There’s a moment in the opening episode of season two of Game of Thrones that sums up its distinct brand of storytelling. Prince Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson) — illegitimate king, product of incest, and all-around horrible person — is overseeing a jousting match that’s part of his “Name Day” celebration. One fighter knocks the other off a high perch and he lands on the ground with a sickening crunch. Then some attendants appear to drag the corpse away. The episode’s director, Alan Taylor, cuts to a wide shot of the body being removed as a man with a bucket and a sponge walks into view to clean up the blood, then cuts away again before the cleanup can start. It’s a grimly funny touch, a sight gag, really; this sort of violence is so common in Westeros that not only does the crowd at the joust not make a big deal of it, the show doesn’t either. But this throwaway moment also emphasizes that for all its gore, nudity, and other groundling-friendly spectacles, Game of Thrones is a ruthlessly efficient series that usually prefers to make its points and then jump to the next moment rather than linger.
Sometimes a given scene plays out long enough to explain exactly what’s happening, but other times it cuts things short just as, or immediately before, a pivotal moment occurs. There are exceptions, of course, and they’re often extravagantly lurid. Near the end of episode two, there’s a scene in which a bitter rival for the throne diddles a female adviser on a tabletop inscribed with a scale model of the kingdom they hope to conquer together; it’s as if they’re enacting a fan fantasy about crawling through the screen during the opening credits map sequence and getting busy. But the trashier moments stand out because the show is so judicious elsewhere.
In my original review of the series, I likened it to a sword-and-sorcery equivalent of The Wire or Deadwood: a plot-packed epic about a whole society that throws a lot of information at you and expects you to keep up. It’s still that way. Based on the first four episodes of season two — which I won’t parse in detail because I don’t want to spoil anything, and because that’s a job better left to postshow recaps — Game of Thrones has decided to stick with that aesthetic. Taylor, who directed the first two episodes, and showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, who wrote the scripts, have to find engrossing ways to set the scene for us again and explain who’s who, no small task with a world this populous. And they succeed, thanks partly to a simple but ingenious device of having many of the characters in the opening episode fret about the coming of a potentially very long winter and the presence of a comet in the skies. The constant talk and action related to the change of seasons lets the characters discuss the allocation of resources and the immediate needs of their people and their armies in an organic-seeming way, while the shots of the comet in the sky let the storytellers cut from one subplot or region to another without making too big a deal of it. Somebody ends a scene by looking up at the comet; cut to a shot of the comet; pan down to reveal a different location and a new set of characters, and boom, we’re on to the next thing. This is classical film storytelling, at once terse but unhurried, and confidently executed.
As mentioned, the hideous brat Joffrey, the eldest son of the late King Robert, is running the seven kingdoms with the advice of his mother, Queen Cersei Lannister (Lena Headley). He rejects her counsel at every turn and asserts his power like an evil little boy asserting dominion over the world’s biggest playroom. Rumors are circulating that Joffrey is not only politically illegitimate but biologically disgusting; if the kid keeps wantonly spilling blood, a peasant revolt could sweep him from power. Cersei and her advisers are also worried about loose ends from last season, namely the possibility that one of the executed Ned Stark’s children, Arya Stark (Maisie Williams), is still out there somewhere, and that she’ll either return for revenge when she’s old enough or maybe be used as a cause célèbre by Joffrey’s enemies.
Nearly everyone else seems to want Joffrey deposed, and they’re plotting to make it happen: Ned’s illegitimate son Jon Snow (Kit Harington), who’s traveling through the snowy forests; Robert’s brothers, the stubborn Stannis (Stephen Dillane) and the closeted Renly (Gethin Anthony); Balon Greyjoy (Patrick Malahide), the deposed leader of the Iron Islands; and of course Daenerys “Dany” Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), who’s traveling across the Red Wastes with that baby dragon perched atop her shoulder like a cockatoo. Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), the new Hand of the King, utters a line that could be spoken by any of the other rivals for the throne: “Our enemies hate each other almost as much as they hate us.” Westeros is Balkanized, to use a real-world adjective, and as they position themselves for power-grabs, we’re constantly aware that bigger threats loom beyond their immediate narrative horizons: winter, of course, and the stirrings of that zombielike horde glimpsed briefly in season one.
Additionally, there are fantastic and often unnerving events. The paralyzed Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) has dreams of seeing the world through the eyes of a wolf, or perhaps being a wolf. Stannis has a religious adviser, Melisandre (Carice Van Houten), who wants him and his people to quit practicing polytheism and worship a fire god, which, thanks to the constant presence of flames and Van Houten’s eerie cadence, sounds like a harbinger of demonic magic. (There’s even a king-making origin myth that sounds like a perversion of the Excalibur story.)
Watching these new episodes, it’s intriguing to realize that for all its meticulous storytelling, season one was ultimately glorified exposition, a prelude to something larger. And I don’t just mean physically larger, although this season does feel more spectacular. This year there’s a sense that the producers, writers, and directors are carefully arranging the characters and subplots in order to explore the architecture of power and the nuances of behavior that go along with it. For all its raunch and bloodshed, this world is as stifling, class-conscious, male-centered, and altogether savage as medieval Europe. Idealistic or ambitious characters try to wriggle out of society’s assigned roles, but they have to be incredibly crafty to get away with it, and failure is always a spilled secret away. (“Knowledge is power,” sneers the power broker/pimp Petyr Balish (Aiden Gillen) to Cersei. “Power is power,” she replies smugly.)
The first couple of episodes are filled with conversations about what makes a good leader, whether it’s appropriate to offer an opinion to a superior in a given situation or bite one’s tongue, and how to get somebody more powerful than you to do what you want, either through veiled or not-so-veiled threats or by manipulating them into thinking it’s really their idea. The show also makes better use of inflection than any current American series, and shows how it can allow people to express the spirit of their true feelings while obeying the letter of protocol. When Tyrion tells another character, “You have a deft hand at diplomacy,” the words deliver a compliment while Dinklage’s face offers a sarcastic rebuke.
Is Game of Thrones one of the great HBO series? It’s too early to tell, though judged purely as an immense yet improbably graceful narrative machine, I’d have to say yes. I’m still waiting for the bursts of lyricism, poignancy, and seemingly out-of-nowhere irony that made The Sopranos, Deadwood, and The Wire so singular. I wish George R.R. Martin’s world weren’t so firmly rooted in the Eurocentric sword-and-sorcery tradition (when a black character shows up in episode two, it almost feels like a casting mistake), and the complaints about female nudity are not totally invalid. (The problem as I see it isn’t that we’re seeing women’s bodies exposed too often, but that we aren’t seeing men’s bodies exposed often enough; it’s often hard to tell in these arguments if critics are demanding naughty-bits parity, or if they’re just uncomfortable with sexualized nudity.) But these are minor complaints. What’s onscreen is so consistently remarkable, and so much smarter than it needed to be in order to satisfy viewers who are mainly looking for sex, violence, and intrigue, that the show’s presence feels like a kind of miracle.
Game of Thrones is doing for sword-and-sorcery what the remake of Battlestar Galactica did for science-fiction on TV, and what the Godfather series did for the gangster story: foregrounding its mythic power, and showing that the genre can be brazenly serious, even ostentatiously artful, and unquestionably adult, without killing its simple pleasures. In one of the new episodes, Tyrion tells an enemy whom he’s exiling, “I hope you enjoy the walk. I found it surprisingly beautiful, in a brutal, horribly uncomfortable sort of way.” He could be talking about the show.