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.