Remember last week when I theorized that each episode of Game of Thrones‘ second season, following the pilot, would probably place more focus on a smaller number of characters? Seems like time’s proving me right. Maybe that’s not a boast exactly, since it’s just plain old logical, but expect this to be the routine with each episode; week to week we’ll see more of one character over another so as to ensure that every arc gets the proper breathing room across the span of the show’s current run. I have a feeling that some characters– like Davos– will end up appearing in small increments in every episode, but by and large the structure of The Night Lands likely will reflect throughout the rest of the season.
What The Night Lands may do better than any Game of Thrones episode to date is saturate us with sex. I’m not joking in the slightest when I say that 2.2 contains, pound-for-pound, more depictions of people bumping uglies than any other installment from the series and perhaps from any single episode of any other HBO series today. If violence suits your palate just fine but graphically pantomimed carnal acts set your skin crawling, Alan Taylor has your number. Sex is everywhere here, in brothels, on ships, and even on war room tables. Poor Merkin Muffley would probably be mortified by that last one.
But for all of the rampant promiscuity on display here, there’s purpose too; none of what we see is exploitative for the sake of being exploitative, which, frankly, rings true for the entire series too. Among other things, sex is plot, pushing the story forward and progressing the overall narrative. People crack wise and dub such scenes examples of “sexposition”, but that quip rings completely true– sex in Game of Thrones often lets the show divulge information to us in a way that doesn’t insult our intelligence as viewers. Theon’s below-deck romp with the captain’s daughter aboard his Iron Islands-bound ship probably best exemplifies that specific intention, but more than anything the sex of Martin’s story has consequences. Babies are murdered to prevent any potential competition for Joffrey’s throne in the future; Bran is pushed out of a window for catching Jaimie and Cersei in the act; Viserys sells Daenerys to Khal Drogo to gain an invasion force.
And that’s just scratching the surface. Even dour and grim Stannis gets lucky, though what his tryst with Melisandre yields is yet a mystery to viewers who haven’t read the book, and there are other characters– who I’ll leave nameless– whose future actions emphasize the impact sex can have in the war for the Iron Throne as well. Ultimately, for all of its inherent shock value, the hanky panky of Game of Thrones serves more than just the function of titillating its audience; The Night Lands underscores this particular point again and again, and it’s pretty much a given that the rest of the season will continue to make use of sex as a weapon, a tool of power, and other, similar devices.
Of course, for everything that sex represents in Westerosi politics and throne-mongering, there’s more to The Night Lands than just scene after scene of unbridled lust. The most important thread of the entire episode follows Theon’s journey to his real home, Pyke, the seat of power on the aforementioned Iron Islands. For readers of Martin’s novels, The Night Lands signals a significant turn of direction in Theon’s arc, and seeing the events of his future set into motion in his reunion with father Balon (Patrick Malahide) and sister Yara (Gemma Whelan) may cut deeply; those without such foreknowledge, well, sit back and just watch the plot unfold. I have to applaud the casting here; Malahide, imbuing his moments with all of the cold callousness his character is known for*, and Alfie Allen spar magnificently, while Whelan’s body language so closely resembles Allen’s that the realization of their kinship should hit like a ton of bricks. Hats off to the casting directors for the choices they made here.
Speaking of choices, how are the players at Dragonstone working out for everyone else? If you’ll permit me to toot my own horn once more, I also noted last week that the nature of a television show affords us a broader perspective than the books themselves do; yet again we see the divergence between mediums here, and in two different ways. We don’t see Melisandre seduce Stannis ourselves– we’re lodged in Davos’ point of view. But it’s not hard to read between the lines when those lines state outright that the red priestess and her would-be king spend an awful lot of time alone behind locked doors. In other words, The Night Lands just extrapolates on what’s hinted at in the novel. Similarly, the note upon which the episode ends points directly to a reveal only recently employed in A Dance with Dragons, and which I imagine will take greater shape throughout the course of this season. In a way, it’s wonderful to watch Game of Thrones just by virtue of how much Weiss and Benioff respect the source material while reconfiguring its bits and pieces for a visual platform.
Between the action taking place at Dragonstone and Pyke, Tyrion’s brilliant deposition of Janos Slynt, and the slowly developing friendship between Arya and Gendry (going back to casting– the chemistry between Maisie Williams and Joe Dempsie is incredible), The Night Lands definitely has pushed the story forward in some pretty big ways after The North Remembers merely managed to set the stage for the entire season. If we’re lucky, What Is Dead May Never Die will let us have some quality time with everyone’s favorite mother of dragons, but foremost we’ll be dealing with the backlash from Jon’s decision to spy on Craster– so I wonder how much more plot from future novels will end up being woven into the fabric of this season. Much and more, I suspect, and even more still as the weeks roll on.
*Though if you think Balon’s unpleasant, wait until you meet his brothers.