This week, the consequences to the murder of Robert’s bastards start rippling, and Robb (Richard Madden) attempts to ally with the Greyjoys and Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane). But if I’m not completely daft, the titles for Game of Thrones season 2 so far appear drawn from a hat. Last week’s episode, ‘The North Remembers’, seemingly forgot the south, east and west of a fairly intricate plot trajectory. This week, ‘The Night Lands’ refers to death in the Dothraki language — and true there is a brief, moving scene in which one of Daenerys’ (Emilia Clarke) bloodriders returns minus a body on his horse — but the fat lady of death is really only warming up her arpeggios.
Let us stay with Daenerys a moment: her khalasar is conserving its remaining energies until her bloodriders return with news for a final exertion out of the Red Waste. Last week I enjoyed her blistered lips and newfound confidence to rule, but this week, she and her sole Westerosi knight, Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen), appear more like a pair of plump actors than starving desert carrion — something the series has generally done well to avoid, at least for its principle cast (and so much better done than, say, Rome).
The production design’s grit and immersive realism seem to work best up in the frozen wastes of The Wall, where I get cold and damp just watching poor Jon’s (Kit Harington) frozen pout. It works also in Winterfell’s austerity, and the noble finery of King’s Landing. Getting about amongst the peasantry, however, as in the desert lands of Essos with Dani, just seem too clean. Last week’s image of Craster (Robert Pugh) said it all — I don’t want to see actors with trim facial hair trying to keep their Kool-aid out of frame. I want the whole thing straggly, lousy and up my nose, and I can’t be the only George Martin fan who thinks so.
Which brings us to the week’s grand unveiling of the Iron Islands. In terms of gnarly roughspun truths, I was only a little less repulsed by its ascetic charmlessness than I wanted to be. Theon (Alfie Allen) returns ‘home’, to a place he’s spent less time at than he did Winterfell as a ward/prisoner of the Stark family, following the Greyjoy’s failed rebellion a decade earlier. Perhaps rightly, Theon’s father, Lord Balon Greyjoy (Patrick Malahide), now questions his son’s allegiance, as Theon presents Robb’s
offer of an alliance in which to crush the Lannisters. Theon has forgotten the ways of the Iron Islands; he has paid the ‘gold price’ in coin, not the ‘iron price’ in battle, for his fine garb.
But his first mistake was sliding into second base on a horse with his grown sister, Yara (Gemma Whelan, originally Asha in the books). We haven’t seen what Whelan can do with Yara yet, mainly because splicing Theon’s realisation at his horny error with Balon’s rude reception has watered down the impact of both. The conserved minutes of screen-time aren’t worth the ‘celluloid price’ of diminishing our empathy for a displaced and shamed Theon, because we will need these motivations later. While angsting over every alteration from the source material is a foolhardy venture (and boring to read), I was hoping for more of Yara/Asha’s bawdy wit and at least one ‘Oho’.
A curve-ball to sibling rivalry. This exchange should have been about Yara as much as Theon.
What is lost here in entertaining and commanding dialogue by female characters, is somewhat reclaimed by both Arya (Maisie Williams) and Cersei (Lena Headey). Why not mention Melisandre (Carice Van Houten) alongside them? She’s pulling all the strings on Dragonstone, even convincing dreary old Stannis to get his wanger out. I’m excluding her for now because her influence is so far inexplicable; magic, shadows, and a prior hold on Stannis that was established before the cameras rolled, which all locks us out emotionally. Meanwhile, Arya’s bravery, wit and budding warrior skills are on display early in the episode, as she is ready to push back on anyone who challenges her, friend or foe, in cages or without. This we can sympathise with. According to the law of dramatic turning points, I’m now expecting her vulnerability to be emphasised next time, as her circumstances, adrift in a land at war — and her childlike coping strategies — should both be chilling.
Arya and Tom Petty both: won’t back down.
On a similar note, we saw Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) get the best of Cersei last week. This week Tyrion still twangs his zingers, but it’s Cersei who gets the last word, as she describes how Tyrion’s birth, during which their mother died in labor, is a joke he will never surpass. Contrasted with how Asha (Yara) cunningly exposes Theon with her baudy intelligence and sexuality in A Clash of Kings, Cersei’s power is consistently more hysterical and heavy-handed. A loss for feminist representations on primetime, perhaps, and yet these are at once her virtues, and virtues of clever character design. Tyrion noted last week that Cersei’s maternal love is her one redeeming feature, but I would add her favouring of blunt instruments as another. You’ll recall her “Power is power” line from last week. Dare I say this socio-political simplicity is closest to Eddard Stark (Sean Bean). In both Cersei and Ned, their inability to ‘play the game’ as Tyrion says to Varys (Conleth Hill) this week, is somewhat redeeming in a ‘you poor fool’ kind of way. Tyrion has just packed off Cersei’s centralised control piece, Ser Janos Slynt (Dominic Carter), to the Night’s Watch, and she is devastated to realise Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) has acted without her authority. But is there not something heroic in this woman defending herself (and her children, even against themselves) in a world seemingly made for men?
Fair complexity in Cercei’s strength.
“I’m not Ned Stark; I understand the way this game is played.”
By the time we account for dirty old Craster and all his wife-daughter slaves, even the surly disapproval of our young Night’s Watchmen isn’t enough to convince us that women might be spared a raw deal this season. The source material will be shaped to fit the creative vision of David Beniof and D.B. Weiss; let us hope that vision includes a commitment to female wit and agency, not just another version of sacrificial silent endurance. My money’s on Cersei, though I wish I could place it on Yara too.
Luke Stickels is the font of pseudo-wisdom, anti-wisdom and post-wisdom at Dysatisfunctional.com. Wherever he goes, a string of well-realised but poorly monetised investigative essays, opinion pieces, academic articles and short fiction fall in his wake, while drunken men suddenly find themselves, and unicorns quit the casino, returning to their families.
You can read Luke’s Game Of Thrones recaps every Monday at Portable.tv. Check out past recaps here.