Thursday, February 21, 2013

TV and Book – Game of Thrones Season 2

The second season of Game of Thrones is based on the novel A Clash of Kings – the second book in the ongoing series titled A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin.  Please note that this review of the second TV season and book contains spoilers for the first TV season and book.  If you have never seen this show and would like a spoiler-free overview of what it is about and why you might want to watch it, please read my review of the first season and book here.

Season 2 returns almost all the people who survived season 1.  I was going to list them all out and write a brief reminder of where season 1 left them, but once I passed 50 characters returning I decided not to try to say who each one was.  One of Robb Stark’s bannermen, The Greatjon, does not show up in the second season.  Another role, that of Gregor Clegane (aka “The Mountain”), was recast.  The second book introduces many new characters that will all play their parts.  The TV show has both a limited budget and logistical issues, not to mention clarity issues to deal with, so they introduced only a subset of the characters that the book does.  Some of the characters that they left out will show up in season 3 (i.e. the Reed children, Ramsay Snow, etc.), while others were combined into single people (i.e. all of Davos Seaworth’s sons are represented by a single son on the show.)  In one other case, a completely different, but ultimately equivalent character of Talisa was introduced in the place of the book’s Jeyne Westerling – a nurse that Robb Stark meets.

The new characters from the second book that were introduced on the TV show were: Brienne of Tarth, a tall warrior woman; Margaery Tyrell, sister of Loras Tyrell (aka “The Knight of Flowers”) and new wife of Renly Baratheon; Roose Bolton, a bannerman of Robb Stark; Balon and Yara (Asha in the book) Greyjoy, father and sister to Theon Greyjoy; Stannis Baratheon, older brother of Renly Baratheon and rightful claimant to their older brother Robert’s throne; Melisandre, a “red priestess” from across the Narrow Sea who brings a new religion and power to Stannis; Davos Seaworth, adviser to Stannis; Matthos, son of Davos; Qhorin Halfhand, a legendary Night’s Watch ranger; Ygritte, a wildling woman; Craster, a wildling lord; Gilly, Craster’s daughter/wife; Xaro Xhoan Daxos, a merchant of Qarth; Pyat Pree, a warlock of Qarth; the Spice King, a rich merchant of Qarth (and a character not in the book); Jaqen H’ghar, a prisoner on his way to the Night’s Watch; Podrick Payne, Tyrion Lannister’s squire; and Hallyne, a pyromancer at King’s Landing.

Along with new characters come new locations, and even new religions.  Watch the opening credits to see where the city of Qarth, the island of Dragonstone, the ruined castle of Harrenhall, and the Iron Islands are all located.  Places not shown on the map, but that appear in the show are the lands beyond the Wall (where the Night’s Watch has traveled to), the Red Desert (which Dany crosses to reach Qarth), and the Stormlands (which is the domain of the Baratheons south of King’s Landing and which Renly controls.)

The new religions are the Drowned God, who the Iron Islanders pray to, and the Lord of Light, who is adopted by the followers of Stannis Baratheon.  Along with the Lannisters, Baratheons, Starks, and Targaryens, the Tyrell family appears as another family playing the “game of thrones”.  Their domain is the Reach, southwest of King’s Landing.

With the deaths of King Robert Baratheon and Lord Eddard Stark, the entire continent of Westeros has been thrown into chaos.  Joffrey Baratheon sits on the throne with his mother Cersei as the Queen-Regent.  Stannis Baratheon, a man no one likes, but who is next in line for the throne since Joffrey is not really Robert’s son, gathers his navy to take King’s Landing by force.  His younger and much more popular brother Renly, who doesn’t have much of a claim to the throne, but who has 100,000 men behind him seems content to sit around idly conducting war games.  All three call themselves King of Westeros.  Meanwhile, Robb Stark has declared himself King of the North, which contains not only the regions of the north, but also the Riverlands (controlled by the Tully’s – his mother’s family.)  Opposing Robb on the battlefield is Tywin Lannister, grandfather to Joffrey, but Robb keeps winning victories against him.  You can now see where the book’s title – A Clash of Kings – comes from.

In addition to character changes, the story in the second season has greater changes made to it than those made to the first season.  The primary reason for this is the source material: the book starts to wander a little as author Martin tries to tell the many separate stories.  (This is a trend that dramatically increases as the books go on.)  Unlike the first season, which had most of the major characters all together in a few stories, almost every character has now been split into their own storyline separate from the others.  The ten episodes of season 2 address this by having only some of the characters in any given episode.  I believe Tyrion Lannister is the only one who appears in all ten, while the rest sometimes skip one or more before appearing again.

Another thing done to address the weakness of the source material (in regards to making an episodic TV show out of it) is to invent storylines for characters.  Dany Targaryen was a major character the first season, but she hardly appears in the second book.  In order to continue having Dany as a recurring character almost her entire season 2 story arc was created new and not based on the book.  Another character where this happened was Littlefinger.  He disappears for long stretches of the second book, while in the TV show we see some of what he is up to (which we only find out in retrospect in the book.)  The new character of Margaery Tyrell is also given a larger presence in the second season than she had in the book.  All of these changes make for a more fluid TV show, but book purists were angered by them.

For reasons that escape me, the show’s runners decided to change three of the character’s storylines (Jon Snow’s, Robb Stark’s and Dany Targaryen’s) in such a way that the result was that all three characters were stupider.  They all end up in roughly the same place their characters do in the book, but the reasons they get there are not as intelligent, and in one case far less noble, than their book reasons.  I’m not bothered by the story changes I mentioned in the prior paragraph because I can understand the need for them.  I can’t come up with a reason to change these three character’s motivations to stupider ones, though.  I would consider these to be the worst of the changes from the book.  (A small, but fun, part of the book that was left out was Tyrion’s chain.  I missed it.)

The best story addition, and by far the best change from the book, was placing Arya Stark and Tywin Lannister together in several scenes.  I loved their interactions and I actually looked forward to their exchanges from week to week just like I did Littlefinger’s and Varys’ during season 1.  In fact, as much fun as seeing Tyrion Lannister entering the “game of thrones” as the acting Hand of the King, sparring with Cersei, Littlefinger, and Varys, I think I liked the Arya/Tywin scenes just a little bit more.

One change from season 1 that comes from the book is the elevation of Theon Greyjoy from Robb Stark’s supporting character to that of a major character in his own right.  He suffers a crisis of conscience when confronted with his heritage.  Another change from season 1 that is consistent with the book is for all the haters of Sansa Stark.  A lot of people who watched season 1 disliked her character.  This was mostly fallout from having aged up all the characters some.  In the book she was eleven and was acting like an eleven year old.  On the show she was obviously a teenager, but still acted like a spoiled, naive eleven year old girl.  Well, that little girl is long gone (and the fact that the actress looks like she’s grown to be almost six feet tall drives this home.)  After Joffrey had her father killed, her life hangs in the balance with every exchange she has with him.  She suffers quite a bit in season 2 at the hands of Joffrey, who she is still betrothed to.  And if you thought he was a little shit in season 1, wait until you see just how truly evil he is now that he is the King.

How do the two seasons compare to each other?  Season two has just as much violence, language, nudity, and sex as the first season.  The nudity differs in that there are no penises shown (if that bothered you) and that most of the returning characters have no nude scenes.  A few of the new characters appear nude, but the majority of the nudity come from extras in party scenes, rather than one on one sex scenes.

There is a slightly larger presence of the supernatural in season 2 than there was in season 1.  In fact, there is a “birth” scene that probably freaked a lot of people out.  The special effects related to these are well done.  The direwolves are finally shown full size, rather than being played by adult dogs.  They did this by filming real wolves, and then sizing them up to be proportional with the humans they interact with.

There were some unanswered questions at the end of season 1.  They were: who killed Jon Arryn, the Hand of the King before Ned Stark?; who is Jon Snow’s mother?; who tried to have Bran Stark killed?; and what happened to Benjen Stark, the Head Ranger for the Night’s Watch?  People anxiously awaiting the answers to these will not find satisfaction from season 2.  All four remain unanswered.  (Two of them will be answered in coming seasons, while the other two remain unanswered so far across five books.)

In my season 1 review I speculated that a major battle was left out for budgetary reasons and in one of the commentaries for season 2 this was confirmed.  The show runners talked about how they saved budget aside this year in order to ensure they could stage the Battle of Blackwater Bay.  It takes up the entire ninth episode of the season.  The Blu-ray set even has a 30 minute long documentary on how they made the episode.

This set contains around 14 hours of material in addition to the 10 hours for the episodes themselves.  (I’ve done little else for the last 2 ½ days other than watch everything in this set.)  This additional content includes 12 commentaries for the 10 episodes (season 1 only had 7 commentaries.)  Episodes 1, 2, 4, 6, 7, and 8 have one commentary apiece; episodes 3, 9, and 10 have two commentaries apiece; and strangely, episode five has none.  The commentaries are shared by actors, writers, directors, the show runners, and even one by the special effects guys.  George R.R. Martin does one for episode nine, and like almost every other writer whose commentary I’ve listened to he spends most of the time complaining about the changes from his source material – even though he’s the one that adapted the damn episode.  The pairings of the actors were the commentaries that were the most fun.  (And there is even a foldout map in the set that completely shows both continents – something even the books have not shown the fans.)

I gave the first season of the show my highest recommendation (5 out of 5 stars).  It was absolutely topnotch and it may have had the single best final scene to a TV season that I have ever watched.  After achieving those heights, there is not much place to go but down.  Season 2 doesn’t go down much, but it does suffer slightly from the problems of the source material having so many separate story threads.  If I gave half star ratings season 2 would be four and a half stars.  If you liked season 1 then by all means watch season 2.  If you did not see season 1 then I can’t imagine how you would be able to pick things up by starting with season 2.  Watch season 1 first.  Unless you think you would be offended by the R rated content, I highly recommend the second season of Game of Thrones.

Chip’s Rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Note: This was written before Season 3 had aired.  If you would like to read my review of that, as well as the third book in the series, then please click here.  If you would like to read my review of the fourth season, as well as the fourth book in the series, then please click here.


  1. I just started watching the 2nd season on DVD, and I want to start reading the series soon. I'm glad to hear the 2nd season is almost as good as the first.

    1. Since you have not started I feel obliged to give you a heads up regarding reading the books. I've read all five that have been published but now wish I had not. I will explain.

      The series is not yet complete and currently is planned for seven books. I say currently because it started out as a trilogy, went to four books, then book 4 was so large it had to be split into books four and five, while at the same time the total number was moved to seven. Book 4 (which became books 4 and 5) was originally going to jump ahead five years, but after a year of writing Martin scrapped everything because of all the flashbacks he was writing to fill in what happened in that gap. He then picked book 4 up right where 3 left off and by the end of book 5 the story has only advanced several months, which means he is still four story years away from even reaching the point where he was going to START book 4 at. Almost no one who has read the books thinks he will be able to complete the story in only two more books.

      Added to this is the gaps between the books being published. At one point the readers had only one book released in a 10 year span (book 4). The gaps between books have been increasing with book 3 to book 4 being four years and book 4 to book 5 being 6 years, even though much of it was supposedly already written. In fact, the publisher had to force Martin to turn over book 5 so that they could capitalize on the popularity of the first season having aired.

      Finally, Martin is in his 60s and is quite overweight. He says he's in good health, but some people are actually wondering if he will live long enough to complete the series, especially given how slow he writes, the volume he writes (book 1, at 800+ pages, is the thinnest book of the series), and how much he keeps extending it. Martin seems to dislike his fans greatly because he has stated that if he dies then the story dies with him. There are no secret notes stashed away on how things end in case he kicks the bucket (like J.K. Rowling did for her fans, just in case.) In fact, he says that other than a very few characters, he doesn't know himself what is going to happen to anyone. One sliver of light is that his agreement with HBO allows them to complete the story themselves on the show if he dies.

      I knew none of this prior to reading the books since I was trying to avoid any and all spoilers. This is why I now say I wish I had not read the books. My advice to someone who has not started reading them is to wait for Martin to complete the series and only then pick them up. Unfortunately for the book readers out there, I'd estimate this to be somewhere around 2025 at the earliest.

  2. Nice synopsis Chip. I was completely impressed by season 1 and only slightly less so with season two. I would not hesitate in declaring this the best tv series ever and certainly the best rendering of a fantasy universe, dethroning LotR. Currently I am reading the second volume of the books and I am with you on your comparisons. The second volume is so much more difficult to convert to a tv series with multiple storylines and a cast that just explodes. I think they did a good job in containing the story without violating the raw material too much. I especially like the Arya/Tywin scenes. My biggest problem is with Theon. He is such an ass and in the book he is even worth. Every time the story turn to him I get stuck.
    In any case, it should soon be time for season 3 and I for one is ready.

    1. I completely agree on Theon. HBO is going to start season 3 at the very end of March.

  3. Fantastic post! I must say it's hard for me to say which season I prefer, they are both so fantastic. LOVED Blackwater episode, single most epic thing I saw on TV. I can't wait for season 3 - they have so many great scenes to include.

    The only thing that annoyed me was in the finale of season 2 - in House of Undying, the way they omitted the Wolf king prophecy. I suppose it was done to make Red Wedding even more shocking when it happens.

    1. Thank you!

      You may be right on why it was omitted, but it might also have been for practical, budgetary reasons. Notice that the one vision of the future Dany gets takes place on a set that the show already has (the throne room), and that no one else was in it.

      In order to show her visions of things that are going to happen in future seasons it would have meant designing and building those not-yet-seen sets, and maybe even casting people not yet on the show - all for fleeting visions that only the book readers would be able to understand. That would have been very expensive and they deliberately saved money aside from the budgets of each episode to add to the budget of the ninth episode so they could afford the epic battle. Budget-wise it was probably an either/or between the battle and Dany's visions.

      Personally, Dany's visions meant nothing to me when I read book 2. They were just gibberish. I think it's only once people have read the later books then go back to those visions do they realize what they were telling us.