In this week’s edition of me gainsaying io9, I’m taking a look at this piece, in which Charlie Jane Anders wonders if the second season of Game of Thrones will live up to the first. I’m going to be counter-contrarian and say that it will.
The article makes some great points, which amount to the fact that everything that made the first season hard will make the second season harder, plus they’ll need more special effects. But I think the first point Anders raises is both wrong and the reason why I think the show will actually work.
No single clear-cut arc
Game of Thrones season one had a fairly clear storyline, even if it spawned loads of complexity and included tons of intense backstory. You could choose to see Ned Stark as more or less the main character, with Ned’s appointment as Hand of the King setting in motion an arc that ends with Ned’s death, and then we see the consequences of Ned’s death. You could also view season one as largely about the Starks versus the Lannisters, with King Robert caught in the middle — and a few characters, such as Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen, largely off in their own stories.
But Clash of Kings is where the titular “game of thrones” starts acquiring an embarrassment of players. The war of the Five Kings, vaguely modeled on the War of the Roses, involves King Joffrey, his two (supposed) uncles Renly and Stannis, plus two regional “kings” — Robb Stark and Balon Greyjoy. To some extent, the story of Clash of Kings revolves around Joffrey triumphing the two strongest claimants to his throne, Renly and Stannis. But meanwhile, the stories of Robb and Balon have very little resolution in the second book.
It’s true that A Clash of Kings covered more locations and a more diverse set of characters than the first, but that’s a matter of degrees. The action was tied together with an overarching theme, which essentially focused on the tragedy of the bold.
Not only is the story built around this theme, but it uses no less than four separate plot threads to illustrate it. Tyrion Lannister comes to King’s Landing to clean up the mess that his sister and Joffrey have made of things, and does a pretty good job. In exchange, he’s scorned by the public while his sister devotes more and more of her energy to ruining him. After probably saving the city, he leads a gallant charge out to meet the enemy, and gets his face cut open for his trouble. Despite playing the game brilliantly, he closes out the book worse off than when he started, while his enemies bask in all the glory.
The battle doesn’t go any better for Stannis Baratheon, who wins a series of stunning victories through shadow magic without fighting a proper battle, then abandons the sorceress who helped him do it. This costs him virtually his entire fleet and most of his army, and puts an end to his unlikely ascension. His brother Renly has even less luck: He did everything right, assembled the largest army and managed to starve King’s Landing half into submission without ever coming near the place, and the shadow assassin cuts his throat open before he can rack up a single victory.
Meanwhile, Theon Greyjoy starts out the story riding high as King Robb’s trusted lieutenant, finally traveling home with dreams of conquering the West and taking over Lannisport. When he arrives back in the Iron Islands, though, he discovers that his father resents him for his time with the Starks, and gets repeatedly humiliated by his sister whom his father obviously likes better. So when his father orders an attack on the North, he comes up with a daring scheme to capture Winterfell that goes off without a hitch. But each move he makes leaves him more and more isolated, until he’s betrayed by the man he thought was his last ally.
The story is a bit murkier for Robb Stark, who barely appears in the book, but the metaphor still works. His story is that of the king who wins every battle but loses everything anyway, mostly by trusting the wrong people. But the overall message is still there: In the first book, the queen warns Ned Stark that “when you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.” The corollary to that warning is that winning is no picnic either, and your victories tend to be a lot less meaningful than your defeats.
Of course, having a clear theme isn’t the same as having a clear story, but I’m still not worried. Whereas Game of Thrones‘ first season was clearly set up with Ned Stark as the central character, I’d expect the second season to do something similar with Tyrion Lannister. Not only is (Emmy winner!) Peter Dinklage the show’s breakout star, but King’s Landing is where you’ll find the greatest concentration of familiar characters from the first season and therefore the plurality of the action. His downfall takes another whole book to become fully complete, but arguing that the second book delivers less resolution than the first — which ended with everybody and their brother gearing up for war — seems kind of silly. At best, it’s another matter of degrees.
The article does touch on one of the central challenges of A Song of Ice and Fire, which is that after a certain point it becomes pretty impossible to believe that anything good is going to happen to anyone. By the third book, I’d basically given up on hoping that things would work out somehow and mainly kept reading because I wanted to see the moment when something bad finally happened to the characters I didn’t like, if only because they were the only ones left. (Plus, I’m kind of curious to see how long it takes for Sansa to actually do something.) Then again, I think this is an area where the show has a certain advantage: Just fitting the narrative into ten episodes means they’ll need to carefully choose the material they add, plus they’ll have to write in characters like Robb who spend most of the story somewhere else. It’s not hard to see them sacrificing a bit of the depressing foreshadowing that telegraphs how doomed everyone is.
What’s more, one of the show’s great strengths has been the job it’s done of making the characters I didn’t like in the book feel sympathetic, from the villains like Cersei Lannister to the boring annoyances like Shae. I was always a bit conflicted about Cersei in the TV series, because I could kind of get where she was coming from. If the show can keep us caring about the people on every side of the war, then it can keep us invested even when some of them lose.
There are plenty of reasons to imagine that Game of Thrones‘ second season could be a mess if handled poorly: More characters, more locations, more disparate plotlines, no more time to fit it all in. The producers have admitted that their job only gets harder with the second season. The production challenges must be crazy. But the real challenge of adapting the material is identifying themes and adjusting them to fit a ten-episode format, and they’ve proven they know how to do that. Game of Thrones‘ first season only got better in its later half, when the action picked up and the characters started fragmenting. I’m expecting that trend to continue.