Infanticide is the new sexposition. And even a Hero’s Journey requires the occasional piss break.
I know, it takes three to make a pattern, and so far we’ve only had two episodes of Game of Thrones Season Two – both of which ended with the murder of babies. And I know the old sexposition (critic Myles McNutt’s term for GoT’s trademark mid-coitus infodumps) hasn’t gone away, as the remarkably explicit sex-scene-cum-history-lesson between Theon Greyjoy and his homely, horny cabin girl made clear.
But you can learn a lot from how Game of Thrones begins and ends each week, and we’ve now seen two endings involving the literal slaughter of the innocents: The first was bookended with a man dying for the sport of a king, the second with a little girl popping a squat in the woods while on the run from trained killers. In other words, this show spotlights the ugly shit most stories shy away from: The aristocratic one percent lord it over the other 99, society’s outbursts of violence inevitably target that society’s most vulnerable members, and the needs and weaknesses of your private parts can make or break you. (Didn’t you ever wonder how the Fellowship of the Ring used the bathroom? Did Frodo slip the Ring on any time he needed a little "me time"?)
Yet as ugly as it got, Season Two’s second episode, "The Night Lands," was also a thing of beauty, more impressive on a purely visual level than even its immediate predecessor "The North Remembers." Director Alan Taylor cemented his claim on the show’s throne with camera work that revealed character and deepened our understanding of the story. Like the plotlines that play out over the course of the episode, it's a view into the world of Westeros that's both dazzling and disquieting.
Take the smartly staged opening scene, in which Yoren and his motley crew of recruits for the Night’s Watch fend off goons from King’s Landing hunting down Gendry, the late King Robert Baratheon's handsomest bastard (though they're apparently oblivious to the presence of the conspicuously cockless Arya Stark, daughter of the dead Hand of the King and the new Hand's most wanted). The recruits are planted all around the lush forest setting’s multiple levels, occupying high ground and low, so that the simple act of shooting Yoren’s knifepoint confrontation with the City Watch reveals more and more of them with each shot and countershot. We aren’t just told the interlopers are outnumbered and surrounded, we really see it.
Similarly, a swooping movement of the camera in the cavernous hall of Pyke, Theon Greyjoy’s home shit home, emphasizes his father and sister’s movement away from him after they reject his offer of alliance with King Robb Stark’s Northmen and his cocksure claim that he’s his father’s rightful heir, leaving Theon standing alone. It’s a better illustration of his situation at that moment than any line of dialogue, especially when contrasted with the sweeping vistas on that heroically staged horseback ride that took Theon to Pyke in the first place. Illusions dashed, young Greyjoy.
The way the camera chooses to reveal certain characters can reveal something about them, too. Bronn, Tyrion Lannister's glibly amoral ace in the hole, appears out of nowhere when his boss banishes City Watch commander Janos Slynt for his role in the very ugly purge of King Robert's bastards last ep. (Although the way Tyrion addresses the issue, you have to wonder if he has as much of a soft spot for the whores who endured Slynt's reign of terror as he does for the baby Slynt killed in their presence.) Bronn's there when you need him, but don't expect him to be your buddy otherwise – and don't forget that he'd be a babykiller too, if the situation were different. Tyrion may tell Varys that he's not a man of honor like that patsy Ned Stark, but his look of discomfort when he realizes just whom he's entrusted with the security of the city says otherwise.
Varys himself makes a sudden and unexpected appearance as well, revealed as the camera glides around the corner to find him bantering with Tyrion's whorefriend Shae. The shot and Varys's visit itself send the exact same message: No matter where (or whom) you hide, Varys will know. Actor Conleth Hill is killing it as the Seven Kingdoms' spymaster, and in this scene he makes it clear that his cultured blend of manners and menace is far more potent a danger to Tyrion than Slynt's bluster and brutality. "Waves come and go, the big fish eat the little ones…and I keep on paddling," he tells Tyrion, with just enough emphasis on the last bit to make the implied "so just try me, asshole" clear.
By contrast, the camera takes ages to pan over the Dothraki, stranded in the Red Waste, before it hits our lead characters Ser Jorah Mormont and his queen Daenerys. It moves slowly, the picture out of focus, as listless and lost as the people it's filming. When Dany does finally come into view, she's lying on the ground exhausted – and we're so used to seeing her as the proud, powerful Khaleesi that this may well be the episode's single most shocking moment. The grim Godfather-style "message" that follows (Rakharo rides with the fishes?) is further proof that there's no shelter for Dany and her dragons here.
Meanwhile, that marvelously odd peephole-to-peephole transition in Littlefinger's brothel was a tipoff, as if you needed one, that "The Night Lands" gave us some of our most direct and graphic looks into the libidos of Westeros yet. In this ep alone, we discovered that Sam hates to see 'em go but loves to watch 'em leave…that even the lowborn daughters of ship captains ascribe to 21st-century pubic-hair grooming aesthetics…that you can wipe semen off someone's face on camera on HBO and get away with it…that Salador Saan, the old pirate buddy whom Ser Davos Seaworth recruits to be part of King Stannis Baratheon's royal fleet, worships what Mansons Charles and Marilyn would refer to as the god of fuck. More centrally, we learn that while Theon may be an obnoxious, womanizing creep ("Try smiling with your lips closed"), he still has the good graces to be grossed out when he discovers that the rough-and-tumble girl with the sleepy eyes and sly smile he'd been diddling on his way to his tentacle-haired father Balon Greyjoy's castle was in fact his own sister Yara. (played with sleazy confidence by Gemma Whalen, making my doubts about the casting evaporate).
But where sex goes on Game of Thrones, violence is sure to follow. Littlefinger methodically menaces his red-headed whore Ros into getting over her grief for the slain baby and getting on with getting it on, lest he sell her to someone even sicker than he is. Writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss love giving Littlefinger these menacing American Psycho speeches despite how close the character plays everything to the vest in the books, but actor Aiden Gillen tears into this material with such sotto voce viciousness that it's hard to blame them.
By contrast, the fiery Melisandre mostly lets her (phenomenal) body do the talking when she seduces Stannis – right on a table in the shape Westeros, knocking both battle plans and subtlety to the floor – with the promise of bearing him a son, but her real goal is winning him over to her harsh god the Lord of Light, believing that's the only way his army can win. Breeding death is the end goal at least as much as breeding life.
Hell, childbirth itself haunts Cersei and Tyrion: She blames him for the death of his mother on his way out of her womb and into the world. And half a world away, childbirth's a death sentence for the son of one of Craster's wives, delivered into the icy-cold clutches of the blue-eyed White Walkers. It's a horror that Sam's new friend Gilly – a mouthbreathing Hannah Murray, looking as timid and terrified as you'd expect a product and victim of incest to look—can't even bring herself to articulate. Fortunately, if that's the right word, the show does it for her, with a final sequence of icy beauty, half-glimpsed menace, frustrated heroism, taboo-shattering evil, and sudden bursts of violence. To paraphrase Tyrion Lannister, that's the way this Game is played.