Whether you ask the president of the Seinfeld fan club or a wahoo in the cheap seats of a Kansas City Royals game, you’ll get the same answer: It’s hard to root for nothing. Still, a great deal of the second season of Game of Thrones has seemed intent on trying to convince us otherwise. Rather that settling on the viewpoint of a central, sympathetic hero — we lost that privilege when Ned’s neck got nicked — the show has instead done something radical, giving us multiple main characters and, in the process, cursing us with the gift of perspective. Not only are we privy to the hidden fears and failings of ostensibly rotten players like Tywin and Cersei Lannister — thus humanizing their otherwise unconscionable behavior — showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss are also dead set on demonstrating the fatal cost of nearly every action taken by the people we actually do like. Arya is easy to love when she’s a Muppet-eyed charity case, a step away from having a rodent bucket strapped to her scrawny chest or, worse, forced to listen to her chubby pal’s pie-in-the-sky palaver about dessert. But it’s another thing entirely after we’ve seen her walk untroubled through the hanging corpses she’s indirectly responsible for, the bodies of ignorant innocents swinging in the breeze like steers in a meat locker. George R.R. Martin no doubt takes pride in his calloused version of epic storytelling, ripe with ambiguity and laced with more bluster about moral equivalency than a freshman seminar on colonialism. But TV, while a newer medium, is decidedly more old-fashioned than prose. We don’t necessary need a stake in every fight, but a twig wouldn’t hurt. Cheering for futility only works in Cleveland. No matter how laudable it may be to remind us of the pointlessness of life in Westeros, after a while it begins to numb. There’s nothing particularly innovative about nihilism. (This guy knows what I’m talking about.)
With that in mind, I found “The Prince of Winterfell” to be quite a relief, a smuggled satchel of onions for a starving man. It was a relatively quiet hour, at least by Game of Thrones standards: no savage disembowelments, no dark, murderous queefs. But unlike last week’s equally placid installment, this one was gilded with numerous character moments as rich as Ducksauce and shot through with a delicious foreboding. Something far worse than winter is coming, and, like Stannis’s artfully (and budget-consciously) cloaked fleet, it could arrive at any moment. But it wasn’t just the calm before the storming of King’s Landing that impressed. “Winterfell” at long last devoted ample time to the tattered remains of nobility in Westeros. Not necessarily the behavior of the high-born — the sort who, as Talisa explains, have their slaves tattooed with images of their work so as to remove any need to hear them speak (this idea actually has some real-world potential, although my wife isn’t thrilled about the design I had sketched out of me watching The Walking Dead with my head in my hands) — but those like Robb Stark who “still believe in justice.” And those who, in place of starting wars or expanding domains, just want to go home.
This was a week to celebrate the few dogged strivers still stumbling around a continent that’s starting to seem more and more like one of Tyrion’s old cisterns. Up north, Jon Snow has been taught an icy lesson in the perils of flip-flopping. The bone-coated Wildling hunting party — fashion by Dead Hardy — want their prisoner buried, but Ygritte intervenes, arguing that the only person more interested in Jon’s body than she is Mance Rayder. Poor Jon looks absolutely bewildered over everything that’s happening to him, although that could just be frostbite (seriously, dudes: Get some hats). Then Halfhand wholeheartedly pushes our favorite bastard down a hill, encouraging him to transition from crow into mole. I’d like to think that Sam will rescue his pal sometime soon, but he’s busy enough now that he’s uncovered another Dharma hatch. (Forget the dragonglass and start digging! There’s hot food, hot showers, and an even hotter Scotsman just below the surface!) Jon appears closer to getting some answers out, but the questions keep taking him further and further in the wrong direction.
Brienne and Davos are also worth cheering for, if only because their stalwart, borderline insane morality preserves their dignity even if they keep finding themselves on the wrong sides of conflicts. Pairing the humorless, stoic Brienne with the Kingslayer, a man whose nonstop blasts of banter could melt the walls of Harrenhal, is an inspired choice — although there must be better ways to get to King’s Landing than rowboat. “All my life men like you have been sneering at me,” Brienne huffs. “And all my life I’ve been knocking men like you into the dust.” The strength of Coster-Waldau’s performance is that he captures the grim heart hiding behind Jaime Lannister’s glib tongue. Only a man disgusted with himself could laugh so relentlessly at others. (His chosen insult did make me wonder if the Seven Kingdoms have any sort of burgeoning animal-rights movement. First Ygritte suggests that the Night’s Watch has a thing for sheep and now Jaime asks after Brienne’s relationship with horses. No wonder Jon’s direwolf ran away!) As for Davos, his humble devotion to Stannis was finally cast in a logical light, as the world’s least interesting Baratheon flashed some justified resentment and anger over his decades of disrespect. (Don’t worry, Jaime: After Stannis’s experiences in a siege, he’s as interested in eating cats as he is in sleeping with them.) He, too, has a thirst for justice, but unlike Robb’s, it seems to be curdled by a seething sense of entitlement. Ned Stark’s vision of fairness involved accepting the hand you were dealt, even if that hand was holding an executioner’s blade. It seems as if Stannis’s anger will unseat him long before he has the chance to do the same to Joffrey.
Perhaps the purest vision of morality belongs to Jaqen, a homicidal fruitcake so divorced from the quotidian demands of reality that he speaks of himself in the third person, as if his life were a not particularly notable soccer match. But he takes his position extremely seriously: Despite what he says, he’s not “a man” as much as an ambulatory, dart-dealing scale of justice balancing the game by wiping errant pieces off the board. “Death is certain,” he muses, “the time is not.” He’s opaque and unshakable — except when he encounters someone willing to bend the rules, like Arya. Her gambit of trading Jaqen’s potential suicide for her own escape was smart, but not nearly as smart as the realization that she’s better off alive than she is risking her neck with a last-minute assassination attempt on Tywin Lannister. He, too, after all, is just a man. And there are plenty more ready and eager to take his place.
With her quick-thinking, expert manipulation and lack of patience with the gross appetites of others — even if those appetites are for relatively harmless things like cherry pie (these guys know what I’m taking about) — Arya once again reminded me of Tyrion. Whether he was defending the honor of his little worm or the life of his secret whore, Peter Dinklage was assembling clips for his Emmy reel last night, particularly in his scenes with the truly excellent Lena Headey. Tyrion’s sad, shaggy face skated a delicate line between the joy of playing the game and the terrifying horror of being played. But ultimately what makes Tyrion one of the few things on-screen resembling a hero isn’t his commitment to justice, it’s his outsize well of kindness. Despite his own father’s pronouncements about bravery, Tyrion is smart enough to be afraid and has been his entire life. He and Varys make for a logical partnership because both recognize that the faraway threat of baby dragons, and an even less mature Queen, is a problem for another day and, perhaps, another war. But Tyrion alone recognizes that while Stannis may have ships and Robb Stark may have emotion, there’s one thing that King’s Landing manufactures in quantities unseen anywhere else on the continent: bullshit. (Or at least pigshit.) Only a misshapen man like Tyrion with a similarly ludicrous twist in his personal fortunes could think to turn waste into a weapon.
Theon, of course, suffers from the opposite problem: He has no idea who he truly is. But what’s worse, everyone around him has had him pegged from the beginning. Yara, Luwin, even stupidly vicious Finchy — they all know what a joke the self-proclaimed Lord of Winterfell truly is, but none of them is laughing. Their disdain coupled with Theon’s desperate desire to be parented is a toxic combination. Has a single decision he’s made truly been his own? (Other than the one defying his suddenly soft sister’s entreaty for him not to stay behind and die, that is.) Poor, blinkered Theon shifted slightly last night from loathsome to pitiable. The Stark boys might not be dead — seriously, was anyone fooled by the crispy doppelgangers? — but Theon surely will be soon enough.
The weakness of his former quasi-brother only added majesty to Robb’s story this week. Nearly the entire season has taken place between battles, leaving the would-be king in the North with little to do aside from clapping bannermen on the back and teaching his direwolf how to retrieve the morning raven without devouring it. But it turns out the eldest Stark’s humble decency is what Game of Thrones has been lacking of late, a calm and reasonable reminder than not every character on this show is a venal backstabber (or neck-hacker, depending). Robb’s journey was just what the doctor ordered — Dr. Freud, that is. A windy, strollus interruptus in search of nuts with Talisa the Naughty Nurse ends with news that Jaime Lannister has escaped again, but this time the culprit isn’t an overeager squire with an overly bashable face: it’s Cat Stark, the AT&T of Northern Nobility. While Jon Snow tried to mature by keeping his Valerian steel sheathed, Robb hits the psychological jackpot by arresting his mother and then further burning the bridges of his past by sampling Talisa’s bedside manner. Oona Castilla Chaplin makes for an excellent little tramp, and it was nice to see people get what they want for once, even if what they wanted was hidden behind a ridiculous amount of strings, clasps, and buckles. (It was also nice to hear a five-minute monologue end with something other than soul-murdering devastation and depression. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one waiting for the second part of Talisa’s tale, in which her baby brother came back to life only to murder his fishy savior for serving him a rotten carp.)
In ways large and small, Martin seems devoted to demonstrating all the ways his various would-be emperors have no clothes. But for the sake of simple fandom, it was important to see Robb given a chance to get naked on his own terms. He, like an audience expected to tune in for the better part of a decade, deserves a little something-something now and again. But I know better than to expect more. When Talisa asked Robb what sort of king he wanted to be, his response was typically modest: “I don’t know. The good kind.” Both answers seem like the wrong ones in a show like Game of Thrones, where the best players are three steps ahead of everyone else and, when circumstances demand it, are able to unshackle their ethics like so much chain mail. Robb’s disarming reply warmed my heart. Which makes me fear for the future of his.
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!