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TV Review: Game of Thrones – “The Night Lands”

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Babies, children—a new generation of future rulers: that is the theme running through this week’s Game of Thrones “The Night Lands.”  Babies murdered because the threat they pose to the throne; babies disposed to maintain a strange wildling cult are at the periphery of this week’s episode as much as the questionable parentage of the boy-king who sits on the Iron Throne drives the action the series’ second season.

The battle lines in the effort to depose the young king are being drawn on the various fronts in this multi-handed game of chess played by self-appointed kings in the land of Westros. But whom of these will actually depose the ruthless, soulless Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), whose brutality shocks even his ice queen mother, Queen Regent Cersei (Lena Heady)? That is a question unlikely to be answered until the series ends someday. But what a ride to get to that eventual answer!

Joffrey’s doing whatever he can to put down any opposition. Last week, he was busy murdering Robert Baraetheon’s bastard children—each one a potential threat to his rule (especially, given that Joffrey, himself, is the bastard child of Jaime and Cersei’s incestuous union). And of course his grandfather Tywin (Charles Dance) is off fighting the Starks (and whomever else might get in his way).

In the meantime, one of Robert’s bastards, Gendry (Joe Dempsey), has escaped Joffrey’s sword and has fled with his bull’s head helmet (with the King’s guard in hot pursuit) to Castle Black as a recruit of the Knight’s Watch, the enigmatic, monastic band that protects “The South” from the threat north of the icy wall in the kingdom’s far north. He befriends Arya Stark (Maisie Williams), in hiding from the Lannisters and pretending to be a boy. I can’t help but wonder if this not-so-simple blacksmith’s apprentice, possessed of a seemingly innate nobility (perhaps something Robert had in the days before he’d become a debauched, gluttonous king), will ultimately claim the throne at the ultimate end of this epic tale.

But the strongest claims for now seem to originate with Robert’s brothers: the intelligent, calculating, but essentially cold Stannis (Stephen Dillane). His ill wife will bear him no heirs, we learn. So when he is seduced by Melisandre (Carice van Houten) a priestess of the One True God—the god of fire, who promises heirs, he complies in a scene that cannot be categorized as lovemaking—more like dealmaking. I was so hoping to love the stoic Stannis; I adore Stephen Dillane, the actor who plays him (and I also love those quietly dangerous, yet somehow-noble heroes). But Stannis so far comes off so cold, that he’s impossible to root for.

We don’t see much of Renly (Gethin Anthony), Stannis’ younger, more charming brother, in this episode (there are so many story threads, it would be impossible to see them all in any give 50-minute episode), but we know he’s there, massing an army many times the size of anything Stannis can hope to muster. However, there may be hope as Stannis’ lieutenant Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) enlists the aid of a wily and intelligent pirate, who promises to sail with Stannis right into King’s landing for its plunder (and dibs on its queen regent!).

And what of the wildling lord who murders his own sons, only desiring daughters to populate his harem (or cult)? What role is he to play? When the Knight’s Watch accept his hospitality north of The Wall, the man’s strange ways become known to them, and young Knight’s Watch steward Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) is particularly affected by the lord’s brutality both toward is newborn sons—and his daughters whom he takes as wives. Jon Snow (Kit Harington) warns him against interfering with the man’s peculiar ways, but gets involved anyway when he sees for himself the cold ruthlessness of his infanticidal actions.

Then there’s Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), ward to Ned Stark since the deceased king’s hand defeated the young man’s family in battle years earlier. Hoping to enlist his father’s help in supporting Robb Stark, they young man finally returns to the land of his father after many, many years. Hoping to be welcomed as the prodigal son done well, the now arrogant, pompous and, perhaps misogynistic, Theon returns to a surprise.

Far from being hailed the triumphant son returned, he is stunned to learn that his father wants nothing to do with him, having gone all soft while in the care of the Starks. To add insult, much to Theon’s shock and chagrin, his sister, now grown, battle-hardened and not content to sit and embroider all day long like a good girl should, has become his father’s heir-apparent in this island kingdom.

Back in King’s Landing, it is becoming ever-more apparent that “The Imp” Tryion Lannister (the awesome Peter Dinklage) really should be running things at court. As the King’s Hand, he certainly has the power, something to which his older sister Cersei takes great exception. Reminding him that his is only an interim position, substituting for father Tywin away at war, Cersei is quick to point out that his power has been largely overestimated. She hates Tyrion, blaming him for “the cruel joke” of their mother’s death, who died while giving birth to a despised dwarf (ouch!). Tyrion ignores Cersei, knowing that the only way the Lannisters will hold onto the throne is if they don’t lose the trust of the people. And killing babies (and starving the peasants) is no way to rule a kingdom for very long.

But the first thing Tyrion does is to assure (as much as he can) that he will not, as King’s Hand, suffer the same ill fate as his predecessors Ned Stark and Jon Arryn. Setting up a complex ruse, he sniffs out those who would easily betray him to either Cersei or Joffrey.

Doing what he can to mitigate Joffrey and Cersei’s ruthlessness and brutality, Tyrion’s first official act is to replace the Commander of the City Watch with someone slightly less psychotic, and who hasn’t yet been bought and paid for by Cersei. He warns his sister that by Joffrey’s bloodthirsty attitude and her callous stand, the people will turn against the Lannisters. “The queen murders babies” will be their enemies’ rallying cry, he argues to no avail.

Cersei and everyone else at King’s Landing tend to underestimate Tyrion because of his size, and that is a mistake. When he suggests to Cersei that they honor Robb Stark’s (Richard Madden) petition to return Ned’s remains to Winterfell, she denies Ned this final bit of honor due to a man of his standing. Tyrion realizes this is wrong-headed, not only for its lack compassion, but for it’s strategic error, but no one is listening to the imp.

Likewise, when he warns about the wildlings north of the wall, he’s mocked for it. But Tyrion is right, as the wildlings rally around the as-yet-unseen Mance Rayder, the self-proclaimed King Beyond the Wall. (By the way, can I petition now that when he does appear—likely in season three—that the producers cast Robert Carlyle if he is available?)

Game of Thrones is really off to a great start with its first two episodes. So, without giving away too much (those of you who’ve read the novel series by George R.R. Martin), who do you think should reign from the Iron Throne? Should it be Robb Stark? Stannis Baratheon? Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clark)? Or someone else? Let us know in the comments thread!

HBO has an extensive resource section about the series, with maps, character biographies and background on each of the houses determined to depose Joffrey. New episodes of Game of Thrones air Sunday nights on HBO at 9:00 p.m.

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (blogcritics.org). Her Bram Stoker Award-nominated novel, called "Anne Rice meets Michael Crichton," The Apothecary's Curse The Apothecary's Curse is now out from Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books. Her book on the TV series House, M.D., Chasing Zebras is a quintessential guide to the themes, characters and episodes of the hit show. Barnett is an accomplished speaker, an annual favorite at MENSA's HalloWEEM convention, where she has spoken to standing room crowds on subjects as diverse as "The Byronic Hero in Pop Culture," "The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes," "The Hidden History of Science Fiction," and "Our Passion for Disaster (Movies)."
  • jlm–just first impressions. Based on his final scene with Melisandre. I find it hard to root for him, given what we’ve seen. I really want to root for the dour, intelligent Stannis. Am not there yet, however much I love Stephen Dillane (and I do–a lot and have even written about him here on Blogcritics)

  • jlm

    Stannis has been in 3 count them three scenes. He’s just being established as a character and you already can’t root for him? Wow.

  • hwl40–not at all! Expect my review of tonight’s episode tomorrow morning (or even tonight!)

  • hwl40

    Have you given up on us House fans?

  • Nicole

    Robert Carlyle on Game of Thrones? that would be amazing, I can’t stop thinking about it now!
    And for anyone who may think that the first episodes have been slow, just have patience! the story is about to get terribly interesting.

  • Flo

    Liked the episode. Every piece of the puzzle of this season is slowly taking its place.

    Looks like TPTB decided to make Cersei a (very) bit less of a cold heart b*tch that she is in the book. Peter Dinklage/Tyrion is his awesome self again.

    Stephen Dillane is a very good Stannis. In the book he is really that cold.

    Don’t understand why they changed Theon’s sister name Asha to Yara, but she looks really badass. Good.

    With all these very ambitious characters chaos can come.

    The first two episodes were slow but rightfully so IMO. There are a lot of places and characters. I think TPTB did a great work of presenting those. I really like the power play and the difficult chess game that everyone is trying to play. They all think to have a legitimacy to be king. They’re all so greedy for power that I can’t help but wonder who is gonna be crushed by his own ambition.
    I love the scenes between Tyrion and Cersi in that regards. Blind power greediness Vs wisdom & thought. Tyrion is perhaps the more intelligent person in Westeros. That’s why he’s still alive. It is also interesting to see that the smartest, and most wise people are not heard in this time of war. In this desperate time people tend to put their faith in other thing than intelligence and good advice (see Stannis with Melisandre). Religion takes precedence and I find the story/metaphor of the monotheism slowly overtaking the polytheism interesting.

    Can’t wait for next Sunday!

  • Not sure what’s so difficult to follow

  • Paul Raihle

    BTW, I watched the first season (twice), I’m a little let down with this season. New characters, no idea who the red headed witch is, and many overplayed characters.

    Who is fighting who, what is the geography, it’s a mess. Who needs a boat, so someone is on an island? Everyone is dressed in Gray, in dark lighting, I can’t keep anyone straight

  • Paul Raihle

    I think the Caps have a decent chance against the Bruins. The Stanley Cup is about defense and I don’t like Boston’s 3rd line defense. Caps in 6. Regarding this episode, I thought it meandered, and what happenned with the dragons and blue eyed zombies? Less humping, more plot and special effects please.