Cold water in your face
Brings you back to this awful place
With the scene-setting done, it's time to be welcomed to season 2 of Game of Thrones proper. And what does that mean? It means squids galore!
(Oh, and spoilers, obviously).
Our first visit to the Iron Islands, as well as providing a brief but terrifying insight into the Ironborn's priorities (Repeating rebellion that got some of his kids killed > keeping remaining two kids safe, humiliating newly-returned brother > not getting flicked off by same) also provided us with the seventh in our rapidly growing group of would-be conquerors.
For those having trouble keeping count, they are, from north and west to sound and east:
- Mance Rayder, King Beyond the Wall, who may or may not be planning to attack the Night's Watch in order to be much less "beyond" than he used to be;
- Balon Greyjoy; ol' Soursquid himself, who has either been waiting for his son to return to cause trouble again, or just sees an opportunity for plunder now two of the three closest opposing realms are stabbing each other to death over the burnt remains of the third;
- The King in the North, Robb Stark, who's the only guy with a crown to have actually directly won any battles as yet, and has used the resulting plunder to pay for a top-of-the-range CGI wolf;
- King Renly, busy putting together an army of one hundred thousand strong, and also maybe discovering that being hairless from the neck down might make one's armour a little too slippery;
- King Joffrey, who apparently spends most of his time equally furious that his grandfather only slaughtered 10% of Robb's army, and that Sansa is making it hard for him to come up with excuses to have her gauntlet-slapped;
- King Stannis, who for a man so uptight and fussy about everything else, is oddly careless with his battle-pieces when the opportunity to screw a redhead comes up; 
- Queen Daenerys, who's mainly trying to make sure no-one chops off her head and stuffs it in a saddle-bag.
If this episode has a theme (and as always, it's debatable as to whether that can be achieved given the confines of an adaptation like this one), it's this: the realisation that protecting some things means risking others.
Yoren starts the ball rolling at the campsite he's set up with the Night's Watch recruits (I like the way this episode starts with Arya, by the way, the only main character not to get a word of dialogue last week). When a pair of Gold Cloaks arrive, looking for Gendry, he chooses to protect a boy he's known for weeks at most, and in doing so, threatens the survival of the whole group. You don't threaten a man bearing a royal decree and assume nothing will come of it. Like seemingly everyone from the North, though, today's honour seems to all that matters.
Tyrion's choice is a very different one, and made for very different reasons. His choice is whether to protect Shae at risk to himself. I doubt Varys has any designs on "outing" Tyrion's companion - his overt (by his standards) threat really only makes sense if you read it as pointing out to Tyrion that he already has the ammunition to bring the Imp down, and therefore clearly isn't interested in doing so. Even so, Varys could change his mind, for reasons beyond Tyrion's abilities to guess, so the risk in keeping Shae in King's Landing just rose. Given the ease of finding other whores in King's Landing - ones Varys might take some time to discover - I can only assume Tyrion refuses to cut her loose because he has become fond of her. It isn't honour that's preventing him from throwing her out, but it might be something equally dangerous.
Out beyond the wall, there's a slight wrinkle in the building theme: Sam wants to protect something he has no duty to. By his own (accidental) admission, I'm not sure he's entirely thinking with his head-brain any more than Tyrion is, but he's willing to risk his own life in order to ensure someone who won't even explain why she's in danger escapes.
Since this is Game of Thrones, of course, it's entirely possible that Yoren, Tyrion, and/or Sam will all come to regret the choices they've made. The show makes this brutally obvious by briefly returning to Daenerys in the Red Waste. Last week she made a form of the choice presented to the other characters now: to protect something by risking something else. In her case, she risked the lives of her three Bloodriders, sending them off into the unknown in the hope that they return with information that can save her people.
What Rakharo returns with is his own head. Not his own body, though.
(Apparently this was a change to the books forced by Elyes Gabel's schedule conflicts, but much as I liked his portrayal of a young Dothraki warrior, his off-screen death certainly brings home the point.)
Westward now, as far west as west goes, or has done until now at least, and we arrive at Pyke, just as Theon Greyjoy is doing the same. This time, our companion isn't the one to make a choice (though I suppose one could argue he's protected whatever relationship he can still have with his father at the expense of his promises to Robb; unless he develops a spine next episode, of course). Balon seems perfectly happy to, though. Being down a few children down doesn't seem to have dulled his desire to fighting for independence. Apparently his desire to protect the two that have survived doesn't get much of a look in against risking them in starting another war.
Of course, as little heed as Balon seems to pay to protecting what is ostensibly dear to him, Petyr Baelish is a good deal further down the road of callousness. Indeed, watching as he threatens Ros with the possibility of slavery and mutilation if she doesn't get back to turning tricks, one wonders is Petyr can even conceptualise the choice at all, if there is anything in Westeros he'd ever consider protecting at any risk to his interests. Perhaps there's nothing save Catelyn. Perhaps there's nothing at all.
I think that's probably as far as we can take all this, though it would be criminal of me not to mention a few other highlights:
- Tyrion's take-down of "Lord" Slynt was fabulously well-played, and brutally funny. Right up to the last moment, of course, when Bronn makes it clear that the new Commander of the City Watch has no more scruples than the last one;
- Arya and Gendry deserve their own spin-off;
- Sallador Saan equals awesome. My North-East white middle-classness may be making me blind to problems of making the first black character in the show a pussy-hungry swaggering criminal, but damn, did he have presence, and great lines;
- A White Walker. Here? Now? How intriguing...
 Seriously, I love my girlfriend, but was she to so much as suggest I might want to sweep my 40K armies onto the floor so that we could get down to some ass 'n' static grass action on a gaming table, then we'd have ourselves a major problem.