Last week Game of Thrones managed to both seduce us back into its bloody little world and give us a few brand new shocks to contemplate, but as brilliant as the season premiere was, there were times when it felt like it was barely moving at all. We flitted between characters faster than ever before in a panoramic overview that often proved frustrating because it was so gripping and so brief at the same time. This week the show has to move forward. This week the wheels have to turn a bit faster. With “The Night Lands,” Game of Thrones ceases with the introductions (mostly) and goes right for the throat.
WARNING: This review contains spoilers from episode one. If you’re not up to speed, you might want to turn back now.
Robert Baratheon’s bastards have been slaughtered throughout King’s Landing, but one of them is still at large. Gendry (Joe Dempsie), the blacksmith’s apprentice who fled the capital before the killing started, is still heading north on the Kingsroad in the company of Night’s Watch recruits and young Arya Stark (Maisie Williams), who is still disguised as a boy named Arry. Though they’re still under the protection of Night’s Watch Brother Yoren (Francis Magee), it’s clear that Gendry is being hunted.
In King’s Landing, Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) descends deeper into the complex web of court politics. It’s the same web that ensnared Ned Stark last season, but Tyrion’s not about to let anyone take his head. He makes moves to consolidate his power and make his strength known to would-be rivals, including the slippery Varys (Conleth Hill). Meanwhile, as his prostitutes struggle to cope with the horrific act that shook his brothel, Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) hopes to get things back to normal by any means necessary.
North of the Wall, Jon (Kit Harington) and Sam (John Bradley) go meddling where they shouldn’t. Across the Narrow Sea, Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) sees her situation grow even more dire. In the Iron Islands, Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) returns home to curry the favor of his father, Lord Balon Greyjoy (Patrick Malahide). And on Dragonstone, Davos (Liam Cunningham) works to recruit more fighters, while Melisandre (Carice van Houten) tightens her grip on King Stannis (Stephen Dillane).
The impression I got most strongly from this episode is how important the supporting cast is becoming as the show moves forward. It was already an ensemble piece, but these days it’s a cast of thousands, and every one of them seems to take center stage at one point or another. To do something like that, you need every actor at the top of their game, and no member of this cast has disappointed yet. The standouts so far have been Hill and Gillen. They’re both showing some admirable subtlety in their performances of what could be very melodramatic characters, and Hill even manages to steal a few moments out from under Dinklage. I didn’t think that was possible until this week. Episodes like this prove just how deep this cast is, and it makes the show’s lack of a real center stage star a non-issue.
Now’s also a good time to point out that the show’s production design hasn’t let up one bit from season one. Last week we saw Stannis’ stronghold at Dragonstone for the first time, and this week we’re introduced to Pyke, the island keep of House Greyjoy. Not only does the location look fantastic, but the culture of the Ironmen comes across very distinctly. With a show like this, things like that could become a blur of swords and armor and goblets. It could all become one big Medieval-esque blob, but every location, every corner of Westeros, has its own identity. Not only does that make the show richer, but it makes it easier to follow.
“The Night Lands” is a faster, more plot-driven episode than “The North Remembers,” but that also means it’s a little more incomplete. It’s more than just a look back in on all our friends in Westeros. That makes the story more engaging, but it also makes it harder to let go of. After this week’s episode, you’ll have a more difficult time waiting for the next hour of season two to come around. But hey, is leaving us with a feeling like that really a bad thing?
Next Week: Episode 3 – “What Is Dead May Never Die”
Thanks to our friends at HBO for the chance to screen the episode in advance.