[Note: As usual, the recap will briefly cover the episode, while the discussion may bring information in from future novels. You have been warned!]
As Tyrion cleans house in King’s Landing only to discover just how rotten things really are, the efforts to slaughter Robert’s illegitimate children reaches Yoren’s traveling party as Arya and Gendry both realize that danger still follows them despite having escaped the city. On Dragonstone, Davos Seaworth persuades an old acquaintance to throw his support to Stannis, but not without raising the ire of his son Matthos over his lack of belief in the Lord of Light, a Lord of Light who offers Stannis his heart’s desire at a price. There are different prices to be paid in different places, as Theon Greyjoy learns when he returns home after nine years as a Stark ward and finds it to be nothing like he expected… and Daenerys Targaryen discovers just how high the price can be to be the Mother of Dragons
“The Night Lands”, written by Benioff and Weiss, shares some of the same pitfalls of the first episode, which we’ve previously looked at. Part of the reason is that it’s an episode that’s still putting the pieces together for viewers, trying to wring out understandable story lines in a series crowded with story lines both old and new, and perhaps knowing just how difficult this would be to pull off successful, the showrunners took on the heavy task themselves. Yet a part of it has to be put down to miscalculations on their part. It’s no surprise that many of the best scenes come from the novels, and the worst of the scenes are a matter of invention. As I’ve said elsewhere, this episode displays some of the best and the worst that the series has to offer.
More new characters are introduced in this episode, including Gilly (very briefly seen last episode, but nameless and without any real identity), Theon’s father and sister Balon and
Asha Yara (one of the most objectionable re-naming descisions the powers that be mandated; change her name for fear it’s too similar to Osha — a character whose name is never actually given in the first season — and instead make it a name that’s similar to Arya, especially given how many of the actors pronounce the names), and the flamboyant pirate Salladhor Saan. These introductions are handled quite well, with Hannah Murray (late of the UKs Skins) standing out with her use of expression and her eyes to convey her character’s cringing fear and nervousness, Lucian Msamati bringing a tremendous energy into his role, and Patrick Malahide and Gemma Whelan laying the cards down on the table and revealing that the ironborn father and daughter are a formidable pair that will give Theon headaches. Yet the process of adaptation brings changes that have been welcomed to varying degrees.
Obviously, the character of Salladhor Saan is a Lyseni pirate, and like the people of Lys he’s quite fair haired because the blood of Old Valyria is still found there. This is so much the case that Salladhor celebrates his Valyrian heritage: his flagship is named Valyrian. And there’s an undisclosed piece of family history that will, doubtless, appear in later novels… but lets just say that we’ve indirectly heard of an ancestor of Salladhor’s (possibly a father or uncle, or perhaps a grandfather) who was known as the Old Valyrian in his time. By casting Msamati, that little detail will no doubt no longer work. And yet, in understanding that the world building should be respected, it’s interesting that it’s implicit — in his speech, and in his accent (which ties into something seen in episode 4) — that he may be based in Lys, but he is not in fact natively from there. This strikes a happy medium as far as respecting the impressive world-building that Martin has devoted to the series while giving the show freedom to cast excellent actors in exciting roles. Saan may not be the older, eccentric mentor figure of the novel, but he has a charisma that makes it easy to understand why he and Davos would be friends, or something like it.
The personality of Yara is, on the other hand, something that’s found fans more upset. The character in the novel is quite a “loud” figure — always throwing off quips, grinning her way with laughter in her heart, bold and brash — and Gemma Whelan has taken a more understated approach. The novel’s character is one who has to out-macho the ironborn reavers to win their respect, while the TV show’s character apparently has secured her place long ago and does not need to boast or show off to earn the respect of her peers. For my part, I found Whelan’s performance interesting, but it’s early still to decide how the character will be used across the season (and, indeed, the series; she recently revealed to Access Hollywood that she’s on board for season 3 of the show). If they stick too closely to Asha’s story without adjusting it to take into account her different demeanor and persona, there could be some dissonance between the vaguely dour Yara and the never-dour Asha.
Other things have been changed as this episode progresses, not necessarily for the better… but lets come back to a favorite bugbear of the critics when it comes to the show: sex, its depiction, and what it says. Myles McNutt’s “sexposition” term now merits a Wikipedia entry, but as he discusses in his own analysis of the episode there’s really only one example of sexposition in this episode, and that’s the Theon scene which basically takes Martin’s own introductory scene for the episode in A Clash of Kings and adapts it to the screen (though why they didn’t take the chance to stick to it more closely, and make it a homage to Al Swearengen’s infamous monologues, we remain unsure). The other scenes, three in total, really play quite different functions. First, of course, is the highly gratuitous follow up to Theon’s scene: an erotic tableau at Littlefinger’s inn, which exists solely for us to discover that a patron is watching the scene voyeuristically while his own needs are taken care of… and then he, in turn, is being watched by Littlefinger. Turning Littlefinger into pimp who spends more time at the brothel than at the Red Keep is an interesting take on the character, but it does play into the way that Littlefinger collects his secrets and gets his hold over others. At the same time, the repeated voyeurism of this scene reminds viewers that we’re voyeurs as well…
But then it has the wind taken out of it by turning the last moments of it into a gross bit of humor suitable for the frat house. In an episode that features a fart joke as well, perhaps I shouldn’t be so shocked by this, but it still strikes me as odd that the writer would go this way with it. It’s a very mixed message they’re sending to viewers, and it’s one that could very well have been done without. After all, Littlefinger’s following scene with the weeping Ros is the real crux of why we’re in the brothel: we’re illuminating him, and by extension the sex trade, and having all this come after three separate voyeuristic instances of sex followed by a visual gag worthy of Dumb and Dumber or There’s Something About Mary, it loses something. Poor editing and, one might say, poor taste combined to weaken something that was on the face of it quite strong; Aidan Gillen’s declaration of how his bad investments haunt him was chilling, in the context, and is one of the most memorable scenes of the episode.
But then, against that lost opportunity, we have a gorgeous scene between Varys and Dinklage. For my money, Peter Dinklage and Conleth Hill are the two actors who most inhabit the characters they’re playing, and they pull it off magnificently; that may be why their voices, out of all the cast, are the only ones that sometimes intrude when I’m reading “A Song of Ice and Fire” and fit themselves to the words of their characters. Here the writers have done a fine job of adaptation: they’ve taken a great bit of dialog from the novel, and placed it in a different context that still fits. In the novel, Varys’s “paddling” line follows Tyrion’s anger that Varys hadn’t informed him that Cersei (yes, Cersei, not Joffrey) had sent the gold cloaks after the illegitimate children, but here it follows a direct conflict of implied and not so implied threats, a reminder from Varys to Tyrion that he knows and sees all (or would like him to believe so, in any case). It’s very well-handled, from the blocking of the scene to even the little movements, such as Varys’s finger stopping Tyrion from opening the door. Well-played, writers, director Alan Taylor (who will be directing again for episode 8 and 10), and of course the actors.
Last of all, the wrap-up of this episode, a little cliffhanger after the fashion of… well, George R.R. Martin. I would have wished that they had not, in fact, done that. Not because I mind a cliffhanger, but because I mind something Martin left as something of a mystery for awhile. It’s a great danger for the show to rush — as, in retrospect, it did with the Stannis and Melisandre moment, one that takes something implied in the novel but only recently confirmed — to pull back the curtain too early, to not let the imagination of the viewers fill in the gaps. They’re leaving precious little for people to speculate on, when every thing is laid out right on the table (as, uh, happened in the Stannis and Melisandre scene). Does it work as a cliffhanger? Sure. But is it the best approach for this show? I would suggest not. I think this show has such a presence in social media, on forums and blogs and Twitter and so on, that it would be great if they left more for viewers to dissect and discuss than they’re presently doing.
Next episode, “What is Dead May Never Die”, is one Linda and I consider a step-up from the first two episodes… and also features our very favorite moment in those first four episodes, so we’ll be interested in seeing what everyone thinks of it!