This review contains spoilers.
2.1 The North Remembers
Buoyed by the confidence instilled by its massively successful maiden season, the season opener for Game Of Thrones season two showed little desire to compromise. By the time the best part of an hour had gone by, we’d had killings, nudity, sex, the murder of a baby (a genuinely nasty, jaw-dangling moment, one that thankfully occurred off camera), along with ongoing war, and the clear promise of more conflict very clearly around the corner. Welcome back to Westeros.
That said, most of the episode was concerned with bringing us up to speed. There was no massive narrative drive forward here, as instead, The North Remembers proved a useful refresher, albeit a very, very packed one.
The ramifications particularly of the killing of Ned Stark last season are still being felt (although the other Starks are split at the moment), and whilst we’re beyond the point of battle lines being drawn, this new episode was careful about arranging its pieces around the board. As such, it took us around the various parts of the world of Westeros, and outlined most people’s position.
As things stand, though, when the episode starts and finishes, it’s the deeply unsettling and clearly power-flushed young King Joffrey who sits on the iron throne, even though – as was made clear last season – he’s not really supposed to (and the apparent rightful heir, Stannis, is now very much on the horizon). You’re welcome to tell him that to his face though if you want. Jack Gleeson’s portrayal of the character was and is, at times, utterly terrifying.
Joffrey might have questionable parentage, which isn’t quite the secret he’d like, but it’s not bothering him much at the moment. He’s king, and he’s clearly enjoying it. When we meet him very early on in The North Remembers, he’s as down to earth and kind as he was last time we met him, only persuaded not to allow someone to pretty literally drink themselves to death by the intervention of Stark’s daughter, Sansa. Sansa shows a spark of ingenuity there, but she’s most certainly in a very uncomfortable place, although we don’t get to spend much time with her in this episode. She’s one of many simmering subplots at work.
Perhaps the most interesting relationship for Joffrey, though, remains the one with his mother, and it’s their scenes that were my favourite parts of an impressive episode. In a programme where characters interact in increasingly complex ways, there’s an intriguing balancing of power between the two. Who else could slap the upstart Joffrey across the face and live to tell the tale? Cersei, but only just. And not without a ramification: it seemed that was the moment where Cersei became aware just how much she should fear her son.
As she makes the point, tellingly, later in the episode, “power is power”. Their relationship started from a complex position, but it’s evidently going to get still trickier.
The other star attraction here for me, and a thousand hurrays for him, was the return of Peter Dinklage as Tyrion to our screens. He’s lost none of his ability to get under the skin of certain characters, and he too has advice for the young Joffrey. He also does little to get on the Christmas card list of Cersei. He’s a fabulous, pivotal character, one perhaps set to take a more central role this time around, given that Ned Stark’s been, er, spiked. In limited screen time here, Tyrion has already managed to ruffle a few feathers, and Dinklage has managed to steal any scene he’s allowed near.
Most characters, though, struggled for much space in the episode, albeit for good reasons. And we’re back to the fact that The North Remembers was in part an overview of where we’d got to at the end of season one, with a few pointers as to where season two is set to go.
At the centre of it all, there’s that battle for the throne. The episode spent a good proportion dealing with peoples’ differing claims to power, and Stannis is certainly gearing up for a run at the iron throne. Not that you needed further proof, but the land of Dragonstone has been added to the map in the opening credits.
Linked to Stannis, we also got to spend welcome time with new cast additions, particularly Liam Cunningham and Carice van Houten (we’re coming to the latter in a minute).
As we got to catch up with the faces from season one, the one to watch seems to be Daenerys. She’s in a weak position at the moment, but has the small matter of her baby dragons, who might not be ready to fight now, but their moment will surely come. Her strategy is clearly to bide her time, and with good reason.
The dragons weren’t the only CG characters on show, either. Expect to see the wolves, here doing their best to put the fear into Jaime Lannister, making a return, too.
The show has clearly got the confidence to ramp up more of its heavy genre elements now, and the thought of big dragons in a few weeks’ time is a welcome one. Carice Van Outen’s Melisandre has magical powers, too, and it’ll be interesting to see how much the television adaptation is willing to use them. Factors such as these were downplayed as the show built its audience. Now that audience is in place? A few of the genre shackles look like being shed.
That said, though, even appreciating the large audience behind Game of Thrones, it’s a show that remains generally quite unforgiving of those who don’t follow the story closely. That’s arguably the same right from the start of season two, as well. It’s commendable, clearly, that Game Of Thrones assumes a level of intelligence of its audience from the moment they switch the TV on, but the counter of that is occasionally, it leaves you trying to wrap your head around everything that’s going on, while it relentlessly continues with its intricate narrative.
Personally, I’ve always found a second viewing of each episode richly rewarding, and very useful in filling in gaps you may not have noticed. It helps that the show itself is so engrossing, of course.
For assuming some solid investment from its audiences is not the complaint it may sound. There’s a density to the storytelling and a refusal to compromise that makes Game Of Thrones consistently a rewarding hour of television.
Furthermore, director Alan Taylor, now contracted to make Marvel’s Thor 2, makes sure there’s a real feast for the eyes to match the weaving script from David Benioff and D B Weiss. Bluntly, there’s more ambition in the one hour here than in most of the features we’ve seen on the big screen this year.
The North Remembers has been very clearly worth the wait. At times shocking, always involving, and occasionally rude, by the time the credits roll, it suddenly feels like a very long time to have to wait a week to get back to Westeros.
Game Of Thrones may not suffer fools gladly, on either side of the screen, but it’s a sensational television achievement. And it’s back in excellent form, already opening up numerous threads ripe for further exploration. The next nine weeks from here are going to be a lot of fun…
Game Of Thrones screens on Sky Atlantic and Sky Atlantic HD on Monday nights in the UK.