If you recall my review of season 1 you’ll know that by the time I finally started to watch Game of Thrones I was already several years behind the on-air broadcasts. That was partly due to my cable provider not providing the Sky Atlantic channel on which it is shown and the fact that the DVD/Blu-ray releases are almost a year behind, together with my initial disinclination to spend money buying a show I was far from convinced that I would like since I’ve never had much of a taste for fantasy. However, the word-of-mouth buzz for Game of Thrones finally made me crack, and of course I was besotted with the whole thing from the minute I saw the first scenes set in the frozen wastes beyond the Wall. After finishing the first season boxset I committed myself to pressing on and watching the rest of the episodes in very short order.
That … hasn’t happened, to be entirely honest with you. Some shows simply demand to be treated with respect, and like a fine wine require time to breathe to get the best out of them, rather than being binge-watched like the TV equivalent of a McDonalds Happy Meal. Hence it was over a year before I finally got through with my rewatch of season 1 (which was even better than the first time through, incidentally) and at last cued up the first disc of the second season boxset starting at the beginning of March.
Okay, I admit: there was another reason why I put off moving on to season 2 for so long. I’d loved the first one so much that I was worried that the sophomore outing could only prove to be a major disappointment and I wasn’t sure how I would handle that. It might even nip my entire fledgling interest in the fantasy genre in the bud. And the second season had so much to live up to, because the first year of Game of Thrones had been such a perfect jewel of television with its beautifully shaped classical tragedy storyline of how one man’s strong sense of honour and compassion brought down not only himself and his family, but also collapsed the entire kingdom into chaos as well. Every single episode had been a miniature gem in its own right with its own self-contained tale and a game-changing ending at the climax of each hour. How could it possibly be bettered, or even equalled?
The truth is that it can’t, and season 2 is inevitably not quite the five star masterpiece that the first was. For one thing, it’s a lot messier – but then it has to be, and the fragmented and often confusing storylines of season 2 are by design and are an accurate and necessary reflection of the maelstrom of civil war in which Westeros now finds itself in. The story had to leap around the continent to pick up various threads from each of the four armies competing for supremacy: the King on the Iron Throne, the cruel and cowardly Joffrey in King’s Landing; the newly-proclaimed King of the North Robb Stark and his mother Catelyn seeking revenge for the murder of Nedd Stark at the end of season one; and the late King Robert’s brothers Stannis and Renly both vying for supremacy in the south.
Stannis (played by Stephen Dillane) is one of a raft of new characters brought in to restock the series after the high casualty rate in season 1, and at first it’s natural to feel that these new faces clamouring for our attention are muscling aside the existing characters that we committed to on the first run. Certainly I admit that I found it a little difficult to warm to them at first. However, such is George RR Martin’s talent for creating interesting and unusual personalities with which to populate his world, even these new arrivals soon started to win me over. Stannis in particular is a fascinatingly complex figure, someone who with his strong unyielding sense of right and wrong should be our new central protagonist, a heroic figure to replace the late lamented Nedd Stark. And yet Stannis is so harsh and unforgiving that he is impossible to warm to or even remotely like, despite the devotion he apparently inspires in right hand man Davos Seaworth (played by Liam Cunningham, and the closest we get in season 2 to a Nedd northern hero replacement service.) Part of the problem is that Stannis has already badly compromised himself by falling in league with Melisandre (Carice van Houten), a priestess from a foreign land who tells Stannis that he is a messianic figure destined for greatness. Melisandre is also at the centre of one of the biggest show-stopping scenes of the year which raises the fantasy stakes even more dramatically than the arrival of dragons managed at the end of season 1: the ‘giving birth’ sequence will leave you staring at the credits with a “WTF just happened?” expression on your face for hours afterwards.
Another new addition to the cast is Gwendoline Christie as Brienne of Tarth, a woman of striking appearance and singular abilities who fights her way into being granted a knight’s position on Renly’s personal guard. She’s such a unique and fascinating character that you soon want to find out more about her, and the series wisely pairs her up with first Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) and then Jamie Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) to fast-track her development and burgeoning appeal to the viewers. Somewhat less successful despite being otherwise well thought out characters are Talisa (Oona Chaplin) and Ygritte (Rose Leslie) who are too-obviously intended as romantic interests for Robb Stark (Richard Madden) and Jon Snow (Kit Harington) respectively from the minute they first appear on screen. At least Ygritte gets to utter the now-iconic phrase “You know nothing Jon Snow” and show some slyly impudent humour as she’s held ‘hostage’ – and it’s true that Jon really is incredibly dumb and naive this season, showing that pure heroic tendencies rarely come allied to much in the way of brains.
As well as the new characters, there’s also the promotion to the fore of some who were in brief, minor or supporting roles in season 1. The most impressive of these is Charles Dance who made a couple of cameo appearance in season one as Lannister patriarch Tywin but who is now front and centre of the main cast in the second year, and he dominates large portions of the show. The TV series showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss pull off a pretty huge coup here, improving on Martin’s books by engineering a situation whereby Nedd Stark’s daughter Arya travelling incognito ends up as Tywin’s personal attendant, and their interaction adds huge amounts of tension to scenes which would otherwise be rather dull exposition as you’re left wondering whether Arya’s secret will be exposed at any minute or whether she will succeed in killing Tywin first, which all by itself could turn the tide of the entire civil war.
There’s also the elevation of Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) from being little more than Robb’s sidekick in season 1 to being very much front and centre this year. It’s quite a ride we go on, as we follow his homecoming to the Iron Islands where he is greeted with pure loathing and contempt from his father Balon (the ever-brilliant Patrick Malahide) and amused derision on the part of his sister Yara (Gemma Whelan) who has taken Theon’s place as his father’s chosen heir. The hurt he feels from this reception propels Theon into a series of ever more catastrophic decisions that come home to roost by the end of the season; and despite some of the awful things he does, knowing Theon’s backstory means that we still retain some small vestiges of sympathy for him even after all he’s done.
The same cannot be said for King Joffrey, who is disappointingly close to being a one-dimensional pantomime villain, a caricature of a psychopathic despot given too much power too young; only some intelligent playing by Jack Gleeson stops him from becoming a cartoon figure. Far more interesting is the unexpected turn taken late in the season by Joffrey’s right-hand hatchet man (the Hound, played by Rory McCann). In contrast with Joffrey, his mother Cersei (Lena Headey) gets more interesting as she schemes to secure her children’s future only to find she’s not nearly as good at this sort of thing as she imagines herself to be, lacking both subtlety and restraint as well as patience. These things are the province of her brother Tyrion (the brilliant Peter Dinklage, unquestionably the stand-out star of the show in its second year now that Sean Bean isn’t around). Seeing ‘the Imp’ get his chance to swagger around the city as a remarkably effective Hand of the King and his interactions with arch schemers Littlefinger (Aiden Gillen) and Varys (Conleth Hill) are some of the best moments in the show.
This ‘quick’ run-through some of the major plotlines and characters of the season only serves to illustrate just how sprawling and unfocussed the show has now been forced to become. As a result of the overcrowding, some plot lines are foregrounded in one episode and then parked for several weeks thereafter – for example, Theon’s return home is the centrepiece of episode 2 but he’s then put on stand-by mode until episode 6 and then again until episode 10 while the show finds other events in the realm far more interesting.
An even bigger casualty of this season’s fragmented feel is Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), one of the break-out characters from the first season but persistently sidelined all year in the second. For the first few episodes she’s literally lost in the desert; then finally things pick up as she arrives at the city of Qarth and she meets Xaro Xhoan Daxos (Dracula’s Nonso Anozie) and the Council of Thirteen who look like interesting additions to the cast line-up, only to prove entirely transitory and quickly dispatched at the conclusion of what looks to be a purely placeholder plot that could easily have been dispensed with.
Also out of the loop of the main Westeros civil war story is Jon Snow and his fellow members of the Night’s Watch who have gone beyond the Wall to find out the truth of the rumours of Wildings and the White Walkers on the move. This feels like an entirely separate show from the rest, but striking location filming in Iceland’s Vatnajökull glacier always keeps the interest even if a lot of the storyline involves Jon Snow wandering around completely lost. What really stops this feeling like an annoying distraction is the sense that what happens here is actually going to prove to be more crucial to the long-term survival of Westeros than the trivial matter of who wins the civil war and gets to wear the crown, a sense that’s lacking from Daenerys’ wanderings across the Narrow Sea.
Despite all the untidiness in season 2, the show’s producer, writers and directors do a wonderful job of keeping it on the rails. It might not have the flow of the first year, but if one storyline isn’t taking your fancy then don’t worry because in five minutes it will switch to something utterly compelling and you’ll be swept away all over again. The characters (new and old) only get better with every passing episode, while the overall production design (FX, sets, costumes) is just shockingly superb, a match and then some for any motion picture I’ve sene in recent years – even those with a blockbuster budget ten times what HBO can furnish for Games of Thrones.
One way that the show stretches its budget is knowing which battles to fight and which to duck. And specifically, that means not even attempting to show the big battlefield scenes which are carefully avoided, cutting away just before the fighting starts and returning to cover the aftermath on the battlefield once the conflict is over. It’s absolutely understandable that they do this because the time and cost of filming large scale battle scenes is just prohibitive for a TV show and would inevitably come off second-best to the likes of similar scenes in The Lord of the Rings and its cinematic ilk.
And then we arrive at episode 9 of season 2, “Blackwater”, which is all about Stannis’ assault on King’s Landing and the crucial battle that will decide the outcome of the entire civil war. Given the build-up to this moment, you keep wondering how they will get away with not showing this on screen without it feeling terribly anticlimactic. Then about 20 minutes into the episode you realise they’re not going to cut away at all, but are actually going to go for it. And it’s achieved magnificently by director Neill Marshall (Dog Soldiers, The Descent) and George RR Martin’s script as the whole thing plays out in real time with impressive physicality to it along with some of the best CGI the series has yet managed. The fact that other battles had been largely played out off-screen only amplifies the effectiveness of this one when it hits; without question, “Blackwater”is the highwater moment of Game of Thrones to date.
That’s not to say that the final episode of the season doesn’t also do a top job in picking up the pieces and also setting up a cliffhanger finale to ensure we’ll be back in season 3. And it will be interesting to see where the show goes next, because while the civil war may be largely over at this point I can’t see the show managing to stuff its sprawling mass back into the tidy, neatly contained shape that it had in season 1. If I’m honest I’m getting a distinct impression that George RR Martin’s focus in the books has started to get somewhat lost and he’s getting too distracted by minor plot lines and characters at the cost of overall coherency, and that the show in turn is getting dragged down the same diversions and detours as the novels despite its best efforts to remain on the highway. In particular, the whole Qarth sequence is a prime example of “Pretty shiny thing – okay bored now – oooh squirrel!” attention deficit starting to creep in.
Not that I can really blame it to be honest. The various characters and settings are so compelling and vibrant that we really do want to spend more and more time with each and every one of them no matter what the cost to the coherency of the plot. The longer Game of Thrones goes on the more it feels like it’s not a story at all – at least, not a nice neat modern one with an arc to it and a definite beginning, middle and end. Instead it feels more like a non-fiction tale of true life (albeit with dragons, magic and shadow wraiths) – and as we all know, real life isn’t nice and tidy and neatly plotted out according to how the writing schools tell you it should be. It’s messy, unpredictable, often lacking in focus: the good guys don’t always win and the bad guys don’t always get their comeuppance. Whether the story ends up having a happy outcome or a tragic one depends purely on the timing of the final line.
Season 2 might not be as classically ‘pure’ as the first, but it’s about as an impressive a second outing for any TV show as I can imagine or have ever seen. If the first season is an unequivocal five stars, than the second is close behind with four-and-a-half. And with that said, now I’ll have to leave it a few months to let the whole thing sink in before I can even contemplate cracking open the season 3 boxet to see what happens next.
On the Blu-Ray: Game of Thrones is about the only television series I would insist needs to be seen in high definition, especially when the audio-visual presentation is this emphatically flawless. The production design is so good that to see it in anything less than Blu-ray is a travesty. The choice to buy is made even easier by the inclusion of the best set of extras you’ll ever see for a TV show – and indeed, puts recent home entertainment releases of blockbuster movies to shame. The season 2 boxset continues the approach of having in-episode guides to characters, location and history and has a special feature to help viewers get their heads around the various competing claims for the throne in the civil war and another on the various religions of Westeros as they become increasingly important to the story. There’s a 30-minute feature on the filming of “Blackwater” and a 25-minute roundtable discussion between the series showrunners and leading members of the cast. And finally there are audio commentaries – 12 of them to be precise, which given there are only ten episodes in the season is really a wonderful and much appreciated bit of overkill. They’re a delightfully diverse mix: showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss offer the best overall fact-track on “The North Remembers” while Greyjoy siblings Alfie Allen and Gemma Whelan contribute an irreverent and sweary commentary for “The Night Lands” that only occasionally remembers to stick to what’s happening on screen. Unsurprisingly “Blackwater” is the subject of two commentaries, one a solo effort from George RR Martin and the other from stars Peter Dinklage and Lena Headey together with director Neil Marshall. Basically, you couldn’t have put together a ‘dream requirements list’ for the boxset that was any better than this.
Game of Thrones airs in the UK on Sky Atlantic. Season 5 has just finished its first run, and season 6 will premiere in Spring 2016. Season 1 through 4 are currently available (both separately and together) in both DVD and Blu-ray boxsets, and Season 5 will be released in February 2016.