(This review includes spoilers about both seasons)
"I'm not Ned Stark, I understand the way this game is played."
-Tyrion Lannister; Episode 2, Season 2
This quote from Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) to sleazy eunuch Varys (Conleth Hill) during an exchange of subtle threats, in a way, shows us how the second season of Game of Thrones unfolds; in a web of deception, backdoor deals, opportunistic alliances, and machinations. Tyrion is probably the best at it. After what was arguably a linear first season, centered around the character of Ned Stark, it can be said that Tyrion assumes the lead of the show, as he becomes acting Hand of the King and tries, in his own peculiar way, to maintain peace and common sense in the Kingdom.
The plot, however, feels more scattered than in the first one. Whereas in the first season, we were following Stark most of the time, the second season starts and ends branched all throughout Westeros and Essos. The first season started with most of our characters in the same place: Winterfell, and then slowly sent them all on different paths. In the second season, most of the characters begin and end in the same place, with most of the characters separated, which makes the plot feel a bit flat or even stagnant, at least when compared to the first one. This isn't a slight to the show, considering how hard it would've been to top the ballsy conclusion of the first season, but I still felt that the show lacked the "highs" that the first season had.
Some of the plots that the second season follows are:
- The rise to the Iron Throne of Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), under the guidance of his mother, Queen Cersei (Lena Headey).
- The threat of aspiring kings Renly (Gethin Anthony) and Stannis (Stephen Dillane), brothers of the late King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy). Both brothers start building massive armies while plotting to take over the kingdom from each other.
- Tyrion Lannister takes Stark's place as Hand of the King, at the request of his father, Tywin (Charles Dance), and tries to knock some sense into the king, his nephew, who grows more vicious and cruel every day.
- Stark's older son, Robb (Richard Madden), marches against the armies of the Lannisters, seeking revenge for his father's murder.
- On the other side of the kingdom, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) continues her march towards King's Landing to reclaim the throne that was taken from her father, now with the help of her three baby dragons.
I felt that the subplot of Stannis was one of the least effective. Dillane did a decent job, but I don't think there was much to see there. I actually think that the character of his right-hand, Davos (Liam Cunningham), was more interesting than Stannis himself. On the other hand, kudos to Jack Gleeson for his continuing improvement in the portrayal of Joffrey. It's impressive how far the character has gone from the first season to now, and he has become one of the greatest villains I've seen on TV.
Other plots include the rest of the Starks children: Arya's captivity in Harrenhal, Sansa's enslavement within the kingdom's walls, and Jon Snow's service as part of the Night's Watch. This last subplot, despite feeling detached from the rest, actually plays a very important role in the long run. Like I read in a review on Time, Snow and Co. are "playing the show's long game" as they prepare to face the threat of the mysterious White Walkers. Kit Harrington's performance as Snow is a strong point, because he manages to convey a sense of inner tragedy and maybe some self-loathing within himself, but without overdoing it. I also thought that the interactions between Arya and Tywin Lannister were great and perfectly acted.
With so many plots and so many characters, the lack of a true protagonist could be seen as a drawback to the show. But the writers manage to flesh out the cast so much that even characters that could be thought as minors are given some depth. Characters that could've been seen as just despicable villains (like Cersei or Jaime), are given room to grow and maybe even develop empathy. This is another strong point of the show because there are really no black and white characters.
One of the best examples of this is the character of Theon Grejoy (Alfie Allen). Theon grew up along the Starks after his father was defeated by them in a previous war. Even though he grew with the Starks, Theon still carries the resent of being abandoned by his father and given away as a slave. Despite being well treated by the Starks, the inner conflict inside him arises as he is forced to choose either Robb or his father, while trying to prove himself. Those moments are some of the strongest and most powerful in the show, thanks also to Allen's portrayal. He is so great that you can almost feel how his soul is torn between the two sides. The episodes where he takes Winterfell are some of the best of the season.
But perhaps the best example of the complexity of the characters is with Tyrion. His character is as scheming and deceitful as the rest, but you can't help but root for him. Both the script and Dinklage's performance give the character such a great depth and complexity. He is arguably the smartest guy in the room and knows indeed how to "play the game". But when he forgets about the game in favor of the realm, and chooses to take the lead in the battle against Stannis, he ends up being backstabbed himself. This is the harsh truth about the game, and if it wasn't for his squire, he would've ended dead, like Stark before him. Like Cersei said in the first season, "you either win or die". I have to add that the episode that follows that battle ("Blackwater") was one of the most intense episodes of the show. Great direction, excellent effects and production values.
Overall, the season was really strong, albeit a tad below the first one. Like I said, this isn't a knock at this season, but rather a testament of how great the first one was. The high points here were the battle against Stannis, and perhaps the fall of Winterfell. The acting remained as stellar as in the first one, and the expectations for the third season are there, particularly after the chilling last shot beyond the Wall. As for this season? I'm torn between a solid A or an A-.
(All pictures belong to HBO and its affiliates)