After many long months, Game of Thrones returns to further explore the lives of those seeking power in Westeros, the fictional world of writer George RR Martin. As the second season begins, it’s clear that the some of the challenges that the show suffered in the early episodes of its inaugural season have been overcome as season two gets off to a much stronger start.
Let’s all give a collective cheer for the return of one of television’s best dramas…
Although it’s clear that Game of Thrones is more mature, more self-assured and has a better sense of plotting in its second season opener, it still suffers in part from playing catch-up. As fans of the books know, this is a sprawling story that covers multiple territories (the various kingdoms, the Wall, the land beyond the Narrow Sea, etc.) and hundreds of players, so there will never be a time when the show is not ambitiously trying to cram a metric ton of content into a single episode. Not helping matters is the fact that HBO only greenlit ten episodes to cover the entirety of the second book in the series, A Clash Of Kings. So showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (also writers on this episode) have their work cut out for them.
Considering how many stories and players they’re moving around in this Game, they perform rather admirably. Unfortunately some time has passed, so viewers either need to watch carefully or they’ll be lost in confusion, especially with regard to the bevy of new characters that are introduced. Part of the challenge is simply remembering where we left off, so let’s try a recap of season one for starters: Robert Baratheon – the former king – is dead, killed by mildly questionable circumstances, and his eldest son, Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) has taken his place as king. Unfortunately one of his first kingly acts was to kill Ned Stark (poor, poor Sean Bean, who literally seems to die in everything he does). This initiates a series of responses, the least of which being a northern rebellion by Stark’s eldest son Robb (Richard Madden) and his mother, Catelyn (Michelle Fairley). They capture Joffrey’s uncle, Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) in battle with the hopes of brokering for peace. They also hope for a trade for the eldest Stark daughter, Sansa (Sophie Turner) who remains in the capital of King’s Landing as prisoner and Joffrey’s betrothed. Unbeknowst to them, the youngest Stark daughter, Arya (Maisie Williams) has snuck out of King’s Landing with one of Robert’s bastards, en route to the Wall, where her half brother Jon (Kit Harrington) has ventured into wildling territory in search of his missing uncle. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Narrow Sea, deposed Queen Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) was struck with tragedy, but found solace in the birth of three dragons, the last of their kind.
Whew! That is a lot of exposition and I haven’t even begun to address tonight’s episode! Let’s bullet point some big stuff:
- The opener with Joffrey’s name day tourney is an effective reintroduction to the world. The scene not only reminds us of the dangers of this world (mmm…who doesn’t love watching a knight being dragged away in a smear of blood?), but also of Joff’s fiery temper (casually displayed when he nearly suffocates a knight with wine). I like Sansa’s witty but submissive solution to spare the knight’s life, and the sensitivity that Joff’s uncle, Tyrion (break-out star and Emmy winner, Peter Dinklage) and the Hound (Rory McCann) – Joff’s bodyguard on the Kingsguard – both show the poor girl.
- In the Stark camp, we learn that Robb moves Jaime with him from battle to battle because he doesn’t trust his men around the Lannister swordsman. Although this scene is mostly exposition, it’s nice to see the improved effects of the Direwolf and a reiteration of the battle strategy of both the Stark and Lannister camps. We also get brief scenes with Stark’s ward Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) who wants to use his family’s connection to secure Robb a fleet, and mother Catelyn, whom Robb sends south to meet with an unseen Renly, Robert’s younger brother, who is also vying for the throne.
- Our big new introduction is Renly’s older brother, Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) who was only mentioned in the first season. It’s a fairly subtle introduction as his Red Witch, Melisandre (Carice van Houten) mostly steals the spotlight. Clad in bosom-busting red and burning the seven gods of Westeros in effigy, the woman also survives a poisoned attack by Stannis’ Maester, who succumbs in the assassination attempt. In the book this is built up a fair bit more, so I’m interested to see if new viewers fully understood how or why this came about…
- At King’s Landing, Cersei Lannister (Lena Headley) struggles with the return of her imp brother who has assumed the role of Hand of The King (in their father’s absence). Cersei is one of my favourite characters on the show. Even though I’m aware people find her deplorable and evil, I like the balance between the misogyny and the strength. Cersei is routinely circumvented from doing what she wants due to her status as a woman (evident here in Tyrion’s appointment above her and without consultation), but she also has a hand in everything, making her status as Regent extremely powerful. Witness her two big “moments” tonight when she asserts her authority: first over Joffrey (slapping him in the face after he questions her about rumours of her incestuous relationship with Jaime and then about the bastards Robert fathered). This demonstration – which Joffrey reminds her is punishable by death – doesn’t go as well as her second: an encounter with banker and council member Baelish/Littlefinger (Aiden Gillen). In a masterfully done scene, Baelish suggests that “knowledge is power” until Cersei counters that “power is power.” She proves her point as she directs the Knightsguards through arbitrary tasks, including nearly killing Baelish, and they obey her verbal commands without question. Such fun!
- Finally, as we journey past The Wall with Jon and the other members of the NightsWatch, we meet wildling Craster (Robert Pugh) when they stop for information. There’s quite a bit said about his daughters (who are also his wives), and how Jon is warned not to look at them. Clearly this will have some greater significance later on, but I could have done without the thinly veiled homophobia (references to how “pretty” Jon is and how Craster will f*ck him if he catches him eying the women). Another important bit of info to make note of? Mention of a defected Nightswatchman named Mance Ryder who is amassing an army of wildlings who will march South in war against The Wall.
- We only get brief scenes with a few others, including Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) at Winterfell. Initially seen lording over the landowners who have come to seek support since all the men have accompanied Robb into battle, the more important scene is his conversation with reformed wildling Osha (Natalia Tena) about the red comet in the sky. The suggestion that the comet means different things to different people is similiar to how power, promises and actions are seen in the show: a great deal of how the world is seen depends on who is telling you the story (ie: the power lies in the storytelling, depending on if it is a Stark, a Lannister, a Targaryen, etc). The reappropriation of knowledge to suit your needs – this is true power.
- The other main character we see briefly is Daenerys, who is wandering the Red Waste – an open desert – with her khalisari. As one horse drops dead, she sends three emissaries in different directions to seek a village, city or water supply. As the riders disappear, the camera circles to Dany and it’s worrying how dirty, desperate and despondent she looks. She’s clearly struggling, even though she has her dragons.
- Best line of the night: Tyrion’s comment to Cersei suggesting that her love for her children is her only redeeming quality. That and her cheekbones.
There’s about a million other elements to highlight, so instead of trying to do them justice, why not ID your highlights of the premiere in the comments below? What did you make of our new characters tonight: Stannis, Melisandre, Stannis’ man, Davos (Liam Cunningham), Craster? Were you surprised that Cersei and Joffrey followed up the bastards comment by killing a whole bunch of kids? Did you want to spend more time with anyone in particular? Sound off!
A note about comments: Please bear in mind that we’re in a spoiler free zone. Any comments that discuss upcoming events from the books will be deleted. If it’s happened on the show, then you can compare it to a book, but let’s keep this a safe space for non-readers who only want to watch the show.
Game of Thrones airs Sundays at 9pm EST on HBO.