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First. I have read all the books but nothing that we haven't seen in the television series will be discussed. And in that vein, I won't be speculating as to what may happen to any of the conflicts, characters and/or narrative threads (like other series I've recapped), instead only what has been shot, set-up and/or suggested in each show as well as how skillfully (or not) it has been brought to the small screen. And to that effect...
The most common criticism of Game of Thrones, when they're to be found, is that the HBO series relies too heavily on blood and boobs in order to secure viewers. Another is that the show, famously based on an acclaimed fantasy series from George R.R. Martin, is only for geeks and nerds. Tonight's second season premiere, although not without its problems, should put that argument to rest. "The North Remembers" is not completely lacking in gore or nudity, but they are hardly the focus and definitely not the aspects of the eleventh episode that made it a solid and compelling return to the world of Westeros. Oh, and briefly across the Narrow Sea as well. "The North Remembers" is a very good, highly efficient but not exactly great first episode for the highly anticipated return of HBO's Game of Thrones.
"The Red Waste"
"The North Remembers" opens with a whimper as the first scene seems like one of the few moments where co-creators D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, feeling the need to open with a bang, might have leaned a little on the violence-crutch. The fight between the Hound and his prey isn't especially spectacular and neither is the ensuing introduction of Ser Dontos the Fool. It was brave of the show to try and immediately introduce a new character as well as address the intriguing triangle of King Joffrey, Sansa and the Hound but it falls a little flat and perhaps a tease of a different sort (like the White Walkers in Season 1) might have given the season a better start. Let's just say that with Sansa's need to be stoic and devoted, Tyrion is a sight for sore eyes.
Before returning to King's Landing, I, like the show, want to ever so briefly check in with Daenerys in The Red Waste. All anyone was talking about after the fantastic final shot of the first season was dragons, so of course the season premiere had to contain at least one. And so it did. Drogon got the spotlight for a moment as did Dany's cool new half-plated costume. The Red Waste sequence might have been better served in an episode where they has time to return to the thread once more but Emilia Clarke is wonderful as always and her eyes can suggest desperation and then strength in an instant, exemplified when she sends the blood of her blood to scout ahead or her exchange with Jorah over the last remaining symbol of her dead Khal. Things look more than a little grim for Dany, and I like the show highlighting how even though her potential for power is great, she might not have enough in the present to secure it.
Speaking of dragons and fire, I thought the Dragonstone sequences were terrific. The effortless way that they introduce an entire new group of characters (and conflicts) is a testament to both the writing and the sure handed direction of Mad Men veteran Alan Taylor. Structurally, placing of the sequence in the middle of the episode was a smart move as to not overwhelm the viewers with new information yet part of me thinks that the beach scene with the burning of the Seven Gods might have been a fittingly mysterious opening. However, I can also understand the reasoning, and perhaps the need, to keep the entirely of the Dragonstone thread in one chunk to allow it some weight and us time to spend with the new characters. We, like the Septon, arrive to the ritual late. All we know is there is a magnetic presence commanding the fire-lit scene and her name is Melisandre.
Melisandre was one of the most anticipated new characters and Clarice Van Houten does a good job bringing both her allure and danger to life. I can't remember if she sees her opponent bleed before drinking in the novel but it sure adds an extra bit creepiness to the Princess Bride-esque showdown. The other two characters efficiently and effectively introduced in the Dragonstone sequence are 'King' Stannis Baratheon and Ser Davos Seaworth. Stephen Dillane and Liam Cunningham were perfectly cast as the middle Baratheon brother and his practical and painfully loyal right-hand man. Stannis' introduction during the letter writing scene is perfectly crafted, showing how the man is blunt but not without honor. It's also a great scene to set-up conflict between Davos and Melisandre, both vying for the ear of this King as clearly they do not share the same faith in the Lord of Light. And Dragonstone is not the only setting speaking of war.
"Beyond The Wall"
If anything was repeatedly reinforced in the episode, no matter where you might find yourself, was that not just winter but war is coming. In fact, beyond the wall it seems like a few wars may be brewing. A few more if Jon Snow doesn't keep his trap shut. In reality, it was nice to see Jon develop more of a backbone as I always felt that Kit Harrington was playing the man a little soft. He's a conflicted and complex character for sure but he's also strong willed and a born leader, another thread being introduced at Craster's Keep in between talks of war, wives and daughters and daughters and wives. Again, the show did a wonderful job in casting because Craster (Robert Pugh) is suitably creepy and disgusting.
But the creep does have lodging and information on the plans of yet another King. The King Beyond The Wall (or 'the real North,' Jon) is named Mance Rayder and he's assembling his own army of Wildlings to come crash the party down south. Jon's ears prick up at the mention of war but for the meantime the men of the Night's Watch are going to hold fast at the keep, which also might cause its fair share of problems with the whole wives and daughters thing. Commander Mormont doesn't seem to like Craster very much but as a man of honor he agrees to abide the terms of his roof, his rules. The scenes in the North are pretty effective in communicating the always impending doom as well as reinforcing the Stark's motto (and show's theme) that winter is coming.
Another aspect of the adaptation that "The North Remembers" does well, is gradually upping the fantasy angle as to satisfy lgenre fans as well as not scare away the uninitiated or those who claim to prefer their (melo)drama without dragons. Who could possibly prefer dragon-less drama? Drogon may have seemed like the necessary dragon shout-out instead of organically worked into the story, however, the other fantasy elements in the season premiere were handled quite well, probably because the scenes in question, like Bran's dream and Melisandre's mysterious survival, each had a more significant narrative function. Our stop at Winterfell may have been brief but I thought the time spent with Bran was some of the most interesting of the episode.
One of the reasons that the sequence at Winterfell was especially appealing was the way in which Taylor handled (and by default set the tone for the future handling of) Bran's wolf-dreams. In a not so surprising stylistic move Taylor (and I'm sure Weiss and Benioff consulted as well) decided to shoot the scene from Bran's POV with a slightly shaky camera but still, the reveal was spretty rewarding. Seeing the wolf's reflection in the pond just before Bran wakes was an episode highlight for me. And then returning to the same pond was also a clever way to highlight the stark (no pun intended) visual contrast between his dreamworld and his real world. It also provided an opportunity for Osha to explain the several theories about the red comet which also functions as a visual marker to unify the entire world Martin's created and and provide Taylor fodder for some smooth transitions.
One of only two locations to get a return visit this episode (a smart structural choice), the first trip to the Stark Camp has Robb confront Jaime in his cell. It's a great scene that opens with Jaime's usual witticisms until even he's eventually beaten into submission. He's in no state to appear superior to Robb 'King of the North' Stark and after a few jokes he's smart enough to know it. And to shut-up when Greywind is introduced (looking rather good for a giant TV CGI wolf). He's still proud but Robb is right, and as Cat very shortly points out, very much his father's son. Unlike his father, Robb is much more politically savvy and strategic which brings us to the second visit to Stark Camp where he delivers his sure to be rejected terms for the Lannisters.
I couldn't help but grin wide when he proclaimed how he wouldn't require someone else to swing his sword should he need to decapitate any Lions. The scene is also crucial in that it reintroduces and expands on the relationship between Robb and Theon, or more importantly Stark and Greyjoy. Is Robb's rebellion that much different than the Krakens'? Cat seems to think so but she's being shipped off to council with yet another King in Renly. This is an expansive world (which just keeps expanding) and for a second I though we might make make the trip south to see the youngest Baratheon but the episode smartly didn't extend itself any further and instead returned to where it began.
I mentioned my slight disappointment with the show's opening sequence but the moment that Tyrion arrives, the episode seems to shift into a different gear and not look back. It's not that the beginning was terrible just slightly clumsy, however, Peter Dinklage is anything but in the return to his Emmy winning role. First, he takes King Joffrey down a peg or two with his words and then waltzes right into the small council to announces his promotion to Hand of the King in Tywin's stead. Cercei, of course, doesn't care much for the surprise and Lena Headey shines in every one of her scenes. Watching her and Dinklage work is wonderful but she's equally great in her demonstration of power with Littlefinger and as she realizes she doesn't have as much as she thinks after slapping Joffrey. She's created a monster and now has to life with it.
Actually, the scene between the Queen Regent and young King is perhaps the most interesting of the entire episode as it not only great writing and acting but it also leads seamlessly into the hunt for Robert Baratheon's bastards and the most horrifying moment of the episode, the off-screen baby killing. The whole time the gold cloaks were out slaughtering Baratheon children, I couldn't help but think of the baptism scene in The Godfather, if only Taylor cross-cut it with a scene of Joff in church. The royal decree to kill his father's out of wedlock offspring not only means that Joffrey may see some truth in the incest accusations but also serves to put the Goadcloaks in hot pursuit of Gendry, who just happens to be riding his way north with Arya!
The ground covered in the premiere was expansive (almost as expansive as this review, in the future they will be shorter) but there are still familiar faces we didn't get to see as well as characters we have yet to meet. And even though the writers didn't really explore Arya's storyline, or even give her a single word, the final shot served as a pretty great cliff-hanger, leaving us hanging for the second episode of the season. I cant even really explain why seeing Arya and, the now hunted, Gendry depart on the Kingsroad was an oddly powerful way to close out the "The North Remembers" but it definitely has me more than excited for the weeks ahead.
"The North Remembers" was not perfect but it not only set-up some compelling conflicts and effortlessly introduced new characters but also set a good standard for the rest of the reason. And if Dinklage's turn is again Emmy worthy, someone better start polishing Lena Headey's. It was an impeccably shot, unapologetically dense, well structure and dramatically compelling premiere. And the game's only just begun.
Game of Thrones airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO. It stars Kit Harrington, Emelia Clarke, Lena Headey, Peter Dinklage, and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. The show was created by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, based on the novels by George R.R. Martin.