Even though poor Ned Stark's head was lamentably lopped off at the end of the show's first season, Game of Thrones is very much only the initial act of George R.R. Martin's vast A Song of Ice and Fire saga. If book one represents an executioner's great sword being raised in the air above an accused traitor's skull, then A Clash of Kings, the second novel in Martin's celebrated series, is that weapon steadily beginning its downward strike. (Sequentially, part three, A Storm of Swords, is the sharpened steel meeting its intended fleshy target.) Filled to the brim with underhanded stage settings, backdoor wartime politics, and fractured tales of redemption both extremely personal and emotionally wide-ranging, the altercations depicted in the second season of Game of Thrones are significantly more intimate than what came before. While the barbarous butchery still continues, albeit in sporadic, gritty, non-flashy action sequences (think Spartacus minus the repeated slow mo and CGI fountains of shimmering bloodshed), this season's most affecting confrontations are fought not on grisly battlefields, but in tightly intense close quarters as characters verbally and spiritually crisscross, perpetually testing each others' limitations of implicit power, examining just how far they can throw their weight around before windfalls cease and an unfortunate fate, or the contrary, reaches out to seize them.
A bright red comet steaks across the summer sky of Westeros, some considering it an omen for the truly harsh times ahead and the coming of a protracted winter, while others believe it to be a signifier of the birth of dragons. The rest of the populace hardly notices the vivid shooting star at all, far too preoccupied with placing themselves in the best possible position for a war that's yet to fully materialize. The meteor, a much weightier point of focus in the novel, is but a momentary MacGuffin buried beneath the wide scope of David Benioff and D.B. Weiss's serviceable adaptation. Geographically speaking, Game of Thrones's second season is roughly twice as spread out and fragmented in narrative as its previous one, with five well-defined seats of sovereignty vying for sole claim to the Iron Throne, the legitimate position of dominance within the Seven Kingdoms. In moderate contrast to season one, conflicts now occur between warring factions much less than turbulent familial infighting.
Sean Bean's now-deceased Ned Stark, who arguably served as the most stable, honorable, and sympathetic inhabitant of Martin's world, was a rigid mediator for the unmitigated cluster of recklessness constantly on display in the show. In an intelligent and admittedly somewhat predictable move given Peter Dinklage's award-winning turn, Tyrion Lannister, nearly the antithesis of Ned in many aspects (his humaneness excluded), has come to possess many of his sensibilities, assuming the lead role of a go-between, though with much less exaltation for his attached royal house. Dinklage's take on the character, slightly less cynical than as depicted in the novels, is unmistakably the identifiable heart, however small (no pun intended), of this season. As Tyrion, the Hand of the King in his father Tywin's (Charles Dance) stead, walks the halls of King's Landing, his faithful whore Shae (Sibel Kekilli) in safe keeping, he calmly whistles to himself between sessions of calculated plotting and intuitive allying with potentially dangerous members of the king's council, totally in control and content with his surroundings. In a very amusing string of scenes in the third episode, "What Is Dead May Never Die," Tyrion cleverly establishes three faux allegiances with Cersei's scheme squad—consisting of Grand Maester Pycelle (Julian Glover), Varys (Conleth Hill), and Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen)—in order to rapidly out the most dishonest of the three by seeing who will betray him to the queen reagent the fastest. Using quick match cuts in a sequence fueled entirely by Tyrion's relentless wit, the imp essentially tells a similar story thrice over, and once we figure out what he's up to, it's exceedingly captivating. Even Varys, perhaps the sneakiest character in the entire series, later admits, "A small man can cast a very large shadow."
"There's a king on every corner," relates Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) to her newly battle-hardened son, Robb (Richard Madden), in the season premiere, "The North Remembers," and a more appropriate summation of the atmosphere and mood of the early episodes cannot be found. The sadistic and consummately prickish Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson) struts around King's Landing carelessly and ceaselessly ordering the massacre of innocents, including infants identified as bastards of a man (Robert Baratheon) he wrongly thinks was his father, ostensibly slain via a conspiracy cooked up by his own wife and council. Joffrey is the biological son of Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) and her twin, Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), and thus Robert's two brothers, the elder Stannis (Stephen Dillane) and the younger Renly (Gethin Anthony), demand the primary kingship for their own. Renly has attrition on his side, yet Stannis prays to entirely different gods, led through a path of secretive dark magic by the mysterious priestess Melisandre (Carice Van Houten), who persuades him to forsake his kin's idols, burning their erected statues and worshiping R'llor, the Lord of Light with the hopes that the meager army at his direct disposal will be supported by almighty supernatural forces.
Game of Thrones does a terrific job of smoothly cutting back and forth between its many locales and concurrent situations, never lingering in one area too long and rarely confusing one location's thematic tone for another. As is evident by the additional graphics in the opening credits, season two introduces an assortment of fresh environments, expertly visualized by the show's tremendous production values and adept crew. The rocky, volcanic cliffsides of Dragonstone, the misty salt waters of the Pyke, and the affluent city of Qarth beyond the Red Waste where Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) and her khalasar seek refuge are indisputably Martin's words brought to life in exquisite form.
The show trims much of the fat that periodically bogs down Martin's work, choosing to ax lengthy sections where characters travel from one place to another and toss prosaic troublesome thoughts around in their damaged brains. Due to the POV chapter format of A Song of Ice and Fire, the innermost turmoil of certain integral Westeros denizens are hardly touched on. In most cases, Game of Thrones remedies this, particularly with Littlefinger, Varys, Cersei, Stannis, Tywin, and even Joffrey, but sometimes it layers on unneeded asides for the sake of risqué showiness. The awkward love triangle between the closeted Renly, his new wife/beard Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer), and her brother Loras (Finn Jones) is the most obvious example, unnecessarily forcing Renly's sexuality, kept mostly clandestine in the books, wide out into the open. This serves no purpose but to poke fun at Renly's uncomfortable position of seclusion in the marshy Stormlands, having fled from King's Landing with his tail between his legs, a self-anointed king who has loyalty but no idea how to wage war. Stannis's scenes with Melisandre and a smuggler turned allegiant knight, Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham), on Dragonstone are better executed; the writing is more concise and in tune with the dramatic beats of A Clash of Kings.
Game of Thrones's second season is not as wholly engrossing as its first, and the blame for this rests solely on the source material, that, while commendable, isn't as altogether vital as the initial novel. Reading the series in advance helps in identifying just who's who and where's where (names and places aren't always mentioned). Yet, in spite of its imperfections, season two must be admired for its gripping presentation of splintered families and unwavering ruthlessness. Principal elements, from the acting to the visuals and the translation of page-to-screen pacing, is as deftly handled as before. Witnessing memorable passages that meet expectations in their live-action depictions is a pleasure, and is also likely to entice those unfamiliar with Martin's novels.