***As usual, I refer occasionally to coming events and character arcs from the novels, beyond A Clash of Kings. Read at your own risk.***
I wonder if it was just the lighting, my screen, or an intention on the part of the writers but in the instant before Amory Lorch (Fintan McKeown) kicked over Yoren’s (Francis Magee) corpse, the Night Watchman looked in profile almost akin to the late Ned Stark, kneeling before the executioner’s block in last season’s Baelor. Like Ned, who before dying was able to alert Yoren to the presence of Arya (Maisie Williams) within the teeming crowd, the Night Watchman had his own small victory in death. Rather than bow down to the Lannisters, Yoren stood his ground and so, like another of Arya’s ill-starred protectors, can be celebrated for “going out like a champ.” He slashes Lannister throats left and right, grunting out one liners with a crossbow quarrel in his chest but, in the end, the act of bravery is meaningful only to the audience. Yoren’s charges are still rounded up as captives, Gendry’s (Joe Dempsie) fate hinges on the decisions of a band of miscreants and the helpless Lommy Greenhands (Eros Vlahos) is dispatched in one of the most ruthless moments of the series. “Carry me, he says.”
Yoren’s sacrifice, reassuring us that individuals on this show can die proudly, is one of those small victories that will recur in a series that otherwise has a bleak outlook on human affairs. It’s worth stockpiling them for solace in the dark times because, with the entrenchment of Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) in his father’s camp, the dark times cometh. Theon’s decision to remain with the father (Patrick Malahide) who views him as a failure and the mocking sister (Gemma Whelan) who usurped his position was dealt with far more convincingly than it is in A Clash of Kings. Theon’s allegiance to his House is one of the great choices made in the series and allowed Alfie Allen a real chance to show his acting chops. He did not disappoint, neither in his delivery of that wounded, furiously bitter tirade against Balon nor in his baptism on the barren shoreline, as salt water mingled with his tears. Perhaps the most unusually shot scene in the episode, beyond the adaptation of Tyrion’s political trifecta, was the one in which Theon burnt his warning letter to Robb (Richard Madden). It had an almost dream-like, epic feel, paying homage to the tremendous consequences that will result from the decision.
Importantly, though, Theon’s scenes also gave room for Balon and Yara to be developed as characters in their own right. Yara is clearly a different kettle of fish to the Asha of the novels; rather than playful and brazen, she seems more sullen and surly, more similar to her father. In the novels Asha’s characteristics fetch up against those of Victarion and Aeron, her two implacable uncles, yet with fewer Ironborn in play in the series it appears as though Yara has been cast in the mould of Balon, perhaps in order to present a more homogenous culture. It will be interesting to see Gemma Whelan explore the role as it expands. At the moment, I can’t see her lusted after by her crew, hurling throwing axes and turning her society upon its head at the Kingsmoot. In terms of another potential departure from the novels, though, it would be great to see Patrick Malahide’s Balon Greyjoy receive some more screentime. Unless his role is expanded upon this season, What Is Dead May Never Die could be the last time Balon is seen.
Ultimately, as the series is forced to diverge from the strictures of the source material and forge its own storylines, characters and scenes, I would prefer for more liberties to be taken. As brilliant as it is to see Varys (Conleth Hill) deliver his riddle verbatim to Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), or for Pycelle (Julian Glover) to splutter out the same mewling protests as in the novel when he is confronted for his treachery, it simply doesn’t make sense for A Clash of Kings to be transplanted word for word, page for page, to the screen. If Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer) had been written for the essentially non-existent role she receives in the novel then her importance to Westeros and the titular game of thrones would be non-sensical on screen. She would lurk in the background, regularly discussed without any real understanding of her character. Instead Margaery was revealed to be a consummate schemer who appreciates that her position is imperilled by her new husband’s homosexuality. Her pragmatism in the face of this obstacle lays the groundwork for her later sparrings with Cersei (Lena Headey) but, more importantly, it adds so much to a character whose motives and personality have often seemed impenetrable to the reader.
Margaery’s very serious game-playing was off-set against Renly’s (Gethin Anthony) own pleasure-seeking and entertainment. As Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) rightly noted, Renly is a man who appreciates some aspects of kingship – he has a rapport with his soldiers and exploits the desires of his subjects, in the case of Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) to serve his purposes – but misunderstands others. While he is fooling around with Loras (Finn Jones) in bed, the self-made king with the wicked-cool antler crown fails to realise that his whole power base rests upon his doing something that he does not wish to do. Just as Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) and Balon will not face the reality that compromise is necessary if one is to retain a crown, Renly prefers to be himself; playful, ostentatious and charming. When Margaery presented herself before him, Renly’s empty courtesies and excuses showed a man unsuited to playing the role his kingdom would demand of him. We left him conflicted, faced with the reality of his actions and given the choice to play the game of thrones. All the while, the iron-willed Stannis is approaching.
As with Renly, so with Cersei. Willing to twist the knife into Sansa (Sophie Turner) and utilise the girl as a pawn in the same manner that she once was, Cersei’s treatment of her hostage in fact suggests a measure of self-loathing, wreaking her own past upon the hapless girl. When she is confronted by the fact that Myrcella (Aimee Richardson) could be treated in the same manner, Cersei is horrified. The quiet spite and cruelty of the queen regent fell away before her vehemence and despair, further setting up the deadly sibling rivalry between the two Lannisters in King’s Landing. This has been one of the most consistently developed relationships of the season and is only going to heat up. I only hope that the decision to remove Shae (Sibel Kekilli) from the brothel and place her straight alongside Sansa does not lead to the cutting of the excellent scenes between Tyrion and Varys. Controversial though the decision may have been it allowed for Sansa’s character to be explored beyond her heart-breaking muted captive, hoop-jumping mode (which Sophie Turner is conveying brilliantly). Re-asserting her highborn status with a quaver in her voice and tears in her eyes emphasised just how far Sansa’s initial hopes have fallen.
Her lost sister Arya continued to face the reality of the situation but, for the first time since the execution, had time to talk about her feelings. Although Yoren’s story ended up being a traditional pre-death monologue (with the side effect of serving as the genesis of Arya’s iconic death prayer) his fatherliness towards the young Stark girl was poignant. “I made damn sure you didn’t see that”, he growls, but the damage to Arya has been done. Even though as a young girl she cannot, in a nice touch, stand the taste of wine, Arya has already seen and done terrible things, yet in her querelous questioning of Yoren the remnants of her innocence and youth shone through. Rather than race Arya through the motions to become another “super-cool girl assassin” in the vein of Chloë Moretz‘s Hit-Girl in Kick Ass, the show needs to continue to take the time to explore the complexities of her journey into darkness.
The cruelty of the world in which Arya finds herself is matched by that of the lands north of the Wall, where Jon (Kit Harington) learns that rather than Craster’s ritual offering of children to the Others being met with horror and outrage, it has long ago been accepted as a fact of life. Jeor Mormont (James Cosmo) may not like it, but he is willing to allow the ends to justify the means. It was nice not to see a repeat of the first episode’s brow-beating between Mormont and Jon; instead, the Lord Commander eases his protégé into the realities of leadership and rule. The brief flash of concern on his face when he saw his wounded steward was a great touch, continuing the motif of wise elders, played by veteran British stage actors, serving as father figures to the lost Stark children. Donald Sumpter once again aced his portrayal of Maester Luwin as he kindly rejected Bran’s (Isaac Hempstead Wright) greendreams while reminiscing on his own youthful imaginings. It was one of the sweeter moments of the episode, along with Sam’s (John Bradley) overture (more of an underture, to be honest) to Gilly (Hannah Murray), via a story of Randyll Tarly’s awful parenting and his mother’s thimble. “I’m not giving it away – I’m giving it to you.” Even if I didn’t know what was coming, I’d still believe someone that sincere. Another small victory.