Game of Thrones series two: spoiler-free review

“Did you pay the iron price for it or the gold?”

The Seven Kingdoms of Westeros have collapsed into civil war with more and more claimants emerging for the Iron Throne. Each has their own aims and ambitions, variously to be The King in the North or The King beyond the Wall or the ruler of the whole world.

Meanwhile, the capital of King’s Landing has become a hotbed of dissent as the people lose faith in their distant, disinterested overlords. While they should be preparing for the long winter, the nobles are more interested in scheming for position, or fighting for their very lives.

Season two of Game of Thrones is all about power and where it lies. It is a theme that recurs repeatedly as character after character proclaims their right to rule: some by blood, others due to intelligence, and some by fear alone.

The second series is much more claustrophobic than the first, which took in a vast sweep of George R.R.Martin’s world. Now the focus is clearly on the characters and the harsh choices they are forced to make.

A particular strength of the series is that the characters often have an ambiguous relationship to the people that are nominally their enemies. I particularly like Arya Stark’s relationship with her captors: people who have slain her closest relations, but whom she can’t help liking when she meets them at close quarters.

Other characters are growing up fast and suddenly facing terrible life-and-death decisions. Worst among them is the villainous Theon Greyjoy whose inferiority complex leads him to ignore all sage advice and plunge his friends and allies into chaos.

Pyke, the land of the Greyjoys, is a sort of hommage to H.P.Lovecraft with their octopus sigil and their chant to the sea god of:

What is dead may never die

It has clear echoes of the cult chant of the followers of Cthulhu:

 That is not dead which can eternal lie,

And with strange aeons even death may die.

I also suspect that Martin is using Theon Greyjoy to have a bit of fun at Tolkien’s expense. As the leader of a warband, Theon often makes preposterous speeches about how bards will sing songs of their deeds for centuries to come, something which is an ever-popular theme among the men of Middle Earth just before they head off to slaughter orcs.

Melisandre and Stannis Baratheon. Source: IMDB (copyright HBO)

In the second series, we get a further taste of how magic affects the lives of people in the Seven Kingdoms, mostly through the wonderful sorceress Melisandre (played by Carice van Houten). She has cast her spell over the rightful heir to the throne, Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane), although he hates himself for bowing to her charms.

Magic is used sparingly but it when it does occur, it is awesome to behold. There are moments in Games of Thrones that will stay with you for your whole life, and there is a birth scene here which may be the most extraordinary thing that I have ever seen on film or television anywhere.

Series 2 Unusual guest star: German actor Tom Wlaschina is extraordinary as the sinister assassin Jaqen H’ghar.

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9 responses to “Game of Thrones series two: spoiler-free review

  1. My problem with the use of magic in GoT, which I do enjoy as a series, is I think it deflates the drama a bit.

    So, Melisandre does what she does. It’s a new thing, none of the characters know it’s possible. What else could come up that nobody knows is possible, particularly as a theme is magic returning to the world?

    Why can’t Melisandre rinse and repeat her work to take care of the various plot strands? Fiat essentially. What stops another sorceror popping up and doing something else magical that changes everything? Well, nothing.

    For me it’s an intrinsic flaw to the show (and the books). The fact magic is returning means it doesn’t have established rules. The fact it doesn’t have established rules means literally anything could happen. If anything could happen, I’m not sure it matters any more what actually does.

    • That’s very interesting. I really like the magic in GoT so it’s clear we disagree there!
      The thing about the magic in GoT is that it always has a cost. When a sorceress attempts to heal Khal Drogo in series 1, she demands a sacrifice (his horse). Whenever Melisandre uses magic, she needs blood to fuel her spells. In series 3, we have a glimpse of another sorcerer and likewise, we hear how he uses body parts in his sorcery.
      So herein is the limit on the magic. It is powered by such cruel acts that everyone who comes into contact with it is disgusted by it. The Dothraki beg Daenarys not to use blood magic because it is forbidden. Right from Melisandre’s first appearance, people oppose her black arts. Stannis himself loathes the things that she makes him do, and his hand, Davis Seaworth argues against her at every turn. So magic cannot take over the storyline because people detest it. The dragons on the other hand…

      • I suspect Melisandre needs life, rather than blood specifically.It’s not Stannis’ blood she uses for her first major spell after all…

        But yes, I take your point. It doesn’t though stop some new character popping up and using magic to take out say the Lannisters – everyone might revile them afterwards but there’s nothing in the fiction to prevent it.

        The dragons seem to be set up to combat the ice walkers, but that’s perhaps too obvious. I took them primarily as part of the clear theme of magic returning to the land, and perhaps that’s the answer to my objection – with magic returning the old certainties don’t apply and someone new might appear and zonk the Lannisters or whoever, but the various factions are so obsessed with their own internal feuds they simply haven’t noticed that the world has changed around them and the rules of the game aren’t necessarily the same any more.

      • I agree with you. After the shock of the first magical attack, you do think it could happen anywhere or at any time.
        I have a theory about the white walkers actually. I wonder if they are an analogy for climate change. A mysterious threat is building in the north in the frozen parts of the world (= the melting of the polar ice caps). Nobody pays it much attention because they are too busy fighting insane local wars for personal advantage (= the world’s governments). When someone does point out the threat of the white walkers, everyone scoffs and ridicules the idea because they haven’t seen it with their own eyes (= climate change deniers). Only the Black Watch comprehend the enormity of the situation because they can see it at first hand, as the hardy few who are prepared to sacrifice personal comfort to combat this threat (= the geologists and scientists who are taking readings in the poles and elsewhere). Or maybe I’m just reading too much into it…

  2. I don’t know if that’s an intentional analogy Alastair, but it does hold up very well. I do think whether it’s that specific or not there’s quite an intentional point being made about cultural blinders and failing to see the real threats to one’s way of life, which obviously strongly applies to the climate change issue.

  3. I absolutely loved the fact Jerome Flynn was in it, that was just the bestest thing ever. I’m just about to start season 2, I tried the books, I normally appreciate slower paced books but I just ended up frustrated, that is why TV is bad but I am looking forward to this season. I look forward to it getting all convoluted and surprising and seeing more of Danaerys…her hair is great.

    • Danaerys is superb, isn’t she? Her relationship with Jorah Mormant really gets interesting in series 2 too.
      It’s funny that Jermone Flynn seemed to be a minor character in the first series but he’s grown to be quite a major one now. Bronn, Shay and Tyrion are one of my favourite groupings in the story.

      • This is the first TV show I have been genuinely excited to watch since The Wire, I love being all clueless about it. I am looking forward to everything turning on its head. Tyrion seems like the only one who is redeemable as a person, him and Jon but of course that was watching the first season I am sure that will change, ha!

      • There are so many characters and you just never know what’s going to happen next. Tyrion is wonderful and the only good Lannister, as far as I can tell!

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