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Reviewed by Nate Kreichman
note about spoilers: I’ve done my best to work in the abstract, discussing themes and essential features while avoiding the major plot details of the second season. That said, a knowledge of the show’s basic elements is assumed. In short, this review is safe for anyone who’s seen at least the first season of “Game of Thrones,” and hopefully interesting both for fans who are caught up as well as those who have been awaiting this release to see the latest season for the first time.
No show on television is as huge, sprawling or full of complexities as “Game of Thrones.” And the same can be said of this collection of its Complete Second Season. Based on A Clash of Kings, the second book in George R.R. Martin’s epic A Song of Ice and Fire series, the show employs characters and locations by the bucket load. Things move fast in Westeros, and “Game of Thrones” places more trust in the viewer than even the best shows on television. The audience is expected to keep up or be left to drown in a cacophony of names, faces, places and motivations.
While the first ten episodes introduced the series’ increasingly vast world and the characters that make it up, they enjoyed the benefits of a central character and a single main storyline which propelled all action forward. I’m speaking, of course, about Ned Stark and his investigation into the death of Jon Arryn, and later, the genealogy of King Robert’s “trueborn” children. The shocking revelation that was Ned’s death was the moment viewers realized “Game of Thrones”is not your run-of-the-mill fantasy series (or television series, for that matter).
Ned’s death removed the unifying presence of a protagonist from the narrative, redistributing the weight of the story to a number of other characters scattered across the map. As a result, the second season stretches its inherently fragmented storyline as far as it can go, and then it stretches a little more. The viewer is shifted constantly from place to place, and scene to seemingly independent scene, in a sometimes jarring fashion that might have proved disastrous in lesser hands. In a review of any other show, this might be a check in the “con” column, but not “Game of Thrones.”
One conflict seemingly steps into the void Ned’s physical absence creates: The War of the Five Kings. I say physical absence because while Sean Bean never graces the screen, Eddard Stark is not forgotten. The soul of the honorable lord remains alive and well as the lessons he taught his children inform their every action, and the steps he took to bring justice to the realm reverberate in the aforementioned war.
Before his death, Ned sent a letter to the older of King Robert’s two brothers, Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane), informing him that Joffrey (Jack Gleason), the king’s “trueborn” heir, and his two siblings were in fact bastards born of incest between Queen Cersei (Lena Headey) and her twin brother, Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). The Lannisters, of course, deny any wrongdoing and Joffrey continues to sit the Iron Throne in King’s Landing. But the dutiful Stannis intends to go to war and claim his birthright. Unfortunately for Stannis, his younger brother, Renly (Gethin Anthony), cares little for the line of succession and is determined to seize the throne for himself. The charismatic Renly has the power of House Tyrell, one of the realm’s wealthiest families, behind him as well as many of the bannermen who rightly should have answered to Stannis. Meanwhile, Ned’s eldest son, Robb (Richard Madden), has declared himself the King in the North and means to rule his lands independent of Joffrey - or whoever sits the Iron Throne. And as if all that wasn’t complicated enough, Balon Greyjoy (Patrick Malahide) has likewise donned “the ancient crown of salt and rock” and declared himself the King of the Iron Islands.
While the War of the Five Kings is certainly in the foreground of a majority of the show’s plotlines, not all of them depend on it. Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) and the rest of the brothers of the Night’s Watch are on an expedition beyond The Wall to seek information about the wildlings and other, more sinister forces. And let’s not forget that across the Narrow Sea is the last remaining member of the exiled Targaryen dynasty, Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), the Mother of Dragons, who is seeking allies for her own invasion of Westeros.
As such, it is not the War of the Five Kings that takes up the mantle as the series’ cohesive element. In truth, it is a single theme: power. While the first season had Ned, and as a result, the theme of honor, it is the idea of power that flows through each of the second season’s various plotlines. The connection is obvious as it relates to the War: Each of the kings seeks their crown and all that comes with it, each for different reasons and with different means. Stannis seeks his birthright not necessarily because he desires it, but because when the king leaves no trueborn heirs, it is his eldest brother’s duty to seize the reins of power. It is his duty, and he intends to see it through. Renly seeks glory, the people – or the right people, at least – believe he would make a good king, and Renly is inclined to believe them. Robb seeks honor; he must avenge his father’s death and permanently remove himself and his people from the yoke of those who know nothing of the North or a long, hard winter. Joffrey and Balon seem to operate on the basest of impulses: it is mine, and no one will take it from me. And on and on it goes.
But characters struggle for power even within the various factions, most notably in the Lannister camp. Although Joffrey purports to rule in King’s Landing, it is his mother, Cersei, who manages the Kingdoms’ day-to-day affairs. Cersei wants to prove herself in spite of her gender, to show that she is her father’s daughter, his heir in everything but name. She clashes with her brother, Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), who arrives in the capital to serve as acting Hand of the King while their father, Tywin (Charles Dance), leads the war effort.
While power is the season’s unifying theme, Tyrion is the character who comes closest to replacing Ned as protagonist. As Hand, Tyrion offers a fascinating contrast to his predecessor. Ned Stark was an honorable man, Tyrion is not, as he says himself. He knows how the game is played. To entirely oversimplify things, Tyrion is the “good guy” on the “bad team,” and watching him manipulate King’s Landing’s many, many manipulators is an absolute delight. Because of his stature, Tyrion was always overlooked, but this season necessity dictates that he be given power he never imagined and he quickly emerges as one of the most adept players in the “game of thrones.” Like everyone else, Tyrion must put himself first, but he is one of the few characters to use his opportunity in a position of power to do right by the common people and bring some semblance of justice to the realm. Thus, while many of his actions are far from noble, Tyrion’s focused but admittedly grey morality make him one of the show’s most relatable characters. In speaking to Tyrion, the enigmatic eunuch Varys (Conleth Hill) makes explicit the theme of power: “Power resides where men believe it reside. It’s a trick, a shadow on the wall. And a very small man can cast a very large shadow.”
Just as shifting power dynamics within the show alter the length of various characters’ metaphorical shadows, so too do they alter their prominence within the storyline. One role in particular comes to mind as an example of a former secondary character that becomes the center of an important subplot, helped along in no small part by a powerful and impressive performance. Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) has been a ward of the Starks’ since he was nine-years-old. He was an honored guest, eating at the same table as the Stark children, and playing and fighting alongside them. But he was also a hostage. Theon was taken from his family to ensure that his father, who had risen in rebellion, never did so again. Early in the season, Theon offers to return to his family’s ancestral home to convince his father to ally himself with the Starks. Things don’t go quite as smoothly as expected, and he is soon torn between his two families: the one who raised him and the one that shares his blood.
Moreover, these shifts created the opportunity for a number of notable interactions between characters we might never have thought would speak to each other. Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) finds herself pouring wine for Tywin Lannister and his most trusted advisors. We see a lighter side of Sandor Clegane, the Hound (Rory McCann), as he forms an unforeseen and protective bond with Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner). And how could we forget Jon Snow and the wildling woman, Ygritte (Rose Leslie), whose colorful back and forth gives us another take on the Westerosi power struggle; Ygritte and the rest of the free folk don’t bow to a king because his father made them. They follow only the brave and strong.
While the wide open nature of “Game of Thrones’” second season provides a few small shortcomings like hitches in pacing, all in all, the show blazes over such minor bumps in style. All the scheming and intrigue, all the battles, and all the rich characters and fresh dialogue weave the show’s grand tapestry. The Complete Second Season offers three ways of watching: Blu-ray, DVD, and digital copy and is a must-have for all fans of the show.
Special Features: I’ve talked a lot about the series’ enormous size and depth. All those names and faces can overwhelm some viewers, and it might take a little getting used to for those not familiar with the books. One way I sought to remedy this problem in my episodic blogs was to provide a link to a picture of every character the first time they were mentioned in a post. The Complete Second Season collection introduces a similar solution: Each episode offers an interactive guide that can be moved on and off the screen. The guide gives viewers brief bios of every character in a scene that evolve as the season goes on, as well as a description of their location and “links” to another special feature – 19 short animations which detail history and lore from the perspective of various characters. The show obviously doesn’t have the room or a mechanism to include all the exposition and background information the books offer, but these shorts, which vary in length from two to four minutes, give show-watchers some of that world-building information known only to readers in the past.
Along the same lines, special features like profiles of seven major characters and a map exploring the War of the Five Kings allow the audience to explore the show’s vast world. The latter gives viewers the opportunity to “track the claims, strategies and key players involved in the battle for the Iron Throne” with an interactive guide that follows the movements of various armies detailing their victories and defeats.
Other special features include 12 audio commentaries with cast and crew, including creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, and George R.R. Martin, the author of the books. There’s also “Creating the Battle of the Blackwater Bay,” a behind-the-scenes look at the climactic battle in the penultimate episode that features never-before-seen interviews with cast and crew’ “Game of Thrones: Inner Circle,” in which Benioff and Weiss moderate a roundtable discuss with a number of the series’ principle actors; and “The Religions of Westeros,” in which Martin, Benioff and Weiss discuss the various competing religions in the series – yet another wrinkle in the struggle for power.