Game of Thrones has always been packed to the brim with characters and settings, but perhaps no episode has exemplified this more than “The Night Lands.” It ignores some major protagonists and jumps to an impressive number of less-familiar locations without as much explanatory dialogue as the previous episode, and I imagine casual fans could be completely disoriented. Of course, Game of Thrones isn’t really a show written for casual fans, and the sprawling nature of the story is a big part of what makes it so appealing to those who really immerse themselves. There are violent characters and subtle characters, creepily atmospheric scenes and wryly funny scenes, all of them woven together in a dark, bloody tapestry. “The Night Lands” isn’t the most thematically cohesive episode, and it is uneven in parts, but the show still has its trademark irresistible characters and dialogue, and it introduces some promising new aspects of the show. Season 2 is off to a good start.
As in most of the best episodes, Tyrion gets a lot to do. He sits on the council when the Lannisters learn of the North’s declaration of independence. He verbally jousts with Varys (whom he accuses of threatening him over Shae, whose presence goes against Lord Tywin’s orders). He also exiles the greedy commander of the City Watch, Janos Slynt, to join the Night’s Watch, and puts his own greedy mercenary Bronn in command. Then he deals with Cersei’s anger over the decision and over his very presence. This all provides a venue for Peter Dinklage’s considerable comedic talents, and the fine actors around him, but more importantly it’s a nice, familiar center for the episode, when so much of the rest is with newer characters in unfamiliar settings, and most of the Starks are absent.
Another fan favorite who we see this episode is Arya, and although her storyline is slimmer it’s also quite enjoyable. When men of the City Watch arrive at the Night’s Watch camp, she tells Gendry they’re looking for her, only to discover they’re actually looking for him. Her slip leads to the revelation that she’s actually Arya Stark, which results in some lighthearted mockery by Gendry. The trusting, playful dynamic between those two seems like it should provide something of an emotional core as well as comic relief, and the hapless bully Hot Pie (who thinks two men in armor makes a battle) provides some laughs as well. Then there are the three men chained in the cart, the mysterious Jaqen H’ghar and the brutish Rorge and Biter, whose roles aren’t quite yet clear, but who certainly aren’t there for comic relief. It’s a diverse crew heading for the Wall, and their little squabbles are, as I was hoping, already providing a nice contrast with the grand scheming of the high lords.
Not that that scheming is absent. Theon attempts some of his own as he brings Robb Stark’s offer of an alliance to his father Balon Greyjoy, though things go awry right from the start. First, Theon’s lechery hits the wrong target immediately, when he fondles the woman he thinks is only a servant taking him to the castle on horseback. She turns out, unfortunately, to be his sister Yara, whom he hasn’t seen in years (she is called Asha in the books, a much better name in my opinion). Yara’s teasing and manipulation of her brother are reduced from my recollection of the novel, which makes the scene play slightly less funny and more creepy, but Yara’s smirk when he finds out her identity is priceless. More pertinently to the plot, Theon’s father also doesn’t show much respect for him, and after criticizing his “womanly” nobleman’s garb and accessories paid for with mere money (rather than pillage), immediately rejects the possibility of an alliance with the Starks. He’d prefer to carve out his own kingdom, with Yara leading his forces, and not against the Lannisters… The casting in the Greyjoy plot thread so far seems excellent, and Theon should become a much more interesting character as a fish out of water within his own brutal family than he was as a Stark lackey.
The other major new plotline in season 2 is in Stannis Baratheon’s court. His loyal knight, the former smuggler Davos Seaworth, recruits the pirate Salladhor Saan and his fleet to aid Stannis in attacking the Lannisters. Salladhor’s genial, flamboyant mercenary personality is a welcome addition to the mostly grim proceedings surrounding Stannis, and I hope he recurs often. We also see Davos, who is all about loyalty and practicality, and his son Matthos, who is a fervent convert to the new Red God, clash over their beliefs despite their obvious love for each other. Davos might fill the “family man” role vacated by Ned Stark, and this is probably good, as Stannis definitely isn’t a family man. He wants to win even more than he wants to be honorable, and the red priestess Melisandre seems to seduce him with her power. And her rack. That helps. In any case, we see this affair begin which was only subtext in the book, and it will be interesting to see how prominently the relationship plays out, and whether Stannis’s family will play much of a role.
Daenerys has a smaller role in “The Night Lands,” although it is poignant. The horse of Rakharo, the rider who wielded a whip in Dany’s service and had developed a rapport with Ser Jorah, returns with a head in a bag. We don’t actually see the face, but Jorah’s reaction indicates that it is Rakharo, and Irri mourns his death and lack of a proper burning. The character does not die in the novel, and Dany seems primed to avenge his death, so it is possible that this plotline will head in an entirely new direction. I will be disappointed if Rakharo is actually dead, though, as he was one of the few Dothraki characters with any development, and Dany’s khalasar would seem rather faceless without him.
The final plot thread in this episode is that of the Night’s Watch in the camp of the wildling Craster and his daughter-wives. Sam takes pity on a pregnant girl named Gilly (and perhaps likes that she thinks he is brave for telling off the dire wolf Ghost); Craster’s male children meet with some mysterious fate, and he wants to help her escape with her unborn child. Jon reproaches Sam for the impracticability of the plan, but at the end of the episode he witnesses the disturbing sight of a baby being taken by what looks like a White Walker, before Craster appears and strikes him. After Mormont already upbraided Jon for getting on Craster’s bad side, this can lead to no good.
“The Night Lands” won’t stand as one of the series’ very best. It has few setpiece events or major twists. But it is filled with cracking dialogue and interesting moments, and builds on the last episode to put season 2 on the right trajectory. The stage is being set, and it looks like we’ll have some big revelations and confrontations in short order. In the mean time, I’m happy with episodes like this, that move things forward competently while building an engaging, entertaining world to live in for an hour.
Rating: 4.5/5 daggers to the groin
Random thoughts and quotations:
– Dolorous Edd Watch: Our favorite dourly funny Night’s Watchman gets some good dialogue tonight. “If the gods wanted us to have dignity, they wouldn’t make us fart when we died.”
– Tyrion: “I’m not Ned Stark. I understand the way this game is played.” Poor Ned is still getting dumped on in the grave.
– After Cersei tears up Robb’s treaty offer, Tyrion remarks: “You’ve perfected the art of tearing up papers.” I’d noticed that as well, after her dramatic tearing up of Robert’s final testament last season. Does she practice in front of a mirror?
– Cersei, on Mance Rayder, the new king of the wildlings: “Another king? How many is that now, five? I’ve lost count.”
– I’m not generally a huge fan of the added scenes with Littlefinger in his brothel, as they remove a bit of his mysteriousness, but I thought this one worked pretty well, when he quietly intimidates Ros the prostitute into getting over her grief for the murdered baby before she becomes a “bad investment.” It does show something of how calculating and ruthless he can be, and it’s always fun to see Littlefinger be calculating and ruthless.
– Janos: “That your new squite? We’ll need to find you a proper lad.
Tyrion: “Myself, I prefer the improper ones.”
– Tyrion: “If I told you to murder an infant girl, say, still at her mother’s breast, would you do it without question?”
Bronn: “Without question? No. I’d ask how much.”
– Gendry: “You’re a lady… all that about cocks, I shouldn’t have said that. And I’ve been pissing in front of you and everything. I should be calling you m’lady.”
Arya: “Do not call me m’lady!” *shoves him*
Gendry: “Well that was unladylike.”
– Matthos: “We’re not going to King’s Landing so you can rape the queen.”
Salladhor: “I’m not going to rape her, I’m going to fuck her.”
Matthos: “As if she would just let you!”
Salladhor: “You don’t know how persuasive I am. I never tried to fuck you.”
The pirate’s little jump toward Matthos and his scared reaction are hilarious.
– Cersei: “You want to be Hand of the King? You want to rule? This is what ruling is. Lying on a bed of weeds, ripping them out by the root, one by one, before they strangle you in your sleep.”
– This episode had more divergences from the books than any other I can remember. For those of you who read the books, do you like or dislike the changes?