When Game of Thrones began its historic run on HBO (or even before it began), Sean Bean’s Ned Stark was heavily promoted as the face of the series. As I mentioned in the first season’s retrospective, he was projected as the show’s central character, that lead you expected to follow right until the season finale and even see on the Iron Throne. His demise though took that away, adding an unprecedented level of unpredictability to the show’s proceedings and truly becoming the germ that kicked off the war for the Iron Throne (together with Robert Baratheon’s death and Joffrey’s forced ascension to King). But it also had one additional effect: it threw the central narrative out of gear, leaving us with a lot of characters to follow but no one clear person to root for nearly as much as we did for Ned when the show began.
Season 2 is all about capturing that chaos and trying to make sense of it, by having multiple storylines progress in parallel at their own pace. If you thought the onslaught of new characters, storylines and locations was too much to keep track of in Season 1, Game of Thrones one-ups itself in its sophomore outing. The second season retained quite a lot of the main cast from the first one, while introducing plenty of new faces to the fold including some that were mentioned in passing or at least acknowledged as existing in the show’s universe (talking as a non-book reader). They’re all largely disconnected in terms of their narratives – you could practically edit their individual storylines and watch them together without finding yourself lost too much – but inch closer towards a common, shared outcome: capturing the Iron Throne.
Game of Thrones avoids giving us more of the same and takes the conflict and its characters much further than its debut Season, rather than restraining them in one location. Sure Joffrey isn’t going to leave King’s Landing, and neither are the Lannisters, except Tywin who’s out there scheming allegiances and war tactics and Jaime who’s held hostage by the Starks. But others like Jon Snow are pushed into the wilderness, in an attempt to find his Uncle Benjen Stark and end up wanting to reach out and learn more about the Wildlings. As is Daenerys who, in her rather slow-burn but equally important storyline, wanders around the Red Waste with what’s left of her Khalasar and Jorah Mormont by her side until she comes across the city of Qarth where she is taken in. Much happens in both these storylines and it’s safe to stay not all turn out as expected for the characters involved. And Theon Greyjoy gets the most exposure for we truly learn a lot about what he’s struggling with, and what ultimately leads him to switch allegiances, resulting in a major betrayal headed the Starks’ way.
To help us understand Theon’s conflict, we’re introduced to the Greyjoys, his father Balon and strong-headed, fierce leader and sister Yara. We’re also given a glimpse into what happened in the Iron Islands and the Greyjoy Rebellion which ended with the Starks taking Theon as hostage, lest they attempt another invasion. This is all by the way extremely well illustrated in the series’ Blu-Ray extras-set Histories & Lore, along with many other details. Theon constantly struggles between staying loyal to the Starks who, despite taking him hostage treated him as family and the Greyjoys, whom he’s been away from for a long time since childhood but is essentially his true family. Heritage prevails and Theon ends up raiding Winterfell which is unable to defend itself, its most prominent people Robb, Catelyn and Jon having departed for their respective paths.
As many as five kings are vying for the Iron Throne aside from Joffrey who sniggers on it. There’s the Greyjos, who I just talked about. There’s Robb Stark who wants revenge for his father’s death and will settle for nothing less than sitting on the throne. There’s Renly Baratheon who counts himself as the natural successor to his brother, Robert Baratheon on account of lineage. And there’s Stannis Baratheon, related to Robert who considers himself a better leader and a natural fit to the Throne, further motivated by the Red Priestess Melisandre’s sorcery and magic, nevermind his aide Ser Davos Seaworth who tries to warn him. And of course, there’s the lone Targaryen child, Daenerys who is far enough not to be considered an immediate threat to the conflict. These are important characters, with their own strong personalities that will continue to play a vital role in the series going forward (well, almost all).
With so many diverging storylines to contend to, Game of Thrones Season 2 tries to build to some pinnacle, primary skirmish. And that event leads to an exhilarating episode featuring the Battle of Blackwater Bay in all its glory. Previous episodes had put aside large-scale battles and cut through them to preserve budget, always choosing to show the commencement or the outcome but this one displays the complete scale, strategizing and subsequent sacking of King’s Landing and how it affects the main players. The writing sees a noticeable improvement, given that it’s written by George R. R. Martin himself and the episode doesn’t just focus on the spectacle, but highlights Tyrion’s plan, its consequences and the resulting war tactics and strategizing with brutal clarity. Aside from battles in The Lord of the Rings and maybe the Avengers movies, I haven’t seen large scale wars depicted with such clarity and precision, making it easy to follow. And kudos to Neil Marshall for directing the episode using just a single full-scale ship, yet making it look like Stannis had an entire fleet at his disposal (again, a pointer to watch the Anatomy of an Episode featurette around this battle on the Blu-Ray).
Some rather brilliant scenes come out of original material created by writers David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. The best one perhaps is the interaction between Arya Stark and Tywin Lannister; where the duo don’t meet in the books, it’s great to see Maisie Williams bounce off Charles Dance and match performance with the veteran. It’s a shame their time comes to an end but it’s super fun seeing Arya avoid being discovered while matching wits and guts with Tywin. Likewise, it’s fun to see Tywin actually appreciate Arya’s intelligence for her age, sometimes even scorning at his own men while praising her. I also didn’t realize how big of a role Jaq’en had in this Season, especially in light of the bigger role he plays in the future; guess rewatches help you focus.
Game of Thrones ups itself significantly both in terms of performances and technical flourises. The latter are easier to see, with the Blackwater battles on display. Plus there are now dragons to be rendered and even though they’re being used sparingly now, the limited shots are all brilliantly done (quality over quantity, that’s how you do visual effects). The production shines in its depiction of King’s Landing by moving it to Dubrovnik, Croatia, using Iceland to depict vistas beyond the wall that will have you mistake it for CGI, or the lavish, rich and exotic Arabian-inspired city of Qarth that will make you want to live there.
There’s a wealth of riches to be found in performances. The lead ones are obvious, but the newcomers are interesting nonetheless. Stephen Dillane plays Stannis humanized, calculating and someone who won’t stop at anything to get the Throne). Natalie Dormer comes to the forefront as Margaery Tyrell and plays the schemer to a fault. Gwendoline Christie as Brienne of Tarth is a scene stealer from her first appearance, and should will continue to be one for years to come. Even the otherwise snail-paced Qarth storyline sees some interesting faces like Pyatt Pree and Xaro Xhoan Daxis who come across as mysterious and scheming. The world is never a straight place with Game of Thrones and these supporting characters only prove it.
Thanks to the great feedback from Season 1 and a further expansion of its lore and characters, Game of Thrones pretty much became event television by its second Season. Every episode of Season 2 was viewed as an event averaging about 3.7 million viewers without taking rewatches and piracy into consideration (oh, it was the most pirated show as well by the way). And Blackwater was the ultimate payoff for sticking around until the end, with the season finale Valar Morghulis capping things off neatly, handing over viewers a great catchphrase while ending on one of the single-most ambitious shots the series ever did thus far by panning wider and further and longer into the army of the undead. Winter is truly coming. And so are the White Walkers.
Game of Thrones Season 2 Rating: 10.0 out of 10.0
In this For The Throne retrospective series, we take a look back at all seasons of George R. R. Martin’s hit fantasy show Game of Thrones, uncovering new insights, identifying connections and spotting plot points and teases that go on to play an important role in the final season. These posts are littered with spoiler so exercise caution when reading.