Florent, who had attempted to negotiate a surrender without Stannis’s permission; he has been omitted from the show—but finally has a chance to speak with Stannis. In the novel, however, he is taken to Stannis rather than Stannis visiting him. At this time, Davos has not yet begun to learn to read. After convincing Stannis of his loyalty by dissuading him from plans put forward to attack the seat of a vassal who had surrendered after being captured at the Blackwater, Stannis raises up Davos and grants him a lordship as well as the office of Hand of the King. They then discuss Melisandre’s plans to use the blood of Robert’s bastard son Edric Storm, a boy, to “wake” a dragon from stone. Davos and Stannis argue in similar fashion over the matter, but it is a notable change that in the novel Stannis is the one who insists on trying to use only some of the boy’s blood (drawn out with leeches by Maester Pylos, rather than by Melisandre) to try to achieve his goals despite Melisandre’s caution that it will not bring him the victory he desires. As in the novel, Stannis names the three “usurpers”, although it’s worth noting that the order is changed: in the book he names Joffrey Baratheon, Balon Greyjoy, and finally Robb Stark.
  • Sansa III: In the novel, Sansa is surprised with the fact that she will be wedding Tyrion that very day by Cersei, and is caught up in a whirlwind. Angry and frightened, she refuses to kneel so that Tyrion can place the cloak about his shoulders, and Ser Dontos Hollard is used as stool for him to stand on. Unlike on the show, Tyrion is not truly drunk at the feast, though he does have a very similar altercation with Joffrey. In the novel, the bed chamber scene goes further, with both Sansa and Tyrion undressing and Sansa attempting to find something beautiful in Tyrion but seeing nothing but deformity and ugliness, after he attempts to coax her to accept him. Her suggesting she’ll never want to bed him is accurate to the novel, though in the book he replies that that is why the gods made whores rather than a drunken quip based on the oath of the Night’s Watch.
  • Samwell I: After the flight from the Fist of the First Men, Samwell is greatly helped by Grenn and a huge but simple-minded ranger named Small Paul. They are accosted by an Other on a dead horse, who kills Paul out of hand and almost kills Grenn when Samwell desperately stabs him with the dragonglass dagger that Jon Snow—who, in the novel, is the one who finds the cache of obsidian blades and points—gave him. Unlike on the show, the Other seems to literally melt, rather than turning into ice and shattering.
  • Samwell III: Samwell leads Gilly to the abandoned village of Whitetree, and there the wight of Small Paul almost kills them. Samwell burns the wight and escapes, only to see that the wights of many other men of the Watch are waiting for them. He is about to give up when hundreds, even thousands of crows in the great weirwood at Whitetree fly from the branches and attack the wights. The scene in the novel ends with a man riding a giant elk calling to Samwell, naming him brother, and helping him and Gilly to escape… but Samwell notices that the man’s hands are black and hard as stone, similar to that of a wight. One other detail worth noting is that while Samwell does discuss the naming of children with Gilly in the novels, it’s much later, in part because the wildling custom is to not name children until they are several years old because of the high mortality rate for infants beyond the Wall.

Added Scenes:

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.