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Game of Thrones recap: 'Second Sons'
Sunday's episode of the HBO fantasy drama put the spotlight on some of the show's lesser-explored characters, including Gendry and Samwell Tarly
 
Not exactly wedded bliss...
Not exactly wedded bliss... HBO/Helen Sloan

Weddings, by and large, are not happy affairs in Westeros.

When Ned Stark's elder brother died, Ned dutifully stepped in to marry Catelyn, spending a single night with her before riding off to fight in Robert Baratheon's rebellion and returning with a bastard son. Cersei spent her first night as a wedded woman in bed with Robert as he drunkenly called her Lyanna Stark, the woman he really loved. And long before Daenerys and Khal Drogo shared any actual affection for one another, she spent an evening shivering and crying as he stoically had sex with her for the first time. "A Dothraki wedding without at least three deaths is seen as a dull affair," said a bemused Illyrio Mopatis as Drogo's wedding guests interrupted their orgy to attack one another.

By those significantly lowered standards, Tyrion and Sansa's dutiful wedding ceremony in King's Landing, while far from a joyous affair, went about as well as could be expected. Joffrey skulked around, pestering his uncle and tormenting Sansa with threats of a wedding night rape. But Tyrion promised to never hurt her — a promise unique in her experience with the Lannisters — and refused to have sex with her until she says that she's ready.

The wedding formed the centerpiece of last night's "Second Sons," which spent less time hopping around Westeros than any episode in recent memory. The series skipped Jon Snow and Ygritte, Robb Stark and his army, Jaime Lannister and Brienne, Theon and his torturer, and Bran and the Reeds altogether. This focused look at a few key figures was a refreshing change for Game of Thrones, which bounced back after last week's undercooked and overstuffed episode.

But the real surprise wasn't how narrow the episode's focus was; it's who we focused on. One of the episode's key characters was Gendry, the unassuming bastard son of Robert Baratheon, who risks becoming a sacrifice to Melisandre and her Lord of Light. "Is there a difference between a kill and a sacrifice?" asks Davos as Stannis lets him out of his prison cell. As it turns out, the answer is yes; Melisandre uses leeches to suck out Gendry's "king's blood," which — while unpleasant — is probably better than getting murdered. "It's the real thing or it's not," says Melisandre as she throws the blood-filled leeches onto the fire, as Stannis makes his tiny sacrifices for Robb Stark, Balon Greyjoy, and Joffrey Baratheon.

Like Davos, we'd be hard-pressed to argue over the abilities of the Lord of Light at this point; we've seen Melisandre give birth to a murderous shadow baby and seen Berric Dondarrion rise from the dead. But the notion of king's blood is a strange one in a world in which the definition of "king" is a matter of dispute. Gendry may have Robert Baratheon's king's blood, but Robert himself wasn't a king until late in his life, and it's hard to imagine that something about his blood changed the moment he sat on the Iron Throne.

And Gendry, for all his "king's blood," is one of the few people we know who are utterly disinterested in the game of thrones. Gendry is probably one of the least-discussed long-running characters on the show, but he offers something unique in the series: The perspective of a true commoner. With Ros dead, Gendry is one of the only characters left with no real social standing, and he lacks even her higher aspirations; after being used as a pawn by multiple sides in the clash of kings throughout the first two seasons, he finally made a decision of his own when he joined the independent Brotherhood Without Banners — and was almost immediately sold to Melisandre to become a pawn for yet another would-be king.

But if Gendry really wants to escape the fate that his bloodline has laid out for him, he should look no further than Essos, the land east of Westeros, which is in the midst of its own political conflict. Across the narrow sea, "Second Sons" introduces a new character who explicitly refuses to follow the path that others have demanded he takes: Daario Naharis, a mercenary who decides that he'd rather fight for the side with dragons. "I only do what I want to do," explains Daario, as he dumps the heads of his fellow captains at Daenerys' feet. Daario quickly swears his sword, his heart, and his life to Daenerys, but so far we only know that the first one has any real value. After all, Daario just demonstrated exactly how much loyalty means to him.

On the opposite side of the world, Game of Thrones checks in with an even more unlikely hero: Samwell Tarly, who becomes the first person we've seen kill a White Walker. (Though unfortunately, he's not savvy enough to recover the mysterious dagger that allowed him to do it in the first place.) Given his current situation, it's easy to forget that Sam, as the eldest son of a prominent Westerosi family, was once a prisoner to the same kind of life that Tyrion currently endures. Samwell's maltreatment came at the hands of his father, whom Sam describes in "Second Sons" as "a different manner of cruel." Sam may be free now, but he's subjected to an entirely different manner of cruelty: The violent, unknowable forces of nature behind the Wall.

It's hard to say if Sam is better off now. As always in Game of Thrones, our heroes and villains are dealing with all manner of cruelty — and with only two episodes left in the season, the kings still clashing and winter still coming, it's hard to imagine things getting any better before the end.

Read more Game of Thrones recaps:
* Game of Thrones recap: 'The Bear and the Maiden Fair'
* Game of Thrones recap: 'The Climb'
* Game of Thrones recap: The high price of honor
* Game of Thrones recap: Revenge is a dish best served hot
* Game of Thrones recap: 'Walk of Punishment'
* Game of Thrones recap: The women of Westeros
* Game of Thrones recap: 'Valar Dohaeris'

 
Scott Meslow is the entertainment editor and film and television critic for TheWeek.com. He has written about film and television at publications including The AtlanticPOLITICO Magazine, and Vulture.

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