Game Of Thrones uses geography to tie its stories together in a literal sense, but what keeps those stories interesting—or better, relevant—is its commitment to its themes. It’s different from most “quality television” in that its themes aren’t hammered home from the very beginning, as happened with Tony Soprano’s Gary Cooper monologue, or The Wire’s magnificent opening scene. Tony Soprano, in his first therapy session, lays out one of the key themes of The Sopranos: things were better in the old days, when men were men. The dice game gone wrong at the start of The Wire acts as a microcosm for the show’s depiction of Baltimore, where the recurring game self-destructs every week because they can’t turn a thief away.
In its pilot, Game Of Thrones didn’t include any similar scene. Instead it let its themes slowly emerge. This second season did have a moment like that in its premiere, when Cersei confronts Littlefinger, who declared that “Knowledge is power.” Cersei responded by demonstrating, with her guards, that “Power is power.” The advertising also included The second trailer for this season included a brief monologue Varys The Spider about how “Power resides where men think it resides. It’s a trick. A shadow on the wall.”
But “power” is vague. Taken on its own, the word could probably be called an important theme of any drama. Game Of Thrones focuses on three more specific aspects of power: how power is acquired, how power is distributed, and how power is maintained. Or: war, patriarchy, and honor.
For “The Night Lands,” honor is most important. The word itself is all over Tyrion’s part of the story, as he attempts to consolidate his power in King’s Landing. First, he discovers Varys meeting with his paramour Shae, which he treats as a threat. He tells Varys, “Ned Stark was a man of honor. I am not.” That comes to direct fruition when Tyrion confronts Janos Slynt, the commander of the Gold Cloaks, about both taking a bribe to betray Ned Stark as well as following the orders to kill all of King Robert’s bastards. When Slynt attempts to defend his honor, Tyrion replies: “I’m not questioning your honor. I’m denying its existence.”
In Game Of Thrones, honor is a mechanism for people—men, really—to understand their relationship to the people in power (the patriarchs generally, the feudal system and king specifically). Slynt, a two-faced murdering villain by any account, actually believes that he is an honorable man, having followed orders from the crown in both of the cases Tyrion cites. If everyone were honorable, then following the orders within the patriarchal system would keep a stable system. But there is some serious disagreement about the nature of honor, and the system in Game Of Thrones is clearly not stable.
Here are things from Slynt’s perspective: When Littlefinger went to bribe him to take the queen’s side against Ned Stark, he had the option to follow orders of one of the most important powers of the realm, or let Lannister and Stark war in the streets. In the first case, he gets rewarded with a lordship for his loyalty. In the second case, the queen becomes his enemy. It’s not a difficult choice. Then, he’s given an order by his king, to kill Robert’s bastards, again, for the stability of the realm—or lose his head. Honor means following the orders of the patriarch . . .
. . . or, alternately, it means doing the right thing. You could argue that Slynt’s behavior in the first season made the best of an impossible situation, keeping the Hand and the queen from outright war in King’s Landing. But no ethical system would call tearing babies from their mothers’ arms and stabbing them to death “honorable.”
These questions of honor are more subtle through the rest of “The Night Lands” but they’re still very much present. Up north, beyond the wall, Jon Snow and Samwell Tarly are learning more about Craster’s Keep. Sam saves a girl, Gilly, from Jon’s wolf, and discovers that she’s pregnant and scared. Sam wants to help her, against orders, but Jon, following Lord Mormont’s orders, says they can’t. In the end, following the code of personal honor, he ends up chasing Craster and a baby boy into the woods.
On Dragonstone, we see both Davos and Stannis in discussions of honor. Davos is expressing his, convincing the pirate Salladhor Saan to go legit for Stannis. Saan is played with swashbuckling relish by Lucian Msamati. Unlike other characters, he’s actually having fun. Saan wants to know why Davos would be so loyal to Stannis: “Man chops off your fingers and you fall in love with him.” Davos claims Stannis is an most honorable and just man, deserving of loyalty. But Stannis isn’t so honorable later. When discussing his lack of manpower in council, Lady Melisandre convinces him that she has a plan to give him manpower. She just needs his, ah, man power—to have sex with him, despite his married status. When she mentions that he doesn’t have a son, she brings up a patriarchal point which pushes him over to her side, against honor, as he takes her on his strategy table. This is a little bit over the top, though it does fit the “honor” theme of the episode.
In another area of Westeros, Theon Greyjoy returns to his homeland. His father Balon tells him he needs to pay “the iron price” for any jewelry he has, and when Theon says he paid for it in gold instead of from an enemy’s corpse, Balon tears it off of him. He is dishonorable on his homeland. The rules are different there, and he’s lost—a fact hammered home by the prank his sister Yara pulls on him, pretending they’re in a seduction. Theon is left with an apparent choice: the honor of his homeland or the honor of his foster family. This crossroads point works better than I would have expected, given Theon’s difficult characterization in the first season.
Here in our world, we have all kinds of different mechanisms for understanding and categorizing ethical choices. For example, Stannis believes Melisandre’s offer but must decide if the just ends—him taking his rightful crown—are worth the means of sleeping with a woman who is not his wife. Or there’s Tyrion, trying to do the right thing for the populace and maintain his position of power, a utilitarian dilemma. The characters don’t have any terms of this, of course, but it’s to the show’s credit that it manages to portray the concepts as meaningful to both the characters and the viewers. “The Night Lands” is almost all setup, but it’s clever and meaningful setup. The conflicts which define the show’s new, old, and suddenly important characters are clarified, and “The Night Lands” is tense and fast-paced despite its relative lack of event.
We’re getting some increasingly big diversions from the show’s source material, A Clash Of Kings. The most common deviation, elimination of characters, shows up twice here: Aeron Damphair, Theon’s religious uncle, isn’t there to greet him on the docks, and Stannis doesn’t mention the daughter he has in the novels. There’s also one television-based change. Dany’s bloodrider, Rakharo, doesn’t get killed in the books, but apparently that actor got himself another show. It’s a pity, really, as Rakharo had been fairly well established in the first season as an Everyman Dothraki, making their culture sympathetic. Finally, there’s Bronn being given command of the Gold Cloaks, instead of the sympathetic knight in the novel, a change that’s somewhat surprising but makes sense—it gives Bronn more to do.
But Melisandre's active sexual corruption of Stannis is the biggest change, and it’s one I’m not fond of. Melisandre is my least favorite character in the books, and this reinforces that instead of fixing it. It makes a certain kind of logical sense given later events, but the seductress stereotype is just too much for me. There will be much more on this soon; I’m fascinated to see where the show goes with her. Other than Melisandre’s behavior, most of the changes make Game Of Thrones more viewer-friendly. Some may even make the story of A Clash Of Kings, a transitional novel in the series, a superior standalone story in Season Two of Game Of Thrones.