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'Game of Thrones' Recap: 'The Night Lands' Shows Desperation Building

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Note: Do not read on if you have not seen Season 2, Episode 2 of HBO's "Game of Thrones," entitled "The Night Lands."

Welcome to my second weekly "Game of Thrones" review. Before I kick off the discussion of "The Night Lands," I just wanted to offer a little information about how these weekly reviews will work.

I'm not going to recap everything that happens in every episode; that doesn't strike me as something this show's fanbase wants or needs. Every week, I'm just going to offer a few thoughts about some of the themes and scenes that made an impression on me. And of course, the whole point is to kick off a discussion with commenters, so I welcome your replies, theories and observations.

All right, with that out of the way, my first observation is this: Each episode could devote half its running time to Lord Varys and that would make me blissfully happy. This is a show with a huge cast that just keeps getting bigger, and one of the dangers I talked about in last week's review is that we might get only cursory glances at the lives of certain characters. How the show will balance the needs of the story with the depth and quality of the characterizations is one of the open questions of Season 2, and of course, it's too early to tell whether 10 hours is enough time to get to know enough of the saga's key figures.

But Varys never fails to make an impression, thanks to Conleth Hill's terrific performance. Give me scenes of Varys ably sparring with Littlefinger and Tyrion and I will feast like a king on them. What I love about Hill's performance is that there's a grain of sincerity to his version of the crafty character. I absolutely believe that Varys believes in something; the man has an agenda and sticks to it with a seriousness and tenacity that stand in stark contrast to his smiling face, which is carefully arranged to be as bland and unthreatening as possible.

I believe that he did actually enjoy talking to Shae. I believe Varys was threatening Tyrion by showing him that the spymaster knows all about the Hand's personal affairs, which is dangerous knowledge for him to have. I believe that he takes Tyrion at his word about knowing how to play the game, yet there was such delicious steeliness in Varys' reply to Tyrion's own threat about throwing him into the sea. So many big fish have lived in that castle, yet Varys is the one who always remains. "And I keep on paddling," he coolly replied.

Varys is a deadly enemy to have, but somewhere there's a core of loyalty and possibly even altruism in this man. He's as pragmatic and merciless as they come when the times call for ruthless measures, yet I believe, thanks to Hill's layered performance and the character's track record, that he would be an invaluable ally to have. This is a story, after all, about how practicality collides with ideals, and even if Varys doesn't truly believe in abstract principles, he's willing to make the kind of sacrifices that may end up serving the kingdom. In fact, sometimes I think he's the only one thinking about the big picture and the future of Westeros.

The conflict between pragmatic goals and principled ideals is also playing itself out in Jon Snow's story, on a much smaller, but no less important scale. His life as the son of a nobleman and his training as a man of the Night's Watch has led him to believe that he should, without hesitation, protect the weak and vulnerable; but Gilly's plight puts him in an awful position. Though his superior, Lord Mormont, clearly hates dealing with the sleazy Craster, they've got no choice if they want to get decent intelligence on what the Wildlings are up to. His roof, his rules. And so, Jon and his friends have to ignore the incestuous nature of the entire household and not ask questions about what happens to baby boys (something Jon learns the hard way at the end of the episode). Sam, in his innocence, asks the questions that actually lay at the heart of Martin's tale: If good people tolerate systematically evil actions, how can they consider themselves good?

Theon Greyjoy learned those same lessons Jon Snow did about honor and service, but he had a very different father, one whose ferocious disapproval produced a son who has to constantly prove himself and who never feels he measures up (hence his constant conquest -- or attempted conquest -- of every woman in his path). As a bastard, Jon Snow knows what it's like to crave acceptance, but he had Ned Stark, an almost excessively honorable man, for a father. It's clear that no matter what Theon Greyjoy does, his father will never love him ... not just because the man (one of dozens of crusty, forbidding, downright scary father figures in this tale) is not capable of love, but because he now considers his remaining son hopelessly tainted and corrupted by his time among Stark's family. To see his sister so lavishly praised in front of him just adds to Theon's sense of betrayal and humiliation. Just as Kit Harington plays Jon Snow's vulnerability and growing sense of disillusion perfectly, Alfie Allen does a terrific job of showing the bewildered, wounded boy at the heart of the grown-up Thoen Greyjoy.

Eunuch, imp, bastard and reject: The game of thrones among the upper crust is interesting in its own right, but the genius of this tale is in how it depicts the ways in which those on the fringes of society deal with their status as outcasts, rejects, schemers and rebels.

Arya, at least, finds a friend in Gendry, another refugee in flight from the gold cloaks of the City Watch. And Tyrion has Bronn at his side. But one of the great things about Peter Dinklage's performance is the way he wordlessly communicates his character's doubts and fears. On the one hand, it's good that he has a man beside him who will unquestioningly do whatever is asked of him (for the right price, that is). But in that look at the end of the Janos Slynt scene, Tyrion's face was full of misgivings, as if to say: "Is this what I have to be and is this who I have to surround myself with? Baby killers and remorseless bastards?" It would appear that he doesn't exactly relish the idea of being quite as heartless as he knows he needs to be.

Cersei doesn't have that problem. She, of course, knows that her son is a nightmare, but she can't quite bring herself to ask Tyrion for help -- not after spending a lifetime hating him. If Varys' and Tyrion's conversation was the episode's most delicious moment, the Hand's discussion with his sister was the most chilling moment of the hour. Characters in this story are constantly forced to confront what they can and can't forgive (a question much on the mind of a pulpier, but very enjoyable show, "Spartacus").

In the end, Cersei can't bring herself to see who and what her brother is; she can't acknowledge that he's smart, able and a valuable potential ally. She can't let go of the fact that his arrival in the world coincided with their mother's departure from it, and even if that wasn't his fault, she's decided that that's the only fact about Tyrion that matters. Just as some characters want to hang on to old belief systems, old values and old gods, some can't let go of old grudges and enmities. Flexibility is useful (certainly in House Greyjoy, there's none to be found, which could be a problem). But what about the kind of flexibility that allows others to stand by and do nothing while young women (among others) are exploited and enslaved?

That's the question: When does practicality slide into amoral behavior? When does the flexibility of one's beliefs render them useless? The tension of the story comes from the many instances in which characters have to ask themselves those kinds of troubling questions.

Though he's a hard man of the old school, Stannis didn't have much trouble taking on a new belief system when it came calling in an alluring package. The mysterious redhead named Melisandre offered him not just an alliance with a powerful, all-knowing god, but, in this episode, a son and heir. He wanted to believe she could give him that, just as he wanted to believe the Lord of Light could help his cause on the battlefield.

But hasn't he ever heard the phrase, "Be careful what you wish for -- you just might get it"?

On to a few more bullet points about the episode:

  • I'm not going to get into an in-depth discussion of sexposition here, but it's a term that scholar and critic Myles McNutt invented during the first season of "Game of Thrones," which all too often combined scenes of jiggling breasts with downloads of expository dialogue. This Guardian story and this 2011 post by James Poniewozik do a great job of unpacking what the term means and why the sexposition, in my view, got to be a bit much in Season 1. To be brief, I enjoy stories that deal with adult sexuality and I have zero problems with nudity. (Hello! "Spartacus" fan here.) But there were times in Season 1 in which I felt there were boobs in scenes just because it was HBO, and hey, HBO is supposed to have a lot of boobs, right? The reason I don't want to judge whether Season 2 has gone too far yet in the sexposition sweepstakes is because the season's not even half over and I'd like to see more episodes before I make that call. Having said all that, at times, the sexposition just makes me laugh. Just once in this story, I'd like to see the woman being subjected to a sexposition monologue just look up and say, "Do you mind just shutting the hell up?"
  • I don't particularly consider the Roz scene a sexposition scene, since it was mainly a chance for Littlefinger to show the hardest, most cynical side of his personality. But there's a whole lot of voyeurism going on at that brothel, no? Little creepy.
  • Speaking of lust, I really, really, really want Stannis' amazing table.
  • Terrific direction of the scenes of Daenerys, which evocatively depicted the waste all around her and the utter isolation of her desperate people.
  • As I said in my overall Season 2 review, the location scouts and scenery special-effects artists have outdone themselves this season. Case in point: the Pyke scenes. The location of Theon's arrival home -- which was certainly lacking in any kind of pomp or ceremony -- spoke volumes about the people of that place and the hardness of their hearts.
  • We got more proof this week that Liam Cunningham's Ser Davos Seaworth is just a lot more interesting and lively than the guy in the book (who, to be clear, I never disliked, I just never really cared about him much either way, certainly not in relation to the story's more intriguing and complex characters).
  • Peter Dinklage has already had a lot of great moments this season, but his line reading of "She was my mother too" sent chills up my spine.