This review contains some very mild spoilers for characterization in the second season of Game of Thrones. Recaps will resume first thing on Monday.
As a deeply committed fan of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire books, I was pleasantly surprised by the first season of HBO’s blockbuster show based on the fantasy series, and how well David Benioff and D.B. Weiss managed to capture a huge cast of characters and translate Martin’s concepts for a broader audience than they’d previously received. But in the second season, Game of Thrones is emerging as something rarer and more special. While the first season was a faithful, and sometimes dogged translation of Martin’s novel, in its second, Game of Thrones steps forward as a confident adaptation that isn’t afraid to diverge from Martin’s work, and has made his world strategically and emotionally richer as a result.
The essential plot remains unchanged. Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage, teeing up for another profitable awards season) is back in King’s Landing, attempting, with little success, to curb the excesses of his sadistic nephew Joffrey, who now sits on the Iron Throne, and his sister Cersei, elevated by her status as Joffrey’s mother to the role of Queen Regent, though she, too, is vulnerable to Joffrey’s whims. Arya Stark, the youngest daughter of the murdered Hand of the King, Ned Stark, is still fleeing North in the company of recruits for the Night’s Watch, while her sister Sansa suffers through an ugly pageant of betrothal to Joffrey in the capitol. Robb Stark’s victories in battle have given him confidence, but failed to end an essential strategic stalemate—he’s left to taunt Jamie Lannister, Tyrion and Cersei’s brother, now his captive, and to flirt with nurses from Volantis who clean up his bloody works in the field. Robb’s mother Catelyn finds herself negotiating between Renly and Stannis Baratheon, the brothers of dead King Robert, while Theon Greyjoy, Robb’s foster brother, returns to his home on Pyke in hopes of bringing his father, Balon, into an alliance with Robb. And Daenerys Targaryen is wandering the wastes of Pentos after the death of her warlord husband, her dragons no guarantee of victory, much less of her continued existence.
But Benioff and Weiss have begun to enrich the character’s motivations and backstories, and the primary beneficiaries are women. When Theon returns home, he’s disgusted to find that his father has more trust in his sister Yara (her name was Asha in the books, but it has been changed to avoid confusion with the wildling character Osha) than in his last living son. “She can’t lead an attack,” Theon protests. “And why not?” Yara asks—and Balon backs her up. The prostitutes in Littlefinger’s brothel get more extended sequences that make their fates doubly tragic. In a change from the novel, Shae, Tyrion’s lover, goes into service as a handmaiden to Sansa Stark, rather than to noblewoman Lollys Stokeworth, an adjustment that readers from the novel will recognize as a clever and efficient way of heightening a major future plot development. The sexist attitudes Daenerys faces in her struggle to emerge as a leader are sharpened. When a rival tribe sends back one of her guards’ heads in a bag, her bodyguard explains “They don’t like the idea of a woman leading a Khalasar.” “They’ll like it far less when I am done with them,” Dany spits back bitterly.
And the most significant change is to Margaery Tyrell. In the novels, it’s implied that her brother, Loras, had a sexual relationship with her husband, Renly Baratheon. The first season of the television show made that subtext overt text. And rather than leaving Margaery a cipher, as she’s remained in the novels, Benioff and Weiss have made use of the very considerable talents of Natalie Dormer, who previously played Anne Boelyn in The Tudors, and rapidly moved up our understanding of her as a powerful political player with her own agenda. It’s a deeply gratifying decision, both in the performance that results and the overall tenor of the show, and in keeping with the decision to abandon strictly limited point-of-view narrations that read beautifully on the page but would have been impossible to convey on-screen.
Despite those developments, Game of Thrones is still a brutal world for women. While the show’s toned down its sexposition (though there are still scenes of sexual instruction), it does add a scene meant to emphasize Joffrey’s taste for sexual violence that does not appear in Martin’s novels and that implies one of the ugliest things I’ve ever voluntarily watched on television or in film.
But the show appears to be reaching for a clarity that sometimes eludes Martin on the page, and making clear its views about sexual violence and women’s sexual autonomy. The fact that Joffrey’s act is implied rather than seen is meant to eliminate any titillation from a horrifying moment, and to emphasize that his desire to look marks him as vile. Decency towards women, by contrast, is treated as a virtue. When the brothers of the Night’s Watch venture beyond Castle Black and beyond the Wall, Samwell Tarly, the fat and nervous brother who becomes friends with Jon Snow, decides he wants to help a woman named Gilly who’s being held in an incestuous relationship by her father. Jon wants to know if Sam expects to steal her for a wife as is wildling custom. “I can’t steal her,” Sam explains. “She’s a person, not a goat.”
In the novels, Sam’s supposed womanishness is one of the reasons he was cast off from his family to take the black. The show goes farther than the novels in insisting that Sam’s weakness is actually a mark of profound decency, one that Jon and his fellows are flawed for failing to possess. And when we meet Salladhor Saanpiratical ally of Stannis Baratheon, he emphasizes that he wants a chance to sleep with Queen Cersei, but makes clear that “I’m not going to rape her. I’m going to fuck her. You don’t know how persuasive I can be.” Sexual violence is a clear dividing line between the decent and the indecent in the show, and for the indecent, it’s a tool born out of weakness, ignorance, and greed.
I focus on this because I think it’s a real achievement of Game of Thrones to devote this kind of space to the development of women characters and consciousness of gender in its characters precisely at a time when its world is expanding and it’s moving into a phase of intense action. This could have been troublesome even without attention to that subject. The show dragged some in its first season in attempting to get viewers up to speed with the cast of characters and events, but now it appears much more comfortable introducing new characters, like Melisandre, a powerful priestess of a new religion aligned with Stannis or Brienne of Tarth, a powerful female knight loyal to Renly, in sequences that are rich with plot and trusting that we’ll come to know them through the actions that they take in the story.
And the show looks good, too. Though Game of Thrones is not particularly magic-heavy for a fantasy series, it does feature dragons and giant wolves rather prominently, and takes place in a number of visually distinct locations. One of the greatest risks of adapting the franchise was simply that it wouldn’t be possible to make it look good on time and within budget. The wolves may not look as good as one would wish, but Daenerys’s dragons are lovely little creatures. Harrenhal, a holdfast widely assumed to be cursed, looks appropriately terrifying. And the camps and country roadways the characters pass through have a nicely grubbiness and occasional beauty to them. This is a world that lives and breathes, even when the awfully unnatural ventures into it. As awful as life may get for Martin’s characters within it, they’re desperate to keep on living. And it’s astonishingly good to be back in the struggle with them.