Normally the smell of old produce can be unpleasant, but I can't tell you how happy I was to see the Onion Knight again. And it wasn't merely because Ser Davos, the fingerless former right-hand man of Stannis, appears to have as much trouble reading books as you people think I do. No, the sight of Davos being freed from the Dragonstone dungeon warmed my heart and seasoned this entire excellent episode because it was a reminder of just how wonderful Game of Thrones can be when it digs in instead of spreading out.
I've judged the past two weeks harshly not because there wasn't enough action but because there was far too much of it: the camera whooshing from here to there and back again, like a three-eyed raven on a four-day coke binge. Believe me, I understand that the epic scope of this story demands multiple perspectives and myriad narrative threads. Even someone who hasn't read a word of George R.R. Martin's prose can be suitably stunned by the sheer size of the world he's created, the way small butterfly wings of culture, history, and pride beating on one continent can cause empires to fall on another. That Game of Thrones has a tendency to feel diffuse is more a byproduct of the medium than an indictment of the maestro; it's not easy taking a Hound-size plot and cramming it into Arya-size installments every week. Having too many wonderful characters to service is a good problem, one that other showrunners would walk through wildfire to experience. But it is a problem.
Happily, "Second Sons" was all solution. By limiting the scope of the episode to three of the most interesting settings, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss choreographed one of the finest hours of Game of Thrones to date. I loved nearly everything about the episode, from the delicate (and possibly a tad self-aware) overture in which Sandor Clegane, hideously scarred merchant of death, advised a little girl not to go around bashing people over the head to get a point across, to the twisty moral calculus on display in Dragonstone, King's Landing, and on the outskirts of Yunkai, math so murky it made Olenna Tyrell's new family tree seem as straightforward as a walking stick. ("Your brother will become your father-in-law, that much is beyond dispute," she tells her granddaughter. Forget it, Margaery! It's Chinatown.) Many critics point to "Blackwater" as the series high point, both for focus and execution (though when it comes to the latter I'm still partial to Ned Stark), but the artful "Second Sons" is equally impressive because all of its battles are internal. A great adaptation can capture the intensity, savagery, and scope of literary combat, but only a great TV show can make a bedroom conversation feel as dangerous as a world war.
Devoted and possibly a little dull, Liam Cunningham's Ser Davos might be a surprising choice for anybody's favorite character, but he's quickly becoming mine. Perhaps because I can relate — no, not to his illiteracy, but to his difficulty maintaining balance in a suddenly topsy-turvy world dominated by immortal deities and decidedly human monsters. Stannis may have a rightful claim to the throne, but he's no visionary, no matter what he claims to have seen in the flames. Instead he indulges in flights of fancy with Melisandre and then grounds himself by talking to Davos — it's the kingly equivalent of chasing espresso shots with NyQuil. "I think mothers and fathers made up the gods because they want their children to sleep through the night," is how Davos put it, plainly of course, just after Stannis gave him an earful about destiny and sacrifice and just before Melisandre demonstrates another magic trick involving her Shivering Sea. There's a way to see this three-person weave as a microcosm of a larger argument about gods vs. men and destiny vs. free will, but I think the only truth Game of Thrones is concerned with is the tough one Davos experienced firsthand. It ultimately didn't matter what the Onion Knight told his son or what he chose to believe. He died anyway.
About Melisandre: Do you think she used the same relaxation technique on all those lambs she claims to have slaughtered? For a while there I wasn't sure which of Gendry's bodily fluids she was after. When she hog-tied the bastard to the bedposts I was getting a distinct Basic Instinct vibe — though there's not really any need for ice picks south of the Wall — but instead things just started to suck. I don't care how kinky you are, no one wants a live leech anywhere near their flea bottom. But I loved the way Stannis's hypotheticals were ringing in my ears even as Gendry was writhing around on the bed: What's one bastard boy against a kingdom? I'm not sure what effect the bloody bug barbecue will have on the bearers of the three names Stannis uttered — Balon Greyjoy, Robb Stark, and Joffrey — but if it were to lead to a similar charred outcome for the latter I might just be OK with it.
It truly feels like end times at King's Landing, where the ruling classes are gathering in smaller and smaller halls to marry each other in increasingly unlikely and unasked-for combinations. It was all so decadent and incestuous. Did anyone else think Loras was going to pull a Mrs Dalloway and throw himself from that lovely and inviting ocean-view window? (I feel like all Tyrells would probably be big Virginia Woolf fans, while the Starks just really, really love wolves.) It seemed like a perfectly good opportunity for escape. But instead he was stabbed with one of Cersei's verbal daggers. I'm actually all for this marriage, because Game of Thrones is at its best when it throws unlikely characters together, but Loras isn't trained in the kind of jousting Cersei specializes in. ("Nobody cares what your father once told you," she says. Because all she cares about are the words coming out of the mouth of her own dastardly dad.) None of the Tyrells are, actually. Cersei's long walk with Margaery down the receiving line starts with some light banter about a pop song and ends with a promise of nocturnal murder. It's colder than anything north of the Wall, and further proof that when Tywin Lannister makes his daughter mad she gets even by acting just like him. There's an animal brutality in the way the Lannisters have just devoured the Tyrells, not because they were hungry but because they were in the way. After all, lions don't go out of their way to harm flowers. Lions don't even know flowers exist.
Oh, but one can't speak of lions and flowers without addressing Tyrion and Sansa's Worst Wedding Ever. "Second Sons" is what the newly introduced sell-swords in Essos call themselves, but a second son is what Tyrion is: an afterthought, a mistake, a joke. Peter Dinklage was incredible throughout all this awfulness. Playing drunk is hard enough (although it's becoming something of a specialty for him), but playing a character who is both himself playing drunk — the sloshed clown is an old act for Tyrion; it masks the sadness and disappointment as well as the occasional flaring of a treasonous temper — and actually hammered is another level of difficulty altogether. (Kudos, too, to Sophie Turner for conveying the resignation and disgust of a romantic princess forced to marry the frog.) Tyrion is a good guy, whatever that might mean in Westeros, constantly moving from one bad situation to another. He's now married to the most innocent and eligible heiress in the Seven Kingdoms, and for him it's an oath of celibacy equal to the one crows have to take up north. All respect to Davos and his bedtime stories, but wine is something man made up so adults could sleep through the night.
There's a futility to the choices on display in King's Landing that makes the Red God's insistence on destiny over free will seem like a relief. His is a full-bodied, active faith, one that puts a premium on bold, sometimes crazy-seeming behavior. All of the resurrections and blood sacrifices make the Westerosi power games — primarily based on the maintenance of troop levels and the making of corporeal, non-smoke babies — seem tame in comparison. The Red God hails from Essos, where the Unsullied are currently making camp. And while Daenerys's quest remains more or less secular, I can't help but wonder if some of the Lord of Light's decisiveness has rubbed off on her. I believe her character is meant to be roughly the same age as Sansa Stark, yet their life experiences couldn't be more different. Both were forced into unpromising marriages, but only one of them figured out how to take power along with a husband. Where Sansa remains more or less a prisoner, Daenerys has reinvented herself as the breaker of chains. And if stones won't harm the Hound, then the harsh words of a swaggering sell-sword definitely won't bruise the mother of dragons. Once you've eaten raw horse heart it's no big thing to eat a little crow.
And so we were introduced to our latest character and clearly the biggest threat yet to Jorah's harlequin fantasy version of the Retaking of Westeros. (Chapter 1: "Now that the Iron Throne is mine, all that I am lacking is a squinty bear to keep me company," breathed the Khaleesi … ) Daario Naharis is a total Surfer Bro. He claims he's from the Free Cities, but come on: This dude is from San Diego! "I'm the simplest man you'll ever meet" isn't something a warrior says; it's what the guy in the baja tells you before offering to take you to the best burrito shop in town. "I only do what I want to do," he tells Dany, between bites of "killer" guacamole. But, in this case, what he wanted to do was interrupt the Khaleesi while she was washing off the filthy talk of his former comrades and then win her loyalty — and one presumes, her body — by spoiling a little-loved Joe Pesci movie for her enjoyment. Gotta say, everything's coming up Dany these days. She got dragons in a year, an army in a week, and now, in a single afternoon, she's scored a chillaxing warrior willing to deal with her enemies and the knots in her back, thanks to some killer Reiki moves he picked up when he was bartending his way through massage school.
So strong was "Second Sons" that I didn't even mind when, at the end, it left the rich stories of the south behind for a quick flight north. Unlike some, I've been enjoying the awkward courtship of Samwell and Gilly, so a few comic moments wouldn't have been an unwelcome digestif after such a satisfying hour. But while the two were trading bad dad stories and trying to spark a fire, it turned out the one baby name they should have considered was Alfred. Because birds, amirite? The squawking ravens were a spooky warning sign for the coming of Frosty, the child-snatching Ice Monster. Samwell had his unlikely hero moment when it counted most, saving Gilly and the baby by stabbing the White Walker in the back. The fact that a single wound from the souvenir Sam found at the Fist of the First Men caused the creature to shatter like spun glass was truly shocking and an exciting sign of things to come. It's also a sign of real storytelling skill that the main takeaway from this episode was something most people in Westeros have known since birth: Everyone and anything can be killed. And it's usually not all that hard to do it.
[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!]