|If I’d seen Deadpool I bet I could make a really good joke here.
State of Play
The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly:
Lions of King’s Landing: Tyrion Lannister, Cersei Lannister, Tywin Lannister
Dragons of Yunkai: Daenerys Targaryen
Bears of Yunkai: Jorah Mormont
The Ship, Davos Seaworth
The Burning Hearts, Stannis Baratheon and Melisandre
Roses of King’s Landing: Margery Tyrell
Stags of King’s Landing: Joffrey Baratheon
Direwolves of King’s Landing: Sansa Stark
The Direwolf, Arya Stark
Archers of the Wall: Samwell Tarly
The Stag, Gendry
Flowers of King’s Landing: Shae
The Dogs, Sandor Clegane
Spiders of King’s Landing: Varys
Chains of King’s Landing: Bronn
Winterfell lies abandoned and in ruins, Riverrun is silent, Harrenhal is vacant, Dragonstone is inexplicably not in the credits.
The episode is in ten parts. The first part runs three minutes and is set in the Riverlands. The opening image is of a rock, with Arya out of focus behind it.
The second runs five minutes and is set outside Yunkai. The transition is by image, from the Hound riding to the horses of the Second Sons.
The third runs six minutes and is set in Dragonstone. The transition is by hard cut, from Barristan to Melisandre landing.
The fourth runs two minutes and is set in Yunkai. The transition is by hard cut, from Stannis to the walls of Yunkai.
The fifth runs seven minutes and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by hard cut, from Dario to Sansa in the mirror.
The sixth runs seven minutes and is set on Dragonstone. The transition is by hard cut, the wedding scene to Gendry.
The seventh runs eleven minutes and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by dialogue, from Stannis magickally killing Joffrey to Joffrey at a wedding.
The eighth runs four minutes and is set in Yunkai. The transition is by hard cut, from Tyrion and Sansa to an establishing shot of Daenerys’s camp.
The ninth runs one minute and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by image, from the drapery on Daenerys’s tent to the similarly patterned grate in Tyrion’s chambers.
The tenth runs seven minutes and is set north of the Wall. The transition is by hard cut, from Tyrion smiling thinly to a landscape shot. The final image is of a Full Web of birds.
With “Second Sons,” at last, the fundamental limitations of the emphasis on episode structure over season structure that has dominated for the past few episodes stands revealed. The heart of this episode – everything but the first and last scenes – cycles among three plots selected and unified by the title phrase. Two – Tyrion and Stannis – embody it in its literal sense, while the third contains the actual title drop. This is, by any standard, a motley assortment – you can just about argue that Tyrion’s plot, by dint of focusing on his relationship with Tywin at several turns, at least vaguely related to his status as a second son, but Stannis’s plot essentially doesn’t touch the topic. But it’s a theme, and one that’s even matched by one of the two framing scenes, with bonus points for the Hound actually mentioning his older brother. And there’s a certain elegance to the episode, albeit one that’s let down by a final scene that’s off-topic and reached via hard cut.
The problem is that this relatively artificial and contentless theme gets badly in the way of larger plots. Perhaps the biggest problem is Jaime and Brienne, whose story doesn’t get picked up after the subdued ending of “The Bear and the Maiden Fair.” With the next episode precluding dealing with Jaime for reasons that are far more fundamental than the contrived theme of this one and “Mhysa” only having room for Jaime’s reunion with Cersei, the result is that the Brienne/Jaime relationship that’s actually been at the heart of Jaime’s plot all season ends strangely unresolved. Jaime gets his big hero moment, and shows up two episodes later in King’s Landing. Yes, a Jaime/Brienne scene would have been entirely invented, and it’s difficult to come up with what it could have done that the scene in “And Now His Watch Is Ended” where Brienne confronts Jaime with the fact that he lied to save her, but it’s genuinely difficult while watching the toe-curlingly awkward and contrived effort to explain the history of “The Rains of Castamere” via a Cersei/Margaery scene to understand why this structure was picked.
And this is hardly the only structural puzzlement. One of the episode’s genuine highlights are the Sansa/Tyrion scenes, with Sophie Turner putting in some of her best work in the series to date. The nature of this pairing is one of frustration – a “what might have been” between two characters who actually have every reason to get along and would, in most senses, be good for each other, age gap aside, but who are prevented by circumstances from ever getting past the initial and fundamental cruelty of their forced union. And yet Turner and Dinklage are so phenomenal together, with Turner responding to Tyrion’s kindnesses with a warmth and tenderness that’s genuinely electrifying. Again, one desperately wishes an episode’s space had been found between these events and the next episode, just so that the potential of this character pairing could have been explored a bit before it gets snuffed out. Instead all of this work basically gets dumped into a single scene in “Mhysa,” meaning that the overall effect of the Sansa/Tyrion marriage is one of squandered potential instead of disappointment.
And then, of course, there’s simply the sheer quantity of time spent on Stannis’s plot here. Stannis has never been the most enthralling of plots, but a seven minute Gendry/Melisandre leech sex scene is an unfortunate contrivance to say the least. And once again, it seems to come at the expense of potentially more important elements. In particular, and I recognize I’m proposing the replacement of one serially awkward and tedious plot for another, how on Earth did anyone in the writer’s room justify not giving Robb a scene in this episode? The obvious choice would be to move his scene from the previous episode to this one, but of course the episode theming of “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” and “Second Sons” precludes this, despite it being fairly obviously better for the season as a whole.
But the biggest problems come with the actual title drop plot, where a blend of unexpectedly poor production decisions and completely predictably poor adaptation decisions combine to form some of the worst scenes not to feature Theon all season. Let’s start with the big picture – the adaptation decisions. In A Storm of Swords, Yunkai has hired two sellsword companies, the titular Second Sons and the Stormcrows. Mero – the lecherous boor of a leader depicted here – belongs to the Second Sons, but Daario Naharis is in fact a member of the Stormcrows. The detail of him killing the other two captains and bringing the company over to Daenerys is from the book, but the result of this is that they then join Daenerys’s sneak attack on the Second Sons while they’re drinking and nominally considering her offer to switch sides.
It’s no particular surprise that the show opts to simplify this; it is, in point of fact, needlessly baroque. But it’s also no particular surprise that the loutish Mero is preserved, because of course Game of Thrones isn’t going to drop a character who talks about Daenerys’s genitals and gropes Missandei. Obviously the point is that Mero is a despicable character, hence the “kill that one first” crack at the end of his first scene, but not for the first time the show does not adequately think through the fact that despicable characters are actively unpleasant to watch, which is something one wants to be careful about being. It is not as though Daario’s book plot, in which he wins over a principled but skeptical sellsword company through strategically chosen stabbing, would not be potentially interesting television. But no, of course Game of Thrones goes for the gratuitous asshole misogyny.
This does not do wonders for Daario’s introduction, which ends up getting framed almost entirely in terms of sex. The scene in which the Second Sons visit Daenerys’s camp is at least deliberately cringeworthy, but the scene in which the Second Sons draw coins for who will kill Daenerys has no reason for being the festival of lechery that it is. The line about fucking and killing is one that comes up elsewhere in the series, but this is surely one of its most banal and crass deployments. And the decision to rework his defection so that instead of being caught by Daenerys’s guards he gets to threaten Missandei and then have a nude scene with Emilia Clarke (who, entirely understandably, refused to do nude scenes after this stunningly gratuitous one) makes it much worse.
In this regard it’s slightly difficult to tell whether Ed Skrein, who found himself replaced for the fourth season, could have worked. Certainly at first glance he appears to be one of the few genuinely poor pieces of casting the series has done. But it’s difficult to say with any confidence that Michael Huisman could have done any better with the material on display here, which largely seems determined to have Daario come off not as a charming rogue but as a skeevy jerk. But the fact remains that the character as displayed here is a complete and utter misfire, and that Daenerys’s attraction to him ends up seeming like one of the most thoroughly unmotivated and contrived plot points in the entire history of play. His introduction serves as the rotten foundation upon which a severely misjudged episode is constructed.