Sometimes with storytelling, less is more, and more is less. Sometimes, when you have too much going on – too many characters, too many storylines, too many big moments – nothing gets the proper attention or makes the intended impact. Sometimes – particularly in the world of television, where there are limits in terms of both time and money – you’re better off focusing on a smaller group of things you can do well.
Sometimes, though, if you have talented enough people – and, even better, if they’re working off of great source material – then more can, in fact, be more. “Justified” has demonstrated that repeatedly this season as it’s thrown a virtual army of colorful bad guys at Raylan Givens. And on Sunday night at 9, HBO’s “Game of Thrones” makes its triumphant return with a second season that features more of everything: more characters, more locations, more brutality.
And, as the follow-up to an incredibly strong debut season, it’s even more fun.
What “Game of Thrones” has more of now than anything else, it seems, is kings. The new season is based on the second of George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” books(*), “A Clash of Kings,” and rather than spend time re-establishing plot points and characters (echoing the slow build of the first season), it dives in deep to what’s happening almost immediately after the first season’s end. (Minor spoilers follow.)
(*) As I’ve said before, I haven’t read the books, and am choosing not to for at least the duration of the HBO series. I’m of the view that if producers David Benioff & D.B. Weiss can’t make the show accessible and engaging to a non-reader, they’ve failed. So far, they’ve succeeded wildly.
Petulant, sadistic Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) has assumed the throne of the seven kingdoms of Westeros, and no one much wants to be ruled by this obnoxious punk, which means plenty of other claims to the title. Chief among those are the two brothers of the late King Robert, closeted Renly (Gethin Anthony) and unbending Stannis (Stephen Dillane). But there are also plenty of people trying to split Westeros up and claim smaller kingdoms for themselves, like Robb Stark (Richard Madden), son of the first season’s slain hero Ned, or Balon Greyjoy (Patrick Malahide), the deposed, bitter former ruler of a harsh, remote seaside community called the Iron Islands. Ned’s illegitimate son Jon Snow (Kit Harington) is traveling through the cold, terrifying country north of the border and learns that the people there are rallying under a new king. And there’s always the threat lurking in the background of Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), daughter of the king before Robert, and now mother of sorts to three baby dragons who, when grown, should make the problems everyone’s having with the current civil wars look like child’s play.
This was a show with a huge cast to begin with, and now we’re adding many, many new faces – even if some of them are familiar from elsewhere. (Dillane, for instance, was Thomas Jefferson in HBO’s Emmy-winning “John Adams” miniseries.) Some newcomers interact with people we already know (Balon is the father of Alfie Allen’s Theon Greyjoy, a former ward of Ned Stark), but there are plenty of times when we’re just interacting with, say, Stannis, his trusted lieutenant Davos (Liam Cunningham) and Melisandre (Carice Van Houten), the disturbing cult priestess guiding many of Stannis’ decisions. This should be confusing, or off-putting, but the characters were clearly so well-drawn by Martin, and then adapted and cast well by Benioff and Weiss, that it feels like the world of the show is expanding without becoming diluted.
Of course, having bumped off Ned Stark(**) as well as King Robert, and both Daenerys’ husband Khal Drogo and her brother Viserys, there’s room for new characters, and also for other characters to become more prominent. The most welcome development to these eyes is that Peter Dinklage, the show’s Emmy-winning supporting actor last year for his role as the charming imp (and uncle to the new king) Tyrion Lannister, moves to center stage as Tyrion takes over both Ned’s old job as the king’s chief advisor and as the closest thing this dense, morally ambiguous show has to a hero. And he is enormously entertaining in the new role.
(**) Because Sean Bean is only allowed to play characters who die.
Though Ned was noble and admirable, he was way out of his depth among all the schemers in the capitol. (Towards the end of the show’s first season, there was a “Stupid Ned Stark” internet meme making fun of all his high-minded but self-destructive decisions.) Tyrion, on the other hand, can scheme with the best of them – “I’m not Ned Stark,” he boasts. “I understand the way this game is played.” – and he manages to combine his own agenda with an innate sense of decency that his nephew Joffrey and sister Cersei (Lena Headey) lack to become a man who can both get things done and, from time to time, do the right thing.
And as Tyrion adjusts to his position, and the various would-be kings plot to claim or reclaim thrones, season two offers many valuable, eye-opening lessons in the nature of power and leadership. Ned was a great soldier (as is Robb) but a terrible politician. Joffrey has been raised to be nothing but entitled and cruel, where we see Robb’s younger brother Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) getting a more rigorous course in how a ruler can do better if his subjects like him. Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen), the rare self-made man among the aristocracy, tries to tell Queen Cersei that “knowledge is power,” and she gives him a very blunt demonstration that “power is power.” And she later tells Tyrion that she believes ruling is “lying on a bed of weeds, ripping them out by the root one by one before they strangle you in your sleep.”
With all these lessons and statements come a broader view of Westeros and the surrounding countries. It was an occasional treat last year when the show’s marvelous opening title sequence – a map of Westeros where the different cities and castles rose out of the ground like clockwork toys – would add a new location depending on where the story traveled. There are four new ones in the first four episodes of season two alone, each with its own impressive design.
The show feels more confident in many other ways. It’s smoother in transitioning from character to character, city to city, even as it has to do it more quickly than ever before. (The one major returning character who seems to suffer a bit is Daenerys, as her appearances in the early going tend to be brief, and still a continent away from the rest of the action.) It’s even more willing to use humor to keep the fantasy elements from seeming ponderous, while being bolder in its depiction of the magical side of things. (Among other things, I finally understand what the big deal is with the direwolves.)
There are a few instances where more actually is a bit less – the show becomes even more brazen in its use of what TV academic/blogger Myles McNutt dubbed “sexposition,” where characters only reveal their innermost secrets while cavorting with naked prostitutes – but almost everywhere you look in Westeros, and in “Game of Thrones” season 2, more is better.
Winter is coming. And it’s about time.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
NOTE: Same spoiler rules apply as last year. We’re treating this as a TV show. No talk about things from the books that have yet to appear in an episode of the show that has already aired on HBO. Period. So those of you who’ve read “A Clash of Kings” (and beyond), plese keep your knowledge to yourselves until the rest of of us find out. The discussion seemed plenty lively last year even with those restrictions, and should hopefully continue in that vein.