Game of Thrones Finally Takes Some Mercy on Its Viewers

Leeches, libations, and a dropped dagger: Our roundtable on "Second Sons," the eighth episode of the HBO series' third season.
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Every week for the third season of HBO's fantasy series Game of Thrones, our roundtable of Ross Douthat (columnist, The New York Times), Spencer Kornhaber (entertainment editor, TheAtlantic.com), and Christopher Orr (senior editor and film critic, The Atlantic) will discuss the latest happenings in Westeros.


Kornhaber: Samwell... Effing... Tarly! You didn't just leave that blade lying in the snow, did you? It kind of looked like you did! I know you're not the most physically adroit guy, and I know you were trying to save yourself, Gilly, and Not- Randyll from death by pecking. But still. You just learned that obsidian (?) dagger is all that stands between you and becoming a human icicle the next time a Snow Willie Nelson appears. Maybe you could've taken a second and grabbed the thing before making a mad dash to the credits?

OK, calming down, calming down. White Walker aside, that was a pretty tranquil episode, right? Not boring, though. Just one of the few Game of Thrones installments that stuck to a mere number of storylines you can count on one hand, where the decapitations happened off screen, and where plots occasionally turned on people being nice to one another. It's funny: Last week, Theon pled for mercy and so did we. This week, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss kind of granted it.

In fact, mercy drove much of the action in this episode, "Second Sons"—which, to tie in with "The Bear and Maiden Fair," coulda instead been called "The Lion and the Lamb." In nearly every storyline, the literally and figuratively armed had to choose how to deal the literally and figuratively defenseless. Arya's dilemma: let not-actually-sleeping Dog lie? Tyrion's: deflower the painfully innocent 14-year-old princess? Stannis's: permit the "sacrifice" of his hapless bastard nephew? Newcomer Daario Naharis's: let the Queen of Dragons finish the umpteenth on-camera bath of the series? Some of these questions were resolved more humanely than others. But the wide array of motives at work—respectively: self-preservation, apparent chivalry, greater good, and, uh, aesthetic interest—drove home that clemency in Westeros only comes conditionally.

This was one of the few episodes where the decapitations happened off screen, and plots occasionally turned on people being... nice.

We even saw some leniency from Joffrey Baratheon towards his piss-drunk uncle. Tyrion has had a habit of provoking the pubescent tyrant (anyone else catch the King of the Andals and the First Men's voice crack when screaming about the bedding ceremony?), and I worried for a moment that this latest offense might actually come with consequences—well, consequences beyond a battlefield assassination attempt and the embarrassing deprival of a footstool. But Grandpa Tywin was there, restrainedly but oh-so-firmly defusing the situation. That said, I worry about the Hand of the King's grip on his clan: Two of his kids are in quiet rebellion, with the Queen Regent dissing the Tyrell siblings to their faces and The Imp making no haste to make an heir. Those instances of disobedience were fun to watch, but Joffrey's would be less so.

The misery of that entire wedding sequence was nice to see—after all, this is a celebration not of love but of callous dealmaking. Tyrion finally got as blitzed as other characters always says he does, and the results were nasty. But I too might have gotten belchingly, bragging-about-voming-during-coitus-ly hammered given the circumstances. The other option, as demonstrated by nearly everyone else, was to sulk. The sole exception: Lady Olenna, who found distraction by hilariously tormenting her kin with a verbal sketch of their queasy new family tree.

Out at Dragonstone, the Stannis storyline for the first time showed flashes of real intrigue. His talk on faith and duty with Ser Davos was likely the best bit of dialogue Stephen Dillane's been given to work with. And while Melisandre and Gendry's soup-related small talk didn't exactly scintillate—both actors have long seemed wooden to me—the leeches-into-the-flames ritual offered genuine foreboding. I just hope, for the sake of "the uzurpa' Robb Stawrk," that the burning of blood-drinking slugs results in a less-potent spell than the impregnation of the Red Lady did last season.

As for the other major development, Daenerys's acquisition of a Fabio-esque friend, I'll be interested to hear what you book readers thought. Newbie me liked the desert scenes well enough, but was a little disappointed to see the Titan's Bastard so hastily dispatched. His jawline and joviality made him a magnetic presence in spite of—or maybe, secretly, because of—his despicability, and judging by Daenerys's bemused expression during their first meeting, she shared that opinion. So while I'm glad to see Khaleesi strengthen her army with the Second Sons, it felt strange for the show to introduce and then promptly kill such an indelible character. My hunch is this is the result of paraphrasing a more-interesting book plotline.

Yes, no? Thoughts on the episode generally? Most importantly: Did my eyes betray me at the end of the hour, or did Sam really leave behind that blade?


Orr: Yes! That scene had my wife and I yelling at the television like fans of a NBA team losing a playoff game after a big lead. The coming war between Darkness and Light is going to be an awfully short one if Light keeps leaving its Dragonglass daggers behind. In the book, the knife gets too cold to handle after it dissolves ol' Willie, but here Sam makes no effort at all to recover it. Indeed, Sam is generally a bit more of a buffoon in the show than the books—where considerably more use is made of his exceptional education—and it's a shame that even this moment of relative glory was marred by a rookie mistake.

As for the Titan's Bastard, I thought Benioff and Weiss made a pretty solid decision. In the books, he isn't killed by dashing Daario Naharis (in fact he belongs to a separate band of mercenaries altogether) and he escapes the Yunkai engagement to cause minor trouble later on. He's just the kind of tertiary character the series can't afford to waste much time on, but it also would have been a shame if he hadn't appeared at all. So while I agree that it might've been fun to have him hang around a bit longer, I thought this outcome struck a pretty good balance between narrative expanse and concision. A still better decision, though, was Benioff and Weiss opting to skip the daffy coiffure with which the books saddle Daario: hair and three-pronged beard painted blue, long moustaches painted gold—he basically sounded like a glam-rock Snidely Whiplash. Toning down the exoticism of the Eastern Kingdoms in ways like this will be key to making them as believable a setting as Westeros.

I was less thrilled with Stephen Dillane's Stannis than you—he still strikes me as too whiny and self-doubting—but I agree that his dungeon exchange with Davos was excellent, with Liam Cunningham (who plays the latter) having perhaps his best scene to date. Of course the real action in Dragonstone took place upstairs in the bedchamber. For those keeping score at home: Last week, we had Theon aroused by feminine friction and subsequently emasculated; this week, Gendry gets the full-on Sharon-Stone-in-Basic-Instinct treatment from Melisandre only to have, in his tumescence, a leech attached to his junk. It's like the show's turning into a Scared Straight! for male desire. I can tell you that I, for one, will no longer fall for the pickup line, "Come fight death with me." And no, for the record, neither this scene nor Theon's last week is in the books. (Gendry is leeched by Melisandre, but without the fluffing.) After seeming to get a handle on its sex addiction in Season Two, Game of Thrones has fallen off the wagon in a big way.

Gendry gets the full-on Sharon-Stone-in-"Basic-Instinct" treatment only to have a leech attached to his junk. It's like the show's turning into a "Scared Straight!" for male desire.

On a tangential note, I'd swear that the wine glass Melisandre offers Gendry is Waterford crystal. It seems an odd choice for a product placement: Use Waterford, and you too can be leech-raped! (Though it's not as bad as the Harry Osborn-Maker's Mark nexus in the Spider-Man movies: Because, yeah, I want to drink a bourbon that provokes sociopathic super-villainy.)

The wedding at King's Landing was precisely as uncomfortable as one would expect, but it did have its moments: Lord Tywin looking so cool in his leather jacket that he might as well have made his entrance on a Harley; Lady Olenna disentangling the intergrown Lannister and Tyrell family trees in one of the most flat-out hilarious bits of dialogue the show's ever offered ("Your son will be Loras's nephew? Grandson? I'm not sure"); and Cersei shutting down lucky groom-to-be Ser Loras as only Cersei can ("No one cares what your father once told you"). And that was on top of the Queen Regent's earlier harsh words for Loras's sister (and her daughter-in-law-to-be), Margaery, which included a useful explanation of the song "The Rains of Castamere"—the title of long-awaited Episode Nine next week.

Circling back to this week's opening scene with Arya and the Hound, I was reminded again that while Maisie Williams's performance in the former role has been fine for the last two seasons, she's a far cry from the mesmerizingly wicked cherub she was in Season One. I'm not sure how much blame is due to the fact that her narrative arc is more peripheral—she was one of the primary relatable characters early on—and how much is the actress herself, who already (and through no fault of her own, obviously) seems to be aging out of the role. But it's a problem only likely to get worse for Williams, who was 13 when the show began filming, and for Isaac Hempstead-Wright (Bran) who was 11. On a related note, it was interesting to see what age the show—which tends to present its characters as older than the books—ascribed to Sansa on her wedding night. Fourteen seems like a reasonable compromise between actress Sophie Turner's actual age (17) and Sansa's age in the book (12, I think).

So, overall, a solid but unremarkable episode in my view, not as good as the extremely strong run from the third episode through the sixth, but not nearly as disappointing as last week's installment. Which is a decent accomplishment, considering that we were offered no Varys or Littlefinger (for the second consecutive week!), no Robb, and no Ygritte (or that sullen crow she's dating). On top of that, I can hardly believe that we weren't treated to any gratuitous Theon mutilations. I'd been counting on the removal of at least a couple of his molars, or maybe a swerve or two of intestine...

What about you, Ross? What did you like, and what did you miss? And are you looking forward to next week?


Douthat: Early in the season I talked a bit about Alan Sepinwall's theory that Game of Thrones might be better off if it were willing to attempt more episodes like last year's "Blackwater," in which all the hour's action was confined to one setting, and the rest of the subplots waited another week to have their turn. The problem with this theory is that Martin's story is simply too geographically dispersed at this point, and if you focused on just one or even two settings every week the audience would go a month or more without seeing crucial characters, and might lose track of the less-crucial ones entirely.

But last night's episode, it seems to me, found a middle way that really worked: Instead of concentrating on just one setting and story, it narrowed itself to three, and then had a prologue (with Arya and the Hound) and an epilogue (with Sam and Gilly) to remind us that the story is bigger than King's Landing, Yunkai, and Dragonstone. The result felt comprehensive enough to satisfy fans who like the big canvas (as an episode that only showed us Sansa's wedding, say, would not) but also focused enough to actually tell stories, instead of just hopscotching from conversation to conversation as too many of this year's weaker episodes have done. Next week we'll likely get back to the brooding Stark brothers and the women who love them—but for this hour, I missed them not at all.

In their place, we had Peter Dinklage playing the Tyrion that we haven't really seen that much since Season One: A prince who responds to his haters the way Sarah Palin did to hers—by living up to their caricature of who he really is. His exchange with his father during the feast hammered this point home, but the whole spectacle was a reminder of how easy it is for Tyrion to slip back into the protective carapace of the Ill-Made Drunken Lustful Dwarf. And it is protective, as his exchange with Joffrey made clear: Tyrion may have to take heapings of abuse from the king (including the removal of his wedding stepping-stool), but as the Drunken Dwarf he can get away (for now, at least) with saying things to his beloved nephew that would leave anyone else decorating a spike atop the Red Keep.

I assume that we're supposed to think their phallic back-and-forth left Joffrey too spitting mad to follow through on his plan to exercise a little droit du seigneur with Sansa, which combined with Tyrion's essential decency allowed her to wake up mercifully undeflowered. Though perhaps "mercifully" is the wrong word: The idea of Tyrion taking an unwilling 14-year-old girl's maidenhead may be even more sickening to modern viewers than it is to him, but by this point the audience has to understand how many worse fates and worse husbands might await her if this marriage is left unconsummated. Sansa has grown wiser in the ways of the world, but not wise enough to grasp that her dwarf lord might be a better spouse (and, to borrow Margaery's logic from the previous episode, a better father to their children) than almost any the likely alternatives, from Loras Tyrell to Littlefinger to ... well, use your imagination. It's hard to blame her for not seeing Tyrion's true quality, but it means she might be missing the best opportunity for happiness (or at least moderate contentment) that fate is going to present her anytime soon.

Speaking of unwise in the ways of the world, Cersei's little speech to Margaery is a reminder that her father is right to think that his daughter can't play the game of thrones half so effectively as she thinks. The show has tried to make Cersei a little more subtle and sympathetic than the books, but it's kept her fatal flaw: She can't see the difference between rivals and enemies, and can't recognize that it's as important to manage the former as it is to cow and crush the latter. She's taking the scorched-earth, "Rains of Castamere" approach that her father takes to actual enemies-in-arms—the Reynes, Stannis, Robb Stark—and applying it to putative allies, where an insincere sweet word would do vastly better. Yes, she's angry about her own impending nuptials, so a display of temper is understandable .... but when you play the game of thrones, giving in to human weakness is a good way to ensure your own swift defeat.

As for the non-wedding business, I tire easily of Melisandre's machinations, but the presence of Davos grounded the Dragonstone scenes, and the sight of the "usurper" leeches writhing in the flames delivered a decent payoff to that particular bit of sexploitation. And like Chris, I was pleased with the way the show introduced Daario Naharis, who seems more than ready to step right into the role of Knight Protector With Benefits that poor pining Jorah Mormont so obviously wants to fill. In the books, he's an orientalized dandy; here he's more a surfer-cool stud (go read Andy Greenwald's Grantland recap for a riff on this theme), which makes him seem a more plausible object for a lonely queen's affections. And since I've spent so much time complaining about the show's exploitative bent, let me conclude by praising for the way the show used Daenerys's nudity in her encounter with Daario. After having her naked all the time in Season One (when she was an object for her brother and Drogo) and not at all in Season Two (when she was trying to come into her own as an independent force), her willingness to stand up from the bath and expose herself to the mercenary while demanding his loyalty felt like an important gesture—a sign that she's willing to re-embrace her sexuality, and to try to combine pleasure with power (and seal the latter with the former) for the first time since Drogo's death.

That's all from here—now I'm off to drop some leeches in the fire ...

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