In the penultimate episode of Season 1, showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, following their source material, killed off their main character, Ned Stark. The final episode was able to sustain itself without a main character because the drama still revolved around said main character. Robb Stark’s (Richard Madden ) army was on its way to liberate, and now, avenge Ned. Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), captive to the ruling Lannisters, is to be wed to the bitchy King Joffery. And her father’s execution is the catalyst for the now despondent situation of Arya Stark (Maisie Williams). Even Jon Snow (Kit Harrington), still at the wall up north, is wrestling with the death of his father.
The exception to this Ned-centric universe was Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke). Off on another continent and having no meaningful up-to-date knowledge of Westeros, Daenerys didn’t even know of Ned’s death. Although, in the finale to S1, she ‘births’ three dragons—intercut with the aftermath of the death of the king’s hand and the now unstable throne—hinting that she will soon sit on the iron throne. Even Daenerys, in S1 ep.10, depended on the eldest Stark. With him gone, what direction could S2 go?
Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), the season’s biggest bill, is not exactly a main character; I mean, a few months before this season aired he won “Best Supporting Actor” at the Emmys. And while Tyrion’s power plays and moves to the political center are the most entertaining moments of the season, Dinklage’s commanding presence still lacks the charisma and plot centrality of Sean Bean’s Ned.
Instad, the entire season follows the steps of S1.e.10 by revolving around Ned Stark. This, I can only presume, was genius. It perfectly sets up the expectation of the multi-character, multi-setting prestige drama for the remainder of the series. From here on out, there need not be a main character. Eventually, all the spilled blood over Ned will be overshadowed by the new blood spilled as a result—we, if not the characters, will forget who started what violence and for why.
The issue of the main character isn’t the only way this season is in conversation with its predecessor. Many of the most egregious errors of S1 are made up for in S2, even if only partially. More men are fully exposed (though, still not enough to call it equal). Lesbian fetishism is toned down with, albeit not graphically explicit, gay sex. The “sexposition” has simmered down. And more women have been added to the ranks of supporting characters.
Between S1 and S2, it feels as if Westeros has aged two centuries. Religiously speaking, monotheism has been brought into the picture via Melisandre (Carice van Houten) and her “god of light.” In one scene, she even burns the seven gods of old. As advisor to Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane), who has a claim to the iron throne, Melisandre or the Red Priestess sends a signal that the polytheistic, traditional, Stark/Lannister way of doing things is now past. The religion of GOT, up until the start of the third season, does not function religiously. By this, I mean the creators don’t seem to care much about the religion of Westeros. Sure, the names of gods and whatnot appear in almost every episode, but it’s really just a tool to help differentiate people. The religion of the Dothraki, for example, is coded as bronze age paganism. The Starks, the conservatives of Westeros, want to abide by the tradition of their fathers and their fathers’ fathers; consequently, it only makes sense that would serve the oldest gods of the continent. The Lannisters have no gods, as Sersi makes clear to Sansa during the siege.
Like the best episodes of the first season, the entirety of S2 was tonally and thematically consistent: playing by the rules gets you nowhere in Westeros. To win the game of thrones, one must play as ruthlessly and spiritually devoid as Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) or Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa). When Daenerys enters the city of Qarth trusting too many men, she loses her dragons. When she trusts none but one and sentences Daxos, one of the men who betrayed her, and her backstabbing servant to death by starvation by locking them in an impenetrable vault, she gets her personal treasure of dragons back. Robb Stark is miserable with the prospect of marrying a Frey girl, so he chooses happiness and marries a girl of his choosing. Jon Snow saves a wild girl, which gets all of his fellow guardsmen killed. Throughout the season, Tyrion shows he is the only Lannister with any sort of pleasant values. At the end of the season, he’s no longer the hand, Braun is no longer running the City Watch, and his sister has attempted to assassinate him. In a grand literary tradition, good actions have to be punished. This is the consistency in the game thus far.