Can Game of Thrones season two live up to season one?

Game of Thrones comes back for its second season on April 1, and there's just one question on everybody's mind: Can this show keep up the amazingly high standard it set in its first season?

We've seen plenty of shows rock out in year one, only to hit a sophomore slump. Plus A Clash of Kings, the second book in George R.R. Martin's series, presents huge challenges for anybody trying to wrangle it into a ten-episode television show. Here are some reasons why Game of Thrones season two could have trouble... plus some reasons to have faith that they'll pull it off.

Major spoilers for the first few books in A Song of Ice and Fire ahead. Seriously, if you haven't read the first three books, stop reading now.

With Game of Thrones coming back in just a few weeks, it's fair to say that we've been obsessing over the prospects for Year Two. We've been re-reading Martin's A Clash of Kings, rewatching the first season — which holds up amazingly well — on DVD, and trying to visualize how this is going to work. One thing's clear: It's going to be a bastard.

Can Game of Thrones season two live up to season one?

No single clear-cut arc
Game of Thrones season one had a fairly clear storyline, even if it spawned loads of complexity and included tons of intense backstory. You could choose to see Ned Stark as more or less the main character, with Ned's appointment as Hand of the King setting in motion an arc that ends with Ned's death, and then we see the consequences of Ned's death. You could also view season one as largely about the Starks versus the Lannisters, with King Robert caught in the middle — and a few characters, such as Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen, largely off in their own stories.

But Clash of Kings is where the titular "game of thrones" starts acquiring an embarrassment of players. The war of the Five Kings, vaguely modeled on the War of the Roses, involves King Joffrey, his two (supposed) uncles Renly and Stannis, plus two regional "kings" — Robb Stark and Balon Greyjoy. To some extent, the story of Clash of Kings revolves around Joffrey triumphing the two strongest claimants to his throne, Renly and Stannis. But meanwhile, the stories of Robb and Balon have very little resolution in the second book.

Plus the magnificent Nicolaj Coster-Waldau has to spend basically the whole season locked in a dungeon, instead of making sexy-time or being a sword-waving bastard.

And meanwhile, a lot of the most interesting stuff in book two involves questions over how to govern — in particular, Tyrion Lannister spends a lot of time trying to "do justice" as the new Hand of the King, which involves outmaneuvering his sister and slashing away at layers of corruption. There are some great conversations about the nature of statecraft in the book — in particular, early on, Varys poses a riddle to Tyrion: a King, a priest and a rich man each command a sellsword to kill the other two — who does he obey? In other words, where does authority come from: money, religion or political power? (And it's a great sign, as Alyssa Rosenberg points out, that this conversation appears in the season two trailers.)
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Can Game of Thrones season two live up to season one?

Meanwhile, we see first Bran Stark, and then the interloper Theon Greyjoy, trying to be the Lord of Winterfell, and command the respect and obedience of the people there. At one point, Theon muses that it's better to be thought cruel than a fool — shortly before he's made an absolute fool of. Plus we don't just see the brutal rule of King Joffrey — we also see the brutal leadership of Vargo Hoat and Roose Bolton, and the brutality of Ser Amory Lorch's raiders, among other things. We see people trying to wield power at every level, and we see how seldom it really works.

Can Game of Thrones season two live up to season one?

But one major difference between the first and the second book is: The first book gives some sort of resolution, or a major turning point, to almost all of its characters towards the end. The second book, meanwhile, leaves some important characters in the middle of a storyline, without any clear turning point having been reached. True, there are some resolutions: Jon Snow makes an important decision, Daenerys leaves Qarth in her three boats, Tyrion has a major change in his fortunes, Arya decides to flee Harrenhal, and it appears that Catelyn Stark has made a decision about Jaime Lannister (though we don't know what.)

But in at least some cases, the book ends with cliffhangers that don't feel entirely different than some of the cliffhangers in the middle chapters. And that, in turn, makes it harder to tease out a satisfying arc for a 10-episode television miniseries.

The structure opens outwards

In many ways, A Game of Thrones is the most unrepresentative of the books in the Song of Ice and Fire series. At any given time, there are only a handful of locations in Westeros that we're following in the first book, plus of course the Dothraki Sea. In the second book, though Martin starts in earnest to follow his strategy of splitting up his characters as much as possible, opening outwards until there are characters scattered all over the Seven Kingdoms, and none of them ever run into each other.

Can Game of Thrones season two live up to season one?

As Martin told us in an interview last summer:

This is the ongoing problem with all of the books. The story starts fairly close in, with all the characters in the same place. But as the books go on, the characters spread apart into smaller and smaller groups, that break apart. You get more and more locations, more and more secondary characters. It sort of deltas out. Eventually, they will turn around and start delta-ing in again, but we haven't quite reached that point in the books. This is something the show is going to have to deal with, which is going to be a challenge.

Even apart from the logistics of creating a dozen different distinct locations, there's also the problem of switching back and forth between several different storylines, all of which could be subplots or main plots, depending on your point of view.

Can Game of Thrones season two live up to season one?

But also, the great strength of Martin's books as they go on is the extent to which they create a sense of the huge sweep of Westeros, as a complex and intractable political entity — and eventually, you get a sense of just how ungovernable and weird this place is. There's increasingly an element of travelogue in the fact that we follow so many characters, going to so many different places, from the Iron Islands to Storm's End.

More magic, more weirdness

The other thing that starts to happen in A Clash of Kings is that magic becomes a major plot device in the series. Not only do Daenerys' dragons start growing bigger and attracting more attention, but also magic is creeping back in almost everywhere. And weirdly, even though the second book is even less "heroic" and thus more realistic than the first (see below), the tone also shifts noticeably towards the mystical.

And I'm going to be fascinated to see how the television show pulls off the shift towards high-fantasy wrangling. Among other things:

  • Arya falls in with Jaqen H'ghar, an assassin who can change his face using magic.
  • Melisandre, a priestess of the Red God, gives birth to a living shadow that kills Renly, and later the castellan of Storm's End.
  • Tyrion's defense of King's Landing depends on pyromancers, who create a kind of living fire called wildfire (which we glimpse in the trailers.)
  • Can Game of Thrones season two live up to season one?

  • Daenerys goes inside the House of the Undying, the home of a group of sorcerers with blue lips, and sees strange visions of the past, future and times that never were. She's almost trapped, until her dragon Drogon saves her.
  • Almost all of the Stark kids start exploring their "Warg" powers, connecting to their direwolves in a way that becomes more than just a matter of seeing through their eyes.
  • Bran Stark starts having prophetic dreams, and meanwhile Jojen and Meera are straight-up seeing the future in their dreams.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg — it's going to be interesting to see how all this stuff is conveyed and represented on screen, especially alongside the fairly subdued tone the show otherwise goes for.

But most of all, this is where things get ugly

All of the above problems are totally surmountable — but the biggest challenge of turning A Clash of Kings into 10 hours of television might be finding ways to get our hopes up without actually getting our hopes up.

Can Game of Thrones season two live up to season one?

Let me explain. You might have felt as though there's a bit of a soul-crushing letdown in the first season or book, when Ned Stark seems to come tantalizingly close to unraveling that whole nasty Lannister conspiracy. And then instead, he fumbles the ball and pays with his life. In both the book and the TV show, it's made pretty clear that Ned never really came that close to winning, but at the same time, it's hard not to get your hopes up. Ned comes within throwing distance of the brass ring.

In the second book, there are lots of little moments where you start to hope that things will work out for these characters. Maybe Robb Stark really will be able to hold his alliance together, in spite of everything. Maybe Arya Stark will finally reach one of her father's bannermen that she can trust, and get reunited with her mother and King Robb. Maybe Jon Snow will make it out of Wildling territory with his honor intact. Maybe Theon will come to his senses. Maybe Sansa will really escape with Ser Dontos, the drunken knight. Maybe Tyrion will really outwit his sister and save the city. And so on. There's never really one particularly great hope for salvation dangled in front of us — it's more that every now and then, you can just glimpse how things could take a turn for the better.

Can Game of Thrones season two live up to season one?

This is important for two reasons: first, because if there's no glimmer of hope from time to time, then the story becomes so unrelentingly bleak that the readers all commit mass suicide before making it to the end. And second, because we can't experience the full extent of soul-crushing despair that this book mostly serves up unless we occasionally raise our expectations a bit. So the TV show is going to have to find ways to dangle the possibility of redemption and escape, in ways that are just as subtle and fleeting as what the book serves up.

Thinking about the structure of Clash of Kings some more, it seems as though two kinds of ruination happen towards the end of the book: Winterfell is trashed, and Tyrion's face is destroyed. Both of these things happen roughly around the same time, in chapters 66 and 67. And they represent two different kinds of failure.

Winterfell has remained a symbol for everything that was noble and great about the Starks, and both Bran and Theon have been trying to stand in Ned Stark's shoes as Winterfell's lord. When Winterfell is finally sacked, it's as a result of both Bran and Theon failing to protect Winterfell's legacy.

Can Game of Thrones season two live up to season one?

Meanwhile, Tyrion's ruined face comes as a direct result of his failure to set himself up as a new power player in King's Landing, replacing corruption with honesty and a modicum of concern for the common people. Tyrion gets betrayed by one of Cersei's cronies, Ser Mandon Moore, and doesn't even get any of the credit for saving King's Landing from Stannis.

A Clash of Kings is full of people who aspire to greatness, or whom the reader hopes for great things from — only to be somewhat disappointed. After all that stuff about Arya learning to wield a sword in the first book, you half expect her to become a knight, instead of a bitter mouse who memorizes a list of people she wants dead, and gets an assassin to do her dirty work for her. You hope that Jon Snow will finally come into his own as a great leader, but instead he's forced to do something nigh-unforgiveable to survive. Theon Greyjoy, meanwhile, gets more horrendous loathsome the more he tries to prove himself a hero.

It's like watching your best friend hurl a bag of live cats off a rocky cliff over and over again — and each time, you hope your friend will finally have a change of heart.

Reasons to believe this will work

Still, you'd be a fool to bet against producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, after the amazing job they did with the first season — at least in some parts, the TV show works even better than its source material. And at the very least, the show's first season manages to carve out its own identity while sticking amazingly close to the book.

Here are six reasons to have faith that the show can pull off a second miracle:

Can Game of Thrones season two live up to season one?

1) The amazing power of Peter Dinklage Seriously, if anybody can make a story about court intrigue and backroom maneuvering utterly fascinating, it's the Emmy-winning Peter Dinklage. And you could easily see Tyrion being this season's Ned Stark: like Ned, he becomes the King's Hand, then goes up against Cersei and basically loses. Of all the characters in the second book, Tyrion shows the most actual valor, and his is the biggest triumph and the greatest fall from grace. To the extent that the show beefs up Tyrion's screentime, it's pretty much guaranteed to work.

2) We can see Robb's romance play out on screen. Indeed, I think there's a glimpse of it in the trailer embedded above. A major weakness of the book is the fact that a whole bunch of important, game-changing stuff happens to Robb Stark, and we mostly don't see it happen — we hear about it afterwards, in A Storm of Swords. Martin apparently doesn't want to make Robb a viewpoint character, and no other viewpoint character is present for Robb's romance with Jeyne — but that's not an obstacle for the show, and maybe Robb can have a stronger arc on screen.

3) They already started expanding some supporting characters' roles. The first season contains several scenes that aren't in the books, mostly involving side characters like Littlefinger, Grand Maester Pycelle and Varys. At first, I thought it was a mistake to waste screen time on these characters — but in retrospect, it feels like a genius move. Both because it allowed the show to lay more groundwork for later developments involving those characters, and because we're already accustomed to seeing lots of scenes involving characters who aren't Starks or Lannisters, talking about stuff. And the show's already proved that viewers will listen to any amount of exposition, if it's delivered in the form of a lecture to a naked lady.

Can Game of Thrones season two live up to season one?

4) Episode 10 will be all aftermath We've already been told that episode nine is the Battle of the Blackwater, and it's being written by Martin himself. That leaves a whole episode for the aftermath — which vastly increases the chances of a satisfying arc. Episode nine will be a huge logistical nightmare, and probably shatter the show's budget forever — but episode 10 will be the really hard part, where a couple dozen characters have to be sent on their miserable way, with what feels like a modicum of resolution. Which brings us to...

5) They can borrow from book three. The show's already set a precedent for this — some of the scenes in episode 10 of the first season actually come from the second book, including Arya meeting Hot Pie and the rest of the prospective Night's Watch members. I would expect a few big chunks from Storm of Swords to turn up in the season finale — including possibly Jaime's fate at Catelyn's hands, Daenerys ordering the ships to change course, and the injured Tyrion meeting with his father. Plus maybe Arya's surprising triumph over some of the Bloody Mummers?

6) Edited to add: They can do a lot of reworking to create "episodes." Also, one major cause for confidence from the show's first season is the skill with which the creators moved stuff around so that subplots that sprawl throughout the book are mostly concentrated in a single episode. They'll have to do a lot of this to make something like Theon's change of heart feel less like a subplot that suddenly becomes major — but they've shown a lot of skill at this already.

In any case, we're on the edge of our seats, waiting to see just how Game of Thrones season two rises to the challenges of turning the heartbreaking Clash of Kings into ten sparkling hours of television. After all, if the show manages to adapt Clash of Kings successfully, then after that, it's all plain sailing for seasons three and beyond. Right?