The best and worst part of a show whose moral is that there’s no such thing as traditional morals is that characters we’ve come to know as basically good (or at least complex) end up on opposite sides by circumstance alone. We’ve already seen this through Game of Thrones’ famous odd couples — Arya Stark and Tywin Lannister’s conversations at Harrenhal, for example, or the growing relationship between Jaime and Brienne. “Second Sons” brings this point home with its emotional centerpiece: Tyrion and Sansa’s wedding, which gathers together the King’s Landing power players in one unhappy mess of rivalries and disappointments.
The opening scene between Arya and her captor Sandor Clegane sets this dynamic up nicely. There’s an obvious parallel between Jaime and Brienne, except this time the roles are reversed: it’s the captive who’s stuck in a world of right versus wrong and the captor who’s learned the hard way there’s no such thing. Arya petulantly says there’s no one out there worse than the Dog, who she once saw murder her friend in cold blood for sticking up to Joffrey, but Sandor surprises her by promising to take her home to her remaining family. After being let down so dramatically by the Brotherhood last week, Arya’s quickly growing just as disillusioned with her moral compass as Sandor. He may be a murderer, sure, but at least he’s not a rapist — and unlike the Brotherhood, he’s actually carrying through on his promise to take her back to Catelyn.
Then comes the gut-wrenching spectacle of Sansa and Tyrion’s wedding, where we see Tyrion’s loyalty to his family finally reach its breaking point. The audience has spent plenty of time with both the newlyweds, and what makes their marriage so tragic is that although we like both of them (especially Tyrion), they’re each miserable to find themselves paired up with the other. As hard as Tyrion tries to be a gentleman, promising never to hurt Sansa and expressing sympathy, she’s doubly revolted by both his physical appearance and his family. And as hard as Sansa tries to keep a straight face and do what she’s supposed to do as a married noblewoman, she’s still obviously a terrified 14 year old. Combined with Joffrey’s cruel humiliation of both parties, taking away Tyrion’s footstool during the cloaking ceremony and threatening to rape Sansa afterward, it’s enough to make anyone down a few goblets of red wine.
The rest of the King’s Landing scenes are filled with other great pairings, particularly Cersei’s one-on-one face-offs with the Tyrell siblings. The eldest Lannister’s dislike of Margaery finally comes out into the open, and the contrast between the two women couldn’t be more perfectly drawn: Cersei unsubtly threatens her future daughter-in-law with the story of the “slaughter” of the last second wealthiest family in Westeros, while Margaery never breaks a sweat, continuing to make eye contact with passing courtiers without batting an eye. Loras’s turn in the hot seat, meanwhile, is over before it begins; Cersei shuts it down with a single withering line, making it even more obvious just how fed up she is with being a professional bride.
“Second Sons” also continues the face-off between individual welfare and collective good that the Gendry and Melisandre plotline has become. In a nice addition to the books, the show has opted to make explicit what readers and viewers were previously left to discover for themselves: making sacrifices to gods you can’t see is one thing, but when the Lord of Light gives you continual proof he exists, doesn’t it make sense to obey him? Davos remains staunchly opposed to the idea of murdering Gendry on principle, and in a nice bit of acting from Stephen Dillane, it’s clear Stannis doesn’t either, even before Davos says it out loud. Although the audience still sides with Davos and Gendry, however, we’re finally beginning to understand why Melisandre is such a true believer — that she truly believes she’s doing what’s right to save the world. Melisandre opts to give yet another demonstration of her power, leading us into the least necessary sex scene Game of Thrones has ever seen. Of course she couldn’t simply tie him up or even just ask him to give up some blood; the show thinks viewers want a cringe-inducing seduction scene, so that’s what we get.
Finally, Daenerys scores another victory and another army in the form of handsome mercenary Daario Naharis. The trio of scenes is certainly fun to watch, with newcomer Ed Skrein quickly establishing some solid chemistry with Emilia Clarke. Ultimately, though, the episode’s namesake company of sell-swords is just another stepping stone in the larger arc of Daenerys’s development into a force to be reckoned with. She holds her own against the boorish Titan’s Bastard and even Daario, who forces his way into her tent while she’s taking a bath. And by the time Daario shows up with his captains’ heads in tow, Daenerys is 2,000 troops closer to conquering yet another city.
The final scene of “Second Sons” manages to combine both character work and one of the more important world-building developments of the season. Gilly and Sam take up camp somewhere beyond the Wall, and it’s made clear once again just how remote and sheltered the wildlings are from “real” civilization. Gilly’s as naïve as Ygritte, intimidated by Sam’s highborn background and struggling to understand the concept of surnames. Sam, meanwhile, has finally been given a backbone by the miraculous power of his crush. When a White Walker strolls into their camp to take Gilly’s baby, Sam stabs it with the crude blade he found last week at the Fist of the First Men, shattering it into ice and showing a way to defeat the would-be invaders. The episode ends in a rush, but the audience is left with a vital piece of new information and a fresh injection of fantasy into an episode that’s mostly realpolitik.