The second episode of this season of Game of Thrones was much more subdued than the series premiere, which I'm quite glad to see. With the grandiose re-introductions of the previous episode out of the way, The Night Lands gives us a chance to settle in with some of the new situations the characters have found themselves in. The stage is still being set this season's story, of course, but this episode went a long way toward setting the tone for what's to come. Something I mentioned in my review of The North Remembers, which I think bears repeating, is that I'm glad to see how Benioff and Weiss are giving these characters time; some of this episode's best scenes don't involve major plot moments, but instead focus on the more mundane interactions these characters have. This helps us viewers really get a sense of who the characters are, instead of just watching what they do.
Case in point: This week's best scene, in my view, is the one beginning with a conversation between Arya, Lommy, and Hot-Pie, and ending with Arya revealing her true identity to Gendry. Arya's conversation with Gendry is certainly significant for the plot, but that's not what makes the scene great; it's moments like Hot-Pie's tale-telling, Arya's confusion when she tries to think of herself as a "lady", and Gendry's blundering apology when he realizes how he's been behaving in front of a "lady" that make this scene - and Game of Thrones as a series - memorable. Sam, Grenn, and Edd Tollet's conversation about the dignity of farting ("We were having a serious discussion.") and Littlefinger's cold threat to Ros (which again played to Aidan Gillen's strength at playing the "stern" side of Lord Baelish) are similar scenes which don't provide much exposition, but go a long way toward giving us a better sense of what these people are like.
I was also incredibly impressed with our introduction to Balon Greyjoy, Lord of the Iron Islands. The concept of "paying the iron price" was demonstrated very clearly, and this segued perfectly into Balon's decision to refuse Robb's offer. Benioff and Weiss did a very good job here of introducing a new concept and showing how its implications play out, which is something I felt was lacking from a few scenes in the first season. For example, in episode 8 when a group of Lannister soldiers led by Meryn Trant come to apprehend Arya after Ned's imprisonment, Syrio Forel asks why Ned Stark would send Lannister men instead of his own. This is intended as a demonstration of the principle he was just teaching Arya: survival depends on truly seeing rather than just watching (that is to say, on a critical outlook as opposed to a passive one). The principle and how it applies to Syrio's deduction isn't as evident as it could have been in the show. The books can communicate a character's thoughts to make these parallels much more clear, but the show needs to rely on different methods; Arya's internal "A-ha! This is what seeing is all about!" revelation needed to be demonstrated quite clearly for it to have the same effect.
I also think that casting Patrick Malahide for Balon's part was a great decision. The promotional shots and trailers I'd seen didn't show just how much he looks like he could be related to Alfie Allen's Theon, but that really sank in once I saw them on screen together. We haven't yet seen much of Gemma Whelan as "Yara" Greyjoy. Some fans of the books seem to be disappointed based on how fierce her character is in the books compared to what we saw in this episode, but I think they're rushing to conclusions about Gemma far too early; she plays coy when first introduced in the books as well, and only over time to we start to get a sense of her character.
There was a lot of material about gender roles in this episode: Arya's ongoing conflict with "ladyhood", Sam's defense of Gilly as a person and not property, Danaerys's difficulty being accepted as a female leader, Theon's discussion of "salt wives" and indignation with the idea of his sister commanding a fleet, Cersei's gripes about her brothers not taking rulership seriously, and even Salladhor Saan's "one true god" between a woman's legs. This material is all interesting in its own right, but I'm not sure each episode needs a coherent "theme" to be enjoyable. Despite ending on a bit of a cliffhanger, The Night Lands felt much less "episodic" to me than last week's episode or many of the episodes from season 1, and I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing. Trying to break up A Clash of Kings into a series of satisfying hour-long arcs would be doing a disservice to the story as a whole. Perhaps I'm just reading into things and "gender" isn't supposed to act as any sort of consistent theme - we have yet to meet one of this season's characters who would fit that theme most strongly, and if a gender-themed episode was truly the aim it would seem like a mistake to exclude them - but in any case I didn't find it to be problematic. I just don't want to see a situation develop where episodes are tied up too neatly into little mini-arcs; I don't need a theme to tie an episode together, I need strong moments in these episodes to tie the series together.
I do have a few minor complaints about the episode. Cersei came across as a bit flat in her scenes compared to Lena Headey's great work on last week's episode. Her scene with Tyrion was somewhat interesting, but she came across as a bit too stoic. Also, even though I liked Gillen's performance as Petyr Baelish this week, I thought that the brothel scene slowed down the episode a bit too much. I don't mind the presence of "adult" content, but I don't find it especially interesting for its own sake. The voyeurism and fellatio/kissing gag at the beginning of the scene didn't seem to add much aside from a cheap laugh.
We don't see any of Bran, Robb, Jamie, Catelyn, Joffrey, or Sansa this week, but I feel that the extended views we got of some of the other characters more than made up for it. I think it's a true testament to the strength of the story and the actors here that the absence of Sean Bean, who was brilliant throughout the first season, is barely even noticed. This episode really got me back into the "feel" of Game of Thrones, and season 2 looks to be shaping up wonderfully so far.