Game of Thrones, Season 2, Episode 2: ‘The Night Lands’

“I don’t imagine it’ll be a story fit for children,” the grim, Greta Gerwig-ish warrioress Yara Greyjoy declares, while being Littlefingered by her fancy brother on horseback. The savage babycide of last week certainly should have made that clear for the viewer and, if not, last night’s glimpse of male birth control measures beyond the wall was an unwelcome reminder: Game of Thrones is most certainly not suitable for all ages. But the dark “The Night Lands” made me consider Yara’s pronouncement in a different way. It’s not just that children shouldn’t watch this story. It’s that it’s incredibly hard to be someone’s child within the story as well. Parents in the Seven Kingdoms appear to be as cruel and capricious as kings. Worse, it’s a lifetime position.

Ned Stark was the only good father we’ve seen, and in return for his self-abasing attempt to protect his children last season, he ended up with his head on a pike. Now his orphans are scattered like so many action figures on Stannis’s Great Iron Sex Table. Arya is attempting to hide her second X chromosome by hanging out with the XXX vulgarians en route to the Night’s Watch, but I’m glad her bull-helmeted bastard buddy called her on it because, really, how could she be fooling anyone? Maisie Williams’s peepers are large and luminous enough to be worn as jewelery by that dandy Theon! She looks like she’s trying out for the role of Cosette in the world’s least sanitary production of Les Miserables! Anyway, after the commander chases some royal goons back to Crotch Landing by pointing a sword at their king (or the other way around), Gendry calls Arya on her reverse-Tootsie act. But when he finds out who she really is, he’s abashed. “All that about cocks, I should never have said it. I’ve been pissing in front of you and everything.” Flirtatious banter! (Fun fact: These same lines of dialogue were spoken by Katherine Heigl in 27 Dresses.) But it turns out Gendry’s parenting history is no less sad: His bar-wench mom passed on when he was a kid. And though the goons were after him, he has no idea that it’s because his father was the wine-drunk, boar-averse King Robert.

Combine these two twisted family trees and you get Jon Snow: His father was Ned Stark, but his mother is as mysterious as whatever huffing-and-puffing snow beast made off with Craster’s latest grandson/son. (Early guesses include a Yeti, a Minotaur, or a Nick Nolte.) With such a bad backstory it’s no wonder that Jon’s unable to act tough in the face of his buddy Sam’s puppy love for Gilly, one of Craster’s pregnant daughter/wives (played with toothy gravity by the great Skins veteran Hannah Murray). It’s Jon’s curiosity about what will happen to Gilly’s baby that leads him out of the camp (although, really, is it so hard to figure out?) and what earns him a concussion at the hands of his monstrous host at episode’s end.

Over on the Iron Islands — picture that on a holiday brochure! — Theon has an undressed party below the decks for the season’s first instance of pure sexposition, and then is promptly dressed down by his craggy would-be king of a father. He’s been gone nine years in the care/captivity of the Starks, and he doesn’t even get complimented on his well-groomed Vandyke, let alone a hug. Balon barely turns from his ornate octopus fireplace to greet his wayward son. Instead, he reintroduces Theon to his riding partner/sister (more multihyphenates on this show than on IMDB, amirite?) and announces, ironically, that it will be Yara leading the Iron ships into battle. Oh, and it seems like they’ll be taking their Kingdom back from the Starks directly, thank you very much, not helping them take King’s Landing. This is terribly rough for Theon and his dual loyalties (and for us, to be honest: Did his family know he was coming? Or were they really delaying their own battle plans for a little convenient comeuppance?). All parents disparage their kids’ fashion, but there aren’t many that allow their sons to almost screw their daughters before screwing them over so completely.

The only quasi-sweet parent-child relationship on display was over in Dragonstone, where Davos (the smuggler turned knight, not the global economic conference) tries to help his moon-faced son see beyond the fire-god worship that’s consumed him. Davos is a likable sort, and not only because he has cool pirate friends like Salladhor Saan, the first person of color to grace snow-white Westeros. (Salladhor is a man with simple dreams, including gold, glory, and having Queen Cersei walk his gangplank.) Davos seems devoted to Stannis — even though Stannis still seems more overwhelmed than deserving — but equally interested in teaching his son some hard-earned wisdom about the way the world works: A life can’t be saved by lighting a candle and whispering words. Sometimes more aggressive action is required. Davos is illiterate, but he can read a situation better than most. (Though it’s almost tragic that the best parenting we’ve seen comes from a man who was absent for most of his son’s life. No wonder the kid needs a higher power.) Stannis is childless (his sick wife is Rapunzeled away in a tower somewhere, apparently) but when his Wiccan consigliere offers her body instead of advice, he’s quick to take it: Everyone on the “safe” side of the wall is desperate for a son, but for all the wrong reasons.

So maybe it’s not a surprise that the smartest guy in the room is the one who no one wanted at all. Peter Dinklage is really taking Tyrion to an entirely different level this season, tempering the jokes with grace notes of patience and potent displays of soft power. He may be half his size, but he’s twice the player Ned Stark ever was, nimbly disarming both Lord Varys — whose social call was immediately understood as a friendly act of frontstabbing — and Lord Slynt, the suddenly former head of the City Watch. Tyrion’s scenes with Cersei were delightful, not only because Lena Headey has also kicked it into a far more interesting gear this season (how is it possible to feel this much sympathy for an incestuous, power-grabbing Lady Macbeth?), but because they reminded us of the great ocean of pain that lurks beneath his 24 Hour Party Person exterior. “You’ve always been funny,” Cersei mumurs, cruelly. “But none of your jokes will ever match the first one. Back when you ripped my mother open on your way out of her and she bled to death.” Motherless and blamed for it by his preening Aryan siblings, Tyrion was always going to be removed from normalcy. But his size seems to be something of a blessing: Not only does it give him a different point of view, but it gives him a different perspective altogether. Being blindly bound to family can be as fatal as pledging allegiance to the wrong king.

Acolytes of George R.R. Martin like to trumpet the ways in which their hero has subverted the typical genre expectations of fantasy, but a lot of the evidence tends to focus on the boinking and the bawdy language. Could it be that the most insidious of all Martin’s tweaks lies in upending the traditional primacy of family loyalty? Every sword-’n’-sorcery saga, from Tolkien to Camelot, is stuffed with page after page stressing the importance of bloodlines. Yet everyone always seems to end up bloody. Maybe Martin is suggesting that the only smart way to stay alive is either to be a bastard or to act like one.

Note on these recaps: I have not read the books and I have no intention to do so. My goal is to analyze and enjoy Game of Thrones strictly as a television show. So please, no spoilers or “I told you so”s in the comments, OK? OK!

Filed Under: Game of Thrones, HBO, Peter Dinklage, Recaps

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Andy Greenwald is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ andygreenwald