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.