Opinions on the internet about “Second Sons” seem to indicate that this is either the best or worst episode of the season so far. I’m honestly a little confused as to why opinions are so polarized about what I think was a solid, if somewhat slow, episode that narrowed its focus to just a handful of plots, all of which were advanced by what we saw here.
The previous episodes in season 3 have often had a somewhat hectic, frantic pace as the writers tried to cover as much ground as possible in each episode, but there have still been times where it felt as if, although a lot was happening on screen, none of the stories were really advancing very much. “Second Sons” has longer scenes, a slower, more deliberate, pace and less action, but for me it felt like a more thoughtful and thorough examination of the episode’s themes than some of this season’s previous episodes, which struggled to do each plot justice and sometimes had inconsistent tones that undermined thematic messaging.
**Spoilers under the cut.**
- The episode opens with Arya advancing toward the sleeping Sandor Clegane, large rock in hand and planning to bash his brains out. When she realizes the Hound is awake, Arya is unable to actually kill him and they ride on toward wherever he is taking her. Which turns out to be the Twins. Sandor hopes to arrive in time to collect a ransom for Arya at her uncle Edmure’s wedding.
- This opening scene is one of my favorite of the season so far, and my second favorite scene in this episode. Sandor Clegane is one of my favorite characters in the books, and the exchange he has here with Arya works well to establish his character on the show. Arya’s experience of the world is, honestly, still pretty limited, and Sandor’s response when she tells him, “There’s no one worse than you,” highlights just how innocent Arya actually is. The Hound has no illusions of himself as an upright or particularly moral man, and he’s done terrible things, but he’s not a monster. More to the point, he knows men who are monsters. His brother Gregor is one, and Joffrey was another, and while Sandor’s flight from King’s Landing and the Battle of the Blackwater was at least half based on the sheer, visceral terror he felt at the sight of the wildfire, I think that it also represents Sandor’s rejection of the entire system of kings and lords and knights and armies. So here, in this scene with Arya as they look out over picturesque countryside, Sandor is trying, in his way, to be a better man, and he’s looking for recognition of that. I don’t think Arya can give him what he wants, no more than Sansa ever could, but this speech is about Sandor’s self-affirmation as much as it’s about teaching an innocent young girl the ways of the world.
- The first of the three main plots of this episode finds us with Daenerys and her men spying on the camp of a mercenary group called the Second Sons. She summons the leaders of this mercenary band to her own camp to find out if she can buy them away from their Yunkai’i masters, at which point we meet the thoroughly disgusting Mero, his second-in-command Prendahl na Ghezn, and Daario Naharis. Mero is a truly obnoxious piece of work who, without much real malice, has his misogyny on full display as he suggests that Dany is a whore, sniffs in the grossest way possible at Missandei (whose face is priceless), and asks Dany to show him her cunt. Prendahl barely says a word. And Daario…
- Casting Ed Skrein as Daario Naharis is, I think, the biggest missed opportunity this show has had to cast a person of color in a prominent role. It’s a character whose race is never explicitly described in the books–all we know is that he has blue eyes, which could be an indicator of him being white if, you know, tons of PoC didn’t have blue eyes. Or if it really even mattered that much. The show has never been particular about casting any character exactly as described in the books, and the books’ descriptions of Daario gave the casting director pretty much carte blanche to choose whoever they wanted. Daario’s flamboyant fashion and distinctive weapons are far more important than his blue eyes, and the costumers failed entirely in creating everything except the naked lady swords. So instead of a handsome, charismatic sellsword who I could believe Daenerys might fall in love with, we got an ugly white dude in generic-looking armor wearing what looks like one of Cersei Lannister’s season one wigs. I don’t consider this a case of white-washing, but it is an example of defaulting to white in the absence of the writer explicitly describing a character’s race. The fantasy genre has always been very white, especially in European history-inspired worlds and I can deal with most of Westeros being white folk, but it’s pure racist laziness to cast major characters from the primarily PoC-inhabited Essos as white. Even if we accept that Essos has many multicultural populations and a lot of expatriates from Westeros, this casting choice is still a missed opportunity at best and a deliberate exclusion of PoC at worst.
- On the bright side, we finally get another scene of Dany and Missandei interacting with each other. Missandei speaks 19 languages, and I laughed when she criticized Dany’s Dothraki. I really, really want this relationship to be developed more than it has been, and the moment here is cut far too short by Daario showing up to gift Dany the severed heads of Mero (good riddance!) and Prendahl.
- I honestly just have a lot of mixed feelings about show!Dany at this point. On the one hand, she’s fucking terrible. She’s arrogant and smug and imperialistic and I don’t like the feeling I get that I, as a woman, am supposed to find these traits in Dany admirable or empowering. On the other hand, she’s fucking terrible, just increasingly unlikable, and if things go the way on the show that they do in the books this shit is not going to work out very well for Dany at all. Which in the books I read as criticism and subversion of white savior tropes. So it could be just too early to really judge the show, as things don’t really get hard for book!Dany until A Dance With Dragons. On the third hand, Dany has definitely evolved and grown as a character over the course of three seasons of the show. We’ve seen her go from a scared young girl sold into marriage to a man who raped her to a woman who has lost a husband and son, who has learned to own her sexuality, and who has become comfortable (maybe too comfortable) in her roles as both warlord and woman. Her self-assurance was palpable in “Second Sons” as she steps out of her bath to approach Daario, and it interestingly recalls the scene in season one when Dany steps into a scalding bath in order to wash away her brother’s unwanted touch. In the first season scene, we saw Daenerys at her most disempowered, doing something that for any other woman would be an act of significant self-harm, but here we see her as a woman who is confident in her waxing power to the point of being unafraid to stand nude before a man who just moments before held a knife to Missandei’s throat.
- Elsewhere, Melisandre and Gendry have arrived at Dragonstone. Stannis is clearly uncomfortable with Melisandre’s plans to sacrifice Gendry, so he goes to see Davos. The relationship between Stannis and Davos is one of my favorites in the books, and it’s been handled really well on the show. We see here just how much Stannis relies on Davos for advice and friendship, and we find out why Stannis believes in Melisandre and her god. Davos is still unconvinced, so we are treated to a scene where Melisandre seduces Gendry only to tie him down and drop leeches down his pants. Stannis drops the leeches into a fire, naming his enemies (Robb Stark, Balon Greyjoy, and Joffrey Baratheon) one by one. I’m curious to find out what it takes for Davos to be convinced that the Lord of Light is real.
- The biggest event of this episode turns out to be the most awkward and sad wedding in the history of forever. Sansa and Tyrion are finally getting married and basically everyone except Sansa and Loras uses this as an opportunity to act like assholes.
- Tyrion shows up to talk to Sansa before the wedding and says a bunch of stuff about how he know’s how she feels. He doesn’t. Obviously. I feel a little bad for him because I think he’s genuinely trying to be reassuring by pointing out the advantages of her new station as a married woman. However, he ends up coming off as insensitive and a little too cavalier about the whole thing.
- Joffrey uses the ceremony as an opportunity to humiliate both Sansa and Tyrion. Then, at the reception, Joffrey basically promises to rape Sansa, making it very clear that her marriage does not protect her the way Tyrion seems to think it does.
- Margaery tries to be sisterly with Cersei, which prompts Cersei to tell us the story of the Reynes of Castamere. And then threaten to have Margaery killed.
- Olenna sits openly mocking an unhappy Loras and Margaery about the confused relationships they’re about to marry into.
- Tyrion gets wasted drunk and makes scene after humiliating scene while Sansa has to sit next to him and try not to cry or stab anyone.
- Loras tries to make nice with Cersei, who is in rare form tonight, and get’s completely shut down.
- Tywin makes it a point to have a go at Tyrion about his advanced state of inebriation and how that might affect his ability to consummate this marriage.
- Shae stares daggers at Tyrion the whole time.
- My only problem with the entire wedding sequence here is that they had Sansa kneel for Tyrion where, in the books, her refusal to do so was a wonderful example of her retaining her pride and self-respect in the face of months of abuse that have culminated in forced marriage into the family of her abusers. In the book, I was able to spare some sympathy for Tyrion’s humiliation here, but the way the show handled this left all of my feelings for Sansa. Tyrion might be unhappy, but, realistically, this marriage is largely beneficial to him no matter how much he might feel bad about it. Sansa gains nothing, not even basic security or protection against rape, and she has to deal with the mortification caused by Tyrion’s behavior at the feast to boot. I wish they had preserved her refusal to kneel, because no embarrassment she could have caused Tyrion would equal what he does to her.
- The bedroom scene was handled well and managed to convey all the sadness and shame and frustration Tyrion and Sansa must be feeling with rather little dialogue. Sophie Turner deserves an award for her looks alone. She communicates an incredible amount of information without saying a word, as does Peter Dinklage who clearly telegraphs Tyrion’s struggle between his fear of Tywin, his sense of duty, his desire for Sansa, and his desire to not be a rapist. There’s just so much going on here, and it’s one of the rare times that I’ve felt this show handled a complex sexual situation with grace, subtlety and taste.
- The episode is capped with a Sam and Gilly scene that starts off sweet and ends with an event that I’ve been waiting all season for. This pair, with baby in tow, is still on the run back to the Wall when they decide to stop for the night at an abandoned cabin in a terrifying forest. They talk about baby names, and Sam still can’t build a fire. Sam is called outside by the increasingly loud sounds of ravens in the tree next to the cabin, and he heads out with his sword and a torch to see what’s going on. A white walker has come for the baby, and Sam finds a shred of bravery to attack the monster, which instantly shatters Sam’s sword (with a somewhat cheesy special effect) and throws him out of the way. As the white walker advances on Gilly, Sam remembers the dragonglass knife he’s carrying and stabs the creature in the back. The white walker turns to ice and shatters, an effect that is definitely cool enough to make up for the kind of cheesy sword shattering. Sam and Gilly run off into the night, followed be a flock of screaming ravens. The dragonglass dagger, however–the one weapon we now know will defeat the white walkers–is left behind. Oh, Sam.