I know I’ve had the odd bit of criticism for Game of Thrones over the last three seasons – as a fan of the books it would be almost a miracle not to – but more than anything, I think you have to marvel at how this series consistently brings it. In many ways I think it could be argued that this series is even harder to adapt than the supposedly impossible-to-adapt Lord of the Rings – it certainly has more characters and storylines to balance, and much less of a conventional good and evil narrative to cling to. But GoT manages to tell a cogent and compelling story, week after week.
I think it’s also worth singling out the adaptation for the way it reworks the novels into a form that works with episodic television. I love the artful thematic structure it gives to many episodes – we saw it last week with “The Wall”, and “Second Sons” is an even better example. Of course it’s the name of the sellsword company Danerys is dealing with in Yunkai, but trace the episode from start to finish and you see it repeated over and over:
- The Hound, Sandor Clegane
- Tyrion Lannister
- Stannis Baratheon
- Samwell Tarly
In the world of Game of Thrones (and indeed, most any medieval setting) being a second son is a considerable burden, both for rich and poor. Second sons generally don’t inherit their fathers’ lands, titles or business – and very often, don’t see much of their affection, either. This episode (which thematically could and perhaps should have included Jon Snow, for that matter) was a tale of these outsiders, cast aside and disrespected if not outright disdained by fate.
“Second Sons” was also the most tightly focused Game of Thrones episode since “Blackwater”, with the entire episode spent on three storylines apart from short bookends at either end of the episode. But those bookends were important, starting with Arya’s meeting with Sandor Clegane. Of all the characters in GoT, The Hound is among the most misunderstood – though be brings much of it on himself, no doubt. In truth it’s a stretch to call him a good man, but as he tells Arya, “There’s far worse than me.” She’s stunned when he says he plans to take her to The Twins, and her family rather than King’s Landing (“Fuck Joffrey. Fuck the Queen.”). And even more when he reveals that he saved Sansa from rape and violence on many occasions. I’m saddened that the excellent Rory McCann hasn’t been given a chance to shine, as the Hound isn’t as prominent as he was in the books, but he’s likely going to get his opportunity now.
The first of the three major settings this week is King’s Landing, where Tyrion is preparing to wed Sansa. This entire scenario is every bit as dreadful and uncomfortable as it should be, but the sad thing is Tyrion is a far better man than the one Sansa was almost forced to marry, if only she could see past her shallow prejudices. He wants this no more than she does, and Shae’s constant presence only makes things that much worse (and more uncomfortable for the viewer). There’s one moment in the episode where Tyrion makes Sansa laugh – when he asks her if she drinks when and she replies “When I have to.” his respons is “Today you have to.”
Tyrion was probably the standout of the first two seasons, but he’s been somewhat flat this season, outshined by other characters – but this was his breakout moment. There was never any doubt of Peter Dinklage’s ability to be as good as the material he’s given to work with, and the wedding day is pretty brilliant stuff. There’s the white-hot venom from Cersei to Margaery, with whom she shares the cautionary tale of “The Rains of Castermere” – the story of the Reynes family, and what happens when you cross Tywin Lannister. There was the wedding itself, with Joffrey in his finest cruel and vile humor, taking Tyrion’s step-stool away and threatening to rape Sansa on her wedding night. Tyrion grows increasingly drunk as the hideous occasion drones on, finally threatening to cut off Joffrey’s cock – though he’s sober enough to step back from the edge and laugh it all off at his own expense.
Best of all, though, is the scene in Tyrion and Sansa’s bedchamber – tragic, tense, brutal to watch. Tyrion’s skin may be thick but he’s not above being hurt, and seeing Sansa’s obvious disgust cuts him deeply. As she slowly undresses and he stares at her the tension mounts, until finally he stops her – promising they won’t share a bed until she wishes it. “What if I never wish it?” she asks. Tyrion doesn’t respond, only smiles and offers “And so my watch begins.” Sansa doesn’t realize how lucky she is, truth be told.
In Yunkai, Dany has her first meeting with the Second Sons (this sequence is much rearranged from the books), a sellsword company hired by the slavers to protect them from Dany’s Unsullied army. There are two Captains and a third man, a Lieutenant named Daario Naharis (Ed Skrein, channeling a young Fabio). We continue to see Danerys’ evolution as a leader, but there’s no question that she’s often helped by the power of her beauty – and so it is with Daario Naharis, who also sees in her the potential for many future successful battles and riches to be won. Dany is at this point a curious blend of naiveté and cunning, of idealism and raw practicality. She’s very much a work in progress, and cutting a swathe through the slave states beyond the Narrow Sea is a graduate-level training program for the task she has before her.
Getting some much needed screen time is Stannis and his thread, as Melissandre welcomes Gendry to Dragonstone. I’m not a huge fan of the way this storyline has been changed for the adaptation, and of the fact that it finds a way to mine yet another needless kinky sex scene out of it. But it does offer us a terrific scene between Stannis and Davos, still in his dungeon trying to learn how to read. Davos is a really compelling character, a profoundly decent and courageous man who never loses sight of his duty to speak his mind to his Lord. Stannis knows full well what Melissandre has in mind for Gendry, and Davos catches on quickly enough. He also catches on to the fact that the reason Stannis chose this of all days to visit him and offer him a chance at freedom is because there’s a part of Stannis that’s as horrified by what his sorceress has planned as he should be.
This is the sort of scene that’s desperately needed to give some balance to Stannis’ character, which has been somewhat one-dimensionally pathetic in the TV version. He, like Dany and indeed all who seek to rule Westeros, is faced continually by hard choices, of trying to justify means by the end in sight. Davos’ undying faith in Stannis and his willingness to speak his mind even when it might cost him his head (“Bordering on none” is how he describes his regard for his own life) are like the last lifeline connecting Stannis to the ideals he started this struggle with. In a sense I think Davos sees Stannis as the person Stannis would like to be, and usually isn’t. And it’s apparently Davos’ intervention that spared Gendry temporarily from being sacrificed (“I’m not a learned man. Is there a difference between killing and sacrifice?”), though his actual fate is hardly a pleasant one. Stannis instead asks Melissandre for proof of the power in a King’s blood – and as a test, he utters three names as he tosses the leeched filled with said blood onto the fire.
Finally, we have a short but truly superb visit North of The Wall, where Sam and Gilly are making their way with agonizing slowness towards Castle Black. Sam is another one of those characters who stands out like an odd sock in this cast, and his conversations with Gilly about baby names and such are both funny, sad and rather moving. He can’t even get a fire started or properly explain the concept of given and family names to Gilly, but when he pleads with her not to name her baby “Randall” – his father’s name – it’s clear she understands Sam on some level. The climax is a gathering of crows on the snowy night, as Sam and Gilly huddle inside a ruined hut (she ends up starting the fire). In a marvelous slow build of suspense the crows outside become louder and louder, prompting Sam to investigate, then stop in an instant – as a figure appears in the trees, slowly making its way towards Gilly and the baby.
This is a moment readers of the books have been waiting for – and for a while worrying we might not see – and it doesn’t disappoint. It’s scary as hell when the White Walker appears, and shatters Sam’s sword before sending him flying. As he closes on Gilly and baby, Sam turns to the one weapon he has left – his small Dragonglass dagger – and to his astonishment one blow from it causes the White Walker to shatter like glass and scatter like snow in the wind. Yes, Sam the Slayer has arrived at last – and he showed great courage when he had to, considering he had to assume his attack would be a futile one. As Mark Twain said, courage is simply the willingness to be afraid and act anyway, and we’ve seen courage in the oddest places at times this season.
(Note: Game of Thrones is on hiatus next week for Memorial Day)