It’s always good to start off a review with a disclaimer but I wanted to make clear upfront that this review is entirely of the television series. I think any work has to stand by itself, not relying on other versions to fill in gaps, or use problems in the original work as excuses for flaws. Fortunately I don’t have to trip over myself trying to separate the two, because I’ve not actually read the books, but friends who have reliably inform me that many of the problems of the series are actually authentic to the books. If you’re making an adaptation of source material in a new format, the keyword is adaptation – unless you’re just repeating every line of dialogue from the book exactly, you’re making changes and therefore you can also change the stuff that’s a bit rubbish. Maybe these ‘features’ work in a book, but they don’t translate to television and the work has to be appropriate for the media that it’s in.
So what’s my problem with Game of Thrones season 2? Too much stuff! By my rough estimate there were about a dozen story lines running through the season, with fairly minimal overlapping between them. So let’s do some maths – there are 10 episodes of an hour each, so 12 story lines will get roughly 50 minutes each. Not every thread appears in each episode, so each story thread gets about 10 minutes every other episode. That’s 2, maybe 3 scenes, and many of the story lines don’t even get that many. For the new characters and stories, there was never enough time to properly understand or care about the characters, and there was no momentum to their stories. But meanwhile for the characters that you did care about you were endlessly frustrated to only be with them in tiny flashes before being dragged away somewhere else. I spent a good chunk of each episode sounding like my grandmother – “Who’s that?, What’s he doing? Why is he doing that then?”
Some of the stories got a distinctly lacklustre showing, poor Daenerys spent the first half of the season just stuck in a desert, when all we really want to know about is her dragons. She did eventually get an interesting story to work with and a bit more time, but it was still a very long frustrating time until the dragons that had been revealed with such excitement at the end of season 1 actually got to do anything. Somehow Rob Stark, despite leading a massive war had barely anything to do, his only big storyline involved the old love-at-first-amputation trick. There were tiny scenes and characters that seemed a lot more interesting, but they never got a chance – Renly Baratheon’s weird threesome and the younger Stark boys and their advisor in Winterfell for example. I will divert from relentless criticism though to mention that I did find the development of Sanza’s character and situation surprisingly interesting and it actually had just the right amount of screentime.
Back to the criticisms – the slightly relentless stupidity and whining of character also got pretty grating. Circe drinking herself into a mope because it turns out her son is a sociopath (she hadn’t noticed?), Stannis being endlessly horrified at his own allegiance with the demented religious woman and then getting seduced by her over and over, Theon and Rob brooding about their poor lots in life, everyone obsessed with increasingly random quests, rivalries and feuds… I’m definitely on the side of the dragons burning everything down.
Plot wise there were plenty of frustrations, mostly built around my inability to keep track of who anyone was, just as I caught up they tended to get killed. There was a massive plot hole in the final episode which was just plain shoddy (where did all the soldiers go) and by the time the zombies arrived I’d just about had enough – really, zombies? That’s where we’re going? Oh and don’t get me started again on the utterly unnecessary nudity and violence.
I very nearly gave up on the season after the first couple of episodes and only one thing stopped me doing that – the absolutely superb Peter Dinklage as Tyrion. It almost feels like he’s in a completely different show to everyone else. It feels like he actually exists in, understands and impacts the world around him, while everyone else feels like a flat character in a book. He’s hilarious, he’s smart, he’s terrified… he’s actually a person! I adore him.
Fortunately the last few episodes of the season pick up the pace a bit and indeed, focus more on the story lines that Tyrion touches, so I have a warmer feeling for the season at the end than I did in the middle. Game of Thrones got through the first season based on its originality (in the sense that there’s no fantasy on TV, not that the fantasy itself is original). It got through the second season on a couple of isolated performances that rise above the writing. If it wants me to get through the third it’s going to have to do something more again, and that doesn’t mean introducing more characters, it means giving the ones they’ve got a chance to thrive.