Hello, dragon fans! Welcome back to Westeros, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children live under constant threat of impalement, defenestration, and general bodily harm.
The Great Game of Thrones Houses love their slogans — “Winter is coming”; “a Lannister always pays his debts,” etc. — but if the show itself had one, it might be plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose. (Or, since the people of Westeros don’t speak French: The more things change, the more they stay the same.) As season two opens, the world looks very different than it did at the outset of season one. The longest summer in living memory is over. Ned is dead. Robert is dead. Drogo is dead. We have a new King of the Seven Kingdoms, a new Hand of the King, and young Robb Stark of the Scraggly Beard is being hailed as King of the North, threatening the political order that’s been in place since Robert’s rebellion. Dragons have come back to the world, and Arya is in possession of a truly unfortunate hairdo.
And yet, from the very first scene of last night’s season premiere, GoT strove to reassure us that some things would never change in the Land that George R.R. Martin Built. Blood and guts will be lingered over as if they were tits and ass (and vice versa), and power will always be a fungible commodity. (But is knowledge power or is power power? Discuss.)
The episode’s main thrust — besides dazzling us viewers with more gorgeous locations than you can shake a wolf-pommeled sword at — was to show how the war between the Starks and the Lannisters, which has blossomed into the War Between the Starks, the Lannisters, Baratheon Faction 1, and Baratheon Faction 2, has created a series of inflection points. Control is tilting and shifting, and the next generation is stepping into their new roles. How is power really gained? this episode asks. Is it by birth? By martial might? By charm or a religious sign? Or by some yet-to-be-determined X factor?
We begin at a fête at King’s Landing, at which Joffrey, his tiny baby mouth all twisted up in glee, looks on as the Hound honors his name day by tossing a knight off a castle wall, leaving some other knights to drag off the bloody corpse. (Kersplat, sluunngghhhh — We will not be outdone by anyone!!! you can hear the show’s Foley artists exclaim, fists raised in exultation.) The beautiful seaside backdrop and the court ladies in their fluttery dresses drive home the not-too-subtle point that, in Westeros, looks can be deceiving. Joffrey has clearly inherited his supposed father Robert’s love of blood sport — though probably not, we imagine, the old man’s appetite for getting his own hands dirty. (Joffrey, he likes to watch.) But just as Joffrey finished making a fat knight pound the world’s most terrifying beer bong, his uncle Tyrion, freshly arrived from the family war camp, waltzes in and, with a quick dig at the boy’s masculinity and a lesson on manners, scares him into realizing that his authority may be a much lighter thing than he imagined. Then Tyrion waltzes into the Small Council to let big sister Cersei know the same thing.
Meanwhile, the Stark boys are also stepping into their dead father’s shoes. Bran (a.k.a. mini Emily Mortimer) is serving as the Lord of Winterfell, a tough act for a little kid who spends most of his time scooting around in a medieval BabyBjörn and whose primary companions are an old maester, a giant who can only say his own name, and Nymphadora Tonks. But Ned and Catelyn Stark didn’t raise any fools — remember, even Sansa showed real steel in season one’s final episode, when confronted with her father’s head on a pike — and Bran is applying himself to his new adult responsibilities with a touching seriousness.
Older brother Robb, on the other hand, is flourishing in his new commander role. Last season, we saw inklings of his Prince Hal–like sense of theatricality — his meat is bloody tough, that one — and in this episode, Robb has a grand old time trading some zingers with the captive Jaime Lannister. (“Three victories don’t make you a conqueror,” says the Kingslayer. “It’s better than three defeats.”)
Is it just me, or is Robb starting to give Jon Snow a run for his sexy money? While his father was always so dour (so heavy-is-the-breast-that-wears-the-hand-pin), Robb seems to be almost enjoying himself and his newfound influence, which makes him so much more fun to watch.
Robb also has his father’s ability to make tough decisions — balancing his bannermen’s desires against his sisters’ freedom, sending his mother off to parlay with Renly Baratheon instead of home to Winterfell. He’s not tough enough, though, to stop from going a little watery-eyed when his mother tells him that his father would have been proud of him. Forehead touch. (The Stark equivalent of butterfly kisses.) Compare and contrast: the look on Robb’s face at Catelyn’s words and the look on Cersei’s after Joffrey threatens her with death for slapping him.
Lest you think the inheritance theme is limited to the Game of Thrones boys, we also have a brief scene of Daenerys struggling to lead her diminished khalasar through the Red Waste, without the imprimatur of her husband. And note how Ros the prostitute has stepped into Littlefinger’s role at the brothel, an elevation in stature telegraphed by the increased fussiness of her hairdo. The scene in which she gives acting notes to a junior whore is a clear echo of a similar scene between her and Littlefinger last season, down to the closing line: “Go wash yourselves. Put some clothes on. Both of you are working tonight.”
Even the new plotline about Melisandre, priestess of the fiery Lord of Light, is of a piece with the rest of the episode and its theme of succession — remember that the Faith of the Seven, which Maester Cressen refers to as “the old gods,” were once the new gods themselves.
The episode’s closing scenes simultaneously put a neat (if bloody) cap on its treatment of succession and delivered one of the show’s signature holy-shit finales. As the king’s henchmen route their way through the city, killing the dark-haired, bastard children of Robert Baratheon (or supposed bastard children; you imagine some of them were murdered just to be on the safe side), the show demonstrates just how far Joffrey will go to retain his precarious title — and how far GoT will go to establish the brutality of this world.
We’ve seen children go through some pretty nasty things on the show, but I still wasn’t quite prepared to see a baby ripped from its screaming mother’s arms, a young boy’s head held under water until he drowned, or an infant’s corpse being dangled casually from a soldier’s hand. The gut punch of those closing minutes was only slightly diminished by the calculating way they up Game of Thrones’ moral and violent ante.
Overall, “The North Remembers” did an excellent job reintroducing us to all of Game of Thrones’ varying plotlines (and connecting them tightly, if tangentially, through the device of a portentous red comet streaking across the sky), while also managing to move each story, and character, forward.
But of course, we’ve got much more ahead this season: Mance Rayder, the self-proclaimed King Beyond the Wall, is sure to show up any day now, and we’ve barely heard from Renly or Daenerys — or Robert’s bastard Gendry, for that matter. I suspect that your appetite for GoT has less to do with your tolerance for dragons and witchy women and old-timey-sounding invented words than it does with your desire for this kind of chessboard sprawl, especially when you know that resolution is not a narrative virtue Martin puts much stock in. I personally loved that about the books — it made the fiction feel more real, somehow, as if Westeros would just go on forever even if Martin stopped writing about it — but we’ll see how that perpetual-motion method of storytelling translates to the more contained medium of episodic television.
Ned gave the show a center, even if his strict brand of righteousness made him a flawed hero who was often hard to root for. Who, if anyone, will emerge as the new center? My money’s on Robb or fan-favorite Tyrion. Because really, you should always bet on Tyrion.
I’ll see you here next week. It’s my one redeeming quality. That and my cheekbones.