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'Game of Thrones' season 2 recap: Now with more Joffrey slapping

Game of Thrones

HBO's epic fantasy series is finally back after a successful first season and a handful of awards, including a well-deserved Emmy and Golden Globe win for Peter Dinklage, who continues to steal absolutely every scene with his deft and occasionally heartbreaking portrayal of Tyrion Lannister. At times, "Game of Thrones" has been a brutal show to watch, so I'll start off with at least one piece of good news up front: Joffrey gets slapped across the face in this episode. Really hard. So hard you can actually hear it echo in the throne room!

It's a rare, shining moment of joy in an episode where nearly everyone is half-broken and hanging on by the skin of their teeth, and things seem likely to get far worse before they get better. The once-united Seven Kingdoms have fractured into numerous factions, and teeter on the brink of all-out civil war thanks to the untimely deaths of King Robert and Ned Stark and the growing number of would-be lieges who have forged their own crowns.

Robb Stark has declared himself King in the North after the death of his father at the hands of child-monster King Joffrey, the 13-year-old sociopath currently sitting on the Iron Throne like a kid burning ants with the world's largest magnifying glass. Joffrey is a character who has grown so loathsome that it's occasionally difficult to get through his scenes without taking a break to watch that immensely satisfying fan video where Tyrion slaps him on loop for ten minutes, which I highly recommend.

INTERACTIVE: Who's who in 'Game of Thrones' Season 2

King Robert's brothers, Stannis and Renly, are both laying claim to Joffrey's throne after hearing the totally gross truth about his parentage, each demanding the fealty of the other and gathering their respective power bases. For Stannis, this means aligning himself with a foreign fire deity called the Lord of Light and burning his old gods in effigy on a beach, while simultanously sending ravens to every corner of Westeros with the news that Joffrey is a product of incest. If Ned Stark had done the latter he'd probably be alive right now, but if there's anything we learn from watching "Game of Thrones," it's that being honorable and ethical means you will probably die screaming.

Meanwhile, the Night's Watch marches North beyond the Wall, to the holdfast of a wildling named Craster who apparently thinks the Lannisters shouldn't get to have all the intra-family sex in Westeros. He practices a form of polygamy wherein he marries all of his daughters, who give birth to more daughters, whom he then also marries in an incredibly creepy recursive incest loop. Just don't ask what happens to the sons! Craster informs the Watch that the previously anarchic wildlings are uniting under the banner of a King Beyond the Wall, and that their army may be larger than any commanded by the kings of the fractured south.

As the various factions vie for leverage, using everything from violence to gossip to magic to sex, the episode becomes a reflection on the true nature of power: what it really means, and who really has it. Does it belong to the people who wear their power like a form of plumage and use it like a cudgel, or does it belong to people who listen, wait, and transform the world from the shadows? A secret can be as dangerous as a sword, something that master manipulators like Littlefinger and Varys know all too well. Those who treat power as a free pass for their worst impulses are as naive about the limits of power as Ned Stark was about the limits of honor, and no less vulnerable to his fate.

PHOTOS: The costumes of 'Game of Thrones'

Extra Credit Book Report:

Where does the show depart from the "Clash of Kings" novel? Sadly, Cersei never slapped Joffrey in the book, although she did slap Tyrion numerous times, a slap-swap I'm more than happy to embrace. Joffrey's muted threat to Cersei and the moment of fear in her eyes gave him a sense of menace that it seems no one is safe from now, not even his mother.

The added scene where Littlefinger taunts Cersei about her incestuous relationship with Jaime, however, rings false. Littlefinger is nothing if not a consummate politician, and perhaps the most brilliant and calculating character in the series. It seems unlikely that he would do something as impolitic and ill-considered as needling one of the most dangerous people in the kingdom for no reason. I suppose the furthering of this particular power theme is a reason, but I'm not sure Littlefinger would agree. While Varys has often claimed to serve the greater good, when has Littlefinger ever been in the business of serving anything besides himself?

RELATED:

Full Show Tracker coverage of 'Game of Thrones'

'Game of Thrones' season 2: Everything you need to know

'Game of Thrones' executive producer D.B. Weiss talks Season 2, DVD

-- Laura Hudson

Photo: King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) sits on the Iron Throne Credit: HBO

 
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