Review: Game of Thrones Season Two
March 29th, 2012
What do people really want to know about HBO’s Game of Thrones as it enters its second season?
When the first season premiered, writing a pre-air review was an easy process. Fans wanted to know how well George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire had been adapted for the screen by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, and non-fans wanted to know if the result still qualified as a television show worth their time. These questions were conveniently interlinked, in that the show’s success as an adaptation (faithful but not slavish, episodic without losing broader narrative complexity) was very much part of its appeal to non-readers.
However, I found myself somewhat stumped as I sat down to write about the first four episodes of the second season. The challenge is that we’ve already answered those broader questions, and to my mind the answer hasn’t changed – the show is still a compelling and worthy adaptation of Martin’s series, and that still results in some tremendous television. I have some specific comments about nuances in the adaptation, and some opinions about how certain stories are being depicted, but I don’t feel as though I have anything new to add to the growing chorus of people praising the show upon its return as a preface to my post-air reviews which will go up over the next four weeks (and which will delve into those nuances and opinions in more detail).
Looking to solve my writer’s block, I opened up the conversation to my followers on Twitter and the users at NeoGAF (where a lively community has been built around the show), asking them whether they had any lingering questions they had which they didn’t feel had been covered by the mass of reviews to date. While I want to address a few directly, the larger takeaway was that readers and non-readers might have more in common as the show goes forward than I had presumed, a notion I’d like to explore further.
Twitter user “Shermez07” asked the following question:
Instinctively, I presumed this was a book reader question, given that how the show is executing new characters feels like the kind of question you’d get from someone who has a picture of Melisandre in his or her head. However, he went on to clarify that this was not the case:
Heading into this season, I felt this would be the point where reader and non-reader paths would diverge: as the former becomes more entangled in the myriad changes being made to simultaneously streamline and expand the show’s narrative focus, the latter has considerably less baggage and would be more likely to take the show’s word for it, so to speak. However, this question made me realize that for every concern a reader might have about the execution of particular characters, non-readers would have parallel concerns regarding balance and narrative development. As in the beginning, these questions are distinct yet connected, creating different manifestations of uncertainty amongst both sets of viewers that feel equally weighted as the second season begins. I had somehow forgotten that shows like Lost have embedded similar concerns to those among readers within the process of consuming serialized television, with the Tailies and Nikki and Paulo offering some precedent for this kind of response.
What’s interesting is that only one of the new sets of characters is actually “new” in its entirety. Stannis Baratheon’s island fortress of Dragonstone is the only location where everyone is a new figure, as Liam Cunningham’s Davos joins Stephen Dillane’s Stannis and Carice Van Houten’s Melisandre. The other new characters are all integrated into the frameworks of pre-existing locations or based on their relationships with other characters. There are new characters on Pyke, but they are very clearly positioned relative to an elevated Theon Greyjoy, and anyone we (very briefly) meet in Qarth is very much tied to the journey of Daenerys Targaryen.
In other words, there are no new characters that feel as though they are necessarily “taking time away” from the characters we’ve met before (especially since we’ve got some time to work with given Ned Stark’s understandable absence). The new introductions do mean that we get less time with some characters (like Bran, for instance, who gets only a handful of scenes in the early episodes), but it also means we learn much more about others (Theon, for example). What I will say for the show, though, is that the characters we don’t see much of are often logically marginalized: given that Jaime is locked in a cage, and given that Sansa might as well be locked in a cage, their appearances in these episodes are brief, representative glimpses rather than larger arcs.
As it did in the first season, Game of Thrones privileges those who are moving in one way or another. Jon and the Night’s Watch plunging deeper into the world beyond The Wall offers built-in momentum, while Tyrion’s efforts to gain control over the politics of King’s Landing requires cunning and guile we can watch play out over time (with a particularly brilliant sequence in the season’s third episode). These are continuations of journeys we saw take place in the first season, but the locales are different, allowing the characters to interact with new circumstances and, most importantly, new characters. Peter Dinklage is just as great as he was last season, but there’s a certain novelty in seeing him play off of a new set of characters and to see how the tenor of King’s Landing changes based on his presence, highlighting an already tremendous performance in new ways.
The notion of change comes to another question I received through Twitter:
I’ve seen a few people answering this question in their reviews, but I think it’s tough to determine. Is the show more instantly compelling than it was at the start of last season? Absolutely – things pick up where they left off at the end of the first season, building on the momentum gained through the table-setting finale. However, the first four episodes of the series had a very different goal of getting everything into place, and featured characters we hadn’t yet become attached to (at least as television characters), and so to compare the two seems problematic. Equally, it’s tough to know if season two is better than season one when “season two” is not complete. I don’t say this to avoid making an evaluation, but I do wonder if the comparison is really something we can consider on a macro-level.
However, related to the question of balance, Game of Thrones remains a great television series, and I’d argue it’s better for its diversity. As new dynamics are formed, I never found myself longing for the old dynamics, or wondering when a new dynamic would be forming. I don’t imagine all viewers will take to the new characters or storylines instantly, or equally, but the show’s ability to create isolated and yet nuanced spaces for characters to interact remains prominent here. Arya’s storyline is particularly strong in this regard: it’s a small storyline compared to the war waging around it, but the focus on character relationships is fostered through the moments we see, well-anchored by Maisie Williams, Joe Dempsie (who gets some real material to work with as Gendry after only brief appearances last season), and Francis McGee (as Yoren).
Moving away from the narrative, meanwhile, “PhoenixDark” (and a few others) at NeoGAF was wondering about the technical side of things.
“I haven’t seen much of any discussion on the musical score. I really liked the music in s1 but at times it did sound somewhat small, and lacked a full orchestrated sound.
I’d also love to read more on the directorial and cinematography aspects of the early episodes. The early eps from last season rarely felt epic or interesting; it was shot like a standard drama in many regards. That changed in the later eps and I have read Alan Taylor’s work once again gives the show the scope it deserves…but what about the other directors?”
It’s sometimes tough to necessarily capture the quality of cinematography or direction given that the show is sent to critics in letterboxed, watermarked DVD copies as opposed to the HD feed that we’ll see on Sunday nights. However, I’d argue this is one area where we can see an improvement over the comparable period last year, with Alan Taylor picking up where he left off visually in the final two episodes of last season. I don’t know if I could necessarily pick out what separates his style, but there’s some tremendous work in the first two episodes of the season, and I’d argue that continues with the directors who take over the reins in episodes three and four (Alik Sakharov and David Petraca). There isn’t a dramatic shift in visual aesthetic with the switch of directors, something that comes with the rest of the cast and crew becoming more comfortable in their roles and the visual signature of the series becoming more consistent as a result.
As for the music, Ramin Djawadi’s work on the show remains one of the functional components that don’t seem to be elevated in any way in the second season. There are a few new musical signatures for the new locations (Dragonstone, Pyke, Qarth), but none of them are prominent or resonant themes. This doesn’t mean they’re ineffective, as I’d argue they do a good job at assisting the introduction of those locales, but they’re not something I’m going to be humming absent-mindedly. There’s nothing wrong with a functional musical score (which works well for a couple of key scenes in these episodes), but it is definitely one part of the show that feels like it could play a larger role and isn’t. I’m reaching the point where I’m ready to call that an active choice, rather than a failing, but we’ll see how it evolves throughout the season.
Meanwhile, I do at least briefly want to get to the question of the show’s adaptation (which came up multiple times on Twitter), if not in too much detail to avoid spoilers:
Here is what I will say on this point: there are no changes in the second season that dramatically stand out as changes to me. To clarify, I know we’re missing certain characters, and things don’t always happen as they’re supposed to, but at no point do these violations of the book read as violations within the television series. While I’m sure fans will miss certain things, and there are always going to be implications down the line which we’ll evaluate as we come to them, nothing to date has violated the flow of the series. The closest the show comes, honestly, is in an area which doesn’t actually matter: I’m still suffering from some cognitive dissonance with Asha being renamed Yara, but its impact on the broader narrative is nonexistent.
As with last season, I imagine I’ll find myself caught somewhere between the reader and non-reader perspectives, but I will say that I remain stalwart in my opinion that nothing is truly sacred within Martin’s source material. Game of Thrones can be judged on how well its changes to Martin’s material work within the context of a television series, but I’m not convinced it can be judged simply for changing the material.
If you’re looking for a more general conclusion on the show’s quality in its second season, here it is: I, like most critics, am desperate to see more. The first four episodes are a strong continuation of the narrative thus far and a compelling introduction to the new narratives emerging elsewhere, and those episodes end just as those narratives are about to converge, meaning that, while critics might have seen four more episodes than viewers at large, they’re still left in a state of anticipation few shows are able to achieve, a state of anticipation that speaks highly to the show’s quality in its second season.
- There are four new opening credits locations within the first four episodes (all of which have mentioned at some point in this review). I’m less worried about those being spoiled and more worried about the credits themselves being a spoiler: if you don’t want some glimpse of how the next few seasons might play out, try to ignore some oddities in the credits hierarchy.
- I hope to address the question of sexposition – which I have come to accept responsibility for – in season two in a later post-air review, but suffice to say that it remains a prominent narrative strategy for the series, and that it has become no less problematic than in the past.
- I’m on Spring Break this week, so I plan on dropping in with a bit more Game of Thrones coverage than I’ll manage during the year, including some thoughts on other post-air reviews (in a version of my “Morning After” posts) and the premiere ratings (and the renewal likely to come with them).