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.