The much anticipated second season of HBO’s serialized adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s well loved novels debuts this weekend on HBO Canada. We’ve seen the first four episodes of the upcoming season, and there’s a lot that fans of the series will be happy about for this second go around.
In introducing a handful of new characters, new locales, and juggling an increasingly disparate set of plot-lines, the narrative focus in the second season has some serious heavy lifting to do. And for the most part, these challenges are deftly handled by showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. The second season nails the most important special effects, and succeeds despite a continued over-reliance on gratuitous sex.
The first season of the series concluded with a “transit” episode of sorts, and that’s where the first episode of season two picks up. Last season the show was able to be more self-contained, Tyrion’s adventures crisscrossing the continent aside, the show basically moved from Winterfell to King’s Landing while occasionally jumping around to deal with arcs involving Daenerys and Jon Snow. This season, with Jon headed north of the Wall, Dany headed west across the Red Waste, Arya travelling back to Winterfell, multiple armies camped all across the continent, and all of the goings on at court in King’s Landing, the plot has exponentially increased in breadth.
In the first episode (airing this Sunday), the show takes a “Pole-to-Pole” approach, and uses the device of a portentous comet to reintroduce us to all of the various characters and settings. In the subsequent episodes, there are characters who are entirely absent for several episodes at a time, and reappear with a major arc a bit later in the season. That’s an inevitability when dealing with a story of this scope, and to the showrunners’ credit they manage to introduce new characters and find time for some rich characterization all while dealing with the unwieldy demands of the story.
I suspect that if a viewer had missed season one, they’d have a difficult time getting “hooked” by jumping in at the premiere of the second season. As stand-alone episodes, I’m not sure any of the four I’ve seen really worked, so if you haven’t seen the television series and are entirely unfamiliar with the books – start at season one, or you’ll be all kinds of confused.
As the level of magic begins to be turned up in the series, fans have been anxious to see how the show would handle the dragons and the direwolves going forward. We suspect that our advanced copies of the episodes weren’t colour corrected and I’m pretty sure the frame-rate hasn’t been lowered yet, however, the dragons and in particular the direwolves looked awesome, and are used quite liberally. Clearly the show prioritized getting those visual effects right, and from what I’ve seen, they absolutely knocked it out of the park.
Let’s get to the question of how the series dramatizes “sex,” because the first season was criticized in some high-profile corners for descending to Spartacus levels of hollow titillation. Granted, the Song of Ice and Fire novels had their fair share of graphic sex scenes, but the first season was strikingly reliant on sex to spice up the show’s exposition. Two of the most insightful soliloquies for example (one from Viserys and another from Little Finger) took place while the characters were having, or watching intercourse. Incidentally, the only character unique to the television series is a frequently nude prostitute named Ros.
There’s a few scenes in particular that take place in Littlefingers brothel in King’s Landing where the over-the-top reliance on sex continues and one scene almost descends into parody. It begins with a man peeping in on some paid copulation, then cuts to another character peeping in on the first peeping tom and reveals that a peep show wasn’t enough for this particular customer. It’s silly, and I’m not sure it adds much to the overall texture of the show. It’s almost as if the nudity is sugar that’s being added to the Buckley’s Cough Syrup (which in this ill-fitting metaphor is the fantasy genre) simply to make the concoction more palatable for mainstream viewers.
What’s more interesting, though, is that the show chooses to dramatize and sensationalize the sex lives of several main characters. In doing so the show opens several character’s kimonos, so to speak, beyond what Martin describes in the novels. Several of these adaptive choices are very successful, and a couple are awkward and needless – though in fairness, all of it is consistent with Martin’s original characterizations.
Where the books had the luxury of being more geopolitical in focus, that’s difficult to do with a cable TV serial, which, by necessity must deal more with the personal aspects of the respective characters. One of those personal aspects are the sex lives of certain characters, and much like in the first season with the love scenes between Renly and Loras, Benioff and Weiss have decided to show us more of what is implied, but never described by Martin.
Along with the added sex scenes, there are episodes from the novel that are truncated to meet the needs of adapting a thousand page tome into a ten hour television series. Only one of these changes struck me as a missed opportunity, while I quite enjoyed several of the uniquely imagined scenes.
Overall the colourful, pointed, and courtly conversations at King’s Landings are a highlight, as is the handling of the new Davos, Melisandre, Stannis plot-line. The show cleverly conveys Stannis’ rigidness early on (hilariously so), while Davos’ basic decency and Melisandre’s creepiness are both executed flawlessly. Brienne hasn’t been given much to do (yet) in the episodes I’ve seen, but the role is really well-cast and that’s probably half the battle for the character.
From what we’ve seen Game of Thrones should handily retain its crown as the most ambitious series on television. The sheer difficulty of the attempt results in an often flawed series, but it’s a truly unique product and a consistently riveting one.