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Review: Game of Thrones, Season 2 Episode 2

Posted by msunyata on Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Based off of George R.R. Martin’s 1,000-page opus A Clash of Kings, the second season of HBO’s Game of Thrones takes the first year’s intricate plot lines, character shadings, and thematic undercurrents and simultaneously expands and deepens them to a ridiculously exponential degree. Or, at least, it’s supposed to – the actual doing just may prove to be a ways off from the source material’s being.

This column (It Is Known: An Analysis of Thrones) acts as a companion piece to both series, novel and television, analyzing the continuing story of the War of the Five Kings – and how it fares in the transition from the page to the screen. What it will not do is spoil the story; the hope and intent is elucidation, not ruination.

Given the twists and turns, betrayals and sacrifices that await in the next nine episodes, such illumination will be needed.

It is known.

 

Episode 202: “The Nightlands”

One of the great joys of Game of Thrones, besides watching (more often than not) strong actors bring 15-year-old characters to life, has been, as previously noted, simply being immersed in the show’s locations. King’s Landing has consistently been realized not only as a beautiful and, oftentimes, exotic locale, but also as a fully believable city teeming with dirty peasants and backstabbing lordlings. The Wall is expansive and grungy and, oddly, intimate, while the Eyrie last season was absolutely striking.

This year, despite the grand introduction of King Stannis’s Dragonstone, the environment that has – thus far, at least – been the most impressive is the Iron Islands, home of the ruling Greyjoys (in all their glory and dysfunction). Pyke brims with a level of detail that is staggering, from the dirty quays to the ancient squid carved in the mantle of Lord Balon’s fireplace. And the visuals are perfectly complemented with resoundingly solid performances from the dockhand to Balon Greyjoy himself (though the jury is still out on Yara, Theon’s sister, due partially to a severely truncated part and partially to Gemma Whelan, the actress cast to portray her).

What makes the location’s presence onscreen all the more captivating is the strictly limited scope the producers had to work within. Unlike the soaring spectacles of 700-foot-tall walls or mountainous castles replete with sky cells, the Iron Islands are a dismal place to try and eke out a living; violence and plunder are the name of the day, not architecture or landscaping or, even, farming. Capturing that essence while still spinning an enticing web for viewers is a precarious balance, and Thrones’s entire staff, from the producers on down, should be commended for their efforts.

 

The Differences between the Novel and the Episode

They should also, however, be castigated.

“The Nightlands” features an unusually large amount of fabricated elements, which easily makes it the most contained in a single episode thus far. They range from names (Ser Alton Lannister, the Starks’ gopher, is actually Ser Cleos Frey, who married into the Lannister family tree, and, much more infamously, Yara Greyjoy is really Asha Greyjoy) to deaths (Rakharo has yet to shuffle off of this mortal coil, even after five books [neither has Daenerys’s horse, Silver, who perished in the previous ep] – although Dany’s handmaiden Doreah did die early in book two, which may be the showrunners playing a small game of switcheroo) to cut-and-paste jobs (Tyrion’s pet sellsword Bronn is named the commander of the City Watch in the series, while, in the novels, it is a newly-introduced character).

But the most blatant change of them all revolves around one simple (sex) scene. On the page, the exact relationship between King Stannis Baratheon and Lady Melisandre of Asshai is left very deliberately nebulous, even across literally thousands of pages. Is there a sexual undercurrent to their religious alliance, and, if so, how high does that tide reach? Is Melisandre a temptress carnally in addition to politically? Is this perhaps the one single character flaw of Stannis (well, besides a decided lack of empathy), a man who displays his morality and honor even more ostentatiously than did Eddard Stark?

Many a brawl has been started in nerd bars over this very issue throughout the course of the past 14 years – and in one fell swoop, showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss strip this character relationship and story thread of all mystery, possibility, and, most importantly, of subtlety. To their credit, the writer-producers do attempt to mitigate this depiction by establishing that (a) Stannis is exceedingly reluctant to break his marriage vows and only does so by (b) being promised sons. Still, the decision to be so thoroughly blatant underscores Weiss and Benioff’s approach to Martin’s material: leave nothing to interpretation. Be as overt as possible, as often as possible (never mind that the books have a heaping helping of blood, sex, and violence already). Degrade instead of compliment the audience and its capacity, as well as its thirst, for being challenged. It’s a damn shame.

Manifestations of this fundamental mentality sprout up all over the place, from the creation of the character Ros to the montage of Gold Cloaks slaughtering King Robert Baratheon’s bastards (which happens “off-screen” and, more than likely, in-between books in Martin’s version) at the end of “The North Remembers” (episode 201). It also rears its ugly head in the form of “The Nightland’s” cliffhanger ending: Jon Snow watching Craster offer up his infant son to the Others – including his actually seeing a White Walker – and then being clubbed in the back of the head. Needless to say, the entire sequence is completely manufactured, without any trace of an antecedent in the original material.

And it is precisely for this reason that the scene rings so hollowly. Beheading Rakharo or drowning toddlers may make for incredibly graphic – and, therefore, titillating – set pieces, but they are also extensions of Martin’s story, in one slightly twisted form or another, and, because of this, they reverberate up and down the entirety of the narrative structure, simultaneously presaging and remembering. Jon’s false danger is exactly that – false, coming of and leading to nothing (unless, of course, the producers plan on erecting an entirely different plot for the remainder of the season [not to mention the series]). It is a sloppy, not to mention gratuitous, way to end the episode… and it conveniently ignores the subtle fact that the quiet endings are typically the most poignant (anyone remember “The Kingsroad” [102]?).

It, once again, is a damn shame.

 

Expanding the Story It Is Known: An Analysis of Thrones, Vol. I is a giant concentration of Marc N. Kleinhenz’s examinations of Games of Thrones, from its cinematographic missteps to its adaptive evolutions. It also features a few words from some leading George R.R. Martin experts, adding to the pervasive chorus.

And when he’s not covering the television show for Coming Attractions (or ebook compilations), Marc is deconstructing the book series for Song of Ice and Fire mega-sites ToweroftheHand.com and Westeros.org. This past week, he crossed the streams and lead the TOTH editors in an in-depth conversation about “The Nightlands”… although it is riddled with spoilers.

 

The Lore behind the Iron Throne

 

Previous It Is Known Installments

 

[Marc N. Kleinhenz has written for 18 sites, including IGN, Gamasutra, and Nintendojo, where he co-hosts the Airship Travelogues podcast. He also likes mittens.]

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