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Game of Thrones: The Night Lands

“I wish I had a god.”

Whenever I’m stumped about what to say about this (extremely difficult to review) show, I troll the internet. (I sometimes also just give up and watch awesome other shows.) The most fascinating aspect of Game of Thrones reviews is their lack of consensus: is this episode about women and their relationship to the divine right of kings? Being a stranger in a strange land, plus voyeurism? Women again, in a different way? The abuse of power?

Sure, women was a theme here, but no more so than men is a theme. One of the strengths of both GRRM’s books and this show is that female characters aren’t reduced to being a theme. They’re players with foibles and power who make mistakes and wise decisions and suffer the consequences of both. Voyeurism is, in any show worth its salt, always a theme in television, and I’d say it’s a characteristic of Littlefinger rather than anything specific to this particular episode. And I think we covered power effectively last week.

So now I’m throwing my hat into the ring: the theme of this episode is “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” For some characters, like Davos’s son and Dany’s bloodriders, damnation comes not just in this life but also in the afterlife. Davos’s son believes in Melisandre’s God of Light and the force of his divine power; Irri demands that Rakharo be burned so he might travel to the “Night Lands” that give this episode their name.

But concerns about the soul and its destination are both too lofty and too irrelevant for most of our major players, who are all preoccupied with continuing to negotiate the uneasy peaces and bitter rivalries in their various locales. Cersei’s revelation that Joffrey orchestrated the Massacre of the Bastards made us realize just how coldly calculating the smarmy little king could be, and made Cersei herself realize what she had wrought in raising Joffrey as she did.

Cersei’s conversation with Tyrion, in which she accuses him (and Jamie in absentia) of failing to realize the price of power is a wonderful indication of the show’s complexity. We’re not meant to agree or disagree with Cersei (although she does lay it on awfully thick). Rather, we’re meant to understand that her words come from her own sense of being mistreated, inappropriately dismissed, and not taken seriously. How seriously can we take her, though, when she sees the art of ruling as nothing more than oppression and tearing up papers? As Littlefinger said, “sometimes those with the most power have the least grace.” And “grace” can refer not just to elegance but also to salvation and the possibility thereof.

Game of Thrones allows each character to speak as individuals rather than as mouthpieces for the author. (The facility with which Benioff and Weiss have translated that heteroglossia onto the screen is one of this show’s great strengths.) Whether or not you’ve read the books, if you’ve made it this far you know this show isn’t headed towards a happy ending of unicorns, puppies, and daffodils. There are consequences—both intentional and unintentional—for even the smallest of actions.

Some of those actions that may or may not have consequences were laid on the board this week: Cersei’s bitter description of her long-standing hatred of Tyrion hasn’t come back to haunt her yet, but Tyrion’s exile of Slynt (captain of the Gold Cloaks) shows his willingness to take necessary drastic action for reasons of politics and revenge. Will his own actions come back to haunt him? He’s put a lot of faith in Bronn’s willingness to work for Lannister gold, but he realized just what he’d bought: a man willing to kill babies for the right price. As Gendry said, no good comes of asking questions.

Yoren (of the Night’s Watch) was willing to protect Arya and Gendry because of his inherent goodness, and (I assume) out of loyalty to House Stark, long a friend of the black brothers. That’s already gotten him into hot water with the Gold Cloaks, who are too far from King’s Landing to know that the bastard-hunt has been called off. There might be consequences for that, just as there might be consequences for Gendry’s realization that Arya is a girl, and her revelation that she’s not just a girl but a tiny spunky lady. And how cute was the conversation between Arya and Gendry?

Less cute was the conversation between Theon, his father, and his sister Yara. Theon was a hostage to the Starks after Balon Greyjoy’s rebellion, and after 10 or so years of pretending to be loyal to the Starks, Theon has come home only to realize that he must prove himself to his father, which distrusts his loyalty completely. Theon’s plan to help his father win a kingship backfired completely and revealed his lack of loyalty to us (if we hadn’t figured it out before). He’s definitely damned either way, and stuck on a horrible Aran Islands-like patch of Westeros, ruled over by a man who still remembers the death of his sons. (A nice echo with murder of the bastards and the way they don’t have a living father to avenge their deaths.)

Theon claimed that “What’s done is done,” but that’s never true on this show. Anything completed nonetheless creates ripples across all of Westeros, from Samwell’s desire to save Craster’s daughter to Stannis and Melisandre having a come-to-R’hollor moment on a table carved like the island. From Stannis’s pragmatic relationship with the Lord of Light, to Cersei’s vengeful view of power as the possibility for abuse rather than a responsibility to those who are disempowered, from Gendry’s and Samwell’s inherent decency to Tyrion’s mixed desire to do both what is right and what is most efficacious—each of those characters, and all the others, are angling for power, salvation, or even just the possibility of right action in a world that doesn’t reward right action with salvation in this life or the next.

Grumpkins and Snarks:

• Tyrion: “You should taste her fish pie.”
Shae: “I don’t think Lord Varys likes fish pie.”
Tyrion: “We’ll make a fisherman of you yet.”

• Tyrion: “You’ve perfected the art of tearing up paper.”

• Sam: “She’s a person, not a goat.”

• Tyrion: “I’m not questioning your honor. I’m denying its existence.”

• Tyrion: “I found it surprisingly beautiful. In a brutal, horribly uncomfortable sort of way.”

• Salladhor Saan: “Salladhor Saan is a good name for songs.” He’s not wrong.

• Podrick! He’s one of my favorite characters. And Salladhor Saan!

• We’ve got a thread for a discussion of the books here. Weigh in on the changes, additions, and clarifications to A Clash of Kings there.

Three out of four fish pies.

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)


  1. I've been waiting for your review so I would know what to think of this episode. What was going on in the last three seconds there at the wall? I'm so confused! But I will stick with this show because I'm also intrigued.

  2. Anon, Jon's and Samwell's conversation earlier in the episode raised the question of what happens to Craster's sons. One was delivered, and Craster appeared to abandon it in the forest, where Jon saw that it was picked up by a dark figure. The dark figure then attacked Jon.

  3. Oh really? I thought it was Craster who had then attacked John.

  4. All I saw (on my admittedly old TV; a gerbil on a wheel keeps it running) was a dark shape, so I assumed it was the same dark shape that'd taken the baby.

  5. It's Craster who knocks Jon Snow out: that is a pretty badly done scene though, it's far too dark.

    I enjoyed this episode but I couldn't find a cohesive theme anywhere: unlike last week there was nothing that really tied it together. There were glimmers of dark mirror links between characters: Cersei and Asha and female leadership, Varys and Tyrion as outsiders scheming, Arya and Daenerys on the run from and being threatened by monsters but nothing more solid than that. I'm not sure it needed an overarching theme, I was happy with a "some stuff happened" episode. Mind you, that might be because I've read the books and I know an overarching theme is there - I wonder how someone who doesn't read the books reacted to it.

  6. I honesly thnk this episode was far better than the first one. It caused me a huge inmsonia crisis thinking of everything that went through in, what, 50 minutes. It was a richly constructed episode, with beautiful in a brutal horribly uncomfortable sort of way dialogues and scenes.

    What to think of the dialogue between Littlefinger and one of his ladies? That is a good translation of the show for me, when you think you've got it all clear, that there is still good in Westeros, comes an unveiled threat and nothing is what it seemed.

    You took long to write, Josie, but the wait was worth it. It was a deep episode, to which you gave a deep review. Thank you.
    Let's just wait for next Sunday and hope next episode is as good as this one, making me look like a Cold one the next day for not sleeping.

  7. Josie - You take as long as you need. Like Samantha said, your reviews are well worth the wait. Thanks for the thoughtful write-up.

    As far as the episode...it must have been good because when it was over I honestly felt like I had just sat down.

  8. Iago: "I'm not sure it needed an overarching theme, I was happy with a "some stuff happened" episode."

    I'd like to steal that phrase, if I may. A SSH episode! :-)

    Samantha and Sooze, thanks! I don't know why these reviews are so hard for me. I had the same problem in Season One. It might be that I've read the books so I know what happens, or it might be that so many of the episodes as SSH episodes :-) that are leading towards an explosive finale.

  9. Can we all take a moment to appreciate how fantastic Ghost looked? That is one impressive looking CGI enhanced wolf.

  10. Brilliant review Josie!

    I'm not looking for themes in individual episodes, I'm just enjoying seeing the story develop and impatient each week for the next episode! But then I've read the books so... as you said no need for an individual theme...

    Loved Arya vs Gendry "But then I couldn't insult anyone!" She is definitely a pint-sized handful of trouble! :o)

  11. My DVR has filled up as I have been ignoring it lately, so I just sat down to watch this episode. I loved it. I finally feel as though I know who the players are, how they fit together and the complexity of their relationships. A lot fewer "huh?" moments makes for a more enjoyable hour of television.

    Excellent review, Josie. I have not read the second book, but am not too fussed about the lack of an overarching theme for the episode. I was able to enjoy it for the story and the characters -- many of whom seemed to fill out a bit this week.

  12. I love this show, but I definitely don't envy you the responsibility of reviewing these, Josie!

    Arya! Love Arya. She and Tyrion are my favorite characters. She's adorable and spunky and scrappy.

    Oh Theon. The scene with his SISTER was pretty painful. I always felt bad for Theon. I mean, he's not likable at all (did you see how he treated the captain's daughter?!) but he's forever trapped between two worlds. To the Starks (Robb excepted), he will always be a Greyjoy and to the Greyjoys he will always be a Stark. He so badly wants to be accepted by one or the other (preferably both), but no one will grant him that. If they had, maybe (stopping here for spoiler reasons).

    I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the theme of the episode was divided duty. It's not present in every story, but it is there in enough of them. Jon and Sam, for instance, have a duty to obey the Lord Commander and ignore Craster's less than decent behavior, but they also have a duty to do the right thing. Tyrion has a duty to his family, but also has a duty to protect Shae, who he did put in danger by bringing to King's Landing against the express wish of his father. Cersei's ultimate duty is to her children (in this case, Joffrey), but she recognizes how ruthless he has become. Does she have a duty to the kingdom to curtail her child?

    Arya's obligations are to her father and her mother. She reveals her identity to Gendry in hopes of learning why precisely her father was killed, but she would have been a better daughter to her mother if she'd stayed silent. The safer and more concealed she is, the more likely she gets home to Catelyn. Stannis' duty is to his wife and to Melisandre, who I (again) want to beat to death with a golf club. Yes, specifically a golf club.

  13. Sunbunny, I'm totally with you. I hated Melisandre in the books, I hate Melisandre on the show, and I have many golf clubs you can borrow. Otherwise, this sure is fun to watch (I'm finally getting to this now, but I'm on a BINGE so watch out!) Already watched the first season last week and now moving through season 2...


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