A review of tonight’s “Game of Thrones” coming up just as soon as I build a shrine to myself at the next brothel I visit…
“And none have seen the blade.” -Melisandre
“Second Sons” isn’t exactly “Blackwater 2,” but it’s the most focused episode of the series since that one. Other than bookend sequences at the episode’s beginning (Arya learns that the Hound intends to sell her back to her family) and the end (Sam defeats a White Walker using the ancient weapon he found at the Fist of the First Men), we spend the entire hour in only three locales: Yunkai, where Dany negotiates with the eponymous mercenary army who have been hired to oppose her; Dragonstone, where Stannis begins to have second thoughts about sacrificing his nephew to the Lord of Light; and King’s Landing, where Tyrion and Sansa suffer through a wedding neither of them wants. Everybody else gets the week off, whether it’s storylines that have been clicking like Brienne and Jaime(*) or ones that have been a total misfire like Theon’s endless torture.
(*) A commenter last week said that George R.R. Martin said on a podcast (in other words, the Internet version of Telephone) that the bear scene from the end of last week’s episode was originally shot for this one. Benioff and Weiss have said that they frequently move scenes around from one episode to another based on their needs, and while I missed those two this week, it worked better in closer proximity to last week’s other Brienne/Jaime scenes, and in turn made this one feel tighter.
As a result, the episode’s three major storylines get more room to breathe, the wedding in particular. Though Joffrey threatens to rape his ex-fiancee, and seems on the verge of ordering his uncle’s death for his insolence before Tywin calms things down (while Tyrion brilliantly plays the drunken clown so Joffrey can save face), the wedding largely goes off okay. But the time spent on it conveys how genuinely miserable everyone but Joffrey and Tywin are by the whole affair, how tense things are between Tywin and Tyrion and between Joffrey and the new bride and groom, how the Tyrells have (for now) been completely outmaneuvered by the Lannisters, and how all of Sansa’s dreams have turned into nightmares. Just a great mix of darkly comic beats (Joffrey taking away Tyrion’s stool, Cersei shutting down Loras’ attempt to share his father’s wisdom) and more threatening moments (Cersei not wanting to be sisters with Marge and, especially, Tyrion threatening Joffrey so blatantly that the little coward had no idea how to respond). Though Tyrion is one of the series’ most decent and likable characters, I’m happy that he didn’t manage to charm Sansa’s concerns away through the wedding, but rather got so drunk that he couldn’t even serve as her anchor in this terrible storm. Their later interaction in the honeymoon suite also featured a nice bit of wry comedy when Tyrion recited a bit of the Night’s Watch oath after Sansa suggested she might never want to sleep with him, and I enjoyed the way Shae softened towards Tyrion for just a moment when she realized the sheets bore no evidence of sex, before hardening her resolve against her lover and his new bride.
The events outside Yunkai, meanwhile, add to Dany’s growing army, and growing stable of military advisors, with the introduction of Ed Skrein as the charming, lethal Daario Naharis, who elects to kill his captains and fight alongside the mother of dragons. Our visits to this side of the world weren’t quite as lengthy as the wedding sequence, but they still gave us a better sense of how Daario thinks, why he would betray his partners to throw in with the beautiful and charismatic queen, and why Dany in turn would be drawn to him (especially over his piggish comrades in arms). One thing is clear: Jorah will not be happy to have this pretty young thing whispering in the ear of his Khaleesi.
And our time spent at Dragonstone was important because of how neglected Stannis has been as a character this season. Our last visit there offered us some new insight into the rightful king’s pain and loss, and here we get a sense of what happens when the man he was before falling under Melisandre’s spell comes into conflict with her plans. Stephen Dillane did some fine work here, particularly in the scene where Stannis comes to visit Davos in his cell. Remember that the last time Stannis was talked out of doing what Melisandre wanted, his fleet was crippled by wildfire; will non-fatally leaching a bit of blood from poor Gendry be enough to eliminate Stannis’ hated rivals Balon, Robb and Joffrey? Or is this just another half-measure doomed to fail?
The concluding sequence with Sam and Gilly mainly served to provide some action in an episode that was otherwise big on talk. But it also brought the White Walkers (one of them, anyway) back on screen for the first time since the season premiere. For all the maneuvering being done by the would-be kings of Westeros, and even for the danger that Dany’s army and dragons pose whenever they get their act together and take some ships across the Narrow Sea, those monsters north of the Wall are the very first threat introduced by the series, and potentially the biggest. Budgetary reasons and the need to service other stories involving characters who speak have kept the Walkers and their zombies largely on the sidelines – their big attack on the Night’s Watch happened off-camera, in between seasons – but it’s important the show keep them present in our minds. And by using the artifact from the Fist to cut this one open, Sam inadvertently may have found a way to start killing these things. He may yet be useful for something other than suggesting baby names.
Benioff and Weiss have too much story to sift through and too many characters to check in on to take this kind of narrow focus in every episode of a season. But long sequences like Tyrion and Sansa’s wedding are a reminder of just how much more satisfying the show is on those occasions when the creative team can really take its time with letting a story unfold in an hour.
Some other thoughts:
* First, a programming note: the show is taking Memorial Day weekend off (HBO is airing “Behind the Candelabra” next Sunday night), and I suspect my last two review of the season won’t be up until sometime the following morning.
* Between Theon last week and Gendry this week, the show has done an impressive job recalibrating our expectations for sex scenes. Until we get ample evidence otherwise, I’m going to assume anytime two characters wind up in bed together, something horrible is about to happen to the guy.
* That said, I would like to thank Melisandre for providing my favorite new euphemism for sex: “Come fight death with me.”
* Hands up, everyone who heard the hilarious explanation of whom Loras will be related to, and how, and thought of the lyrics to “I’m My Own Grandpa.”
As always, I’d like to keep the book/spoiler issue as simple as possible, however difficult that may be for some to understand. We are here to discuss “Game of Thrones” AS A TV SHOW, NOT AS AN ENDLESS SERIES OF COMPARISONS TO THE BOOKS. Therefore, here’s the only rule you should remember: if your comment contains the phrase “the books” without it being immediately preceded by “I haven’t read,” then you should probably delete what you’ve written and start over. Anything even vaguely questionable will be deleted, and if you see something that I haven’t already removed, please feel free to email me. You may think you’re being clever and not giving too much away; in almost every case, you are wrong.
As usual, I’ve set up a message board discussion thread where you can do as much TV vs. books discussion as you want. And if you don’t want to go to the message boards, by all means go to one of the dozens upon dozens of sites (whether “Thrones”-specific or not) that provide a venue to discuss the books to your heart’s content. In these comments, everything book-related that has yet to come up on the TV show (plot, characters we haven’t met, motivation, etc.) is verboten.
Based on the comments to that initial review, a lot of people are having a hard time understanding this, so I will put it very simply: If people cannot stop themselves from discussing the books in the comments, then there will no longer be comment sections for these reviews. Life’s too short.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com