It’s time for another installment of The Wars to Come, our Game of Thrones rewatch project that seeks to see where David Benioff and Dan Weiss (D&D)’s masterpiece all went wrong. Last week we were pleasantly surprised by the Season 2 opener, while this week we’re a little bit less enthused with “The Night Lands.” Here to talk through the episode are Julia, Kylie, Bo, and Musa.
But first, a reminder of what happened…
We pick up right where things left off with Arya traveling north alongside Yoren and Night’s Watch recruits. Three of these recruits are particularly menacing and ride in a cage separate from everyone else. However, the real menace comes in the form of Gold Cloaks, who arrive looking for Gendry. Yoren and the others refuse to turn him in, but will they protect him if even more show up? Arya chooses to confide in Gendry about her true identity, who promises he won’t tell anyone else, including their new kinda-friends Hot Pie and Lommy.
The bastard hunt has otherwise mostly wound down in King’s Landing, though Ros remains distraught over what she had witnessed. Littlefinger gives her the night off, but reminds her she needs to be profitable to be kept around. Varys, meanwhile, takes time to sniff out Tyrion’s secret: Shae. Tyrion lets the Master of Whispers know that he doesn’t take kindly to being threatened, but Varys has a knack for staying around to serve the throne.
Also serving that throne is Cersei, who rips up Robb’s peace terms when they are brought before the Small Council. Tyrion convinces her to at least send Ned’s bones as a gesture of good faith. Less convincing is the next letter from Jeor Mormont, telling them about the dead rising and attacking. Tyrion doesn’t think the Old Bear is a liar, but it is hard to believe. Who is a liar in Tyrion’s eyes, however, is Janos Slynt, whom he dismisses as head of the Gold Cloaks, sends to The Wall, and replaces with Bronn. When Cersei yells at him for this, he yells back about how stupid the bastard-killing order was…only to realize the order had been Joffrey’s, not hers.
The war is ramping up everywhere else, too. Over at Stannis’s camp, Davos convinces a pirate named Salladhor Saan to join and provide ships. The lady Melisandre then seduces Stannis, promising him the son he doesn’t have.
To aid Robb’s war effort, Theon arrives on the Iron Islands, where he doesn’t even waste the boat journey to act like a “prince.” He is greeted on land by a woman that he flirts with/attempts to fuck, but it turns out to be his sister. His father, the newly fashioned King Balon, is thoroughly unimpressed with Theon, favoring Yara who had been raised on the Iron Islands and values their way of life. When Theon tries to convince him to help Robb attack the Lannisters, it goes south, as Balon insists that he only pays the “iron price” for his crown.
Dany, meanwhile, is still struggling through the Red Waste when one of her bloodriders turns back up…murdered. Dany makes sure Rakharo gets his own funeral pyre to honor Dothraki tradition, but things are looking as dire as ever.
And finally, up at Craster’s Keep, the Night’s Watch is still making camp. Things get a bit complicated when one of Craster’s daughters named Gilly—who is pregnant—asks Sam for his help. Sam goes to Jon, who refuses them both, but was that the right choice? Later, Jon follows Craster into the woods where he’s bringing a new baby boy, only to see it picked up by a White Walker…before he gets knocked unconscious.
Initial, quick reaction
Musa: I had mixed feelings to this episode. There’s not a lot to it in terms of plot advancement as far as I can see. So the only thing for the episode to really do is focus in on character interaction and development. In that regard, it’s actually pretty good, especially compared to Game of Thrones’ later seasons that can’t seem to get the hang of pacing or character interactions beyond call backs and filler in between action set pieces. So it’s not bad, but that’s not really saying much in itself. The episode is mostly middling for me.
Bo: I view it the same. There’s not much here to make the episode stand out. Some nice scenes, some bad scenes. It kind of just is. I am noticing the continuation of some trends from the first episode, though, and not good trends. This episode (and I expect the entire season) exists in this weird place between what Game of Thrones was and what it will be. I feel like there should be more to say but…nah.
Julia: There were moments in this episode that I enjoyed quite a bit, but also, you know, really, really bad cringe inducing ones. So I guess it all evens out into a big grey blah? A little more on the dark grey side maybe.
Kylie: There was a major unevenness to the whole thing, I think. And this episode in particular had no real focus. Stannis and Mel fucking on a table had epic music underscoring it, if that’s any indication. I felt the least restless during the Iron Islands scenes, and I think that’s because it was actually a neatly packaged mini-narrative there, but the rest felt random in a bad way.
Musa: Can I just give my lowlight first? It’s Sam. Definitely Sam. Every single second of show!Sam is insufferably bad. It’s especially bad for me this episode because it finally hit me what it was D&D were really doing with Sam’s arc on the show. It’s not just that Sam is obsessed with women in order to emphasize the no-homo atmosphere that pervades the Night’s Watch in the series. It’s that the writers were specifically writing Sam to be the sad, desperate, fat, “virgin” loser best friend character (I apologize for the numerous qualifiers there). The one who is desperate for female attention and objectifies every woman around because he’s so desperate and its supposed to be funny because he’s fat and therefore unattractive and therefore would have no prospects of actually ever having sex with a woman. And that pissed me off so much more than I was before about Sam’s show portrayal and how it butchers what is one of my favorite character arcs in the book.
Bo: I want so bad to agree with Sam. I’m pretty sure I complain about him every time I’m here for the rewatch. If this were season 1, he would be my lowlight. Musa, you’re completely and entirely right about him.
I’ll start with a highlight, though, and probably a consistent one moving through season 2; Alfie freaking Allen and Theon’s arc. It kind of says everything that the sexposition on the boat was a really good scene, because it was solely due to Allen. He perfectly embodied Theon’s sense of entitlement and insecurity over whether he actually deserves it. There’s a fine balance with Theon between feeling entitlement for everything and feeling he has to earn it, and also between being a Greyjoy and a Stark. Alfie Allen really did great in this episode.
My lowlight is the Stannis/Melisandre scene. You know how Stephen Dillane said he didn’t understand Stannis at all or what he was supposed to do in a scene? Yeah, that shines through blindingly to me. He had no idea what he was doing in that scene. It’s also step one towards obliterating Stannis’s character by making him the subservient true believer puppy sniffing at Mel’s heels. Which makes sense when Dillane said he was basically following Liam Cunningham and Carice van Houten around and depending on them to tell him what the hell was happening.
Julia: My lowlight. Well, there was something about Tyrion mansplaining how to be a “[wo]man of the people” to Carol that really rubbed me the wrong way. Especially how we’re clearly suppose to be on his side when Carol totally has a point in everything she says. I’m not saying that Carol—well-meaning, long-suffering soccer mom that she may be—is an ideal ruler. Like, not caring a bit about public opinion may not be super wise, but she successfully navigated court politics for 15+ years, and it was her actions that put her family into the authority they’re enjoying now. And now Tyrion comes along and is all “actually… let me explain what ruling is.” Fuck you.
Also, speaking of putting women in their place. Last episode, Ros was large and in charge in that establishment. Good thing Littlefinger took care of that upstart.
Kylie: I don’t want to pick the Greyjoy Family Drama as my highlight too, but it is one of the stronger notes of the episode—not even a question. I think I’ll pick the Arya scenes though. Not a ton happens, and it’s a little SparkNotes the way Arya just discloses who she is that quickly, but I genuinely enjoyed the interplay with Hot Pie, Lommy, Gendry, and herself. They were bickering, but people were being genuinely nice to one another still. That’s a damn rarity.
You guys definitely struck on the two weaker points of the episode, and Sam is the one that really grinds my gears. So yeah, for all the reasons Musa articulated, it’s a lowlight. Then to have him remark, “She’s a person, not a goat” at the end of all of it…like. He JUST said, “nothing like the sight of a woman walking away.” Pretty sure he’s not super committed to focusing on their personhood.
I guess on the better side of things, at least Shae didn’t make me want to run out of the room screaming this week?
Musa: So yeah, coming back to my highlight. I do suppose I have to give some props to Tom Wlaschiha’s portrayal of Jaqen H’ghar. I enjoy his delivery, and his presence on screen is easily established as he comes off as way too confident and sure of himself for a guy stuck in a cage with two psychotic killers. It’s good stuff.
Julia: Oh right, a highlight. Like I said, there were moments I enjoyed. I enjoyed the first small council meeting, Carol is really good at ripping up paper. I really liked Gilly too. She’s so fucking brave. I actually like Davos’s speech about how Stannis is his god, though that might just be Liam Cunningham’s fault. I liked how the Other still made those creepy sounds? Sure, that’s my highlight. The sound of ice cracking.
Quality of writing
Bo: Like the episode as a whole, it was…middling. Good sometimes, bad in others. I’m starting to notice the D&Disms peeking into every scene. One line here, an exchange there. Scenes like the Littlefinger brothel one show up more and more. They definitely color conversations in a way we didn’t see as much of in season 1. The fish pie thing when Varys “visits” Shae, the fart jokes with the Night’s Watch, the way Arya and Gendry basically shout about Arya’s true identity in the middle of the camp, stuff like that.
However, there’s plenty of good still. The Tyrion/Janos scene was excellent, and the brief exchange with Bronn afterwards was surprisingly book-accurate. Balon was a treat. Yara got to act like Asha for perhaps the only time in the entire show. Though I honestly wish they had cut the ride with Theon out. It was weird in the books, and it’s weird here.
Musa: I don’t know if this counts as a quality of writing thing per se, but did anyone else notice that when characters are speaking with or paraphrasing book dialogue, it’s a lot more…..prosaic? Flowery? It’s more along the lines of the way Martin writes the books is what I’m trying to say. But whenever scenes move towards more original dialogue, all of a sudden characters are speaking in tones that would fit more with a 21st century setting rather than the fantasy world Martin created. This probably comes under cracks in the plaster, but that disparity will become much more apparent as time goes on and eventually characters will just be speaking as if they’re in the 2010’s. And that’s how we eventually end up at “You want the good girl, but you need the bad pussy.”
Julia: And everything they’re not quoting book dialogue it’s invariably about farts and penises? Weird that. And it’s also always them trying to be funny too. Like, Salladhor Saan isn’t going to rape Cersei, he’s going to fuck her. Isn’t that hilarious? I’m trying to remember if there was a bawdy scene in season 1 that they did fairly well, and now they’re just taking it too far.
Bo: Even if you haven’t read the books, you can tell which scenes are inventions just by the anachronistic dialogue. It’s starkly different from the book dialogue alongside it. And by how many times asses or dicks are mentioned.
Kylie: You know, time and time again, D&D are just lazy when it comes to this series. And yeah, that ramps up far more after the Red Wedding, once they’re done adapting the only thing they cared about. But I’m thinking the style of the lines is part of it. Musa’s totally right that it sounds like Martin sometimes, but that’s honestly because they put no thought in fitting it to the scene. It’s like if one of his lines vaguely works, they’ll just put it in there straight. For now, where they’re still pretty much following the books, it doesn’t stick out, even if we get weird things like “I don’t think Lord Varys likes fish pie” and “Storms come and go, the big fish eat the little fish, and I keep on paddling” in the same scene. However, it will soon morph into something else entirely, like Littlefinger monologuing to Sansa about the “day all smiles died.”
Bo: Speaking of D&Disms, having Craster catch Jon in the forest and knock him out was exactly the kind of silly writing choice they eventually inject into every episode just for the shock value. And like so many of their “shock” choices, I doubt it will make much sense why Craster lets Jon live.
Musa: THAT’s why it didn’t make any sense. Thank you for articulating that Bo. I was wondering what it was that kept nagging at the back of my mind about that last scene. Thinking about it, it clearly seems like D&D trying to copy Martin’s “end of chapter implied (maybe) death of POV character” thing that he does on occasion to mark the end of the episode.
Our 8th grade book report (on themes)
Kylie: I hate to do this again, but what is with the title of this episode? Is Season 2 where D&D just stopped caring about relating that to things? I mean, I understand it was mentioned in Dany’s plotline. But that was also a 60-second scene that felt incredibly disjointed from the rest of the episode.
Seeing as this was a vague Seinfeld-ian approach to titling it, “The Kiss Hello” would have been more appropriate in this case.
Julia: Oh god, I just barfed in my mouth a little.
I’m gonna try here, because themes are my jam. Okay, obstacles in the path. The Goldcloaks are an obstacle for Arya and Gendry. So was Slynt for Tyrion. Jon and Sam are met with an obstacle that presents them with a moral problem they need to solve. His father’s lack of sympathy for Theon is an obstacle towards his plan to be his heir. Dany’s obstacle is that everything is shit. Even LF removes an obstacle to his profit motive.
Bo: As I watched I thought it might be something involving children. Gilly wants to protect her unborn son, Craster sacrifices another, Theon is the lost son returning home, Davos is teaching his son. Even Littlefinger’s scene revolves around one of his employees mourning the murder of a baby. How they all connect, I don’t know. I’m not great at recognizing episodic themes to begin with, and this episode was all over the place.
Cracks in the plaster (the bullshit to come)
Julia: Ha, I feel like we’ve covered everything pretty well already. I will say, though, this episode might be the peak of Sam being disgusting. I also think this was the first time Stannis was vaguely distracted by how hot Mel is, and when we discovered she wears nothing under her billowing robes. (Isn’t she cold?) So that’s a huge milestone for the show.
Shout out to my lowlight too. Tyrion did like to explain things to people in season 1, too. But this is the beginning of Tyrion the Best Ruler Ever(!) Because the Writers Say So! We must all bask in his wisdom.
Musa: Smaller crack, but I think this episode is also the one that starts that whole thing about Ghost somehow being more connected to Sam’s storyline than Jon’s? That thing where eventually he’ll end up having been in more scenes with Sam than he is with Jon? That seems like it has its roots in this episode. I guess I just really want whatever excuse I can get to rag on Sam on the show this time around.
Bo: It’s been so long since Ghost has mattered that I completely forgot about Sam being his best friend more than Jon. Sam is just awful in this show. I thought he was better to begin with and started changing later. Nope, he was always a horrific mangling of the book character.
I know we already talked about the Night’s Watch and their obsession with farting and girls, but that scene was a significant crack in the plaster. Between the fart jokes and the fish pie thing, you can see how D&D consistently resort to crude, ill-fitting frat jokes when writing their own stuff. It eventually feels like half an episode has scenes focused on them.
And we’re about to get into it, but there’s also the start of D&D self-inserting into the “common sense” characters like Davos.
Bo: There’s a lot to praise and complain about regarding adaptation. A lot. Davos not being the least bit religious stuck out to me as a negative. It kind of matters that he believes in the Seven in the books. I already mentioned the perfect Greyjoys. Slynt and Tyrion were perfect. Musa mentioned Sam’s awfulness.
I guess just like the episode, it was chock-full of good and bad, swinging wildly between the two.
Kylie: I was thinking a lot about Davos’s lack of religion too, Bo. It’s super telling, because D&D’s sympathetic characters are either entirely agnostic, or they’re “religious” in a plucky, “maybe all the gods ever mentioned are the same ones” kind of way (think Septon Ray not knowing the names of the Seven). Davos is in the former category, and anyone with earnest religious belief, particularly relating to an institution, is painted as a bad guy, or an idiot. It starts here and it’s not attractive, but even more it’s pretty obvious that they have no clue what Martin is doing with religion in ASOIAF.
Slynt and Tyrion were perfect, yes, but there was a little something missing from Tyrion and Varys. Maybe it’s just because in the books he’s shockingly lenient on “the Spider,” so all his ‘brilliant’ maneuvers are really just doing what Varys suggests. Which always amuses me a bit.
Bo: I also found it a little weird how Varys acts so bold in front of Tyrion. It wasn’t quite so bad as Littlefinger in the first episode, but Varys is the kind of guy who always “cowers” before his superiors and professes innocence at the idea of betraying them. Everyone knows it’s bullshit, but he does it all the same.
Musa: The Varys thing I would kind of blame on the whole Spy vs. Spy and the revelations that Varys is actually a player that happened in season 1. Now that the audience is in on how Varys is totally working behind the scenes, he has to actually act like someone who wields power in front of another character. It’s one of the smaller ways the writers end up dropping some semblance of characterization after the audience is brought in on a major reveal.
Julia: What the fuck did Tyrion expect, she’s in the castle with him. Varys would have to be comically incompetent to not know about her. I appreciated this scene a little because it was the only real sense we got that maybe Tyrion is a little in over his head, even if he “isn’t Ned Stark.” (Seven save me.)
What’s getting me still is the continued insistence on making Littlefinger Varys’s “equal” in terms of sneakiness. But he’s the evil Varys? Maybe? Whatever, don’t mess with him. He invented sex.
Musa: Varys was still vaguely ambiguous in his own alignment at this point too, though. So it’s not so much that he’s definitely good and Littlefinger is definitely evil right now. Just that these two guys are sneaky sneaks working behind the scenes for their own hidden agendas. Technically speaking, Varys Marx has not become a thing as yet.
Julia: Clearly not. But he’s always going on about “the good of the realm,” and I guess he means it.
Musa: Can we say that at that point, not even D&D knew whether he meant it or not and then eventually just settled on saying he did because it was easier than actually making him nuanced and complicated?
Julia: Yeah, that sounds about right.
Carol Watch: who is Cersei this week?
Musa: There are definite hints at the Carol that was Promised in this episode. She’s not the one who ordered the deaths of Robert’s bastards, being displaced from her book actions by Joffrey. This is both another example of a woman’s actions in the books being given to a male character, and also an example of how Cersei (proto-Carol) is supposedly villainous but also not so villainous as to literally order the deaths of several children because she’s a woman and a mother and therefore has a soft spot for other women and mothers.
On top of this, there’s also some indication given that Cersei is ACTUALLY Tywin’s smartest child somehow and is the only one who actually knows a thing or two about ruling? Her line to Tyrion about, “This is what ruling is, lying on a bed of weeds and pulling them out one by one” is ambiguous as to whether the audience is supposed to agree with her point of view. It’s definitely a Cersei-esque sort of line, but I don’t know if I give D&D enough benefit of the doubt to say that they don’t also agree that that IS what ruling is.
Julia: I think I disagree a tad. I don’t think there’s much question as to who the writers think is right. However, I agree that the ambiguity is actually there. It’s supposed to be all, “oh Cersei, she’s so short sighted and only out for herself.”
Tyrion, if you recall, is a man of the people, who is clearly better because he keeps his cool while his evil sister blames him for being born. Maybe it’s just my bias, but I don’t think D&D see the fact that the patriarchy is oppressing Cersei as in any way creating sympathy for her. Not the way that everyone being mean to Tyrion obviously does for him. Idk, what do you guys think?
Bo: Oh god, that conversation with Tyrion was SO Carol to me. She literally complains about being put-upon by the men in her life! She loved her mom so much and Tyrion stole her! I felt like I was watching Carol talk to the High Grandpa in season 5. I guess the Small Council scene was kind of Cersei, but it’s nothing compared to all the Carol when she talks to Tyrion.
Julia, I’m honestly not sure whether this scene was meant to create sympathy for Cersei or not. Just sitting in opposition to Tyrion in a scene usually means you are the bad guy, because Tyrion is their Mary Sue, but they seemed to really lay it on thick with Cersei. And we know they stan every Lannister but Jaime.
Musa: Yeah that scene with Tyrion and Cersei was weird in general looking back on the episode again. There’s really not much else to say aside from pointing out that they heavily tone down the more *ahem* questionable aspects of both Tyrion and Cersei’s characters. Neither of them is their book character in that conversation because both are purely presented as being victims of circumstance with none of the unsavory sexual and violently abusive undertones their interactions in A Clash of Kings have.
Kylie: I’m just going to leave this here:
It’s all fallen on her, guys.
Exposition Imposition: good or clunky?
Julia: Keeping the Greyjoy exposition as Theon bragging to a girl he’s exploiting was a very good decision.
Musa: That scene did a good job establishing how Theon is kind of a shithead pretty well. It’s also a good lead in to him unintentionally molesting his sister on the way to see his father again.
Bo: All the Greyjoy stuff was terrific. I thought the exposition was a lot more awkward in the Davos/Salladhor scene. They basically used it to just throw everything out there about the long odds Stannis faced, Davos’s past, who the hell Salladhor was, and such. I know you have to do that sometimes, but it was still clunky.
Kylie: Less clunky was in Essos, actually, where they actually managed to convey an important Dothraki religious superstition without demonizing it or hyper-explaining anything. It’s not exactly heavy exposition, but something like that could so easily be done poorly.
How was the pacing?
Bo: I want to cut them a break here because A Clash of Kings is a notoriously slow book. Adapting it will naturally be slow as well. This episode was real slow. It feels like no one besides Theon made any real forward progress since the season started. Having conversation after conversation without notable importance kind of grinded on me. None of it felt especially relevant or connected, either, which isn’t entirely the fault of the writers but should be better than it was here.
Julia: Yeah, I admit it was a tough episode to get through. I took more than one break to watch YouTube videos about meal prepping. That being said, there were no painfully boring scenes, or scenes that felt like they were too long. Except maybe the brothel one… I think the problem was that there were no peaks.
Kylie: Oh my god, the monologue Littlefinger had about bad investments… It’s not aided by the fact that it’s almost identical with what comes out in the over-the-top “chaos is a ladder” monologue of incoherence (and doom). I was crying along with Ros this time.
Musa: Let’s count our blessing while they last, at least this monologue wasn’t at the end of the episode and playing over a montage of people literally climbing (because get it, he was talking about climbing) the giant ice wall.
Let’s talk about sex, baby
Kylie: Aside from Mel probably getting one of those pieces wedged up her ass, does anyone understand why the table-sex was deemed important enough to be that near the end, and the final bit of dialogue? It’s not like we couldn’t have been made to care about Stannis making this choice, but we’ve seen Selyse for 2.5 seconds, and this is also our first scene of Stannis and Mel interacting one-on-one. I’m just not sure its placement or the backing music was really merited.
And seriously, that can’t be good for her back!
Julia: And that did not seem like good sex at all. Stannis! It’s called foreplay. And maybe this belongs in the adaptation section, but since when is Stannis desperate for a son? Was the fact that he had a female heir ever mentioned in the books as an issue?
Musa: I honestly think that’s just D&D’s dislike for Stannis coming through in this episode. That and just whatever excuse they could use for Melisansbra to make her debut.
Bo: Stannis never says a thing about a son in the books. Not that I remember. He is damn well ready to hand power over to Shireen. D&D have outright admitted to hating Stannis and thinking Renly was amazing. It shows all the time.
At least his…sexual prowess was consistent to the books.
Musa: Can we also take a moment to talk about how Littlefinger’s brothel apparently offers voyeurism services? There’s a dude getting a blowjob while spying on some other dude having sex. This dude in turn is being spied on by Littlefinger because…..actually we’re never really told why Littlefinger was watching that guy get a blowjob. It just serves as a lead in to his scene with Ros who’s upset cause she saw a baby being murdered recently (which is fair, I’d be upset about that sort of thing too).
Julia: Littlefinger clearly cares about quality assurance. But not pubic health.
Bo: Clearly they were showing how Littlefinger invented voyeurism kinks.
In memoriam: Rakharo
Julia: Um… oh no. I felt so close to him? I was just laughing because that other khalasar clearly had red as their “power color.”
Musa: I had honestly completely forgotten that the show actually did this. I’m fairly certain Rakharo isn’t dead in the books. Doesn’t the equivalent chapter in the book have him coming back successful in his mission with like his first braid and bell and stuff? Or was that one of the other bloodriders? Dammit Martin, this is what happens when you let the Dothraki all be indistinguishable from each other!
Bo: I wish I cared more because he was actually a good actor. But the only concern I could muster was because of Dany’s handmaiden. Poor girl was destroyed. As for Rakharo…he was a Dothraki? I don’t remember how this goes moving forward so I have no idea how necessary his death was.
Kylie: From what I remember, the remaining Dothraki either die in Qarth, or magically disappear when the focus shifts to the Unsullied and Daario. Not to get ahead or anything. It does suck because Rakharo was the one Dothraki we had the most interaction with, though it’s not like D&D had him articulate his viewpoint a ton anyway. Not with Jorah there to explain all the things.
Musa: This was brought up in the podcast recap of season 1, but how much can we really blame D&D for a problem that clearly exists in the book as well with regards to Jorah having more to say about the Dothraki and their way of life than the Dothraki themselves do?
Kylie: For sure, and that’s never a simple answer (babble as we did). But I think our sort of lack-of-reaction to this particular bloodrider’s death speaks to why it is a problem.
However, this brings us to our unceremonious close to this week’s rewatch. What were your guys’ thoughts? Is Season 2 beginning to reveal that drop in quality we expected, or is it keeping pace with Season 1 pretty well? Did the Iron Island scenes land for you too? How do you feel about bad investments? Let us know in the comments, and as always, we wish you good fortune in next week’s The Wars to Come.