Game of Thrones Season 2 avoids the only real real problem that dragged the first season down for a few episodes–an over-reliance on early exposition. The first season started slow. Though eventually the action got pretty intense, we first had to sit through four episodes or so of people talking about things that happened in the past, rather thna making things happen in the present.
The second season jumps right in to the action. Though there are scenes of exposition, they are scattered more evenly throughout, and never bog down the story. There’s never an uneventful episode.
Where in the last season there was one king, now there are six kings (though only five appear this season), and one queen, and each one wants the crown. Since these are proud, egomaniacal men, compromise and sharing are out of the question. The only recourse is a long, brutal, and terrifying civil war where dark sorcery and court intrigue are just as key to victory as battles and strategy.
The acting is just as great as usual. The standouts this season are Arya (Maisie Williams) and Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), who add much needed comedy to a show that is at times almost absurdly dark and grim (the fourth episode, in particular, was waaay over the top, even for HBO). Peter Dinkalge has already won an emmy for his work on this show; but his work last season, while good, is nothing compared to the riveting performance he turns in this time around. He also gets to share a lot of time with Lena Headey, playing his sister, the queen, which is fortunate, because her performance, while far more subdued, is just as impressive.
There are quite a few new faces as well, including the old king’s younger brother, Stannis Baratheon, a cold, somber man who seems to view being king as his mission from God and will take down anyone who stands in his way. He is played excellently by Stephen Dillane. There is something about the off-hand, methodical almost emotionless way he goes about his business that is almost as frightening as rival king Joffrey’s wanton ruthlessness.
Fans of the book will notice an exponentially greater number of deviations from the source material this season. And that can become problematic, as not all the deviations make sense.
The fact is that the second book in the series this show is based on, a Song of Ice and Fire, is much more complex than the first one. And even with ten hours to work with, they just don’t have enough time to fit everything is. Especially when they spend at least one of those hours with prostitutes and sex scenes in some sort of misguided attempt to raise their ratings.
The show does its best to cut corners and streamline things, and sometimes it is successful. As in the first season, some of the best scenes are scenes that were NOT in the book. Theon Greyjoy’s beheading of a prisoner is among the most memorable and powerful highlights of season 2, and some characters, like Robb Stark, are actually given more “screen time” and character development than they were in Martin’s novels.. Unfortunately, a lot of the show’s plot holes are a result of trying to cut too many corners, and in the wrong places. The fact is there is simply too much story and not enough time to do it justice.
Arya’s story is like a roller coaster of ups and downs. It is at turns captivating and baffling, engaging and confusing. At one point she steals a letter from the leader of the Lannister army and is caught in the act, red-handed. It’s a suspensful scene, but just what was she hoping to do with that letter? Just what did that letter say? The show never tells us. We do get some nice scenes between her and Tywin that manage to be amusing, suspenseful, and intriguing all at the same time.
Far more consistent (and not in a good way) is Danaerys’ storyline in Qarth, a city where logic and reason go to die. Admittedly, Dany’s storyline in the second book was pretty dull, but here, while moderately more interesting, it is painfully inconsistent and underexplained. Worse, Daenerys Targaryen (the exiled queen with a name out of a spelling-bee contestant’s worst nightmare) begins to act a little to much like her petulant, psychotic brother from the first season. Starving in the desert, with an army of about about 20 men, she has the gall to threaten a city full of armed guards with “fire and blood” if they refuse to open their gates to her. In fact her response to any difficult situation seems to be to spout implausible threats and make grand promises, neither of which she has even the slightest chance of fulfilling. She comes off not as a commanding dragpn-queen, but rather as a spoiled little girl who can’t deal with being told “no.” She’s pretty lucky they didn’t just shoot her right then. She doesn’t really hit her stride until the finale, and by then it’s far, far too late.
The finale, far from being the dramatic highpoint of last season, was in all honesty a let-down, the biggest letdown of the season, providing more confusing and disjointed plot points than dramatic closure. A certain city is burned to the ground, but although this is a pivotal event that should have been the highlight of the finale, we never learn who is responsible or even get to see what happened. Is this a mystery that’s going to be solved in the next season? Maybe; but after all the plot holes this season left us with, it’s hard to give the writers the benefit of the doubt this time around. There’s a time and a place for mystery, but at least take the time to make sure your viewers realize that what’s going on IS a mystery, and not just another unexplained plot development like the ones in Qarth.
The show’s dramatic high point comes an episode before, in what is unquestionably the season’s brightest moment (in both a literal and metaphorical sense). While the first season had an annoying tendency to skip over all the big battles, here we actually get to see exactly one epic battle. And epic it is. It’s on par with the siege of Helm’s deep in the Lord of the Rings, and when you stop to consider that this is just television show, that’s pretty awesome. The season tagline is “War is Coming”, and Game of Thrones does not disappoint on that count–war, when it finally does make its way onto the screen, is well worth the wait.
The season disappointed me–but then again, my expectations were unreasonably high. The first season of Game of Thrones was, in my opinion, better than the first book, but here the reverse is the case. The second book in the series improved on the first, and the show just couldn’t keep up. It’s still high quality stuff, and if you haven’t read the second book, the thrill of not knowing what happens next will probably be enough to outweigh the frustration the plot holes and occasional character inconsistencies produces.
This season has great action scenes, better than the first season’s. It’s got sharper dialogue, swifter plotting, and manages to mix a little dark humor in amongst all the grime and blood.