It seems like only yesterday King Joffrey smiled to his Lady Love, Sansa Stark. Betrothed to the boy king when he was but a snotty prince oh so many moons ago, he stood proudly on the Steps of Baelor ready to give his verdict for Sansa’s father. Eddard Stark, Warden of the North, Lord of Winterfell and the dashing hero of Game of Thrones’ first season, lay on his knees just beyond his daughter.Surely, for his fiancée’s sake, the young monarch would spare the star’s life in this moment and television would proceed as it always does. The king raises his hand and the ravenous crowd quiets to hear him say, lovingly with comfort for both Sansa and his own mother, “Ser Ilyn, BRING ME HIS HEAD.” Wait, what?Every viewer of Game of Thrones, book reader and novice alike, has that scene etched into their memory as if it were an Oath in the Night’s Watch. SOMEONE DO SOMETHING! ARYA, YOU’LL SAVE THE DAY! RIGHT? RIGHT?! Nope, young Arya, like older sister Sansa, must sit back and watch as poor dead Ned loses his head.Overnight, Game of Thrones transformed from one of the better shows on television to permanent appointment TV. If for no other reason than to watch that little snot Joffrey die inch by blooming, bloody, inch in Season 2. Now, one year later that moral outrage seems so quaint and naïve; like a Stark girl thinking she came to King’s Landing for love. For viewers in Season 2 learned a truth book readers have long known about George R.R. Martin’s sprawling literary epic: there is no justice in Westeros and winter is coming for us all.Now, on the eve of Season 3’s premiere, it is time to look back once more at the tumultuous fallout from that cliffhanger ending. Season 2 came like a cool wind, raised by high expectations. Personally, I noticed a bit of disappointment from non-readers upon initial viewing, simply because it was different from the first year.
However, I contend that like Sansa, many audience members were still grappling with the reality of this harsh world where our lord and protector’s head rots on a spike. Joffrey will go (yet) unpunished and the North will continue to suffer. At its core, Season 2 is the beginning of the true game that Season 1 prepared the board for. And this game ain’t Quidditch.The first episode of Season 2, “The North Remembers,” is a microcosm of what made the second year so good, yet strange for television. While Tyrion Lannister, always wonderfully played by Peter Dinklage, is appropriately moved up as the figurehead of the show with first billing and a dramatic intro during the first scene, he is not the star. In fact, there is no star of Game of Thrones. That genre and even television convention went the way of Ned’s skull.Instead, the entire episode is divided up among nearly every major contract character on the show (all 20-something of them). Some only show up for a few seconds, but they are present. It both sets the stage of a season that is far more unwieldy than the previous, but also more captivating in its urgency and speed.First, the production values have clearly increased. Moving exterior shots of Westeros’ capital, King’s Landing, from Malta to Croatia has made for a very striking backdrop. Something that was essential for the second year, as the scope of King’s Landing would come to define the central conflict of the season.read more: Game of Thrones Season 8 – Everything We KnowTyrion Lannister has come to court to act in his father’s stead as Hand of the King (the job Ned hastily vacated). Never his father’s favorite child, or even preferred distant relation, the dwarfish Tyrion aka the Imp still proved himself in the previous season a better manager for the Seven Kingdoms’ business than his idiot nephew, Joffrey.When the show opens, the current Iron Throne seat-warmer is spending his royal birthday watching men fight to death while torturing the totally dead-eyed Sansa for amusement. He barely even notices his short uncle breeze past him and lay into the equally dense Queen Mother at the King’s Council meeting (the young lad has no interest in such trivialities).The amount of joy Tyrion takes in rubbing his new title in the face of sister Cersei is palatable. “You love your children. It’s your one redeeming quality. That and your cheekbones.” BOOM “We had three Starks to trade. You’ve chopped one’s head off and let another escape. Father would be furious.” DAYUM. “It must be hard for you…to be the disappointing child.” SNAP! Somebody raven a maester, because Tyrion is taking Cersei to school.That dance for power, between Tyrion and Cersei and later between Tyrion, Cersei and ever-oblivious Joffrey, is the true heart of the Season 2. While I loved Eddard and thought Sean Bean was fantastic at bringing him to life, Tyrion causing mischief in the capital is far more entertaining than seven hours of Ned figuring out what the audience had long known (Jaime Lannister + Cersei Lannister = Incest Baby King). Watching Tyrion discover to his amazement, if not ours, that he is better at this game than every one of Cersei’s underlings he outmaneuvers is the stuff Internet memes are made of.Yet, I will concede that Season 2’s overstuffed narrative does not allow it to move at a smooth pace. And with so much to cover in only 10 episodes, several key storylines do suffer. For brevity’s sake, I am not going to recap all of Season 2. If I even tried to do so succinctly, you would have a nice coffee table paperweight to read right now. However, we can look at what made the season so good and sometimes not quite so, in only 10 episodes.
Despite its cast of literally thousands, Game of Thrones works best as a supernatural war fought between a half dozen families. Part War of the Roses (Lancasters and Yorks, anyone?) and part Lord of the Rings; Game of Thrones revels in the fact that you have seen these conventions before. Now, it gleefully promises you will see them in grimmer, more humanistic (or nihilistic) terms.The whole season orbits around Tyrion dealing with Joffrey’s pure evil. Written as Draco Malfoy with actual menace and sociopathy, Joffrey is the most detestable turd on television and the writers know it. They want you to tune in every week to see if he will just, finally die. Yet, he is coupled with the most hilarious and likable character on the show.For Tyrion to succeed and prove to his father he is worth more than his height or incestuous twin siblings, he must defend Joffrey and scheming Cersei from all enemies. Even as his nephew has Sansa stripped and beaten before court and his Queen sister openly plots her vertically-challenged brother’s death, Tyrion fights to save them. Should we want to see Tyrion win at the cost of the best villain on TV living? There are plenty of enemies vying for his throne and his head.We see every corner of Westeros and beyond this season, and they all seem to have a king. Robb Stark, our noble hero, fights to win the North’s independence and legitimacy for his crown as King in the North. If this were a traditional fantasy story, Robb would be our sole protagonist and the entire story may have begun right after Ned was executed and Robb picked up the sword. Yet, despite winning every battle he fights, Robb is dogged the whole season by the people around him.After capturing the ultimate trophy in Season 1, Jaime Lannister, Robb must protect the titular Kingslayer from lieutenants who want his head. He does it to barter with Tywin Lannister down the road, but the thought of his hostaged sisters, Sansa and Arya, seems dimmer and dimmer. He keeps his mother, Catelyn Stark, around to strike deals with potential allies, but she is a mother of two endangered girls first and Queen Mother diplomat second.read more: Game of Thrones Season 8 – Predictions and TheoriesThen there is Robb’s childhood friend Theon Greyjoy. Taken to be a ward and hostage for Ned Stark nine years ago, Theon is sent home by Robb to broker a deal with his father Balon. However, Balon and his sister Yara seem still a bit peeved over the whole “invading the Iron Islands and killing our kin” thing Ned did when he took Theon nine years back.Of course, Ned came to Balon’s castle on Island of Pyke because he invaded the South to claim Lannisport in the name of his cold, salty Hellhole of a home. But you have to understand…the Iron Islanders are idiots. They are the hillbilly white trash of Westeros and like a good old boy who still dreams of the South rising again, they will “invade” the much larger power every couple of decades only to be slaughtered and pushed back. Like death and taxes, you can just count on the Iron Islanders to muck things up.Still, it opens up an entire new story thread when Theon, to impress his father, betrays Robb and turns out to be the callow and weak-kneed boy Cat always thought he was. He invades Winterfell and captures Bran and Rickon, who were desperate for a storyline that did not involve magic dreams. Ultimately, Theon fakes the two boys’ deaths in hopes of being feared, but his brash arrogance only gets his beloved Winterfell burned, sacked and destroyed. As for Theon, he ends up black bagged by season’s end.There is yet another family vying for power within itself further south in the Storm Lands. Renly Baratheon, Joffrey’s supposed uncle and a self-styled king, agrees with Cat to help Robb claim the North for himself as long as the King in the North will recognize Renly as a superseding king. But before they can even break out the Dornish wine, it proves all for naught, because Renly is murdered by his older brother Stannis Baratheon.Stannis has the worst case of middle child syndrome in television history. His older brother was the (once) handsome and popular King Robert who led the rebellion against the Mad Targaryen King. His baby bro, Renly, claimed all his father’s bannermen after Robert died, because he was charismatic and kind, especially compared to Stannis’s brittle severity.
Really, the only thing Stannis has going for him is the best claim to the throne; being the oldest living male heir to Robert. Well that, plus a red, hot fire priestess named Melisandre whose idea of regicide involves Stannis banging her on Westeros’ most detailed Dungeons and Dragons table. The table busting gives Melisandre a magic baby shadow baby who must have escaped the Island on Lost just to snuff out Renly’s light.It is staggering watching all these families wrestle for power and position in “The War of the Five Kings.” It is also the blessing and curse of Season 2. The first season is all about setting the stage for war. Even after the first battle is fought and Jaime is a prisoner, the story does not truly begin until Ser Ilyn swings the sword named Ice above its owner’s head. In that moment, the game moves from just Cersei, Eddard and the court’s hangers-on to the entire Seven Kingdoms. Everything related to that power struggle is great. But some of the outside storylines suffered greatly.Beyond the borders of Westeros, there are two significant plot threads that will one day play a major role in Westerosi politics. One takes place beyond the Wall (an amazing ancient structure Brandon the Builder constructed a thousand years ago). There, Snow continues his lifetime commitment to the Night’s Watch. In the snowy wastes past the Wall, Jon looks for evil Wildlings and perhaps even Whitewalkers (ICE ZOMBIES!) everywhere.Instead, he finds a Wildling homestead run by an incestuous old man who marries all his daughters; one of whom fancies the thick and slow Jon Snow Fanboy, Sam Tarly. When Jon goes scouting, he ends up getting a bunch of veterans killed because he cannot execute Wildling redheaded temptress Ygritte. Rather than put a blade in her back, he goes on an icy romcom trip with her while desperately trying to avoid stabbing her with something else. Sigh, you know nothing, Jon Snow.The other is to the Far East and at the end of another continent. Daenerys Targaryen, who ended Season 1 for herself and the audience in a state of burning ecstasy when she emerged from a funeral pyre with three birthed baby dragons, sits around the rich city of Qarth and…sits. There is some great character building tension between her and her advisor Ser Jorah Mormont, a knight in exile after Ned once came to ironically collect his head.
He wants to be both father and lover to her and she wants to be recognized as a Queen and Mother of Dragons. Unfortunately, much like the second book, it ultimately means the spinning of wheels. To sum up Dany’s entire second season arc, I can say: she lost her dragons and then she found them.The stories disconnected from the war suffered either from weaker source material (Dany) or simply being trimmed and rushed because they did not match the wider narrative for the season (Jon). This sort of wasted potential is only hurt further by Game of Thrones’ consistently most glaring weakness: gratuitous sex scenes.This writer is no prude and enjoys seeing all of the lovely ladies on the show as much as the next reviewer. It even sometimes serves a purpose, such as when Dany came out of that fire in Season 1 (to the burning release of many a teen boy, I am sure) or when Margaery Tyrell spends half of Season 2 trying to seduce the very Gay Renly. Good luck with that.However, when entire scenes are devoted to characters who serve no purpose and were invented by HBO executives solely for getting more naked women on the screen (cough-Ros-cough), there is a problem. Even cult director Neil Marshall, brought in for the amazing “Blackwater” episode, was stunned when an HBO executive took him aside during production to say “Look, I represent the pervert side of the audience…and I’m saying I want full frontal nudity in this scene.” Your audience has Internet access, leave this already lusty show be!One of the most interesting aspects of Game of Thrones is that the characters actually have humanistic reactions. Unlike the children of Harry Potter, the teenagers in this fantasy world actually have sexual and immature urges. Robb Stark breaks a vow to Walder Frey so he can bed and eventually marry some medic he just met on the battlefield (we have to pretend Robb, played by 26 year old Richard Madden, is only 18).
These emotions, like the levels of cruelty and compassion from the varying Lannisters, creates a far more ambiguous and complex world than Tolkien’s Good vs. Evil Middle Earth….Still, do we really need a scene of one man having sex, while another man watches as he is getting a blow job while ANOTHER man watches that and smiles?! Seven Hells, HBO!Even with some of these distractions, I maintain Season 2 may ultimately be better because the stories that do work are addictively awesome. Enter Arya Stark. The littler water-dancing child, who escaped King’s Landing in Season 1 by dressing as a boy headed to the Night’s Watch, goes on an odyssey of wacky adventures with sidekicks Gendry and Hot Pie in Season 2.These are the type of vignettes that Mark Twain could have dreamed up…if he was ever interviewed by the Spanish Inquisition. The trio sees heroic Yoren slaughtered and a boy stabbed in the neck with Arya’s precious Needle in the third episode; they witness a sea of villagers tortured by carnivorous rats in the fourth one; and then there is Tywin Lannister just being a total BAMF in the haunted ruins of Harrenhal where he matches wits with Arya for half the season.Arya even adds to that ghostly legacy when she teams up with super assassin Jaquen H’ghar to snuff sadistic Lannister men and eventually escape the charred ruins. It is honestly a great adventure story told in the backdrop of the greater war. Like a Dickensian street rat, she sees the Riverlands that Tywin and company have set on fire while only wanting to go home. It creates a momentum of tension and yearning far more engrossing than all of Season 1.But if Arya’s story can seem nihilistic at times, Tyrion’s turns towards apocalyptic. He and Cersei spend so much time sniping at each other, they barely are ready for Stannis’s arrival. Stannis, who recruited Renly’s fair-weather bannermen, shows up at the gates of King’s Landing with thousands of ships (the show wisely changes the afternoon battle to night so darkness can hide the size of the armies).In what may go down as the greatest battle sequence in television history, Tyrion ‘The Half-Man’ Lannister pours enough flammable “pigshit” into Blackwater Bay to burn down a whole city. When half of Stannis’s force is consumed by a green blaze that reaches up to the Heavens, Game of Thrones became more cinematic than most summer blockbusters. A few shots of breathtaking CGI that relieve hours of tension is worth more than entire running times of Optimus Prime money-shots and robot balls.
Tyrion, against all odds, holds King’s Landing until Tywin and the Tyrells show up to take all the credit. Tyrion is given a scar across the face thanks to a plan from Cersei and is left to wither in one of the Red Keep’s smaller rooms, overlooked by a political enemy he left for ruin earlier. Tyrion saves the day and loses all the power that made him awesome this season.Meanwhile, Joffrey keeps on being king. Remember what I said about Westerosi justice? If you want that, you need to adapt to the Iron Throne’s court gossip quickly lest you find yourself being condescended to and threatened by a hilariously drunk Cersei during a siege.Season 2 is a disparate tapestry of threads. Mayhaps, it plays better in quick succession rather than week-to-week, but it is worth a revisit all the same to recall what made that green pigshit go boom. A cowpie to Joffrey’s face here, a forced beard shaving there, it is all just so exciting. It also sets the stage for an even murkier Season 3.Realizing Jaime would be killed by Robb’s bannermen while he is busy romancing the nurse, Cat frees the fascinating Kingslayer. The man who stabbed a tyrannical Mad King whose last words were “burn them all,” the master swordsman became the most hated man in all the liberated Seven Kingdoms. Now, having sworn an oath to Cat Stark, he is headed home with Cat’s earnest lady knight, Brienne of Tarth, in tow to ensure he keeps that oath. Can a man who broke an oath to kill a genocidal maniac be trusted?Speaking of broken oaths, Robb still has to smooth over that whole pesky “marry a Frey” thing.Meanwhile, Stannis is broken but not beaten. What will he and Melisandre do as they lick their wounds following the Battle of Blackwater? Tyrion surely is going to have a tough time hitching himself up to more power in Season 3. Will the hounded Arya ever reach Robb and Cat’s moving encampment?The most I can promise for the non-readers is to expect a lot more from Jon and Dany. The Mother of Dragons is entering her prime in the third book and will finally start making good on that “fire and blood” threat. And Jon, now Ygritte’s prisoner, will meet Wildling King Mance Rayder and finally be taught a thing or two by his captor. Oh and Ice Zombies with nary a farmhouse or prison in sight.Season 2 did a great job of kicking off the main game with the War of Five Kings. But even after the war’s biggest battle, it is far from over and there are even greater forces conspiring on all sides of Westeros. And yes, winter is coming. So too is Season 3 of Game of Thrones on March 31. Save the date.