All's Fair in War
Another king? How many is that now—five? I’ve lost count.
—Queen Cersei (Lena Headey)
Surely, someone, sometime, imagined that a television series based on George R. R. Martin’s series of bible-thick books would mean an especially long cast list for each episode of Game of Thrones. But even as these 50-some characters—all with ornate names and titles—contributed to a dozen subplots during the show’s first season, HBO did not dumb down its intricate storylines. And for viewers this was a gulp of fresh air.
Now comes the second season. And truth be told, with their lush set pieces and rocky coastlines, passionate betrayals and calculating re-alliances, the new episodes present an almost a too intricate meditation on power. Game of Thrones demands that you pay attention or be left behind.
Picking up directly where the last season left off, this season’s premiere—airing on 1 April—begins with Prince Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) having taken the throne of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros after ordering the beheading of Ned Stark (Sean Bean). The once-rightful king and father to Joffrey’s betrothed, Ned knew Joffrey was not the true heir, but rather the product of incest between (former) Queen Cersei (Lena Headey) and her twin brother Jamie Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). We can only imagine how bizarre Joffrey’s childhood was; his sociopathology now presents itself in his misogynistic zingers or gruesome tortures of commoners.
Joffrey reminds us repeatedly that Game of Thrones is a visceral show, with bouts of violence and prurient sex punctuating the nominal focus on politics. The five different individuals laying claim to the throne of Westeros proclaim their qualifications loudly, usually while being fanned by doting entourages and waving their weapons.
The similarities between Westeros and Washington, DC are clear enough—though the body count is higher in Game of Thrones. Like the early Republican primary candidates, most of the contenders in Game of Thrones seem like also-rans, with their backstories only vaguely hinted at. Remarkably, none is without just cause. Each has a right to rule, whether it be an arcane law, royal bloodline or a basic misunderstanding. Their vitriol and conviction suggest many bloody battles to come.
Of those ramping up to storm King’s Landing to unseat Joffrey, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) may be most sensational, her limbs tanned and her abs tight. Lost in the Red Waste since her husband’s death, she leads her nomadic tribe, the Dothrakis, and tends to her three baby dragons, hatched last season atop her husband’s funeral pyre. If she’s disheveled, hungry, and barely clothed, Daenerys knows that Dragons elicit fear in the Seven Kingdoms, and Daenrys understands that others’ fear can translate to her own true power.
And what exactly is true power? It’s a question at the center of Game of Thrones. A piece of paper declaring one’s right to rule means nothing without a military—of whatever sort—to enforce it. Influence, while useful, proves fleeting as potential followers are easily swayed from one extreme to the other. When the seamy Lord Baelish (Aiden Gillen) declares, “Knowledge is power,” he’s threatening to expose Joffrey’s interbred lineage (you’d think he’d remember what happened to Ned Stark). Yet Joffrey’s mother knows better. Backed by a throng of armed guards, she reminds Baelish, “Power is power.”
Multiple plots this season involve powerful women. Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), once willingly engaged to Joffrey, is now ostensibly being held hostage as his queen-to-be. Whether she intends to avenge her father’s death remains to be seen, but her sideways glances and deliberate words suggest that she has plans apart from the intended marriage. Her younger sister Arya (Maisie Williams), who last season was trained in swordsmanship, has now assumed a male identity so she can safely travel back to Winterfell to reunite with what remains of her family. Unbeknownst to either of sisters, their fiery brother Robb Stark (Richard Madden) has already headed back from Winterfell, launching his own crusade to reclaim the throne. Miles away in the North, Jon Snow (Kit Harington), Ned Stark’s illegitimate son, patrols the Wall for as part of the Night Watch because, as everyone repeats often, “Winter is coming.”
Ah, winter. It seems like it’s all they ever talk about in Westeros, where seasons seem to last for years. Winter is indeed on its way, bringing with it wild, terrible creatures in the woods beyond the Wall. The Night Watch keeps guard against these quasi-mythical creatures dubbed “White Walkers.” The Night Watch’s doubled functions—as both crucial frontline protection and as a punchline for those who doubt their value—pursue their own kind of power.
The Night Watch is comprised of criminals, slovens, and malcontents, while those they protect include the kingdoms’ richest and most elite representatives. This gross maldistribution of force may lead to terrible consequences for the entire kingdom. If The Wall is breached by White Walkers, then all the upper classes’ political posturing and self-puffery will prove meaningless.
Mounting his own struggle for meaning and dignity is Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), the one character this season who might break out and carry the show, much as Ned used to do. Once a supporting player, Tyrion now takes center stage in his own bid for power—though he’s all brains and no brawn. Razor sharp, he has manipulated his way to become “hand of the king,” and as such, exerts subtle control over Joffrey, at least for the time being. His concubine with a heart of gold, Shae (Sibel Kekilli), seems to be his only weakness: his devotion to her betrays a need to feel loved after a lifetime of familial rejection and societal disregard. It’s easy to root for Tyrion, not because he’s the good guy, but because he’s the best man.