Reviewer Kieran Mathers returns to examine HBO’s new epic fantasy series. Have things improved after last week’s disappointments? Read on to find out! Once again, we’re issuing a mild spoiler warning. If you missed Kieran’s review of Episode 1, you can find it here. New to Game of Thrones? Check out our primer!
It’s very much an episode of two or possibly three halves this week. While Bran lies unconscious in the tower, looked after by Lady Haversham Stark, the rest of the family plan to leave the boy and head towards King’s Landing.
Meanwhile, we’re treated to the on-going trials of Daenerys Targaryen and her marriage to Khal Drogo. This is depicted very graphically in the books and I like how the show manages to hint at the difficulties she is facing without being overly graphic. The strongest scene of this episode is probably the conversation between Daenerys and Ser Jorah, which ends with his line, ‘It gets easier’. You really get the impression that the actors are beginning to find the meter of the language and, although the show still has a tendency to deviate into strange moments of exposition, some naturalism is beginning to creep into the performances.
Then we’re back in Winterfell and enough time has passed to give Lady Stark the chance to go utterly loopy. Now, this is a gripe I’ve always had with the book and the show makes it even harder to ignore; why does Lady Stark, ruler of the Winterfell and wife to the warden of the North, mentally disintegrate when her son is injured? At no point in the previous episode does she seem so fragile but here she seems unable to cope, despite the fact that she is quite clearly told the time of greatest danger has passed. Why hasn’t this happened before? Why is she held in such high esteem when she’s so prone to a breakdown? Why did Ned Stark marry her in the first place? Nor is the character well served by her vicious and seemingly unjustified hatred of Jon Snow. Wouldn’t she just be happy to see the back of him, when he sets out on his quest to join the Night’s Watch? Apparently not…
But then, halfway through the episode, the assassin arrives and she is cured of her grief. Again this does not make much sense. It takes the cutting open of her palms for her to realise she’s being, at best, self indulgent and, at worst, totally and utterly useless. So there you go – the moral of this week’s episode: assassins are the best therapists.
Speaking of Jon Snow, the interplay between him and the more playful Tyrion is another highlight of this episode, as Peter Dinklage once again nails every single line he is given. When he says ‘A mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone’ you can see the effect that this has upon the intensely serious Jon.
I’m surprised that the weakest of the Stark children is not the youngest. Richard Madden’s continually stilted performance does the character of Robb Stark no favours and I wonder if this could be due to whatever artistic direction he’s being given, since Kit Harrington plays Jon Snow with the same humourless demeanour. It doesn’t work for me as it just makes Robb seem dull. Considering what he’s going to do in the future, I can imagine Robb lacking in good sense but never in charisma.
On the other hand, Maisie Williams continues to impress with her performance as Arya, especially in the final scene with Jon Snow and Needle. When this develops into trouble later on in the episode, her performance just builds and builds. I particularly enjoyed a moment that was only hinted at in the books but directly portrayed in the episode; when Arya has to send her direwolf away. This would have meant further exposition had it not been shown and it was great to see Arya’s growing understanding of the danger she has gotten herself into.
Equally, Sansa Stark is played with an appropriately regal amount of brattish envy and desire by Sophie Turner. The two girls fight like proper siblings and it’s great to see, even when the outcome of their argument is a slain direwolf and a mauled prince. Sean Bean even manages to be less than wooden this week, ably portraying the conflict between Stark’s sense of duty and his desire for his children’s happiness. His well composed exchange with King Barratheon (Mark Addy) is a useful reminder that Stark isn’t as grim as he at first appears, and reminds us of the basis on which their friendship was first created.
The direction has cleared up a little as well. The composition of the shots is lovely and I’m a big fan of the costume design, which is especially detailed. The effects have also improved, though they are doing most of this through physical effects which makes the foreground fascinating. I like the sense of scale too, and some of the shots feel almost like landscape paintings. However, it has to be noted that there are still some inconsistencies – for example, where did the King’s followers disappear to? There were hundreds of them in the previous episode but this week it was more like fifty.
A note on the sex: there is a really well shot sex scene later in the episode, in which Daenerys keeps all her clothes on, which I think is a first. This is how to shoot sex, and while I understand that HBO have to meet certain expectations, there is no need to have unnecessary nudity. Sex can be suggested or indicated without the lead actress having to strip off to show it. I’m no prude, but all sex and nudity should be in service to the story, not merely to fulfil some contractual obligation, which is how it too often feels at the moment.
Finally, the real highlight of this episode was Donald Sumpter, a brilliant British actor whom you may have seen in such things as The Constant Gardener, and who acted everyone off the screen this week. The scene in which he declares; ‘What? Is there going to be a battle in the Godswood?’ was so well delivered that I actually re-watched it. It’s just a shame that Michelle Fairley has yet to come to life as a believable Lady Stark, a fact made all the more clear by the talent on show in the rest of the cast.
So, one butcher’s boy, one assassin, one prince’s wrist and a direwolf. That’s not bad for an episode, and it’s only going to get bloodier from here …