In a show that covers such a broad scale both in geography and character count, it's easy to forget that there are some episodes when checking in with everybody will be simply impossible. Especially in starting a new season, there was always the sense after "The North Remembers" that the second episode would need to back-burner a few of the major plotlines to catch up with everyone else.
But "The Night Lands" does not disappoint despite leaving Robb, Joffrey, Sansa and Catelyn on the bench. In fact, one could argue that that the latter three characters omitted from this episode give some fans a relief from three of the most grating personalities in the Seven Kingdoms.
In King's Landing, things seemed to be going far too well for Tyrion at the opening of the
show's second season. Tyrion gets to push the levers of the kingdom indefinitely while his father wages war against the North, all the while one-upping his sister in council meetings, sending her toadies to the Wall and bedding Shae out of his father's view.
Of course, things couldn't keep coming up roses for Tyrion as Lord Varys uncovers Shae's presence in his bedchambers and, as only Varys can, subtly letting Tyrion know that he's now got a button of Tyrion's to press if it comes to it.
As usual, Tyrion is the smartest and wittiest in the room, and is the only one who sees that the biggest danger to the Seven Kingdoms actually lies north of the Wall, perhaps because he's the only one who's cared enough to visit the icy stronghold ("I found it surprisingly beautiful, in a brutal, horrifying sort of way").
Meanwhile Littlefinger honors the time-old motto "pimpin' ain't easy," where the whole infant-murdering
thing has put a serious dent in employee morale.
Theon Greyjoy's journey home gives us our first look at the Iron Islands and the Greyjoy's castle at
Pyke. It also affords us a chance to realize that Theon might be the only son in Westeros more despised by his family than Tyrion. The heir to House Greyjoy imagines a brass band and ticker-tape parade waiting for him at the docks ("This is a big day for them"), but instead is met with widespread indifference from his people and the most awkward tandem horse ride ever.
Theon has been away with the Starks so long that not only does his father regard him as
softened beyond repair, but he also fails to recognize his own sister Yara (renamed from the books), whom he gropes for the duration of the ride from the shore to Pyke. On top of the sickening realization that he just got to second-and-a-half base with his sister is the fact that Balon Greyjoy has entrusted her with his men and that joining Robb Stark's rebellion is not on his to-do list.
On the Kingsroad, we find "Arry" (nee Arya) en route homer under the guise of a (male) conscript of the Night's Watch. After the bloodbath of bastards last week, it's clear that her new travel buddy Gendry is next on the Lannisters' hit list.
In written prose, it's easy to say that Arya's slight frame and tomboyish attitude help her pass as a boy with the other characters. However, Gendry can see as plainly as the viewing audience that "Arry" is actually Arya, giving her reason to come clean with the late king's sire. The cautious banter and rapport between these two gives hope for what is shaping up for a long, arduous journey on the war-torn path north.
North of the Wall, Jon Snow and Sam still rest in the uneasy shadow of Craster's keep. Through Sam's bleeding heart, Jon Snow is once again forced to make a decision that goes against his career prospects in the Night's Watch. Seeking to help Gilly and her newborn infant boy, Snow stumbles upon Craster making an offering of the child to what we can only assume is a White Walker. Because he's a character raised by Ned Stark, he gets a club on the head for his troubles. Fans also finally got another glimpse at grown-up Ghost in all his glory (look less CGI-heavy than his brother Grey Wind did last week).
One of the pitfalls of having so many characters west of the Narrow Sea is that there will be episodes where our young khaleesi Dany is absent or only seen briefly. She's dispatched her bloodriders in three directions, and true to the show's brutality, Rakharo has returned as a head in his saddlebag. His mate wails that he "won't be able to join his ancestors in the Night Lands," and things look bleaker than ever for Dany and her upstart band of dragon enthusiasts.
Back on Dragonstone, we get a longer look at Davos Seaworth, who while wary of Melisandre and her Lord of Light, knows he needs to get his king (and god, as he points out to his newly fundamentalist son Davros) as much help as he can get.
His old pirate buddy Salladhor Saan can give Stannis ships, but Melisandre makes it clear that the ticket to victory against the false kings rests beneath her shiny red robe. If you're going to make love on a Westeros landmark, I suppose the painted table at Dragonstone is as good as any (the Iron Throne seems far too pointy).
Without spoiling anything, the show's writers have already taken slight detours from George R.R. Martin's text to reach the same destination, most of which have made sense for a screen adaptation.
A purist might find Craster seemingly having an open adoption arrangement with the White Walkers problematic, or Stannis ravishing Melisandre right on the painted table as too bold an assumption, but they cap off "The Night Lands" with two signature "wow" moments that the show is getting extremely strong at executing.