In what may be the television event of the year, HBO’s epic, amazing ‘Game of Thrones’ returned for its second season on Sunday. Does the show still hold up to the same high standard as the terrific first season, or has it fallen into a sophomore slump? While we only have one episode to judge by, things look good so far.
In typical season premiere fashion, episode ‘The North Remembers’ focuses most of its efforts on catching us up to speed with the characters and setting the pieces in place for the conflicts that will play out over the course of the season. Considering how densely plotted the narrative of the series is, I find it helpful to ease back into things.
I think it will be most useful to organize this recap by groups of characters, rather than to list out the events that happened in strict chronological order. Nonetheless, I’ll start at the beginning.
We open in King’s Landing, where newly-anointed King Joffrey celebrates his “Name Day” and quickly establishes that he’s still a raging little prick who gets off on making people suffer. His fiancée/hostage Sansa is clearly miserable, but terrified to ever speak back to him.
Tyrion (the fantastic Peter Dinklage) arrives in the city and reminds us of how awesome he is. He’s already started to revel in his new appointment as Hand of the King (his father’s doing) and is the only person completely unafraid to talk back to Joffrey, which he does often and with glee.
Joffrey’s mother Cersei believes that they can get Robb Stark to release her brother/lover Jaime by negotiating a trade for Sansa and Arya. Unfortunately, no one knows where Arya is. Cersei orders “Littlefinger” Baelish to search for the missing Stark girl. After rumors start to circulate that Joffrey is not truly a Baratheon, Cersei also orders the City Watch to root out and slaughter all of Robert’s bastard children (even that poor whore’s baby!). The only one they can’t find is the armorer’s apprentice, who’s currently en route to the Wall with Arya.
With his father dead, Ned’s son Robb is now head of the family and has taken on the title of “The King in the North.” He seems to be winning the war against the Lannisters. However, doing so means that he has called up all the able-bodied men of the Northern kingdoms to fight, leaving younger brother Bran at home to run things in Winterfell, where resources are stretched thin, times are tough, and the people are growing bitter.
Robb of course wants his sisters freed. Beyond that, he actually has little interest in the Iron Throne. What he wants is independence for the Northern kingdoms. Getting that may require assistance from the Greyjoy family, which is an interesting predicament. Ned Stark had famously defeated and disgraced the Greyjoys when he suppressed their rebellion against the crown. This naturally led to much animosity between the families. Now Robb is put in the position of leading his own rebellion. The irony of the situation is inescapable.
Meanwhile, half-brother Jon Snow treks north of the Wall with the Night’s Watch. It appears that most of the Wilding people have fled and are banding together to form an invasion of the south. One who hasn’t joined the flock is a creepy old dude named Craster, who marries his own daughters. He has some sort of longstanding yet uneasy relationship with the Night’s Watch and allows them to stay the night on his land, so long as none of the men touch his “wives.”
As Robb’s mother Catelyn sums up the situation in the Seven Kindoms, “There’s a king in every corner.” With word spreading quickly that Joffrey is not former King Robert’s true heir, both of Robert’s brothers have each laid claim to the throne. We don’t see the youngest, Renly (the gay one), in this episode, but Robb sends his mother to negotiate with him, so that they may perhaps join forces against Joffrey. Since Robb has no interest in taking the throne at King’s Landing for himself, allowing Renly to sit there may serve his purposes.
We’re finally introduced this season to Robert’s other brother, Stannis, who is legally next in line for succession if Robert has no true heir. Stannis doesn’t believe in playing political games. He prefers to act directly and decisively. Upon learning that Joffrey is not Robert’s son, he spreads that information far and wide all through the kingdoms while announcing his intention to challenge the throne. A more politically savvy mind would probably have held back that information to use as a tactical advantage later on.
Stannis is cold, unforgiving, and possibly mad. He has renounced the old gods to follow a priestess who is clearly a bad influence and leading him astray. One of Stannis’ own advisors ties to assassinate the witch, but fails and dies in the attempt.
We only see a little bit of Daenerys and her ragged band of former Dothraki slaves. They’re in pretty bad shape, wandering the desert, running out of food, and fearing for their lives. But Daenerys still has her baby dragons.
Throughout the episode, a red comet visible through all Seven Kingdoms hangs in the sky above. This raises much talk of portents and superstitions. Every group believes it to be a sign of their own victory. The story that seems to have the most merit says that it presages the return of dragons.
In terms of action, not a lot happens in this season premiere episode. However, it has a number of strong character moments and lays the important groundwork for interesting developments to come.
Highlights include Cersei flaunting her power and putting Baelish in his place when he shows disrespect to her. Yet later, Cersei goes too far when she tries to literally slap some sense into Joffrey, which results in her own dressing down. Joffrey threatens to have her killed if she ever touches him again. (When Cersei is a voice of reason, clearly we’re dealing with a hopeless lunatic here.)
Robb Stark continues to haul Jaime Lannister around with him as a prisoner. Jaime’s cocky and defiant demeanor is shattered in a great scene where Robb introduces him to his direwolf, to particularly intimidating effect.