Let's get this part out of the way immediately so there's no misinterpreting our feelings here: Game of Thrones Season 2 was fantastic, riveting television, the likes of which have never been seen on television before. It was only 10 episodes long and even still there's a ton to cover, but I just want to touch on a few points that stood out to me during the season. If you'd like to discuss the casting decision of Ser Dontos or other minutiae, do your damndest in the comments.
Game of Thrones' second season was a staggering production feat, filming on location in the walled city of Dubrovnik, Croatia (King's Landing), the icy cliffs of Iceland (North of The Wall), and the rolling greens of Ireland (just about everywhere else). Big deal, anyone can buy a plane ticket and bring a camera, right? But Game of Thrones used those locations so perfectly because it needed to. There's no other show on TV right now that's as much of an escape from our lame 9-to-5 401k pay-for-our-kids'-braces lives than Game of Thrones, and it's very clear HBO knows this.
That to me was the most impressive part of Season 2. Lost was probably the last show to nail that same sense of escapism with its Hawaiian backdrop, but those wusses were still just a golf-cart ride away from a Mai Tai in a giant plastic tube. Game of Thrones really made it seem like Jon Snow was at the edge of the world because he WAS at the edge of the world (no offense, Iceland!). Everything worked off the convincing surroundings, be they real or digital; the costumes, acting, storytelling... those don't gel without a real sense of being there already. I know I'm geeking out over this, but boy oh boy was it impressive.
Universally, we can all agree the scenery was incredible. What we're having more problems with was the adaptation of A Clash of Kings, the book on which Season 2 was based. Author George R.R. Martin rightfully has a lot of loyal followers, and when they saw their idol's work tinkered with, many of of them freaked out and took to the web and typed their fingers down to the bone complaining about omitted characters (where were the frog people siblings?), unusual pairings (Arya and Tywin?), and new storylines (what happened to Dany's story the way it was in the book?).
Compared to the way Season 1 stuck to the book, Season 2 looked more like an adaptation of the Cliff's Notes version of A Clash of Kings, touching on the broad points and completely restructuring many others. But that's what Season 2 had to do. Remember, this isn't the book come to life, it's the book ADAPTED for television. And for the book to become a television series, characters had to be limited and used in new ways, certain stories had to be spiced up to seem relevant, and plots had to make the most of their screen time. In a perfect world, each season of Game of Thrones would be 100 hours long and we'd have really gotten to know Qhorin Halfhand, which in turn would've added a lot more emotional heft to the scene where Jon killed him.
I think the old rationale of "let's just be happy with what we've got" is usually a cop out, but in this case it totally applies. It's unlikely HBO will ever extend a season beyond 10 episodes, but showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are doing a great job with the situation. Most shows have a problem filling 10 episodes with compelling stories. Game of Thrones has the exact opposite problem because there is so much material. As much as I would've liked to have seen Tyrion commission the giant chain that trapped Stannis's fleet in Blackwater Bay, I think the showrunners made all the right cuts to turn A Clash of Kings into a compelling television series, particularly for those who haven't read the books.
If there was a weakness to the season, it was the imbalance between storylines. Dany, even with her amped-up "Someone stole my dragons!" storyline, essentially spent the entire season visiting a new city and eventually selling its contents for a boat. She went from having the most interesting storyline in Season 1 to the one we used as an opportunity to refill our wine glasses in Season 2. Dany's growth in Season 1, her transformation from jailbait sex toy to barbarian bitch queen, was riveting and one of the best character arcs on television. In Season 2 she was reduced to a hotel guest whose belongings were stolen by the maid. But as tiring as it was on the show, it was actually even more uneventful in the book, so let's give Benioff and Weiss credit for making her journey from Point A to Point B more interesting.
Now for the ultimate question: Was Season 2 better than Season 1? I'm not allowed to say, "Well they were both great for their own reasons!" (which they were), so I'm going to go ahead and say that Season 2 was better. Season 1 was forced to spend several episodes painstakingly establishing the world; Season 2 was able to start without any housekeeping, and came in with the confidence (and budget) of a veteran series, and it showed. For one hour a week, we stamped our passports and journeyed to Westeros from the comfort of our couches.
BEST MOMENTS: Wildfire! The Hound telling Joffrey off. Tyrion's mind games in ousting Cersei's spy, and his total domination of Lancel. Jaime showering Brienne with insults. Cersei teaching Sansa how to be a queen. Theon's increasingly poor decisions (Alfie Allen was great). Any time Pyat Pree did that self-cloning trick. Davos vs. Melisandre in the battle for Stannis's affection. Everything Dolorous Edd said. Arya's scenes with Tywin. Joffrey getting hit with cow shit/slapped. Shadow baby! Too many to list them all.
WORST MOMENTS: Most of Dany's season. Not enough Robb kicking ass (his courtship with Talisa could have been coupled with a bit more action). Jon's bumbling treatment of prisoner Ygritte.
BEST NEW CHARACTER: Tough call here, but I'm giving it to my man Ser Davos Seaworth. Liam Cunningham put in a fine performance as the honorable pirate. Melisandre is a close second in this race, but she was largely absent from the second half of the season.
WORST NEW CHARACTER: Xaro Xhoan Daxos. Homeboy was a playaaaa who was all talk and no game.
What does your Game of Thrones report card look like for Season 2 overall? Name your own best and worst moments and new characters in the comments?
Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom