‘Game of Thrones’ – ‘The Night Lands’: Make love, not war

A review of tonight’s “Game of Thrones” coming up just as soon as I’ve got armor on…

“Iron or gold?” -Balon Greyjoy

“Game of Thrones” episodes aren’t specifically designed to feature thematically linked stories the way, say, “Mad Men” episodes are. There’s a whole lot of plot to get through, and most of the time it’s about working through it in the order George R.R. Martin did, and occasionally with how Benioff & Weiss feel those stories play better on television. Still, because so many characters are scrambling for power, and dealing with the benefits and liabilities that come with their blood, there tend to be thematic commonalities every week, even with all that plot to churn.

This week, our linked pair are Tyrion Lannister and Theon Greyjoy, who have both found themselves as strangers in lands that shouldn’t be quite so strange.

Tyrion is a Lannister, son of the wealthiest family in Westeros, and he should be used to the corridors of power by now. But his size and the manner of his birth means he’s been treated as an inconvenience – or, as Cersei coldly puts it, the biggest joke in the world – all his life, left to amuse himself and is only in this position because Jaime’s being held prisoner by Robb Stark’s forces. Tyrion is both more clever and ruthless than Ned Stark was, and he’s already made his first major power play by banishing Janos Slynt to the Night’s Watch so he can install Bronn as commander of the City Watch. But just because he’s smart enough to play the game at such a high level as a rookie doesn’t mean it’s one he’s especially comfortable with. The slaughter of babies is something he doesn’t want to accept, where Bronn would do it for the right price, and where Cersei understands the value of it even though it disgusts her to know her son ordered it. Tyrion’s doing well so far, but he has Varys gathering intelligence to use against him and he has his sister eager to see him gone. Does he have the stomach to do what needs to be done to stay in the position his father granted him?

Theon, meanwhile, has spent much of his life living among Starks, and acting so much a brother to them that I was puzzled to realize he wasn’t a part of the family. He returns to the Iron Islands and the Pyke – my favorite design of all the new locations from the early stretch of the season – and doesn’t even recognize his sister Yara before trying to cop a feel. (And it’s a fine introduction to Yara that this is her idea of a joke.) His father – who has clearly modeled his life on the “grey” part of the last name – has nothing but disdain for him, and even when Theon presents him a way to get his crown back, Balon sneers and suggests a plan where he pays “the iron price,” apparently attacking Robb’s forces rather than Tywin’s.

We’ve met many nasty parents so far in this series, but few have been as instantly chilling and disagreeable as Balon. And his irritable, self-righteous manner performs the useful trick of bringing Theon – a relatively minor figure in the first season whose backstory(*) we only got hints of – to full, somewhat sympathetic life. He’s cocky as all get out, but like Jon Snow, he’s spent much of his life trapped between two worlds, never really belonging in either. He thinks he’s making a triumphant return to the Pyke, but he’s no more in command there than he was in Winterfell.

(*) I had to laugh at the rapid transition from the Theon sexposition scene on the boat – complete with a line like “They say hard places breed hard men, and hard men rule the world” that would have set Michael Scott’s “That’s what she said!” impulses to maximum – to the double-peephole scene at Littlefinger’s brothel. I don’t know if the combination was intentional – Benioff and Weiss perhaps responding to the sexposition complaints by calling us all out as voyeurs – but I found the boom-boom-boom nature of that sequence hysterical.  

Speaking of Jon Snow, he’s one of several other characters struggling to make sense of new terrain, albeit terrain that feels more understandably foreign to them. He’s north of the wall, warned by Commander Mormont to leave Craster and his women alone, but he can’t resist following the old creep out into the night to see what’s happening to the baby. And before he can try to save it from that monstrous-looking shadow, Craster cold cocks him from behind. Not a good start to his apprenticeship under Mormont.

Arya continues her journeys with Yoren and his Night’s Watch recruits, a motley crew consisting of scared and stupid boys, unsettling criminals, and Gendry, who immediately sees through her boy disguise. (Setting up one of the episode’s lighter moments, when he starts calling her “milday.”)

Dany and her pitiful band continue starving to death in the Red Waste, and her most trusted remaining soldier returns from his scouting mission as just a severed head. (And he returns on a horse that appears at first like a mirage in the distance, like the famous entrance of Omar Sharif in “Lawrence of Arabia.”)

Even Davos is struggling with new territory, even as he’s physically still on his home turf. The Lord of Light, and the way so many in Dragonstone – particularly Davos’ son and Stannis – have dedicated their lives to this new god and its red-headed priestess isn’t something that sits well with him. He insists that the only god he needs is Stannis Baratheon, but if Davos’ god keeps answering to another god – and trying to father a baby through some holy sex with Melisandre on his war room table – will Davos’ devotion remain so strong?

Very good episode, if maybe a notch below the premiere. Overall, though, the combination of Benioff, Weiss and director Alan Taylor tends to mean very good things for this show.

Some other thoughts:

* Yoren, by the way? Very tough. Brings a dagger to a swordfight and wins.

* We know all about the supernatural doings up north of Castle Black, but Cersei and her cronies don’t, which leads them to laugh off Mormont’s reports of them. I’m predicting no comeuppance whatsoever for that cocky attitude!

* Hi, I’m 12, and therefore got a kick out of the whole “serious discussion” about farting among the Night’s Watch recruits. And on a more mature note, that’s a good example of a fantasy show both not taking itself too seriously and understanding what minor, low-caste characters in a show like this might talk about.

* Good scene with Littlefinger threatening Ros to get back to work, all by implication. If, as Cersei taught him last week, power is power, then he understands how to exercise his power over his stable of ladies.

* Was Salladhor Saan, the pirate recruited by Davos to help with the assault on King’s Landing, the first notable character on this show played by a black actor?

It’s time once again for the requisite spoiler warning. Once again, let me remind you that we are here to discuss the show AS A TV SHOW, and not just as an endless series of compare/contrasts with the books. If you want to bring up events from the books that have already been depicted on the show, that’s fine to a degree, but anything – plot, backstory, motivation, what have you – that has yet to be revealed on the show itself is absolutely off-limits. (The motivation one turned out to be the hardest one for people to resist last season, as it turns out. If they don’t say it, or it’s not clear from their actions, I don’t want any psychoanalysis that’s only possible if you’ve read their internal monologue in “A Clash of Kings.”) Any comment containing anything I find even remotely questionable will be deleted. Period.

UPDATE: People again seem to be having a surprising amount of difficulty with the above restrictions, so in an attempt to avoid shutting down comments altogether, I’ve set up a discussion topic on our message boards for people to talk about all matters book-related with regards to this episode to their heart’s content. Please use it, and this should be a workable arrangement going forward, or else these will be reviews published without any comment section at all.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com