Game of Thrones, Season 2, Episode 2: “The Night Lands”
Written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
Directed by Alan Taylor
Airs Sundays at 9pm on HBO
Please do not include future spoilers from the book series in the comments.
Do you recall the opening episodes of the first season of Game of Thrones? Remember being enthralled by the fascinating (and expensive) world-building and the many rich, colorful characters we were just getting to know? Then you might also remember that the downside of those early installments was the sheer luridness of the thing, especially in the Daenarys / Khal Drogo sequences, which reeked of exoticism and soft porn.
“The Night Lands” doesn’t offer up anything quite that unfortunate, but nor does it lean on the principal strengths of the series. It’s very much still doing the work of a season premiere, introducing us to another down or so new players and letting us know the current lay of the land before it shifts, but the topics of conversation this time around tend a little more towards the peurile, to a distracting degree. In any honest concoction involving duelling powers, sex should surely be an ingredient; the trouble with “The Night Lands” is that it starts to feel like the entire meal.
Cases in point: as we rejoin Theon Greyjoy, he’s gleefully bedding a woman in multiple positions (not a whore, as he “hasn’t paid”), and eager to return ro his kingdom, where he expects a hero’s welcome. Upon his arrival, he almost immediately sets out on almost-forcibly seducing a feisty maiden by the name of Yara (Gemma Whelan). Upon their arrival at the castle of Theon’s father Balon Greyjoy (Patrick Malahide), who used to command a mightier Iron Islands, she turns out to be not only his sister (ick) but also Balon’s favoured progeny. Just when we thought they couldn’t shoehorn in any more incest (though at least it wasn’t intentional this time around). Besides the aforementioned qualms, Benioff and Weiss’s teleplay makes Theon’s cockiness so flagrant that we can’t even take umbrage in his takedown; it’s too obviously coming.
That’s one of the less egregious offenders, actually. The worst by far is the near-concluding scene, in which we rejoin Stannis and Melisandre. It seemed a foregone conclusion that there was either going to be or had already been some sexual congress between them, given her thrall over the fairly agnostic Stannis, but the way it takes place onscreen, with Stannis literally laying her atop a map of Westeros is laughably obvious. We get it, they’re serious contenders for the Iron Throne. We didn’t need Melisandre driving Monopoly pieces into her back to make the connection. Runner-up for excess comes via Baelish, who takes a moment to spy on his clients and employees while mid-“transaction.”
Even in scenes that don’t feature copious flashes of flesh, sex is largely the topic of discussion in one form or another. Gendry mildly taunts Arya after he reveals that he’s ware of her gender by telling her to “pull [your] cock out and take a piss.” Davos succeeds in courting the attention and support of a pirate leader, Salladhor (Lucian Msamati), but only after Salladhor professes his need to have his way with Cersei after they take King’s Landing. Finally, up north beyond the Wall, Samwell pines for any kind of female affection, while his buddies in the Night’s Watch boast of past conquests – and, of course, they’re surrounded by the products of Craster’s foul labor.
It’s not that these conversations, story beats, and character notes shouldn’t come up – it’s that cropping them into one hour of television makes the show seem considerably simpler and less sophisticated than it generally is at its best. As with last week, Tyrion continues to supply the show with its strongest material. This week, he’s berating Cersei for ignoring the effect her baby-killing ways has on the populace, who may decide they’re not so fond of Joffrey’s reign after all – even if Tyrion knows that, at some point, he may have to make a similar call himself. (Joffrey and his preening are, sadly, no-shows this week.) He also, in what’s maybe the best scene of the episode, deposes the former head of the City Watch and replaces him with trusty, swarthy sidekick Bronn – who, by the way, would kill a baby, but not before asking after his salary.
With the second round of table-setting out of the way (and presumably at least the great majority of the major players now introduced), here’s hoping the show can up the intrigue and dial down the luridness a little, or at least dilute it, as the overtures for war begin to grow more audible.