One of the things I’ve loved about Game of Thrones since way back when it was just an up-and-coming series of fantasy novels is its ability to highlight the strength in the broken people of its world, the disadvantaged, the less-thans. We’ve seen it before in episodes like “Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things” (season one) and the entire Arya/Tyrion storyline that began with “The Ghost of Harrenhal” in season two. Westeros is a world filled with outcasts and freaks and, well…second sons. This is yet another episode that takes the time to emphasize that, and the season is richer for it.
In King’s Landing, Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and Sansa (Sophie Turner) prepare for their inevitable but mutually horrifying marriage, while Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) taunts them both and Cersei (Lena Headey) grows more openly hostile to the Tyrells. In the Riverlands, Arya (Maisie Williams) learns exactly why The Hound (Rory McCann) wanted to kidnap her, and where he’s taking her. At Dragonstone, Melisandre (Carice van Houten) arrives with Gendry (Joe Dempsie), and reveals her plans for him to Stannis (Stephen Dillane), while Stannis seeks new counsel from the still-imprisoned Davos (Liam Cunningham). Across the Narrow Sea, Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) deals with a cocky band of sellswords. And Beyond the Wall, Sam (John Bradley) and Gilly (Hannah Murray) find enemies in the darkness.
I praised last week’s episode, “The Bear and the Maiden Fair,” for its ability to jump around a lot but still find interesting things to say about its characters with such a brief window on their lives. Though “Second Sons” jumps around quite a bit itself, it also does its audience a great service by choosing to focus much of the action on King’s Landing, and the wedding of Tyrion and Sansa. I’ve spoken before about the importance of compromise as a major theme in this show, and here it’s in full force. Tyrion and Sansa are both bending to the will of others in a very, very big way. They are shaping their whole lives around something neither of them wanted, something that will inextricably link them for the rest of their lives whether they like it or not. They’re doing it under the dominant eye of Twyin (Charles Dance), and the smirking gaze of Joffrey. They’re doing it because they must, but the pain is unavoidable for them both (and for others, like Shae, who must stand by and watch as her secret lover is wed to her secret friend).
Of course, that means that the emotional brunt of the episode must come down on the shoulders of Dinklage and Turner, and they both manage it flawlessly. Dinklage is predictably brilliant, but it’s all the more striking because he hasn’t had nearly as much time to take the spotlight this season. He’s often been pushed to the back of the action in the show’s third year, and now he gets a chance to shine as a defiant yet submissive, comical yet vulnerable man. Turner also gets a chance, once again, to show how remarkable her acting has been on this show. Sansa is not a character who’s easy to like, particularly in the books, but Turner’s giving her such inner strength, such an ability to fight through what feels like endless torture and hope for brighter days, that you can’t help but root for her even as she suffers greater and greater indignities. That’s all a testament to Turner’s performance, and in this episode she’s giving it everything she’s got.
Throw in some wonderful scenes for the always captivating Clarke and some time with Stannis and company that deepens his rather morbid outlook on his quest (Stannis is not as boring as you think he is, kids), and you’ve got a hell of an episode that emphasizes this show’s ability to take even the most broken and dominated of characters and make them into beacons of hope and perseverance in a dark world. That’s one of Game of Thrones‘ greatest strengths, and an episode like “Second Sons” makes it clear that the show hasn’t forgotten that.