At this point, both George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and the HBO series Game of Thrones are cultural juggernauts, something more than a little unusual for a line of books the size of industrial batteries. The first season was a hit, the second was even hittier, and if the network ever decides to open HBOGO to non-cable subscribers the show’s non-pirated viewership will soar to the stratosphere (over 4 million watched the last episode, “Valar Morghulis”, which is double the number of people who watched the Battlestar Galactica finale). It doesn’t take a brainiac to see that series creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have something huge on their hands.
Season Two was not perfect by any means. Though there were many strong moments throughout, event-wise it was more than a little bottom-heavy. That finale, in particular, tried to cram way too much into one hour (seriously, half this list comes from that one episode), and it’s starting to seem like even a ten episode season of television isn’t quite enough to translate Martin’s mammoth story to the screen. The fact that the third book will be spread over two seasons should give us hope that the production team will have enough time to let things breathe properly. But this show is undoubtedly flying high and when it works produces not just a satisfying interpretation of Martin’s books but a uniquely compelling drama in its own right. Just like we pointed out the hits of the first season, here are some of the most memorable moments of the second. No joke: this list proved surprisingly hard to winnow down to ten, so if your favorite character got left out please feel free to vent your spleen in the comments. Rest assured Tywin’s horse taking a dump in the throne room totally would have been number 11. And obviously, here be huge, throbbing spoilers for all those who haven’t caught up yet and worry about such things.
10) Theon Awkwardly Fingers A Woman Who Turns Out to Be His Sister While Riding A Horse
Just kidding. Moving on.
10) Yoren Confronts the Goldcloaks
Game of Thrones is not a series with a badass shortage by any means, and before this season even began we had our pick of stone-cold shitkickers who could chop you in half without batting an eye. Added to the deck is Yoren, the man of the Night’s Watch who helps Arya out of the city after her father’s execution. In the show his role was expanded a little, as he became a temporary father figure for the displaced princess, giving her advice on how to hide and appear as a boy which mostly consisted of “cut your hair and pee in the woods”. Sounds about right. When the royal troops ride up (looking not for Arya but for the king’s bastard Gendry) it seems at first like all is lost, but Yoren manages to scare them off with a sharp knife and an awesome, Tarantino-esque speech about arteries. Of course, this being George R. R. Martin you just know that Yoren will bite it eventually, and he does, but this little standoff is enough to make us miss him. Arya would eventually get an even more BAMF guardian angel in the form of face-changing assassin and Spoony look-alike Jaqen H’ghar, so I guess we can consider that an upgrade.
9) Tyrion Tricks the Small Council
At this point, not only does everyone love Tyrion, everyone knows everyone loves Tyrion, including HBO, and with Sean Bean gone Peter Dinklage stepped up this season to top billing with much acclaim. This was more than just a promotion, of course. Tyrion played a larger role in the plot this time around, traveling to King’s Landing to serve as Hand in his father’s stead, and he might as well have been wearing a nametag that said “I Will Not Be Ned”. He certainly wasn’t, and his scheming mind made him the perfect creature for the backstabbing politics at court. Case in point: Tyrion’s brilliant plan to ferret out who is least reliable to keep information from Cersei. It’s the editing as much as the performances that sells this scene as the Imp tells Grandmaester Pycelle, Lord Varys and Littlefinger three different plans for marrying off Princess Myrcella, assuming that whichever one the queen hears will be the one told to the traitor. It’s handled incredibly deftly with a light touch, almost like something from a Game of Thrones musical (which is surely in the works, somewhere). Later, of course, Tyrion finds out that Pycelle is the culprit and gets to take it out on his beard. The smug old bastard eventually gets a chance to pay it back, sort of. By the way, I somehow made it all the way through both seasons before realizing that Pycelle is played by Julian Glover, famous for playing bad guys in The Last Crusade, Empire Strikes Back, For Your Eyes Only and Scaroth in the classic Doctor Who story “City of Death.” From a Bond villain to an old monk who loves prostitutes: there are worse career paths.
8) Jon Snow Fights Qhorin Halfhand
Jon’s story arc was a major casualty of this season’s short attention span, reduced to him wandering around north of the Wall and trying not to dry hump a mouthy ginger woman in the snow (actually, it’s not entirely clear what the Watch opinion is on dry humping…). But it came to a head in the last episode as Jon’s captured mentor Qhorin Halfhand finally flew at him in a fit of rage. Jon is normally not without some honor but he’s unable to stop himself and runs the older man through (Qhorin’s matter-of-fact final words before collapsing are strangely poignant). Jon obviously feels conflicted, but an upside to this is that Rattleshirt and his men decide they can trust this “crow” and free him from his bonds so he can meet Mance Rayder, a former man of the Night’s Watch who has since gone rogue as the King Beyond the Wall. The savagery is palpable, and I for one am so glad they filmed on location in Iceland, though the crew probably wasn’t.
7) Birth of the Shadow
GRRM has been very vocal about his opinion of magic in fantasy fiction: it’s generally overused and too easy to acquire. I couldn’t agree more. In the Seven Kingdoms (and beyond), sorcery generally comes at a high price and is looked on with fear and skepticism by most (not unlike the way it is in our world, actually). The scarily devout Red Witch Melisandre is able to produce an evil shadow assassin, for example, but only after having what has to be uncomfortable sex with Stannis Baratheon on his gaming table, and then apparently going through the amount of labor involved in normal birth, if not more (when she teases Davos by saying “I bet you want to see what’s under this robe,” she neglects to add, “because it’s an evil magical being that will kill your king’s brother”). It’s true that the second half of this season doesn’t quite make magic seem so difficult, but I think we get the general message that being a mage here will deeply fuck you up. All this to take out Stannis’ brother Renly, who, in this series, is a tormented, closet homosexual. This adds some interesting dimensions to his character, and it’s kind of too bad he had to die, depriving all those who craved it more scenes of hot Loras-on-Renly action. Oh well.
6) Riot at King’s Landing/The Hound Rescues Sansa
This sequence was something of a whirlwind, but a thrilling one, and in an environment so planned and meticulously constructed as Game of Thrones‘ sets must be, it’s probably very difficult to stage events that feels even slightly spontaneous. Somehow, they pulled it off. We already knew that Cersei’s eldest son is a total fuckstick but here we get confirmation that the common people do, too, throwing shit at him and starting a riot. Sandor Clegane, the Hound of the King, typically acts like a medieval Terminator, dancing to Joffery’s tune and offing people mercilessly, but he’s not an idiot and he has a particular soft spot for Sansa, stepping in here when the boy king is willing to leave her for dead. Hell, he doesn’t just “step in”; he eviscerates a would-be rapist with a flick of his hand before killing two others. As usual, actions speak louder than words. To top it all off, we get more Jofferyslapping, quickly becoming the favorite pastime of all us rabid fans. I’m starting to wonder if Jack Gleeson’s audition consisted of people hitting him repeatedly, and if so I feel a little bad for him, although at least he hasn’t had to do any nude scenes (Gods be good).
5) Brienne of Tarth Mourns Renly While Killing Three Men
Brienne of Tarth and Jamie Lannister: both are fan favorites, and both were left on the sidelines with precious little to do this season, the latter even moreso. But there were plenty of portents for what may be in store for these characters, and Brienne’s reaction to Renly’s murder stands out as a dramatic highlight. The adaptation generally does a respectable job of portraying Brienne, not shying away from her coldness or physicality but not making her a one-dimensional warrior woman either. For instance, after Melisandre’s shadow baby stabs Renly and dissipates, three of the king’s guards rush in, misunderstand what happened, and attack Brienne. Brienne instantly becomes a whirling dervish of death, as terrifying and effective a killer as anyone in Game of Thrones… and then drops to her knees to cradle her king’s lifeless body, letting a a wail of anguish that’s heartbreaking as it is heartbroken. Brienne later dispatches three misogynist scumbags while escorting the Kingslayer through the woods. “Those were Stark men,” Jaime points out, but the Maid of Tarth doesn’t serve sides, just people, and woe betide those who cross her no matter which side they’re on. The latter scene shows Brienne isn’t a mindless drone, but it’s the former scene that proves she’s a force to be reckoned with.
4) Sam Meets the White Walkers
Structurally, this season loosely attempted to follow last season in that the penultimate episode was reserved for a huge event while the finale raced around setting up cliffhangers for each of the principals. We just knew that we’d see something big and shocking and probably supernatural in the last shot, and we were not wrong, as roly poly Samwell was brought face-to-face with the mysterious ice zombie presence we’ve only glimpsed before. We get a good, long look here, and not only do we see zombie people and zombie horses but the shrieking, shriveled riders on those zombie horses, and even if they aren’t quite the elegant and beautiful creatures George described them as, this shot delivered the goods well enough. It didn’t have the organic feel of some of these other highlights but I’ll bite.
3) Everything Jaqen H’ghar Does
Call it a tie, call it cheating, but every single time you saw pronoun-challenged assassin Jaqen H’ghar show up on screen, you knew you were in for some awesomeness. What’s most notable is that you almost never Jaqen in action, just the results of his actions. Whether he’d hanging out calmly on the top of a wall having just pushed a torturer to his death, whether Tywin Lannister gets a knock on his door only to find a dead man standing there, or whether Arya and pals walk out of Harrenhal thanks to Jaqen having turned a ton of Lannister guards into very vigilant-looking corpses, the man got things done, and when I say “things” I mean “killing lots of people.” Changing his appearance in front of Arya in episode 10 — a special skill of the Braavosi assassins called the Faceless Men — is just the icing on the cake. Jaqen H’ghar is as badass and beloved as Syrio Forel was in season one, and that’s saying something. Although they are both from Braavos. And both are fond of Arya. And Jaqen can change his face, and we didn’t actually see Syrio die… huh…
Much like her arc in the previous season, Dany spent much of this one slowly losing everything that was important to her, only to take it back with one dramatic sweep. After being welcomed into the city of Qarth (which is specifically not pronounced the way it looks), the Mother of Dragons went from distrusted outsider to protected guest to disgraced captive rather quickly. Faster than you can say “infodump”, the scrawny warlock Pyat Pree and “king of Qarth” Xaro Xhoan Daxos teamed up to kill the rest of the Thirteen and hide Daenerys’ pets. Not one to let these things slide, Dany ventures into the House of the Undying herself and sees many wondrous and seductive sights, specifically an image of Khal Drogo with their unborn son, Rhaego. A change from the source text, Drogo’s appearance seems to have been a slight bit of fan service, but it worked emotionally and communicated the gist of the scene, which is what Daenerys has to give up to be a ruler. Finally she discovers Pree, and we at last get to see those dragons of hers go to work, thanks to one simple command. After that, Ol’ Stormborn starts kicking major ass, punishing Xaro and the treacherous handmaiden Doreah and raiding the rich guy’s quarters, who happens to have more than enough treasure to buy a ship…
1) Wildfire in Action
Part of me wanted to put “the entirety of ‘Blackwater'” but that’s more cheating than I’m comfortable with. Seriously, though, as a piece of television that episode was fantastic, and the siege scenes, which were (as we were told many times) ridiculously expensive and demanding to produce, turned out quite well. Once again, the editing of these sequences was masterful, and it never let the spectacle get too overwhelming (it’s also always budget-friendly to stage a battle scene at night, I’m sure). The big surprise was that, despite all the hype given to the special effects, we had so many great character beats amid the bloodshed, from Cersei getting sloshed and talking about vaginas with Sansa to the Hound finally saying what many of us wish we could to Joffery without having our heads spiked. It was exciting, involving, and (for this series) extraordinarily focused.
But let’s talk about this one part in particular, the moment all the tension from the pre-battle buildup throughout this season finally broke. Stannis’ fleet approaches, and Tyrion (with Bronn and the pyromancer’s help) goes forward with his cunning plan. Yes, it’s different here from the more strategic way it’s handled in the book, but it’s still devastating to see the green flames rip through all those ships like they were nothing. Of course, this doesn’t win the war for the Lannisters alone, but it’s their first big blow and it sends poor Davos overboard (how the series decides to handle him in the oncoming seasons we will have to see). Though Tyrion won’t be recorded as a hero for his tactics, Varys assures him later that he’ll be remembered by the people, probably for his hilariously frank pep talk if nothing else. I guess it pays to have the creator of the franchise you’re adapting on hand to do his own teleplays.