It seems that week after week, Game of Thrones is judged on two primary criteria: how well the episode managed to draw all the separate storylines together into something resembling a cohesive whole, and whether or not the episode actually progressed the season's storyline - or if it simply set up some future narrative payoff.
Although 'Second Sons' doesn't offer up a major event or showstopper like Daenerys' masterful acquisition of the Unsullied, or Jon and Ygritte's scaling of the icy Wall, it does offer a bit more story by paring down the amount of characters who stop by to make an appearance. This week is mercifully devoid of Theon's continued torture. But it's also free of Robb Stark's attempt to make peace by offering up his uncle to marry one of Walder Frey's daughters and, sadly, the continuing adventures of Westeros' most exciting companions, Jaime and Brienne.
As the series has demonstrated in the past, the fewer characters that drop by the more character moments the episode happens to have at the ready. The culling down of locations and storylines leaves 'Second Sons' with just Daenerys, Melisandre and Stannis, and Tyrion and Sansa's wedding in King's Landing to check in on – save for the brief opening sequence which sees Arya and the Hound riding toward her mother and brother, after the young Stark spent the morning pondering whether or not she can cave in a Clegane skull with a rock.
So much of the episode seems to be made up of little victories snatched from what is otherwise a significant defeat. Arya may be in the hands of the Hound, but she's on her way to meet up with her family. And even though her traveling companion is on Arya's Big List of People to Kill, his motivations are far more straightforward than the Brotherhood Without Banners. While the light isn't nearly as bright at the end of their tunnel, Tyrion and Sansa manage to survive the wedding neither of them wants, while seeing Joffrey ever so briefly put in his place.
Considering the pace at which the series sometimes moves, the nuptials of Tyrion and Sansa felt as though they came about rather abruptly, creating the concern they might be treated offhandedly to some extent. But the sharper focus of 'Second Sons' winds up managing the affair in an efficient fashion that also offers up a handful of terrific character moments, mostly belonging to one or more of the Lannisters. In fact, the wedding seems to be the Tywin & Joffrey Show, as they are the only ones who could possibly be getting any enjoyment out of the whole thing – as Tywin acquires his key to the North, while Joffrey is afforded a chance to humiliate his uncle.
As with most social events involving large groups of family with varying degrees of affinity for one another, the wedding was chock-full of uncomfortable moments that went far beyond Joffrey's stealing of Tyrion's step stool. Cersei made her feelings for the Tyrells known by threatening Margaery after the Queen-to-be used the term "sister" and then by blowing off Loras before he could share a bit of insight handed down from his father. Cersei's willingness to share her feelings is one of few traits she has in common with her brother, who drunkenly threatens his nephew before wisely slipping into the role of inebriated buffoon, so that he can take Sansa back to the relative safety of their room, sarcastically quote the Night's Watch and pass out on a chaise lounge, leaving his teenaged wife to sleep alone – much to Shae's unspoken approval.
Over in Dragonstone, Ser Davos picks up the double-win of semi-literacy and freedom, while calling out Stannis' apparent uncertainty with Melisandre's plan. Still, it doesn't quite stop the Red Woman from leeching some of Gendry's blood, so that a spell may be put on Stannis' enemies. At this point, Stannis feels even more at a loss, torn between being the man Ser Davos proudly became loyal to, and his desire to be the true king of Westeros at any cost. Perhaps if Melisandre's spell works without the need to take Gendry's life, Stannis will find himself on the path to reclaiming the man he was, while becoming the king he's always dreamt of being.
The biggest winner of the episode (and season, really) is Dany. After sitting face-to-face with the captains of the Second Sons, and finding them mostly lacking in character and decency, she is joined by their skilled and seemingly decent lieutenant, Daario Naharis (Ed Skrein), after he refused their order to kill the Mother of Dragons by taking the heads of his captains.
Although none of the events felt particularly life-shattering, 'Second Sons' manages to be more than an episode simply intent on moving the pieces toward the future. And yet, Samwell's panicked killing of a White Walker with the weapon from the First Men, clearly points to some dark times ahead.
Game of Thrones will be taking a break for the Memorial Day weekend and will return on Sunday, June 2nd with 'The Rains of Castamere' @9pm on HBO. Check out a preview below: