Watching the second season of my guilty pleasure, George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones: Season Two in high definition, I’m struck by the way that Martin’s story brings the family dynamics into absolute focus, and presents us with a graphic tale of power and the way it destroys all those who attempt to hold onto it too tight. While this complex, interwoven tale of vying kingdoms, powerful political voices, and war won’t be for everyone, it certainly presents a warning to those who think it is better to be feared than loved.
For those who need the quick recap (although I certainly advise returning to the first season and watching from the beginning), the story picks up after the death of several key “glue” characters die in the first season and the remaining lesser rulers vie for control of the kingdoms that remain. The key families are the Lannisters and the Starks, one initially painted as “evil” and the other “good,” but with all of Martin’s characters, you’ll see it’s not quite so clear. All you need to know is that various characters represent different areas, and the elements vying for absolute control of Westeros.
Jumping into season two, the simple version looks like this: we see that the child king, the brutish and violent Joffrey, has been put in power by his mother Cersei and his grandfather Twyin, while his wise uncle, Tyrion Lannister (played by the dwarf Peter Linklage) tries to keep him from being too brutish with his betrothed captive Sansa Stark and the kingdom he rules. Meanwhile, the other Starks try to recoup after the tragic execution that ended the first season, while the Winterfell property is headed by the crippled son Bran and the remainder of the Stark army is headed by Robb and his mother, Catelyn. The outcast bastard son of Stark Jon Snow rides in the wilderness on the “other” side of the Wall, while the traitorous Theon Greyjoy and the hiding-in-plainsight Arya Stark live out their own versions of finding their place in the midst of exile. The banished Daenerys Targaryen travels in Esteros with her baby dragons, moving not on peripherally to the action on the mainland but also to the corners of this season.
From a cinematic perspective, this season moves to being more chatty and less action-oriented than the first. There is an interesting dynamic that finds rhetoric and theology juxtaposed: Stannis Baratheon (a relative king in between in the Starks and the Lannisters) is seduced by the power of the priestess Melisandre, who represents the dark arts, while Cersei berates Sansa Stark for her belief in prayer, even praying for those who are her enemies. Greyjoy flounders around with any religious element anyone brings to him that might be worth grasping onto; Tyrion believes only in what he can see and grasp on his own. This is a theological debate about what is real and what is imaginary, what is worth grasping and what is a mere flitting fancy.
But all of these kings, would-be kings, and princes struggle with what it means to take power, and what it takes to hold onto it. We see the love that Tyrion has for the prostitute Shea, yet he knows the importance of deals and political struggles; he has an idea about who he is and he lives it out. Greyjoy doesn’t know who he is but he’s so deep into his pretending that he refuses to switch course in midstream. Joffrey has no idea how to be king but his nature is cruel so he abuses those who are too weak to speak for themselves, and yet when true danger presents itself, he runs behind his mother. Women can either be masculine and cruel (Cersei, Arya), or they can attempt to quietly impact the community in their own way (Catelyn, Sansa, Daenerys). But for each of the individuals who grasps power cruelly for themselves, they find that when they are deposed, so is their power, and no one is left to speak for them when they fall.
And yet, those who choose kindness, however small, find it repaid. Snow is spared death because his heart would not allow him to murder a captured and defenseless enemy. Tyrion, in his own way, spares others injustice and finds that kindness repaid when he’s weak. Sansa, a bit naive, refuses to allow the actions that negatively beat her around to fully bring her down to their level, try as the Lannisters might to break her spirit.
In the end, two “books” in, we see that the war and sex are often used for conquest, but those who rise above the situations, who survive near death and apparent absolute defeat, are those who hold onto hope and never give up. It’s a sprawling, terrible parable that reflects life as we know it, and asks us what we’d hold onto, what we would fight for, and what we would know to be true even when the whole world is falling around us.