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Game Of Thrones (experts): “Second Sons” (for experts)

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This Game Of Thrones post is for people who have read at least the first three books in the book series. It is written from the point-of-view of someone who has read those books and for the benefit of fans of the books. All discussion points are valid, up to and including the events of the fifth book. However, we would ask that you clearly mark spoilers from the fourth and fifth books. The review itself will be non-spoilery, and talk of how events here portend future events will be clearly marked with a spoiler warning in the section following Stray Observations. If you would still like to read the review but haven’t read the book, thus, you can, but you should proceed with caution after the spoiler warning and in comments. Those of you who haven’t read the books can also check out our reviews for newbies.

All right. Let’s talk about boobs.

I don’t mind nudity in my entertainment. Used well, it can become a part of the texture of the world. Even used poorly, it can provide a certain amount of juice to the story onscreen, which is to say that I can enjoy a good spot of gratuitous nakedness so long as it’s vaguely festive. (I’m not a fan of True Blood, but its “Everybody comes to the party!” attitude toward nudity has always struck me as nicely done.) And I actually think Game Of Thrones has gotten quite a bit better at utilizing nudity and sex in the midst of everything else as a method of telling its story. It’s come a long way from the “sexposition” days of season one, when it sometimes seemed like the series would toss some breasts into the background of a scene just in case we got bored of hearing somebody talk at length. It felt vaguely insulting to the actors, who were really giving these monologues their all.


Now, for the most part, the nudity on the show has good story reasons for existing. There was plenty of complaining about, say, last week’s scene where the two naked women seduced Theon, just so he’d be in a state of sexual arousal when his tormenter cut his nethers off. It might have seemed gratuitous, but at the same time, it gave us a lot of information on Theon’s headspace—remember when he would fuck anything that moved, and now it takes so long to get an erection?—and it heightened the torment he was in. I had other problems with the scene, stemming from the complete lack of story momentum involved, but I certainly didn’t think having the two women there was part of the problem. Was it necessary? I guess you could have done it without, but why?

Nudity can also be used for good character development, as in tonight’s scenes where Melisandre uses the impressive sight of her naked body to lure Gendry into her bed, all that she might draw his blood via leeches and where Daenerys steps out of her bath to let her latest employee know that she’s not cowed or impressed by him—and to heighten the level of sexual tension between the two. Nudity has always been important to both women’s storylines, particularly as they realize that their own sex appeal is a way they can twist and use the world to their own ends. And I can see making an argument that having so many naked women popping up all of the time reinforces the idea that in the world of Westeros, women are just chattel, which makes characters like Dany and Melisandre, who break from that role to take their own power, that much more interesting and worth following.


But the whole thing’s gotten a bit ridiculous for me. The preponderance of nudity isn’t my only or even my biggest complaint about tonight’s episode (which was, again, quite disjointed in very odd ways), but it’s struck me much more in the last two episodes, and I’ve seen lots of others grousing about it as well, so we may as well talk about it. Some of this might stem from the way Michelle MacLaren films the nudity. Where some of the show’s other directors have shot the occasional naked woman with an almost utilitarian and functional manner—as if they’d just gotten an angry phone call from the HBO CEO of Tits, sighed, and said, “I guess…”—but MacLaren’s camera all but invites the viewer to reach out and caress these women as the camera is. It’s not exploitative, not quite, but it’s decidedly more sensual and less perfunctory.

Which is awesome! Adult attitudes toward sex are in short supply on television nowadays. But it also heightens the show’s biggest problem in this regard, which is that the only time one sees nudity on this show, it involves a naked woman. Remember what I said above about True Blood? Or, to pick a much better show, let’s think about how Spartacus offers equal opportunity for gawking to people of all persuasions. Yes, we’ve seen a couple of penises on Game Of Thrones over its three-season run, but if I’m not mistaken, we haven’t seen a single one this season, and there have been several times as many naked women on whom the camera lingers as any two-second glimpse of a naked man.


I’m not trying to be a prude or even some sort of politically correct nitwit here. What I’m saying is that this is a show with a lot of straight female and gay male fans (and plenty of other fans who can appreciate a good naked dude), and by focusing exclusively on naked women, the show creates the impression that it’s not as welcoming of them as it is of the traditional straight male fantasy audience. Maybe that’s part of a commentary on the show’s world. I’m willing to go with that. But it creates the unfortunate impression that the people who work on the show—who are, so far as I know, completely cool and forward-thinking individuals—have that mindset as well. I’m also not saying everybody should be naked all of the time. This isn’t a show that can do well with gratuitous nudity, and it’s gotten much better about making sure the sexual situations (and, honestly, the violent situations) are story specific. I just wish I didn’t have to see my wife, who really loves this show, roll her eyes every time there’s an opportunity for male nudity that passes by, but women are dropping trou at the drop of a hat. She deserves better.

Now, as mentioned, this episode had other, bigger problems than just nudity, but it was easy enough to focus on that as an introduction because, really, this was yet another episode of getting everybody into place for certain things to happen, and after two episodes in a row of that happening, the third was bound to wear a bit thin. There’s just not as much to say this week, which makes it easier to focus on the tangible details, the very obvious distractions that pull one out of the moment. Plus, the structure of the episode—which bases its climax on a character we haven’t seen since the very beginning of the episode two weeks ago—is just bizarre. There are some lovely little scenes in the episode, but there’s very little attempt to link them, whether via theme or some connective plot point or even that thing the show did earlier in the season where somebody would say someone’s name and we would cut to that person all the way around the world. I still think adapting A Storm Of Swords as two seasons was probably the right decision, since we’ve gotten a chance to linger on some important moments that we wouldn’t have if this were just one season, but it’s led to a decided sense of stalling for time in these four episodes. And I know where all of this is going! I can’t imagine what it’s like for someone who doesn’t.


The best part of the episode involves Tyrion and Sansa’s wedding, which is a long series of scenes where people get drunker and drunker and their tongues get looser and looser. A lot of this is just taken from the book verbatim, but it’s by far the best material Peter Dinklage has had to play all season, and it’s a visceral reminder of just how terrific he is in the role of Tyrion Lannister. When he slams that knife down into the table and threatens his nephew, insisting that there will be no bedding ceremony, it’s the best part of the episode, and when he realizes that Sansa doesn’t want him to have sex with her, he skews toward basic human decency, rather than what his father wants. It’s all a good way to remember that there are times when Dinklage has basically carried this whole show on his back, and even though he’s sharing the load with more characters this season, he’s capable of stepping it up again. (Joffrey, meanwhile, continues to be such an over-the-top villain that it would be comical if Jack Gleeson didn’t make it clear at all times that this little shit really means what he says. It’s a difficult part to play well, and Gleeson does it so handily that it seems easy.)

The Stannis storyline wends its way back toward some version of the events in the book, and while it’s sort of weird to have Gendry hanging out at Dragonstone now (and very strange to contemplate how Melisandre made her journey in what seems like a week or two), the rifts opening up among the various players are fun to watch. Carice Van Houten’s another actor who’s not getting enough credit for her work on the show, but her Melisandre is a great example of devil-may-care attitude, as she simply goes ahead with her plans and doesn’t let others get in her way. Her monologue about how she never let the lambs she sacrificed see the knife is great, as is her irritation at everybody else not being quite as on board with the “sacrifice Gendry” plan as she is. (MacLaren’s camera also gets at some of these distinctions. Notice in the scene where Stannis goes to talk to Davos, the framing spends just as much time showing Stannis imprisoned by the camera bars as it does Davos. The two men are equally trapped—only one of them is just starting to realize it.)


Meanwhile in Yunkai, Dany is dealing with the titular Second Sons (whose existence changes some book things in ways I’m sure many of you will grumble about), a mercenary group brought in by the slavers of Yunkai to do battle for them. Dany, as is her wont, basically tells them they can join her, or they can die, and her manner intrigues one Daario Naharis, played by Ed Skrein. When tasked with sneaking into Dany’s camp at night and killing her, Daario instead kills his fellow leaders (after a tossed off “Valar Morghulis”), then pledges his fealty to Daenerys. It’s relatively engaging, but not much actually happens in this storyline. Daario is a brand new character who solely seems to exist to be attractive in Dany’s general proximity (and she seems to notice), and his dispatch of the other two Second Sons takes place offscreen. Skrein could have been just a lifeless hunk, but he manages to imbue his part with some soul, so that gives me some hope for this story going forward. But ultimately, this is another place where the story seems to be killing time before Dany launches her assault on Yunkai (which would have to go quite poorly to be a failure at this juncture), and since it takes up so much of the episode, it’s even more noticeable than usual.

We check in with a few of the other characters, like Arya, riding toward her uncle’s wedding on a horse with the Hound (who intends to sell her back to her mother and brother), but for the most part, this is yet another episode of shuffling the deck, only it doesn’t have much linking the various storylines together. Outside of the centerpiece scenes back in King’s Landing—which are very well done and garner this episode its high grade all by themselves—the mind starts to wander a bit and thinks about, say, how the series uses nudity. By dragging the third book into two seasons, Game Of Thrones has found room for things other than sheer forward momentum, which is largely a good thing. But it’s also found itself in a place where the episode’s climactic action scene—which involves no less than Samwell Tarly revealing how one might defeat the frozen menace from the North—feels weirdly perfunctory and tacked onto everything else.


Sure, that final scene is pretty fantastic in and of itself, particularly in the long buildup as Gilly and Sam take refuge in that abandoned hut and talk about names for her baby. But it also feels dropped in from some other show entirely. “Oh, yes!” the series seems to be saying. “We’re fighting ice zombies up here!” At its best, Game Of Thrones captures the feel of Martin’s books, where chapter after chapter flies by, and they’re all taking place at different places in the author’s world, but they also seem to be having a conversation about the same things. But there are points in this episode where the whole thing feels like the flipside of that experience, where the narrative bounces around so much that one comes across, say, a Bran chapter and says, “Oh, right. He’s a character in this book.” A little of this is necessary in any serialized narrative, but it’s rarely all that welcome.

Stray observations:

  • Was it just me, or did it seem like Sam left his magic, White Walker-killing dagger in the snow after his success? That just seems like poor planning. (Yes, there’s a book reason for why he might have, but the way it’s all presented in the show is so hurried that it just seems like he forgot, when you’d think that would be the one thing he wouldn’t forget.)
  • Adaptation choice I liked: Screw it. I think collapsing the Stormcrows and the Second Sons into what’s basically the same group saves time and a certain amount of redundancy in the narrative. (Now watch next week’s episode introduce said Stormcrows.) For those of you wondering who the Stormcrows are: It is almost certainly not important, but they were another band called in alongside the Second Sons to fight Dany. All of the characters who were Stormcrows are now Second Sons. (UPDATE: Yes, this originally said Stonecrows, which is particularly embarrassing because I had the Wiki of Ice and Fire open in the tab right next to the AVC back-end. What can I say? My fingers are stupid. It's been fixed!)
  • Adaptation choice I’m less sure of: I still think moving Sam’s fight with the White Walker this late in the story—though it makes a certain amount of sense in terms of building a TV season toward some exciting moments—is a bit of a loss, because we missed some nice moments between him and the long-dead Mormont. But maybe the show will place those bits in some other place, involving other characters.
  • Joffrey’s continued obsession with Sansa is certainly interesting. Margaery seemed to briefly interest him for a while there, but he doesn’t seem as into her now. Insofar as we can try to figure out what’s going on in the head of a psychopath, I’m curious to get your reads on him (beyond just, “He’s a psychopath!”).
  • Tywin really seems to be over all the bullshit at this point, while Olenna is gleefully recounting all of the weird ways that Margaery and Loras will be related once they’re wed to their respective fiancés. Also great: Cersei basically telling Loras, “No. We’re not gonna do that,” when he tries to make with the chit chat.
  • It really felt like a record number of characters sat this week’s episode out. The only episode that might have had more missing was probably “Blackwater.”
  • I know Sophie Turner herself is only a few years older, but it still seems basically impossible that she’s playing 14.

Here be spoilers!:

  • It does strike me as a bit off that we didn’t once check in with Robb Stark and company in the episode before Edmure’s wedding, since we’re going to get so little time with them and all, but I guess that’s the way it has to be.
  • In rereading some sections of the book this weekend, I really found myself missing some of the ways that the characters almost intersect with each other here and there. I’m guessing there’s no way the series can leave out when Jon has his encounter with Summer, but that will probably get pushed to the finale.
  • Stannis’ leeches are a fairly important indicator that Melisandre’s not just making this shit up, since all three of those he named will be dead by the end of next season. (Also, I wonder if the show will depict the death of Balon somehow, or just have it arrive as information from offscreen. If it can somehow be crammed into the early part of next week’s episode, maybe it would play as foreshadowing. Probably not.) Also: Stannis’ talk of the battle in the snow seems to indicate the Battle of Castle Black.