The second episode of the Clash of Kings season of Game of Thrones, entitled “The Night Lands,” is extremely well developed, but it’s also the most gratuitously smutty of the four episodes of season two that Dork Shelf has seen. We get lots of Tyrion, we get some fun original scenes, we’re introduced to a colorful pirate in Sallador San and we finally get to glimpse Pyke (which looks fantastic) and the Iron Islands. The culture of the Iron Islands is, distinct from the more traditional Westerosi cultures the viewer has spent most of their time engaged with, but the show does very well to convey the most important aspects of the viking-like culture of the islands in limited screen time.
“The Night Lands” opens where episode one concluded, with Arya, Gendry and Yoren taking the King’s Road north to bring a cadre of new recruits to join the Night’s Watch. Arya approaches a barred prisoners coach, where three particularly dangerous recruits are being transported at the behest of one of the prisoners, a relatively good looking fellow named Jaqen.
When one of the prisoners taunts her, she beats on the cage with a stick causing Jaqen to observe “the girl has more courage than sense,” it’s a refrain echoed shortly afterwards by Gendry, who responds to Arya’s claim that they “don’t scare me” with the reproach “then you’re stupid – they scare me.” This isn’t the first time that the series has explored the dichotomy between real courage and stupidity. Last season Theon Greyjoy asked Robb Stark if he was scared about marching south, and when Robb responded affirmatively, Theon’s response was similar to Gendry’s in this episode “that good – that means you’re not stupid.”
That theme rears it head again just moments later when Yoren threatens and disarms two Gold Cloaks who have ventured out from King’s Landing in search of Gendry. Gendry as the viewer knows from the end of the premiere episode, is being hunted by these “Gold Cloaks” (members of the City Watch) because, as a bastard of Robert Baratheon, he poses an indirect threat to Joffrey’s claim to the Iron Throne.
Of course, according to Yoren the “gutter-rats” in his possession “belong to the Night’s Watch – outside the reach of Kings and Queens,” and not only is he uncooperative, he threatens to “nick” one of the Gold Cloak’s arteries with a blade so sharp he could “shave a spiders arse with it.” Yoren’s act of defiance is courageous, but in letting the two Gold Cloaks go (as opposed to doing the dishonourable, but intelligent thing and murdering them on the spot) is he inviting a reprisal?
From there the action shifts to King’s Landing, where Tyrion comes upon his secret lover (and most apparent weakness) Shae in conversation with the Master of Whispers, Varys. Varys, played by Conleth Hill was a highlight of the first season, and he’s picked up right where he left off so far in season two. His velvety, sinister cadences are perfect for a man of secret motivations, and wily cunning – and I really enjoyed his repartee with both Shae “I don’t think Varys likes fish pie” and Tyrion “Ned Stark was an honourable man… and I am not.”
In his conversation with Varys, Tyrion of course delivers an all important line when he declares that he’s not Ned Stark and understands “the way this game is played.” That becomes quickly apparent over the course of this episode, Tyrion mocks his sisters clumsy efforts at governance “you have a deft hand with diplomacy,” is the only member of the small council who foresees the essential nature of the growing threat from the North, and he manages to do something to address it while also ridding the Small Council of a Cersei loyalist when he exiles Janos Slynt to Castle Black towards the end of the episode.
I especially enjoyed the way the members of the small council immediately disregarded the letter from Lord Commander Mormont, telling of wights and the desperate need for more men to man the wall. The total disregard for the importance of that particular theatre and institution is telling – it’s doubtful that many of the privileged members of court have ever been that far North. That disconnect seems as if it may end up being quite costly for the seven kingdoms, especially considering the reappearance of the White Walkers in the episodes final scene.
On Cersei and governance, the series has done a good job of making her sound like a total goon whenever she discusses the nature of power and how to wield it. When Tyrion informs her that she’s “Losing the people,” she responds with “you think I care,” which, tells us most of what we need to know. Her explication that “ruling is lying on a bed of weeds, pulling them out by the root before they strangle you in your sleep” is particularly paranoid and off-base and Tyrion’s simple rejoinder “I think there’s more to ruling than that,” is pitch-perfect. Her admonition of Tyrion, that Jaime and himself have “never taken it seriously, it’s all fallen on me” was particularly revealing as well, because Cersei is so clearly unable to differentiate between the pursuit of power and maintaining it.
Meanwhile, in the great white North, the men of the Night’s Watch are ogling Craster’s daughters. Oddly enough it’s none other than Sam who has hatched a plan to save one of the Craster’s daughters/wives in Gilly (played by the lovely Hannah Murray, who was awesome in the British version of Skins). When Jon Snow tries to reason with Sam, and try to prevent him from “stealing” her from Craster, Sam objects “you can’t steal her, she’s a person not a goat.”
Sam’s rejection of Jon’s use of the word “steal” is also a rejection of the normative values of personhood held by Craster, and, we can assume, the Wildlings more generally. Tarly’s universalist sentiment about personhood, triumphing over Westerosi norms is echoed shortly thereafter by Daenerys who assures a female member of her Khalasar that her recently butchered lover’s soul cannot be killed, and that her deceased companion will ride again in “the Night Lands” regardless of what Dothraki traditional has taught her.
A quick side-note, when I saw George R. R. Martin “In Conversation…” about a month ago, he was asked if there was a non-point of view character in the books whose perspective he wished he’d included in the text. He mentioned Robb Stark briefly, but suggested that one thing he regretted was having never written a chapter from the perspective of a Dothraki character. The result, is that readers only receive an outsider account of Dothraki culture, and one that the likes of Edward Said may object too. I thought that was really interesting at the time, and was reminded of it by the brief expression of how Dothraki religion works in tonight’s episode.
Let’s get to the gratuitous sex, which begins on the ship that Theon is being ferried to the Iron Islands on. Below deck, Theon has taken the daughter of the ship’s captain for a play thing. For the most part, I thought this scene was generally worthwhile – it allowed for some characterization of Theon (as an imperious douche) and introduced the concept of “salt wives” which, gives the audience a quick hint as to how the values of the Iron Islanders work.
From there, we’re taken on a totally ridiculous cutscene. We go from the aspiring salt wife struggling with the girth of Theon’s manhood, to a two-way peep show in Littlefinger’s brothel that is immediately followed by Littlefinger wiping the semen off of one of his “whores” faces, before getting her to makes out with a dissatisfied client. I guess they were playing that up for a laugh, maybe even having fun at the critics of the shows overreliance on sexposition, but the result is basically absurd.
While the scene seemed unnecessary, I loved the original scene between Ros and Littlefinger. Ros, understandably, is still traumatized by seeing Janos Slynt execute an infant in her presence, and while Littlefinger at first seems to be interested in comforting her, his condolences quickly turn into a threatening reprimand. Littlefinger has been made out to be more explicitly a “bad guy” in the television series than he was in the books, and that continues here with his “losses were mitigated” soliloquy. Personally, I dig it.
We then catch up with Theon and his disastrous return to Pyke – his fine wine is mocked as “woman’s drink,” his attire is lambasted by his father, “I won’t have my son dressed as a whore,” and to make matters worse he accidentally diddles his sister. Theon’s horseback fingerbang of his sister Yara is appreciably more graphic in the series than it was in the books, and I’m not sure what that adds except shock value. Generally, I think it just makes the audience consider Yara a total weirdo (why would she allow that to happen?) and I’m not really sure that suits her characterization going forward.
The scenes with Theon and Balon Greyjoy (where Theon realizes who he was just fooling around with) were pretty awesome, and introduced some difficult concepts effectively. The idea of the “Iron Price” is really important for understanding the Iron Islander’s viking-like ways, and having Balon strip Theon of his “baubles” was a good way of conveying just how anti-social and stubborn the Iron Islanders preferred method of economic interaction is. The way Balon grasped his daughter, as if she were the true heir to the Iron Isles, also helped to make it crystal clear to the audience how distinct the culture is in this corner of Westeros.
Speaking of distinct cultures, it was hard not to enjoy Davos’ recruitment of the Lysene pirate Salladhor Saan (and Saan’s interactions with Davos’ hard-liner son). Davos brings Salladhor on board to Stannis’ cause with the promise of gold, plunder, and glory to which Salladhor responds by observing that his name would fit well into the lyrics of heroic songs. The scene was more about giving the audience some characterization for Davos (who is an illiterate, and godless realist) but I enjoyed it otherwise. You have to think that Salladhor has some potential to provide occasional comic relief in this series.
While the whorehouse scene and Theon’s dirty horsebacking were silly and gratuitous, the episodes other original sex scene – the one between Stannis and Melisandre – did well to add a certain amount of texture of the series. Stannis and his Red Priestess never interact in a coital fashion in the books, though it is implied, and (partial spoiler alert) considering the power of Melisandre’s womb later on in the series – constructing her as a more explicitly sexual creature makes a good deal of sense.
To top it off, how cool is that martial map of Westeros in Stannis’ council chambers? The “painted table” is so, so awesome. That map is even cooler than the Iron Throne, and having two characters knock boots on it was a solid artistic choice.
In the final scene, we’re reintroduced to the real threat to the safety of Westeros, when Jon Snow catches Craster sacrificing a male infant to what appears to be a White Walker. Craster’s habit of marrying his daughters is creepy enough, but his habit of sacrificing his sons to vicious magical creatures puts his “that dudes scares me witless” quotient over the top.
Viewed as a whole, “The Night Lands” drove the main plot forward while developing some normative values among three distinct cultures that fall outside the Westerosi mainstream (Wildlings, Iron Islanders, Dothrakis). The episodes in this season continue to be unbelievably busy, jumping across continents several times per episode. I’m curious to see what will happen when the show finally decides to do more self-contained episodic chapters, and convinced that will ultimately need to occur; that said, I remain very impressed by Game of Thrones’ juggling ability.