The old gods are burning, and there's a king in every corner. A red comet streaks the sky, portending ambiguous doom, while a white raven has been sent to the capital, signifying that the long, kind summer is officially over. The wildlings are on the move in the north, armies clash in the south, and across the Narrow Sea the dragons have returned. Winter is coming, and power is power; the night is dark and full of terrors, and a Lannister always, always pays his debts.
In other words, shit is getting real. Welcome back to Game of Thrones: we've got a lot to talk about.
The very first shot of the series, back in the pilot episode, was of the opening of a gate, symbolizing our entrance into the strange world of Westeros. A great deal happened in Season One, and all of it is important, but—as I said in my review of last season's finale—what's past is prologue. Season Two opens with a shot of fighting, a fittingly violent image for this adaptation of A Clash of Kings, which promises to be a season of discord, conflict, and war. The key image from this new episode, however, is of the Old Gods burning on the beach at Dragonstorm: the old order has been upset, the previous rulers are dead, and a new generation of leaders have set about recreating the world in their own image.
But who are these leaders, and how will we know who to root for? The defining moment of last season was the death of Ned Stark (Sean Bean). Ned was our hero, not because he always did the smart thing, but because—as we discussed last season—he made his decisions based on human qualities: mercy, loyalty, and love. With his death, Game of Thrones lost its leading man, this world has lost its moral compass, and we have lost our hero.
King Robert (Mark Addy) was once a hero too, and though he ruled neither wisely nor well, he too was governed by recognizable human feelings, and so was lovable in spite of his failings. In the wake of their deaths we are left with a surplus of kings, but a shortage of feeling: there are a lot of leaders now, battling for position, but our heroes of Season Two, I suspect, will be recognizable by their humanity.
"I'm returning this room to its proper appearance. Say what you will about the Targaryans, they were conquerors. That is a seat for a conqueror." — King Joffrey
For example, there is an official ruler of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros: King Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson), First of His Name, King of the Andals, the Rhoynar, and the First Men, King of the Seven Kingdoms, Protector of the Realm.
And he's a fucking twerp. Joffrey is a monstrous boy who has been set loose, unchaperoned, in the largest playpen in the world, and he's taking sniveling, sickening delight in smashing his toys against each other. He beheaded Ned Stark for a laugh, plunging his kingdom into war, and now he sits safely in his castle pitting his knights against each other for sport. He enjoys bullying Sansa (Sophie Turner), he delights in the idea of forcing wine down the gullet of Ser Dontos (Tony Way) until the fat knight explodes, and he's making over the throne room to reflect his more vicious personality. He is, sadly, his mother's son. When Cersei (Lena Headley) is told that the capital is filling with war refugees, she simply orders the city guard to stop admitting them. "Shut the gates to the peasants," she tells them. "They belong in the fields, not in our capital."
Mercy was Ned Stark's greatest strength as a person (even if it was his greatest failure as a politician); it was what he taught his children, and it was what he tried to teach his friend Robert. But there is no mercy at all in Joffrey, and very little in Cersei: it is unclear which of them orders the murder of all Robert's bastard children, a slaughter of innocents that elevates their rule to Biblical monstrosity. It is a practical move—to eliminate any of Robert's trueborn children—but it is also, in terms of the show, a symbolic one: they set out to destroy not only the past, and Robert's legacy, but the very evidence of his passion and frailty. They are not only inhumane, they have no tolerance for humanity itself. The age of the fat, sloppy-drunk, womanizing, wonderfully human Robert—with all his forgivable failings—is over: a cold and heartless new order has descended on King's Landing.
"What do you know about warfare?" — Cersei
"Nothing. But I know about people."—Tyrion
With Cersei unable to control her demonic son, Tyrion swoops into the capital to take charge, with a swagger we've not seen in him before. (We can perhaps attribute this new confidence to his father's newfound faith in him, to his happiness with Shea [Sibil Kekilli], and to Peter Dinklage's trunk-full of well-deserved trophies from this past awards season.) Tyrion very quickly establishes the difference between himself and his family, bringing some much-needed humanity to King's Landing. His first act is to greet his niece and nephew warmly, and then to offer his sincere sympathies to Sansa on the death of her father. "Her father was a traitor," Joffrey protests. "But still her father," Tyrion says, admonishing the young king to have a modicum of sympathy.
Tyrion, forced by the circumstances of his birth into a very different view of the world from that of his siblings, has always had a capacity for sympathy that the other members of his family lack. "I have a soft spot in my heart for cripples, bastards, and broken things," he said once, and the truth is that—for a man with Tyrion's keen eye for character—nearly everyone fits one of those categories. He values humanity, and he recognizes it even in his siblings. His brother Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) loves both Cersei and Tyrion, and so is not beyond redemption, and Tyrion can even see a sliver of humanity in Cersei. "You love your children," he tells her. "It is your only redeeming value. That, and your cheekbones."
It will be interesting to see how Tyrion's humanity—note I do not say goodness—plays out against the cold inhumanity of his sister and nephew. "I understand people," he tells Cersei, and it is clear already that Cersei and Joffrey's failure to understand people may be their downfall. (The Gold Cloaks may carry out their orders in killing Robert's bastards, but they don't look happy about it, and even the Hound [Rory McCann] is siding with Sansa in trying to temper the temper of the boy king.) Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) taught his children to rule from fear, and it's a lesson Cersei learned too well. ("Power is power," she tells Littlefinger [Aidan Gillen], warning him in the most brutal way that his days of controlling the throne through information—through his understanding of people—are now over.) But Robert understood that a king can't rule without the love of his people; he even lectured Cersei, once, that the people wouldn't stand by while their rulers hid out behind stone walls and watched them die.
As Tyrion tells Shae, he has a lot of changes to make in the capital.
"Is this how you treat the gods of your fathers? Are you so eager to spit on your ancestors?" — Maester Cressen
Could there be two brothers more different than Robert and Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane)? Both were reportedly fierce warriors, but the similarities end there: where Robert was all unchecked emotion and gluttonous appetites, Stannis is lean, cold, seemingly without passion.
Stannis is the true king of Westeros—he has the most right to the throne—but there is no love in him, and—as Renly told Ned last season—“he inspires no love or loyalty." Dictating a letter to his scribe in which he lays claim to the throne, he objects to the "harmless courtesy" of calling Robert his "beloved brother." "He wasn't my beloved brother. I didn't love him, and he didn't love me," he says. "Take it out."
And yet he does inspire loyalty in at least two people. The first, Ser Davos Seaworth (the fabulous Liam Cunningham), seems to mirror Ned Stark in many ways, honorably loyal to Stannis as Ned was to Robert. When Maester Cressen (Oliver Ford Davies) points out to Davos that there are a host of men claiming the throne, Davos responds much as Ned might have done: "I don't serve the others. I serve Stannis." He sounds like Ned, and he serves the same role to Stannis that Ned did to Robert: the teller of hard truths. He advises Stannis to ally himself—at least temporarily—with either Robb Stark or Renly, but Stannis will hear none of it. He is—like his brother in this respect, at least—stubborn.
The person Stannis does listen to is Melisandre (Carice van Houten), a terrifying high priestess of the new god, The Lord of Light—“the one true god." Melisandre—who seems to be something of a witch—has decided, or determined, that Stannis is "the warrior of light," a messiah figure in this new religion that does not honor the old ways. "This woman will lead him into a war he cannot win," Cressen says, and makes an attempt on her life that backfires on him. The maesters are the scholars, the historians, the keepers of the traditions, and Cressen's death is another brutal sign that we are entering a time of revolution, when the rules and traditions of the past will be shattered.
"You are to leave Sansa in the queen's hands? And Arya?…What are we fighting for, if not for them?" — Catelyn Stark
Of all the kings and would-be kings of Westeros, only one is keeping to the old ways, honoring his ancestors, and acting out of love: Robb Stark (Richard Madden), the King of the North. He is his father's son, trying hard to live by his father's example. It is important to note that one of his demands to the Lannisters is the return of Ned's bones, and the bodies of all who fell in his service: while the other kings of Westeros are desecrating the memories of their parents and ancestors, Robb is trying to honor his.
I was lukewarm on Madden's performance last season, but here he straddles the line between boy and commander with subtlety, layering in nervousness and uncertainty beneath the exhausting pose of the warlord. Confronting Jaime with his dire wolf at his side, he is fearsome and formidable, but the mask slips—slightly—when he is with his family and intimates. "You don't have to call me 'your grace' when there's no one around," he tells Theon (Alfie Allen).
But it is with his mother Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) that he is his most human self, for she reminds him of what matters. Perhaps alone among everyone in the Seven Kingdoms, Catelyn doesn't care about war or thrones or righting wrongs: she just wants her children back. "What are we fighting for if not for them?" she asks her son, but he assures her that his strategy is the best way to ensure their safety. "We will all be together soon," he tells her. "I promise."
"He marries his daughters. What does he do with his sons?" — Jon Snow
Meanwhile, north of the wall, "a cold wind is rising." Lord Commander Mormont (James Cosmo) has led the Night's Watch north to find Benjen Stark and explore the mystery of the White Walkers, only to find that most of the wildlings have already fled. We hear rumors of yet another self-proclaimed king, Mance Rayder (a name we've heard before from Osha [Natalia Tena]), a former brother of the Watch now calling himself The King Beyond the Wall. And we meet Craster (Robert Pugh), a repellent wildling chieftain with a harem of daughter-wives and no sons. ("What does he do with his sons?" Jon Snow [Kit Harington] thinks to ask. No one has an answer, but I notice the visitors turn down Craster's offer of a hot meal.)
Of the previous generation of leaders, Mormont is almost the only one left from Season One. (Tywin Lannister is still alive, but largely off-screen.) If, as I've suggested, one of the major themes this week is the importance of honoring the old ways and the elders, Mormont is our best link to that past, the only mentor still teaching. When Jon Snow's natural arrogance puts him on the wrong side of Craster, Mormont must chastise his steward to remember his place and respect his elders. "You want to lead one day? Well, learn how to follow."
"I promised them their enemies would die screaming. How do I make starvation scream?" — Daenerys Stormborn
As the various leaders try to find new ways to lead—trying to rebuild the fractured world according to new rules—perhaps none has a tougher challenge than Daenerys (Emilia Clarke). At the end of last season, she set her people free and promised them that, if they stayed with her, it would be as "sisters and brothers, husbands and wives." She has offered them a new way of life, defended by the dragons at her side, but now she is discovering that she has led her people into a desert wasteland with no food or water to sustain them. Dragons are of little use when you can't even feed them and there's no one to fight. Even the horse Drogo gave her as a wedding gift—her last tie to her old life, and a symbol of their love—has died.
Daenerys has always tried to rule from a place of love, and she is still ruling that way. (Note how she addresses her two lieutenants, Jorah [Iain Glen] and Rakharo [Elyes Gabel] with such tenderness.) Interestingly, her kindness has never served her well. (It is a fundamental truth of Game of Thrones that good intentions seldom lead to a good outcome.) Her decision to spare the women of the Lamb Tribe last season led to her husband's death, the sacrifice of their unborn child, and the destruction of her place of safety among the khalasar.
But we root for her, as we rooted for Ned: even when their choices lead to disaster, we'd prefer our heroes to act from the heart, not the head. One of the remarkable things about this series is that Daenerys can be a hero, even though she sometimes makes stupid decisions, and even though her ultimate goal is the destruction of all of our other heroes: we relate to her emotionally, even if her plans are ill-conceived. This quality is not a question of power:Tywin, Cersei, and Joffrey have the power, but they are monsters. It is not a question of justice: Stannis has the moral authority, but he will never be a hero, for there is no love in him. It is not even a question of goodness: Tyrion is fairly immoral, but he has a warmth and a humor and a sympathetic imagination that sets him apart from his family and makes him (as the billing this season indicates) our leading man. We recognize the humanity in him, and that's the most precious commodity in Game of Thrones.
It's going to be a great season.
- Though this one is a little late, my intention is to post new reviews of Game of Thrones within 24-hours of airing: I apologize for the delay, but I am hindered by a day job and an absence of advance screener copies of the episodes. Plus, I like to think a little before discussing episodes, and—as you may have noticed—I write long posts. Bear with me.
- In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I have now read all the books to date in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, but I will keep these reviews spoiler-free and try VERY hard not to let that influence my interpretation of events. I'd ask that everyone else keep spoilers from the books out of the comments, please.
- The producers certainly know who the fan favorites are, don't they? They cruelly made us wait the entire episode for a single shot of Arya (Maisie Williams), and then treated it like a cliffhanger. She better get her due next week.
- A few nice moments and quotes I didn't mention:
- Sansa is more of a survivor than she appeared, and smarter: I liked her subtle manipulation of Joffrey, and love that the Hound jumped in to back her up.
- A nice callback to Season One: Roz (Esmé Bianco) is now giving the same training speech to new whores that she herself received from Littlefinger.
- Tyrion can't resist pointing out that it must be strange for Cersei "to be the disappointing child."
- It was good to see the wonderful Hannah Murray (Skins) as one of Craster's daughters: I hope to see more of her.
- Little Bran is now Lord of Winterfell—the starkest (no pun intended) example of how the new generation has been thrust into leadership. (He's also—it's probably worth noting—having wolf dreams.)
- I liked Cersei's observation that Baelish has created his own house sigil, a mockingbird. It's another, subtle tie-in to the episode's throughline: the ways in which this generation is remaking the world in their own image.
- Tyrion, on Shae's celebration of the smells of the city: "You can smell come from the balcony?"
- Tyrion, again: "I'm a slave to the truth."
- Finally, who didn't love seeing Cersei slap Joffrey? And I loved the way Jack Gleeson played this scene, and his quick, shame-filled look to see if the workmen saw. I'm sure there are GIFs available of this scene, but here's a screenshot to tide you over til next week.