The second season of Game Of Thrones came to a close last night on SoHo (or last week, if you've been downloading it) and while it was absolutely my favourite thing on television so far this year, I still have two gripes: there was simply too much going on for a mere 10 episodes and we could have done with a much tighter focus.
(Warning: Spoilers from Season 2 of Game Of Thrones follow - this review is written from the perspective of one who hasn't read the books; please don't post spoilers from future storylines in George RR Martin's novels. Please.)
Admittedly, those two gripes are kind of intertwined. If there was less going on in the show - that is, if we weren't following so many key characters; the writers were trying to develop no less than 16 different people - Robb & Catelyn, Jon, Arya & Tywin, Sansa & Joffrey, Cersei, Tyrion, Daenerys, Bran, Stannis & Davos, Jamie & Brienne and poor old Theon - then the focus would have been tighter.
In a way, the show brought this gripe on itself by giving us the fantastic penultimate episode Blackwater, which spent an entire hour at King's Landing during Stannis' attack on the capital and gave us a glimpse at what the show could be like if it held its gaze on just one aspect of its sprawling story for more than a few minutes at a time, before returning to its rambling roots in Valar Morghulis, last night's finale which attempted to become the first episode of any TV show in which every scene was a cliff-hanger.
Can the show succeed long term with such a broad scope? Only time will tell for sure, but if the show keeps expanding the number of characters and if it's forced to jump around from storyline to storyline in each episode, and if the number of episodes is kept at 10 per year (Tim Goodman makes a good case for 13 episodes per season), and if the characters we love are only appearing for a few minutes each week, then it's entirely possible that Thrones will end up with a fan-base frustrated by rushed narratives and a perceived lack of character development.*
All of that said, crowded as it was, Valar Morghulis was definitely not an unsatisfying finale. In fact, it was probably the second best episode of a fantastic second season.
While I'm still baffled by how Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) has somehow become the fall guy in the wake of the Battle of Blackwater Bay, I thought the show did a good job with the storyline; in many ways, Tyrion has become the level-headed, rational character through whom we experience events at King's Landing, so it made sense for us to wake up with Tyrion as he faced the new reality in the capital - that Cersei (Lena Headey) attempted to have him murdered and father Tywin (the under-rated Charles Dance) has taken the credit for the battle. How poignant that opening shot of horse dung dropping to the floor before we witnessed all the "horse dung" that happened inside the throne room.
Yet, despite the misfortune that has fallen on him, he knows - just as we do - that he is a perfect fit at King's Landing. And while the future might be even uglier for the now-scarred imp, I'm hoping for more of Tyrion's particularly entertaining brand of political meddling when the show returns next year.
I've also enjoyed the way things played out at Winterfell. It was clear that poor Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) was in trouble from the moment he groped his own sister and decided to turn his back on Robb Stark, so I'm not surprised with how things turned out for the poor guy. Aside from Tyrion, Theon really enjoyed the most development this year, going from a glorified slave boy in House Stark, to an eager-to-please leader with his back against the wall in House Greyjoy. And as it turned out, Theon's time with the Stark family rubbed off more than he thought, in at least one way: he believed that Winterfell was more valuable as a seat of power than it is perhaps thought to be by many of the other major houses (including House Greyjoy), and that notion has ultimately cost him his freedom.
The bigger question, of course: who burnt Winterfell to the ground? After that hilarious speech scene - "I thought he'd never shut up", "It was a good speech, I didn't want to interrupt" - the soldiers from Pyke looked like they were just leaving peacefully. My guess: Roose Bolton's bastard son Ramsay razed the place as a strike against the Starks. On the plus side, it means that Bran and Rickon are on a road trip. Sadly, it also led to the death of Maester Luwin, one of those minor characters who makes Westeros more interesting just by being there.
Then there was that final scene, with Sam scrambling to hide from an army of White Walkers who seem set to march on the wall, even though I feel like the next season might need to start with "Previously on The Walking Dead". It is interesting how the problems being faced in King's Landing and those faced beyond the wall - essentially the opposite ends of Westeros - are as different as they could possibly be. Joffrey might be comfortable on that throne of his right now, but it sure doesn't seem like being king is a long-term proposition.
There were plenty of other great moments too: I haven't enjoyed Daenerys' time in Qarth (the greatest city that ever was or will be), though I did like her big scene in the House Of The Undying as she reclaimed her dragons and proved her resolve to take the throne. I wasn't fond of Jon Snow's journey this season either - it seemed like he spent 10 straight episodes with prisoner-turned-captor Ygritte - though the sheer size of Mance Rayder's army was a nice reveal, promising big things to come.
Arya and Jaqen H'ghar meeting one last time on the road north, Sansa grinning after being freed from her betrothal to Joffrey, followed by Littlefinger warning her that she isn't quite out of the woods yet, Brienne defending Jamie on the road to King's Landing, Robb's moonlight wedding to Talisa, Tyrion's touching scene with Shae after removing his bandages, Margaery wearing yet another extreme-plunging neckline, leading to me suggesting that her nickname should be "Boobs Tyrell", Stannis and Melisandre looking into the fire ... there was plenty to love in the finale, even if it felt a bit crowded. There's definitely more than I can cover in one review. It would take a week of reviews to cover everything.**
As I say, the second season of Game Of Thrones might have been lacking focus at times - but it was still the best show on TV this year, by quite a wide margin. And while it did seem like much of the time was spent moving characters into place for next year and beyond, I thought last night's finale wrapped things up rather nicely.
What did you think of Game Of Thrones this year? Did you enjoy the second season? Are you excited for Season 3? Remember: this is a spoiler-free blog and that is especially true in regard to Game Of Thrones. PLEASE don't post spoilers from the upcoming books in the series.
(*) Daniel Fienberg made an interesting point about Game Of Thrones, in a spoilery review of True Blood this week: "I wonder how much worse True Blood looks coming off of a second, mostly exceptional season of Game of Thrones. Seeing an HBO drama that successfully blends low-brow, potentially exploitative elements with high dramatic aspirations all within a familiar genre context and featuring a cast of dozens only puts a harsher glare on the HBO drama that fails in every way to do the same." True Blood might be Game Of Thrones' worst case scenario, folks!
(**) Don't think I didn't consider it.
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