War has gripped the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. As Robb Stark, the King in the North, leads his armies into the Lannister homelands, so Renly Baratheon leads a vast host out of the Reach, planning to take King's Landing and depose the boy-king Joffrey. A new player has also entered the game, with Renly's older brother Stannis claiming the Iron Throne and gathering allies to his banner. As the Seven Kingdoms slip into chaos, the Night's Watch mounts a large expedition into the lands north of the Wall, investigating reports of wildling forces gathering and White Walkers on the march. Thousands of miles to the east, Daenerys Targaryen and her newly-hatched dragons seek refuge in the fabled city of Qarth, but there finds betrayal and deceit waiting for her.
The second season of Game of Thrones picks up where the first season ends and - somewhat loosely in places - follows the events of the second novel in the Song of Ice and Fire series, A Clash of Kings. For those who enjoyed the first season, it is possible to thoroughly (but not unreservedly) recommend the second. The standards of acting, set design and production values remain stunningly high. The original castmembers continue to do superlative work (it seems redundant to say it, but Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister is fantastic throughout) and the new additions make an immediate impact. Most impressive is the addition of Stephen Dillane as Stannis Baratheon. If George R.R. Martin wrote A Song of Ice and Fire to be unfilmable, he wrote Stannis to be uncastable: an uninspiring martinet who nevertheless commands loyalty. Dillane knocks a tricky role out of the park and nails the character from the novels brilliantly.
Most of the other new castmembers are also impressive: Liam Cunningham makes for a likable Davos Seaworth, Natalie Dormer brings her Tudors-honed skills of political conniving to the role of Margaery Tyrell and Oona Chaplin makes a good fist of a somewhat cliched character with Talisa (more on her later). Even the minor roles are compelling: Tom Wlaschiha's Jaqen H'ghar, Patrick Malahide's Balon Greyjoy, Michael McElhatton's Roose Bolton and Simon Armstrong's Qhorin Halfhand are all superbly-played, with the actors getting across their characters' personalities in just a handful of scenes apiece.
Production wise, the show has stepped up in the second season. CGI is more plentiful and more artfully employed, with some excellent establishing shots (one of Harrenhal towards the end of the season is particularly evocative) and some great shots of the direwolves (now real wolves matted into the shots and enhanced) and dragons. That said, the show continues to be inexplicably reluctant to have shots of marching armies, continuing the first season's fine tradition of showing us twenty extras and claiming there's another 99,980 blokes just standing out of shot, which is more than a bit unconvincing.
The second season does have some issues, however. The pacing and tightness of the story feels off compared to the first season. Some of this is because of the source material: A Clash of Kings is less well-structured and focused than A Game of Thrones. However, the TV series does increase these problems beyond those of the book. In the novel the absence of Eddard Stark as a central protagonist is somewhat alleviated by Tyrion Lannister taking on this role. Whilst Tyrion does step up to the plate in the second season, a lot of his scenes and subplots (such as the infamous chain sequence and the build-up to it) have been eliminated, reducing his role considerably. Whilst understandable from a production standpoint, it does make the second season feel a bit more aimless and disjointed than the first.
A core criticism from some quarters revolves around the second season's faithfulness to the book. In fact, some of the changes for the second season were necessary. The chain storyline would have added layers of complexity, time and expense to the Battle of the Blackwater that were best avoided, painful as it was to lose them. The much-criticised relationship between Robb and Talisa is actually a change for the better, in my view (note: I appear to be the only person on Earth to think this). Having Robb disappear for a whole season and reappear with a new wife out of nowhere would have been nonsensical (the sort of thing you can do in a book but not in a visual medium) and following Robb's off-page story on the screen would have been fairly dull, forcing him to spend most of the season parked at one castle. The changes mean we get to know and (hopefully) feel some sympathy for Talisa rather than wondering what the heck was going on and why did Robb make such a silly decision.
Other changes also work. Keeping Tywin at Harrenhal for most of the season simplifies the tactical movement of the war (again, something you can do in the book with a map to hand which is harder to get across on TV) and allows for some excellent scenes between Charles Dance and Maisie Williams's Arya Stark. There's an interesting feeling of amiable menace in these scenes. Unfortunately, the writers over-use the idea a little with too many scenes saying the same thing, and under-play the idea of Arya reminding Tywin of a young Cersei, which could have been milked further (this idea should horrify Arya, but she doesn't really react to it).
Other changes are much less successful. Having cast the excellent Simon Armstrong as Qhorin Halfhand, it's then a monumental waste to change the climax of his story in the novels (an iconic moment which ranks amongst many readers' favourite scenes of the entire series) to something more confusing and less well-motivated. Non-readers will find the scene a bit off, but for readers the knowledge it could have been far superior by simply sticking to the page is extremely frustrating, especially as what we get instead (Jon Snow running around in some snow for two whole episodes in a row) is so inane. The same is true of Daenerys's storyline, which is even more inexplicable. The decision to bulk out the Qarth storyline with the addition of a political thriller storyline is actually a good one, but is completely wasted because between the 'twist' (Dany's dragons being kidnapped) and its resolution (in the House of the Undying) we only get a couple of scenes of Dany looking worried and talking with Jorah Mormont. It would have been better to have cut out the interminable Red Waste scenes at the start of the season, gotten her to Qarth faster and given this storyline more depth. Instead, what we get is notably inferior to the novel (alleviated by some excellent visual imagery in the changed House of the Undying sequence) which, given this storyline's slightness in the book, is an impressive achievement.
The season overall, is less compelling than the first. The storyline is more fragmented and, in some cases, the changes from the TV series result in scenes far less powerful and impressive than what is in the novel. I am certainly not a book purist and welcome changes which improve the telling of the story in a dramatic medium, but in many cases the TV series adopts a course which is less interesting, less impressive and less resonant than the books. However, it is notable that the most successful storylines this season - Theon's, Tyrion's and the beginnings of the Brienne/Jaime relationship - are the ones that hew closest to the novels.
The season does make amends for its many faults with the ninth episode, Blackwater. For the second season in a row it's George R.R. Martin's episode which is the stand-out of the season, an epic battle sequence lasting almost the whole episode but also featuring some sublime character development alongside the arrows and wildfire explosions (Cersei, Sansa and the Hound getting more development in this one episode alone than the previous eighteen episodes of the series combined). Absolutely brilliant stuff that restores the faith that, when it pulls itself together, Game of Thrones can stand alongside HBO's best dramas in quality. It just needs to do so more consistently.
The second season of Game of Thrones (overall: ***½) has finished airing but should be available on DVD in February or March of 2013. Season 3 will commence airing on 31 March 2013.
201: The North Remembers (****)
202: The Night Lands (***)
203: What is Dead May Never Die (***½)
204: Garden of Bones (***½)
205: The Ghost of Harrenhal (***½)
206: The Old Gods and the New (***)
207: A Man Without Honour (***½)
208: The Prince of Winterfell (****)
209: Blackwater (*****)
210: Valar Morghulis (****½)