Game of Thrones, Ep. 2.03: “What Is Dead May Never Die” sharpens the focus and readies us for what’s to come

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Game of Thrones, Season 2, Episode 3: “What Is Dead May Never Die”
Written by Bryan Cogman
Directed by Alik Sakharov
Airs sundays at 9pm ET on HBO

Apologies for the slightly belated review; I am currently en route to NYC.

Is it possible that anyone will watch “What Is Dead May Never Die” and not have their major takeaway be the arrival of Brienne, played by Gwendoline Christie? At 6’3″ and looking a little like a ‘roided-out Tilda Swinton, Brienne instantly arrives as a totally distinct physical presence from every other female character on television, let alone Game of Thrones. Proponents of the books have insisted that we can expect more to her character than just a good hand or two with a sword, but for now, she’s left one hell of a first impression.

That’s not meant as a slight against Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer, veteran of The Tudors), who makes quite an entrance herself. She’s the highlight of our reunion with Renly Baratheon, one of the seven would-be rulers kicking around this season, last seen fleeing King’s Landing with a clear intent to destroy the Lannisters. Her status as a knowing, canny manipulator rather than an oblivious, naive wife shocked by her husband’s sexual proclivities is a welcome development, one that helps to reinforce the general sense throughout the episode that Renly has some serious adjusting to do if he’s to be an effective ruler or leader. The other comes with the arrival of Catelyn Stark, who quickly puts him in his place in front of his entire entourage.

As per usual, though, it’s the machinations of Tyrion Lannister in his efforts to clean house over at King’s Landing that continue to be the most dependable source of intrigue. This week, he launches an ingenious scheme to weed out parties that might threaten his status as Hand of the King, ultimately outing poor Lord Pycelle, the elderly gentleman we saw delivering a portenteous monologue or two last season. We’ve yet to understand quite what Tyrion’s limits are, and “What Is Dead” continues to probe that element of his character. After having Pycelle’s beard forcibly cut off, he consigns him to one of the “black cells,” which can’t be a pleasant fate. Between this sequence and last week’s kvetching around the infant-murder issue, Tyrion’s humanity (or lack thereof) will be a fascinating development to chart.

Dinklage has been getting the lion’s share of the praise since the show began, but this week it’s pertinent to mention an actress who’s done wonders with a much more thankless role. The character of Sansa Stark has apparently been a sticking point for many fans of the book series, and it’s not hard to see why: as a character with next to no agency, particularly one trapped in such a vile predicament with no end in sight, listening to her inner monologue for extended periods might grow wearisome in book form. As played by Sophie Turner, though, we get a clear sense of her anguish and torment, but it’s tempered with an inner strength that keeps from the verge of collapse at seemingly every moment. She’s so effective that it feels only natural when even Cersei seems to develop a little empathy for the poor girl.

With attempts begun this week to forge new alliances, the precise battlelines along which this season will develop should begin to crystalise, which can only mean that things are going to ramp up steadily from here. Like the newly purposeful Theon Greyjoy, who now seems eager to adopt the mores of the homeland and family he’s rejoined, Season 2 is finding its dramatic footing considerably more quickly than the show’s first outing did, and that’s incredibly exciting, given what we already know the show is capable of when it gets to sprinting.

Simon Howell

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