By John Keegan and Gregg Wright
Exciting, gripping, shocking, thrilling, funny, scary--these are all words that could have been used to describe "Game of Thrones" at various points throughout its first season run. But even when it wasn't any of these things, one word continually came to mind to describe it, even in the slowest parts: "interesting". "The Night Lands" is still smack in the middle of the setup phase, and it's going to take a while for things to really get going. But even at its slowest, with the least plot progression occurring, it's still just plain interesting. I could say something to the effect of "this is as bad as 'Game of Thrones' ever gets", but the variance in quality on this show is so subtle that the remark is rendered almost meaningless.
Professional screenwriter Bill Martell has said that the films that he finds the hardest to analyze are the ones that engaged him the most on an emotional level; made him forget that he was watching a movie and felt as if he was just living the story. I find this to be true for myself as well. The very best and most engaging TV shows and movies are the ones that I have the most trouble critiquing. "Game of Thrones" is just such a show. I watch it, I enjoy it, and I feel immersed in its world. The show "works", as the word is commonly used. Intellectualizing it is difficult when I'm too busy just experiencing it as a well-told story. As Bill Martell says, it's always the bad shows and movies that are easy to analyze.
Add to this the fact that "Game of Thrones" is a heavily serialized show, in which the divisions between episodes are almost literally based on episode length rather than natural beginning and ending points for episodic story arcs, and reviewing individual episodes becomes even more difficult. Ideally, this is a show that is best judged when looked at retrospectively, as a whole. It is tempting to just go through a review and summarize the plot of an episode while describing high points. However, I will do my best to offer meaningful critiques and point out noteworthy strengths where I can. If you feel that a critique or a praise is flawed, or if I'm missing an important point, please feel free to let me know. As always, I welcome criticism of my criticisms.
As stated, at this point, the show is still working on setting up whatever major conflicts are going to dominate the season. I love being so completely in the dark about where the show is headed this season. Despite watching several of the trailers and featurettes, I remain remarkably fresh from any major spoilers. Well, except for that one rather large one that I bumped into just today in the comments section of an entertainment blog. It wasn't quite as major as the spoiler I was exposed to last season, but it's still big enough to be an annoyance. Every spoiler takes me one step further away from my goal of providing the perspective of an outside observer.
Anyways, all signs indicate that the season is shaping up very nicely. Tyrion has already begun to "play the game", with Varys currently looking to be his chief opponent. It's a nice contrast with the first season, getting to see a likable character who isn't bound by any sense of "honor", but is also just moral enough to be thought of as a heroic figure. Naturally, Tyrion gets in a couple of hilarious zingers, the best of which must certainly be: "I'm not questioning your honor, Lord Janos. I'm denying its existence." I don't expect Tyrion's winning streak to last forever, though. I don't doubt for a moment that Bronn would murder a baby if he was adequately paid for it, which suggests that it's only a matter of time before he betrays Tyrion. The word "loyalty" probably isn't even in Bronn's vocabulary.
Arya and Gendry have struck up a rather adorable friendship that ought to play an important role in the season. I'm actually glad that Arya's secret is out of the bag so early, at least in Gendry's case. It's a nice subversion of expectations. I also liked getting to see more of Yoren. He's had a relatively minor presence on the show thus far, but this episode suggests that we might be seeing more of him this season. He's certainly a tough character, which isn't surprising, given his profession. I like that he's the type that isn't afraid to threaten the genitals of the king's own men.
Theon has returned home and met significant resistance (perhaps even outright failure) in his attempt to recruit his father and his forces into the fight against King's Landing. Like Yoren, Theon was more of a minor character in the first season. I'm looking forward to seeing him get his own arc this season, which will hopefully serve to expand on the character significantly. Theon needs more depth, and this story arc looks to be exactly what is needed to accomplish that goal. Theon's ego has had a harsh reality check, and now he's torn between his two sides: his Greyjoy blood and his Stark family.
Daenerys and her followers were already in dire straights, and now things have gotten even worse. Dany is as stubborn and fierce as ever, though, and Jorah remains equally loyal. I can't imagine what Dany thinks she can do, at this point, to enact retribution against her new enemies. She and her khalasar are barely surviving. And her dragons are still too young to do anything, and probably will be for a while yet. My guess is that someone is going to have to come to her aid. Or, perhaps, one of the riders will return and lead them to a place of refuge. Dany may well be on a path to becoming a powerful female khol who is capable of destroying her enemies, but it's going to take time.
In addition to the humor provided through Tyrion and Arya's stories, there's also some laughs to be had in the form of a new character: a colorful pirate named Salladhor Saan, who Davos seems to have a history with in the smuggling business. Saan is a lot of fun, so I hope this isn't his only appearance for the season. There's a brief reference here in the exchange between Davos and Saan to Davos history with Stannis. I already have a basic knowledge of how Davos become a loyal knight in Stannis' service, but I hope that the show continues to flesh this background element out a bit more as it goes along. Ser Davos is easily one of my favorite new additions to the show, and that's not just because I am already a fan of Liam Cunningham.
Religion was a fairly subdued element in the first season, but given the involvement of Melisandre and her "Lord of Light", it's only natural to expect it to be more openly discussed. It seems that for many people in Westeros, the idea of a belief or worship in a god or gods has become little more than a foolish superstition. I thought that Melisandre's ability to resist the poisoning attempt would serve as evidence that she is tapping into something supernatural, but apparently, Davos didn't see it that way. It seems pretty likely, at this point, that this Lord of Light really does exist. And if he exists, then there may very well be other gods as well. But still, one has to question the wisdom of actually worshiping the Lord of Light, even if he does exist.
Also, if the person who I thought was some sort of high priestess of the god I believed in were to whisper in my ear that "death by fire is the purest death", I would start to worry. I strongly suspect that Matthos Seaworth is not long for this world, and that his death will propel Davos to turn his full attention to Melisandre. Melisandre's motives are questionable, at best, and she certainly seems to have Stannis wrapped around her finger. How'd ya' like that visual of all the pieces falling all over the floor as Stannis gave himself to Melisandre? Could be some good symbolism there if I thought about it enough. Having sex with dark witches tends to result in some unusual spawn, so I suspect that this decision will come back to haunt Stannis soon enough.
Of course, I just have to make mention of that scene at Petyr's brothel somewhere in the review. In the larger context, one could argue that the scene doesn't really tell us anything we don't already know. We're already well-aware that Petyr is an absolute stone-cold bastard who will do whatever he has to do to gain power and wealth. But it's still a fantastic scene, in and of itself, and it may take on greater significance as the season progresses, depending on where Petyr's story goes. I love the way it baits the audience into thinking that Petyr may have a shred of compassion and decency in him, and then quietly morphs the scene into something deliciously evil. Petyr could have just brutishly threatened the whore--"stop crying or I'll kill you!"--but his preferred approach is just so much more terrifying and effective.
Yes, I'll admit, I thought I had ol' Craster all figured out. I thought I had a pretty good idea of where things were going with this story. Look, there goes Craster, off into the woods at night to kill that baby, or to just leave it to die of exposure and be eaten by wild animals. Oh, and there goes Jon to heroically save the baby and-- wait, what's that? What's that sound? Hey, there's the baby-- what the?! WHITE WALKER?! *SMACK* Forgive the destruction of any semblance of professional writing, but I felt that this was the best way to convey my reaction to the scene.
Absolutely no part of me expected to see a White Walker this early in the season, and especially not during that scene, oddly picking up a baby and carrying it off. I half-wondered why Craster and his brood hadn't been killed off by White Walkers yet. These creatures seem to be far more complex than I'd expected. And yes, it still irritates me to see people getting knocked unconscious so easily over and over again in modern fiction, but this does little to dampen my appreciation of what is a great twist in the plot. This certainly provides a hint of an explanation as to how Craster has managed to survive out here for so long. But what in the name of R'hllor would a White Walker want with human infants? I'm not even going to venture a guess.
This episode does feel slightly slower than the premiere, and I suppose it adds a bit of weight to the whole argument that the nudity and sex is gratuitous. I don't really mind it, and have generally found reason to defend it, but there are times when it seems to at least border on the gratuitous. For the moment, though, I consider this to be a minor complaint. This episode is another fine entry in what is almost sure to be an excellent season.John Keegan is Editor-in-Chief for Critical Myth, a partner site of SciFi Vision. Gregg Wright is Critical Myth's reviewer for Game of Thrones.