This season is based on A Clash of Kings, the second book in the Song of Ice and Fire series. It opens up pretty much right where the first season left off. With King Robert dead, the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros are under the rule of Joffrey Baratheon I (the wonderful Jack Gleeson), who last season was discovered to be a bastard born of incest between Queen Regent Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) and her brother, Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). Poor Eddard Stark (Sean Bean) did his best to stop Joff’s ascendance, but his sense of honor and devotion to justice and his family ultimately led to his sudden and undignified execution. But the seeds of discord have been sown, and what becomes known as the War of the Five Kings has begun.
King’s Landing is subsisting, but clearly trending towards destitution under the inept rule of the uncommonly cruel King Joffrey. The economy was in shambles long before Joffrey started a war that could have been easily prevented, and the people are suffering. Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) is still a prisoner of the Lannisters and still betrothed to Joffrey, despite the fact that he had her father beheaded. However, there’s a glimmer of hope in the form of the new Hand of the King, Tyrion Lannister. Peter Dinklage earns his top billing this season with a performance that is even better than last year’s. Between his clever and bawdy sense of humor and his whip smart political savvy, Tyrion steals every scene he’s in.
Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) has escaped King’s Landing with the help of Yoren of the Night’s Watch. She meets up with Gendry, one of the late King’s many (and I do mean many) bastard children, a few newcomers, and a handful of psychotic prisoners as they make their way towards the Wall. But one thing leads to another, and the not-so-merry troupe is routed to Harrenhal, a fortress rumored to be cursed. Arya saves the life of a mysterious assassin, and is given a very special gift. Arya is tied with Tyrion for my favorite character in the series, and Maisie Williams is an absolute joy to watch, especially in her scenes with Lord Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance). She is an exceptional young actress, and I can’t wait to see her grow further into her role, especially taking into consideration how it evolves through the book series.
Robb Stark (Richard Madden) is on the warpath. He and the entire North renounce Joffrey as their King and seek to re-establish the North’s independence from the Iron Throne. He has left Winterfell in the care of his younger brother, the precocious but paraplegic Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright). The Young Wolf proves to have quite a mind for warfare and is winning all of his battles. Not only that, he still holds the Kingslayer captive, the result of a brilliant gambit taken late in the first season. Robb is angry and thirsty for vengeance, but his mother, the newly widowed Lady Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley), simply wants her daughters out of Lannister hands. Further complicating things between Robb and his mother is his courtship of the fetching Talisa Maegyr of Volantis (Oona Chaplin). They eventually fall head over heels for each other, but there’s a serious problem: last season, Robb purchased his army's crossing at the Twins with an oath: that once he secured his status as King in the North, he would marry a daughter of the lecherous Lord Walder Frey…
So those are two of the five kings. Two major contenders are actually Robert’s younger brothers, Renly (Gethin Anthony) and Stannis (Stephen Dillane). Renly is charismatic and supportive of Robb’s desire for Northern independence, and he has the military might to route the Lannisters out of King’s Landing. But there’s one major catch: Renly is gay and has trouble producing an heir naturally. However, House Tyrell (one of the most powerful Houses in Westeros) has his back, and arranges a marriage between Renly and the sister of his lover Loras, Margaery (Natalie Dormer, The Tudors). Margaery is beautiful, sharp as a tack, and politically smart. Another new face introduced in Renly’s camp is Brienne of Tarth (Gwendolyn Christie), a hulking blonde badass who eventually finds herself charged by Lady Catelyn with a daring rescue mission.
Being the older of the younger Baratheon brothers, Stannis is presumably the truest heir to Robert’s throne. We never saw Stannis in the first season, but we did hear about him. He is a dour, joyless man in a dour, joyless marriage. However, he has two special companions. One of them is Melisandre (Carice van Houten), a Red Priestess from Asshai. Her religion worships R’hllor, the Lord of Light. At first, she seems to be a sort of Wormtongue figure (albeit a sexy one), but as the season progresses, it becomes apparent that this religion may be completely legitimate. The second of Stannis’ most trusted followers is reformed smuggler Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham), whose wisdom and devotion renders him quite possibly the best advisor one could hope for.
The last of the Five Kings has about as much of a claim to power as Joffrey does. Lord Balon Greyjoy of the Iron Islands (Patrick Malahide) is a reaver, a pirate lord, and the father of Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) who, until this season, was a ward of the Starks since Balon’s failed rebellion. Robb needs naval support, and who better than the krakens of Pyke? Catelyn warns him not to trust Theon, but they’ve been like brothers for a very long time and Robb trusts him implicitly. When Theon gets to Pyke, however, he discovers that his father neither loves nor respects him. Lord Balon scoffs at Robb’s request for aid and decides to ravage and conquer the North for himself. This puts Theon in a position that is impossible to envy. Alfie Allen has some tough material to work with here, and he delivers one of the best performances in the entire season.
Game of Thrones: The Complete Second Season is not just about the War of the Five Kings. Two major players were outside the Seven Kingdoms by the end of last season, and they remain so in this season. Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and his fellow brothers of the Night’s Watch have ventured north of the Wall to investigate the disappearance of Jon’s Uncle Benjen, as well as a large number of wildlings. They are also investigating rumors about a so-called "King Beyond the Wall," a man known as Mance Rayder. It is here that Jon’s story starts to really pick up some steam, which is nice since not too much happened with him in the first season. And the final image of the season hints at even grander things to come for everyone’s favorite bastard.
And how can we forget our dear Khaleesi? We are indeed reunited with Daenerys Targaryen (the lovely Emilia Clarke), who went through more radical changes than perhaps anyone else in the story at this point. Her husband and brother are dead, her child was a stillborn abomination of nature, and she is now the "mother" of three baby dragons. After a long and arduous journey through the Red Wastes, what’s left of Dany’s khalasar arrives in Qarth, a haven for commerce, culture, political strife, and warlocks. It’s not an ideal place for a young woman of noble blood, much less one who owns the only three living dragons since the three that survived the Valyrian Doom. Overall, Dany’s journey this time around is admittedly not as memorable as in last season, but the end of it packs a real punch, the setting is evocative, and let’s reiterate here: Clarke is very easy to watch.
Game of Thrones: The Complete Second Season comes preloaded with some special features, though they aren't as numerous as in The Complete First Season. Naturally, the Blu-ray exclusive features have a bit more interactivity. This includes the return of the helpful and enriching In-Episode Guide, the War of the Five Kings feature (basically an updated guide to the Complete Guide to Westeros), Histories and Lore, and the ever-elusive Hidden Dragon Eggs.
The standard special features are predictable (audio commentaries, anyone?), but great nevertheless. I don't think there's anyone who didn't expect to see something along the lines of Creating The Battle of Blackwater Bay; after all, even five books in, this remains one of the most memorable sequences in the entire saga. The transition to the small screen has been successful: it might be the single most spectacularly violent hour of television ever produced.
The Religions of Westeros is a compelling addition to this release, as well. Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss talk with A Song of Ice and Fire author George R. R. Martin about the different religions of Westeros, each of which is compelling and has a direct influence on much of what happens in the series.
Game of Thrones: Inner Circle is a roundtable discussion moderated by the showrunners, featuring actors Emilia Clarke, Lena Headey, Michelle Fairley, Liam Cunningham, and Kit Harington. The actors discuss their experiences shooting this season in detail. Peter Dinklage's absence is noteworthy -- if this show really has a star, it's probably him -- but it's still an engaging conversation and a worthwhile addition.
I am ecstatic that HBO has decided to split A Storm of Swords into two separate seasons. It is the opinion of this writer that it is by far the best installment in the series, and it is also my opinion that everyone involved in the process will make good on it. As long as they keep it up to the high standards to which they have held this second season, we have quite a lot to look forward to.