HBO’s epic adaptation of George RR Martin’s swords-and-lust-and-sorcery novels returned to rabid anticipation after a barnstorming first season that saw the fantasy series became a cross-over smash.
With a gaping Sean Bean-shaped hole to fill, Dinklage’s Tyrion steps up from scene-stealer to series lead as the newly minted King’s Hand trying to maintain order and power under the ever-more slappable Joffrey’s rule. But with the boy king’s status as an inbred bastard now common knowledge, dour Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) and his preening brother Renly (Gethin Anthony) both claim the throne while vengeful Robb Stark (Richard Madden) wages war from the North. Dragon-queen Daenerys (Clarke) continues to make her way through the desert, and Jon Snow (Harington) heads over The Wall with The Night’s Watch.
The cast is still outstanding, the scope and quality of the locations and set design are still without equal on television, and the HBO-standard levels of blood and nudity are doggedly maintained. But while much remains the same, there’s a host of new characters, including Liam Cunningham’s old-salt smuggler Ser Davos, Carice van Houten’s saucy witch Melisandre, and Tom Wlaschiha’s creepy assassin Jaqen H’ghar, all jostling for screentime. The prize for best newcomer goes to Gwendoline Christie’s fiercely loyal swordswoman Brienne of Tarth.
On the dowNside, it’s considerably slower than the first season. Most of the characters are preparing for war and discussing the possibility of upheaval but actually doing very little about it. This leads to something of a mid-season lull and it’s difficult to get too excited about another scene in Robb Stark’s tent. Viewers hoping for greater emphasis on the fantasy side will be disappointed, although Melisandre and her smokey sorcery prove to be a highly entertaining exception. Fans of the books will know where it’s all leading but a great deal of both Stannis and Daenerys’ storylines is simply travelling.
That being said, both characters pay off nicely and the ability to plow through several episodes in one sitting should make the required patience less of an issue. While the show mostly continues to tell us about conflicts rather than show them, the trend is broken in the penultimate episode ‘Blackwater’ as Dog Soldiers director Neil Marshall is given the opportunity to pay off the season’s build-up with a thrilling battle sequence.
The slower pace also allows for some welcome character development, as Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), Cersei Lannister (Headey) and Catelyn Stark (Fairley) all benefit from facing new challenges. It’s great to see Dinklage’s Tyrion both in his element and out of his depth, and the scenes between Tywin (Charles Dance) and Arya (Maisie Williams) show the two actors making the most of some of the series’ best writing.
So the problems with Season 2 are also its strengths. As the show expands to include more and more of Martin’s world it struggles to fit it all in, leading to the occasional pacing issue. The fidelity to the source material is admirable, of course, but it also leads to fantastic characters like Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) feeling shortchanged. But these are relatively minor concerns with what is a mostly superb piece of television. We’re not necessarily comparing it to other fantasy shows, we’re comparing it against the high bar it’s set for itself. Even when Game Of Thrones lags, it’s well-written, brilliantly cast, and it’s that rare and precious combination of passionate creators and a network willing to do everything to back them.