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,, 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.)

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