"Aren't you always so clever with your schemes and your plots?" Queen Cersei Lannister

"Schemes and plots are the same thing." -- Tyrion Lannister


It wouldn't be a stretch to argue that the second season of"Game of Thrones"has been a good deal duller than Season 1. Until tonight.

During the HBO show's first season, no less than four major characters (including several potential kings) were killed off: Protagonist Ned Stark, Khal Drogo, Viserys Targaryen and the king himself, Robert Baratheon.

Midway through Season 2, the death toll of major characters stood at zero.

That all changed in episode five, "The Ghost of Harrenhal," when Stannis Baratheon's strange shadow-demon son/double killed his younger brother, Renly. And just like that, the number of potential kings was reduced from five to four.

Renly's assassination set off a series of events: His guard, Brienne, who was attending to Renly at the time of his death, fled camp under suspicion and pledged herself to Catelyn Stark; Renly's widow, Margaery Tyrell, appeared to collude with Littlefinger to join the Lannisters ("Do you want to be queen?" Littlefinger asked her. "No," she replied: "I want to be the queen."); and many of Renly's men (except for the Tyrells) joined Stannis' army. 

Many were grieving, including Davos Seaworth, but none more than Renly's lover, Loras Tyrell.
"He would have been a true king, a good king," Loras said, between tears.
Coldly, Stannis was less tearful about his brother's death.
"Fools love a fool," he said of those who mourn him.
With Renly dead and Daenerys Targaryen exiled, there are now really only three armies that matter: Joffrey's, Stannis' and Robb Stark's. And since Robb has no interest in the Iron Throne, that sets up a looming battle between Stannis and Joffrey's forces.
Davos counseled Stannis not to use Melisandre and her dark magic in his attack on King's Landing, arguing that people will worship her and not follow him.
"You won those bannermen from Renly. Don't lose them to her," he said. (Sound counsel, perhaps. But hasn't dark magic been, well, helpful to Stannis?)
But with Stannis plotting a naval attack via Blackwater Bay, Cersei Lannister was taking no such vows of celibacy from magic.
Tyrion Lannister, through his blackmailed cousin/spy, Lancel Lannister, learned Cersei has mobilized the city's pyromancers to create a substance called wildfire, which melts wood, stone, steel and, of course, flesh. The alchemists have made 7,811 jars of the substance and plan to fire them from catapults at Stannis' ships.
Bronn warned that this much wildfire (which is apparently insanely hot and hard to control) could burn up the Lannister army just as easily as Stannis' men. 

"Men win wars. Not magic tricks," he said.

But Tyrion apparently sees some use for the pyromancers' substance.

"The contents of this room could lay King's Landing low," he told the alchemist. "You won't be making wildfire for my sister any longer. You'll be making it for me."

Additionally, the city's common folk have grown to dislike Joffrey (justifiably) and (surprisingly) Tyrion, who they deride as a "demon monkey."

If Tyrion has grown into this season's main character, Arya Stark has become its top supporting actor.

Now a cupbearer for the Lannister patriarch, Arya's exchange with Tywin Lannister at Harrenhal showed her growing savvy and gravitas.

Lord Tyrwin: What do they say of Robb Stark in the north?

Arya: They call him the young wolf. They say he rides into battle on the back of giant direwolf. They say he can turn into a wolf himself when he wants. The say he can't be killed.

Lord Tywin: And do you believe them?

Arya: No, my lord, anyone can be killed.


Also, Arya's saving of Jaqen H'ghar, during episode three, came back to help her. At Harenhal, H'ghar told her that since she saved him and two others, he will kill any three people she desires. She used her first of these three wishes to kill the man who tortured her fellow captives, known as The Tickler. H'ghar dropped him rather unceremoniously from a ledge as the episode ends.

In the books, many credit to the death to the "Ghost of Harrenhal." In short, Arya has gone from a captive to a mystical, killing force.

But things aren't looking so auspicious for her brothers, Bran and Rickon in Winterfell.

The turncloak, Theon Greyjoy, has launched an attack against the Stark-allied Torrhen's Square, and Bran sent the majority of his guards to fight them, leaving Wintefell unprotected and ruled by a 9-year-old and a 4-year-old.

Bran also dreamed that a sea will overtake Winterfell, killing many there. That doesn't sound, um, good.

Meanwhile, Jon Snow set off with legendary ranger Qhorin Halfhand to try to assassinate the wildling king, Mance Rayder. (This particular Jon Snow-plotline has been dragging this season. I thought there were supposed to be giants, zombies and woolly mammoths beyond the wall, not just a lot of snow.)

The writers were smart to include more Daenerys Targaryen this episode. Even if she isn't central to the Stannis-versus-Joffrey plot, she was one of the most captivating characters of Season 1 and most folks want to see what's happening with her on a weekly basis.

Dany taught one of her (surprisingly cute) baby dragons how to cook meat, met the creepy warlock Pyat Pree (who looked just as creepy as I imagined) and got a dubious marriage proposal from Xaros Xhoan Daxos.
"Marry me and I will give you the seven kingdoms," he said (but one suspects what he really wants are dragons). To his credit, Daxos correctly observed Jorah Mormont's pretty obvious crush on Dany.
But Dany rebuffs Daxos' advance with humor: "That was a romantic proposal," she says.

With Renly dead and Robb Stark's stated non-interest in the Iron Throne, here's hoping Dany, her sense of humor, just spirit and her dragons appear in Westeros sooner, rather than later.