I have never read any of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels. But I was hooked relatively quickly into HBO’s first season of Game of Thrones, and the masterfully crafted second-season, which just concluded, was equally enthralling. (I am a bit torn, now, having enjoyed the show so much, as to whether I should start reading the novels. Part of me thinks I definitely should — since I’m loving the adaptation so much, why not dig into the actual source material? But on the other hand, I am having so much fun discovering the story through the show that I am reluctant to lose that thrill. Game of Thrones is a story where anything can happen and no character is safe. I’m LOVING the thrill of not knowing what is ahead for any of the characters, and I’m not sure I want to give that up…)
The first season of Game of Thrones was very strong, and it really built up a head of steam as the ten episodes progressed. The last three-to-four episodes of that first season were absolute dynamite. There’s no moment in season two that ever quite equaled, for me, that “Oh my god I am in LOVE with this show” moment of the shocking character death in the penultimate episode of season one, but that’s hardly surprising. There’s a thrill of discovery that is hard to equal as a TV show goes on. But I adored season two of Game of Thrones, and as TV fantasy spectacle goes, the Battle of Blackwater in the second season’s penultimate episode, “Blackwater,” was pretty extraordinary.
Make that VERY extraordinary. That episode was an amazing achievement, capturing a huge-scale fantasy battle at sea and on land that was viscerally exciting and gripping and epic in scope. It looked gorgeous, but more importantly than that, the show sold the life-or-death stakes for the characters, resulting in a nail-biting hour that was everything I’d hoped it would be. This one is going to be hard to top.
The cast of Game of Thrones dramatically expanded in the second season. Even though the show is fearless in knocking off major characters left and right, season two was still jam-packed with people and places. It’s a huge ensemble, and the quality of the performances across the board is phenomenal.
While Ned Stark was clearly the main character in season one, season two belonged to Tyrion Lannister, played by the spectacular Peter Dinklage. Mr. Dinklage does absolutely extraordinary work in the role, and Tyrion has already become one of the great, iconic TV characters of all time. It helps that the writing for Tyrion always crackles — he always gets the best lines. But Mr. Dinklage brings extraordinary heart and soul into Tyrion. He’s not a noble character, but he’s spectacularly likable and impossible not to root for. One of the show’s great successes is that, when the Battle of Blackwater finally arrives, and the moment of the Lannisters’ defeat is finally at hand (something all of the Stark characters, our heroes from season one, desperately want — and that we, the audience, have also all been desperately wanting, particularly since the events of those final episodes of season one), because Tyrion has been thrust into the role of the defender of the Lannisters and their forces in King’s Landing, it’s hard to know who we want to win the battle! That is fiendishly clever.
Second to Tyrion in terms of character arcs I adored about season two was the connection made between Arya Stark (in disguise, on the run, and hungry for vengeance against the Lannister family) and the Lannister patriarch, Tywin (played by Charles Dance). I love Charles Dance, and he’s great in the show, and Maisie Williams was delightful as Arya since the beginning of season one. But pairing up those two characters when Arya found herself trapped in Harrenhal was absolute genius. Their scenes together were extraordinary, alive with Arya’s constant danger of discovery and yet her enjoyment of being treated decently for a change, as well as Tywin’s growing delight at discovering the unexpected depths of intelligence within his serving girl.
Speaking of Arya, I also loved her connection with the mysterious Jaquen H’ghar (the “faceless man”). Jacquen was a wonderfully enigmatic character (I loved his peculiar way of speaking) and a powerful though dangerous ally for Arya. I hope we see him again, even though it will be wearing a different face. (Shades of Dune, by the way, in Jaquen’s final moment in season two. He’s a Face Dancer!!)
Tyrion’s friend Bronn was a great character in season one, and he was even more fun in season two, since Tyrion helped place him in the prominent position of head of the King’s Guard in King’s Landing. I love this tough, devil-may-care character. His last scene with Tyrion right before the Battle of Blackwater was wonderful. I hope we see more of him in season three. (One of my biggest disappointments with the season two finale was that we didn’t get a post-battle scene between Tyrion and Bronn.)
With so many characters on the board, there were some season one characters who suffered. I really missed Littlefinger, and wished we’d seen a lot more of him. I enjoyed getting to know both Mormonts — the father, Jaeor, on the Wall with the Nights Watch, and the son, Ser Jorah, exiled with the Dothraki — in season one, and I was sad the two men had little to do in the second season.
But the two characters who suffered the most in season two were Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen. They had a decent amount of screen-time (well, Jon Snow did at least), so that wasn’t the problem. It was more that I found myself increasingly disinterested in their story-lines. Jon Snow basically behaved like a bumbling idiot all season long, and I had no patience for his misadventures earning the ire of the revolting, inbreeding Craster or fumbling around with a female wildling prisoner he encountered on expedition in the North. I understand Jon is young and inexperienced, but I just felt he behaved like an idiot all season long, and became far less sympathetic than he was in season one.
Speaking of characters who became far less sympathetic than they were in season one, there is Daenerys. Hers was the story-line I was least engaged in for the first few episodes of season one, but she gradually drew me in, and ultimately I found her relationship with Khal Drogo as well as her bond with Ser Jorah, and her rise as Khaleesi, to be quite compelling. But not only did she have little to do in season two, she was complaining and petulant throughout, constantly whining about her destiny and acting shocked that people weren’t falling all over themselves to help her in her quest to return to Westeros and conquer the seven kingdoms. It was not an endearing turn for her character to take. I hope both Jon and Daenerys turn more back towards their season one selves in season three.
In loved how grounded the first season of Game of Thrones was. Though this story was set in a fantasy land, there weren’t a lot of witches and warlocks and other magical, fantasy silliness. Rather, the story was focused on real human characters, on their struggles and their failings. Seeing the dragons at the very end of that first season was cool, but I found the glimpse at the White Walkers (in the opening minutes of the very first episode) to be one of the least interesting aspects of the show. The fantastical became a bit more present in season two, and while this wasn’t bad, necessarily, it wasn’t something I loved, either. I’m far more interested in seeing the conflict between all the fascinating, complex characters on the show than I am in seeing Melisandre give birth to a Smoke Monster. And I don’t think I was nearly as excited by the army of White Walkers/zombies that closed out the second season as the show’s creators probably wanted me to be. It’s clear that these fantasy elements will become a much larger factor in the show as it continues — I hope the balance never tips over the edge into silliness.
It’s been a while since there has been a sci-fi/fantasy show on the air that has been as engaging as Game of Thrones. (Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica would be my most recent love in this area, and that’s been gone for a few years already.) Nothing else on TV, recently, has gripped me the way these two seasons have. This show is right in my sweet spot, and so far I have pretty much been loving every minute of it. I hope and pray for many, many more seasons of this show at this level of quality. It’s going to be a looong wait until season three!!