By a lot of conventional yardsticks, the second season of Game of Thrones is less successful than its first. It lacks the commanding, gravitational figure of Ned Stark at its center, and the strong throughline of his investigation into the death of his predecessor as Hand of the King and the maiming of his son. It's a more diffuse narrative, flitting between an ever-increasing number of locations and characters, and not properly a story at all. Most of the season is spent laying the groundwork for a single battle in a war in which no side has a particularly strong claim on the audience's sympathies, and that battle turns out to be not only far from decisive, but perhaps not even very important in the grand scheme of things. And yet it can't be denied that the second season of Game of Thrones is better and more engaging than the first, that over the course of its ten episodes the pull of its narrative, of the various clans warring for control of Westeros and the two forces massing against it in the East and the North, only grows stronger. That as each episode, and finally the season finale, roll their credits one is increasingly consumed by the desire to know what happens next.
It's that impulse, I think, that is at the heart of Game of Thrones's success, and whose wholehearted embrace in its second season is the main reason that it outstrips its first. I had an inkling of this already when I read the first book in George R.R. Martin's series, A Game of Thrones. I disliked the book and was glad to see the end of it, but still when I turned the last page I felt a flicker of the desire to read the next book all the same--not because I thought Martin's prose or his characters would improve on me, but simply to know what was going to happen. It's a soap opera impulse, a craving for pure, continuous narrative whose purpose is less to arrive at a single, fixed endpoint as it is simply to keep going. This is not to say that Game of Thrones is a soap in the vein of Heroes, distracting viewers from the paucity of its story by delivering a constant barrage of twists and revelations. On the contrary, the show is actually at its worst when it attempts these sorts of narrative tricks, handling them in a surprisingly ham-handed fashion--the "discovery," at the end of "The Prince of Winterfell," that the two corpses presented at the end of the previous episode, "A Man Without Honor," are not those of the two youngest Stark brothers, which the audience will surely have assumed anyway; the way that "Blackwater" ends with the question of whether Sansa Stark will accept the deserting Sandor Clegane's offer of escape from King's Landing under his protection, then resolves it in the most anticlimactic fashion in the next episode by cutting to her in the middle of a scene with a completely different topic to show that she hasn't left; worst of all, the way the season finale, "Valar Morghulis," seems to imply that the castle of Winterfell was sacked by twenty fleeing men while a liberating army of 500 stood outside and watched, but which, when one reads about the events of the books, turns out to have been intended as a cliffhanger for next season, which will resolve the mystery of who sacked Winterfell--a mystery so poorly established that most people watching the show without prior knowledge will not even be aware that it exists.
Game of Thrones's soap storylines work when they proceed logically and obviously from what came before, like a train track being laid down one tie after another. Arguably the most stunning moment of the series, the execution of Ned Stark, is after all effective precisely because it proceeds so logically from what came before it--from Ned's naivete, from the viciousness and desperation of those arrayed against him, and from the sadism of the boy-king Joffrey, who holds Ned's life in his hands. It's precisely the absence of a surprising, last-minute twist that makes this moment so powerful, allowing it to establish the kind of story that Game of Thrones is telling and the kind of world it is set in--one in which what happens next is interesting not so much because it is surprising, but because there are so many players and moving pieces in the system that, for all that each individual interaction usually proceeds along predictable lines, the cumulative effect is chaotic.
If you approach Game of Thrones as the story of the Starks and their travails, or the story of the war for the Iron Throne, or even the story of how Westeros was attacked by zombies, a lot of it seems baggy and beside the point. What the first season of the show suggested, however, and the second has cemented, is that Game of Thrones is actually the story of its world, in which all of these stories, and many others, are happening. By its nature, this is a story without purpose or end, one that can only diffuse rather than converge, which is why the second season often feels like a collection of digressions--Theon's betrayal or Robb and his conquest of Winterfell, Arya's stay at Harrenhall and encounter with the assassin Jaqen H'ghar, Catelyn's decision to send Brienne with Jamie to King's Landing and trade him for Arya and Sansa. (This, by the way, is the reason that Jon and Daenerys's storylines
this season fall so flat--because neither of these characters are
suited to soap opera storytelling. The deposed princess who has great
power and the nameless orphan who might the world's last hope belong in
purposeful stories with a definite endpoint--the kind that Game of Thrones
can't, or at least can't yet, give them.) When those digressions work,
they are worthwhile in their own right--if Game of Thrones is a train
ride, it's one best enjoyed for the scenery, not the destination--but
the cumulative effect of watching the series not because one hopes to
reach an ending, but simply to find out what happens next, is that the
entire exercise can start to seem a little weightless. Yes, season two
was very exciting and engaging while we were watching it, but looking
back, how much actually happened in it, and how much of that was
One way of counteracting this weightlessness is to use the show's many diverging and proliferating storylines to illustrate and elaborate its central themes--the corrupting influence of power, the inherent unfairness of a system that gives one group of people absolute power over another, against which the relative benevolence of one or another ruler is insignificant, and the cruel exploitation of women, in particular, in these kinds of hereditary patriarchies. These are all themes that Game of Thrones hits repeatedly, but by the end of the second season that repetition reveals an uncomfortable truth--that the show doesn't really have much to say about any of these, actually quite self-evident, topics. After a while, the constant barrage of examples of how it sucks to be a peasant, or a women, or a woman who is a peasant, in a feudal patriarchy, starts to seem less like driving home a point and more like misery porn (which, on this show, is often indistinguishable from regular porn). The solution would be to focus the show's stories on its disadvantaged and disenfranchised characters, to make them people rather than receptacles for abuse and humiliation, but even when Game of Thrones gestures in this direction, it holds back. In "The Old Gods and the New," there are two scenes in which child characters are gently rebuked for taking the loyalty of their servants, even under extreme circumstances, for granted. When Theon takes Winterfell, Bran is shocked that the servant Osha offers Theon her service, despite the fact that Osha is a Wildling who only a few months ago was brought to Winterfell in chains by Bran's brother. When Sansa exclaims to her handmaiden Shae that she hates Joffrey, Shae cautions her never to assume that a servant can be trusted implicitly. But both servants do turn out to be loyal, to a self-sacrificing degree. Osha is gaming Theon, and later prostitutes herself and risks her life in order to get Bran and his younger brother Rickon out of the captured Winterfell. Shae not only keeps Sansa's thoughts about Joffrey to herself, but later goes to great lengths and almost compromises herself trying to keep the secret that Sansa has begun menstruating and is eligible to marry Joffrey. For all that it keeps telling us that the game of thrones takes its heaviest toll on those who can't even play it, there is no instance of a servant or peasant character realizing this, or wondering why they should be expected to put themselves out, and even risk their lives, for the sake of the aristocratic main characters.
There's a similar schematic, dehumanizing impulse at work in the show's treatment of its female characters. Though the second season proliferates these considerably, they eventually come to seem like markers on a spectrum, talking points in an argument that Game of Thrones is having about femininity, rather than people in their own right. You've got women who step away from femininity entirely, like Brienne, Arya, and Yara; women who are outwardly feminine while rejecting the frivolous pursuits of those other, silly girls, like Talisa; women who, to varying degrees, take advantage of their sexuality in conjunction with other, less traditionally feminine skills, like Ygritte, Osha, Melisandre, and even Shae; and women who exist entirely in the feminine sphere, who operate and draw their power solely from their position as wives and mothers (or as potential wives and mothers). In theory, such a broad spectrum should be an opening for a wide-ranging and interesting discussion, but as this post argues, many of these characters have suffered a considerable loss of agency in the transition from page to screen that seems aimed at denigrating the last of these groups, and with it, "girly" femininity, without ever stopping to consider how problematic such an approach is. "Traditional" femininity's most prominent representative in the second season is the increasingly bitter and toxic Cersei, who spends the season's penultimate episode, "Blackwater," getting drunk and cracking jokes about how, if Stannis Baratheon's forces take King's Landing, the women hiding with her in the castle "will be in for a bit of a rape." Women like Catelyn, who stands as Cersei's opposite in almost every respect, most of all in drawing her power from an almost de-sexualized, matronly demeanor, and Margaery Tyrell, who is only beginning the process of shopping for a good marriage and might have made an interesting third on a triangle whose other points are Cersei and Sansa, are sidelined almost entirely, which results in a season that ends up dividing its female characters into good and bad women, based almost entirely on how feminine and/or sexualized they are.
The only character who escapes this fate is Sansa. It took me a while to embrace this, but Sansa has emerged as my favorite character of the season, and the only one whose story I felt interested in not because of what was happening in it but because of who it was happening to. My reticence was rooted in the fact that for a sizable portion of the season it seemed that Sansa's purpose on the show was to suffer beautifully. Her unattractive qualities from the first season--her childish selfishness, cowardice, and the wholehearted embrace of romantic fairy tales that leads her to ignore the grim reality of the family she's gleefully marrying into--are toned down considerably, and she's subjected to a host of abuses and humiliations--from being forced to view the severed head of her father by the boy who had it removed, to nearly being raped--which she endures with stoic equanimity. But after a few episodes I realized that I found Sansa not just pitiable, but interesting. One of the pitfalls of soap opera storytelling is that it flattens its character, who become compelling because of the things they do or that are done to them, not for their personalities, which remain static and obvious. Sansa, on the other hand, is a deliberately opaque character. Her life depends on seeming loyal and devoted to Joffrey, but for most of the season it's hard to tell where genuine devotion ends and performance begins. Is Sansa truly naive, holding on to the princess stories she grew up with in the belief that they reflect reality, or is she playing innocent in order to seem harmless? Is she consciously manipulating Joffrey, as when she persuades him not to kill a knight who has displeased him in the season premiere, or simply parroting ideas about courtly chivalry that happen to hit home? Is she truly taking in Cersei's poisonous ideas about what it is to be a woman, or inwardly rejecting them? Sansa's total commitment to the performance of docile, devoted femininity makes for a fascinating puzzle for the viewers, whose ultimate answer must be that she herself doesn't entirely know the answers. (Sophie Turner should be commended for committing to that performance as well, only rarely allowing us to see beneath its surface. It's a choice that makes for an unshowy--and at points almost unsympathetic--turn that might get her overlooked when the season's MVPs are tallied up, but she deserves kudos for her work.) It also goes some way towards redeeming the season's otherwise schematic treatment of female characters, who on a meta level seem almost to be putting on a pageant for Sansa's benefit, as the only female on the show who hasn't decided what kind of woman she wants to be.
Unfortunately, the same can't be said of Tyrion. Despite standing as the second season's closest equivalent to a lead character, Tyrion doesn't escape the flattening effect of soap opera storytelling. He ostensibly has an arc over the course of the season, proving himself a canny political operator as Hand of the King, developing a taste for politics, and spearheading the defense of King's Landing against Stannis's forces--only to have all his power snatched away by his father and sister when the danger has passed. The problem is that Game of Thrones is too in love with Tyrion, with his clever quips, sarcasm, and tendency to be the smartest guy in the room (not to mention his propensity for slapping the odious Joffrey). There's not so much an arc or a progression to Tyrion's political acumen as there is the establishment, already in the season premiere, that he is much smarter and more capable than all the people he's dealing with. His success feels like a forgone conclusion, which not only invalidates the idea of his having an arc, but makes the rest of the cast--particularly Tywin Lannister, who over the rest of the season is established as a shrewd person who doesn't suffer fools or incompetence--look stupid, both for discounting Tyrion before he becomes Hand, and for dismissing him after King's Landing is saved.
Of course, the reason that Tywin, Cersei, and so many others discount Tyrion is because he's a dwarf, but Game of Thrones's frustrating vagueness in depicting that prejudice undermines what should have been Tyrion's defining character arc--his discovery that all of the prejudices held against him are wrong, and that his realizing this doesn't make the people around him less likely to be prejudice against him. In the world of Game of Thrones, Tyrion's dwarfism should class him as an un-person, someone who is only allowed to participate in society because he was fortunate enough to have been born to a rich, powerful family. He should be subject to a constant barrage of abuse, both thoughtless and malicious, but instead almost everyone who meets Tyrion takes his condition entirely in stride. Compare that absence of overt prejudice to the way that Brienne is
casually humiliated by Stark soldiers in the season finale, even though
she's a knight and they're common soldiers, just for being a woman. Or
the way that no one on the show is able to say as much as two sentences
to or about Varys without making some scandalized, prurient reference to
his missing genitals. For a show whose depictions of misogyny and sexual violence are often
justified on the grounds of "realism," this unrealistic absence is
baffling, but even worse, it serves to neuter Tyrion's character. Without a lifetime of overt prejudice to explain Tyrion's self-loathing and feelings of inferiority, we're left with the simple fact that the smartest, most capable character on the show (who is also played by its most charismatic actor) is treated like trash by everyone around him--including characters who are supposed to be smart themselves--and is at best half-hearted in protest of this abuse. It's not convincing behavior, and it leaves Tyrion himself, and his slow growth towards greater self-esteem, feeling groundless.
Lacking either well-developed themes or--with the exception of Sansa--rounded characters, Game of Thrones falls into the pitfall of soap opera storytelling. It is enormously, addictively, compulsively watchable, but also easily set aside. Last night, when I finished watching the season finale, I wanted nothing more than for the story to continue. Tonight I'm less eager. Tomorrow I probably won't care. This isn't a fatal flaw, to be certain--next year, when the third season starts, I'll surely be caught up and compelled to watch yet again. But it's hard not to feel that Game of Thrones takes itself a little more seriously than is justified by the kind of story it's telling. This isn't high drama, or a meaningful statement about history, fantasy, or the space between them (or if it the latter, then the statement has been made and is now simply being repeated with minor variations). It's a story about beautiful, rich people squabbling over something that none of them deserve or could hold on to for very long, and no doubt setting themselves up for years--generations, maybe--of strife, betrayals, short-lived alliances, and strange bedfellows. In other words, a soap opera.