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Another season has come and gone for “Winter Was Here,” and not a moment too soon.
Over the past several weeks, The Hollywood Reporter and Post Show Recaps have teamed together for the “Winter Was Here” rewatch of Game of Thrones, sifting through old episodes for guidance on new theories, not unlike Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) plowing through the ancient texts at the Citadel to aid in the war against the White Walkers. In many cases, the trip down memory lane has been an enlightening one. In the case of season two? It was a frustrating one.
The second season of the HBO drama, a loose adaptation of the second book in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, “A Clash of Kings,” is a game of highs and lows. Through twenty episodes of the series, season two contains the single best installment up until that point, and one that remains a serious contender even through seven seasons: “Blackwater,” the epic battle between the forces of Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson) and Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane), memorably directed by two-time Thrones helmer Neil Marshall.
It’s the biggest and best action-centric episode of the series through two seasons by a country mile, but it’s also filled with brilliance in the smaller beats: Cersei (Lena Headey) drunkenly warning Sansa (Sophie Turner) about the heaviness of the crown, the Hound (Rory McCann) calling it a day on his service to the Kingsguard, the quietly fearful confidence of Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) as he realizes his integral role in the battle — just to name a few. For an episode centered entirely on one individual storyline, “Blackwater” proves surprisingly versatile, a better effort in this regard than its closest cousin, season four’s “The Watchers on the Wall.”
Listen to the “Winter Was Here” recap of “Blackwater,” and why it’s the best episode of the series through two seasons, in the player below.
What makes season two of Thrones such an uneven experience? There are a few culprits, though the big one is easy to identify: Qarth, the greatest city that ever was and ever will be, at least according to the folks in charge. It’s where Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) spends the entire season, with the exception of four initial episodes in which she wanders the Red Waste — and really, the whole story is a waste of time, deviating greatly from Martin’s source material, most frustratingly at the climax of the arc: the House of the Undying, one of the most riveting passages in all five of Martin’s books. In the text, Dany’s struggle against the Warlocks of Qarth results in some tremendous teases for the future, including a warning about the Red Wedding, and even a strong hint at her shared bloodline with Jon Snow (Kit Harington). For the purposes of the show, the House of the Undying amounts to little more than a Jason Momoa cameo, and an all-too-easy dismantling of Pyat Pree (Ian Hanmore), the single worst major Game of Thrones character who doesn’t hail from Dorne.
Dany’s days in Qarth are the biggest source of offense in season two, both in terms of fidelity to the source material as well as overall pacing issues, but there are other culprits as well: an emphasis on Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) and his Iron Islands roots, an admittedly excellent acting showcase for Allen if not an entirely gripping storyline; the War of the Five Kings, and specifically the focus on Stannis and Melisandre (Carice Van Houten), characters who take a while to warm up (if you’ll forgive the bad pun); and an oddly meandering story in the North, as Jon and his fellows spin their wheels in the realm beyond the Wall, culminating in the confusingly structured death of Qhorin Halfhand (Simon Armstrong) and the first real glimpse at the White Walker army.
In terms of high points beyond “Blackwater,” there’s the entirety of Tyrion’s stay in King’s Landing, as he comes into his own as one of Westeros‘ most effective and important political animals. In his first year as the top-billed actor on the show, following his victory at the Emmy Awards for season one, Peter Dinklage’s work in the second season is among the single greatest stretches of acting across the entirety of Game of Thrones. Additional kudos belongs to Maisie Williams and her work as Arya Stark in season two, especially her scenes opposite Charles Dance’s Tywin Lannister — a major deviation from the books, but one that’s in service of pitting two terrific performers against each other.
Then there’s the matter of Robb Stark (Richard Madden), King in the North, but not for much longer. Season two does an excellent job laying track for the Red Wedding, the single most brutal moment in the entire series, from subtle dialogue about what will happen if Robb walks back his promise to Walder Frey (David Bradley), to the mere image of Robb standing in the same space as Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) and Roose Bolton (Michael McElhatton). The show makes it a point to invest viewers in Robb and Talisa (Oona Chaplin) as a romantic couple, wisely embellishing Robb’s well meaning but ultimately ill-fated pursuit of the heart as told mostly off-page in the book. The moments spent setting up the Red Wedding are instrumental to its ultimate impact, and for that reason alone, season two’s Northern army storyline is a vital one.
Listen to the “Winter Was Here” recap of “Valar Morghulis,” containing final takeaways from the second season of Game of Thrones, in the player below.
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