Note: Do not read on if you have not seen Season 2, Episode 1 of HBO's "Game of Thrones," entitled "The North Remembers."
Winter is coming, but war is here.
That was the succinct message of the first episode of the second season of "Game of Thrones." And just as the story has advanced significantly from where we found the residents of Westeros when "GoT" debuted, the show itself has made a great leap forward, not just in ambition, but in execution.
It's not only good to have "GoT" (and its fabulous opening credits) back; it's heartening to see that the show has held on to the improvements that elevated the second half of Season 1 over the first half of that debut season. As I noted in my (very positive) Season 2 review, the exposition that had to be unloaded at times landed with a thud, and Season 1's energy was sometimes drained by an overly reverential fidelity to George R.R. Martin's novels. Not that Martin's novels aren't wonderful -- they certainly are -- but television is a different medium with different requirements.
In the middle of the first season, "Game of Thrones" came alive in a new way, once the introductions were out of the way and executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss grew more confident in their own interpretation of Martin's dense saga of knights, kings, bastards and outcasts. That confidence is very much on display in the first episode of Season 2, which was masterfully directed by Alan Taylor (who also directed next week's hour).
I have to single Taylor out for special mention: He did a terrific job in the Season 1 episodes he helmed, especially the heartbreaking "Baelor," which proved that his feel for the show is uncanny. This is a production that requires an inspired vision, one that can incorporate the story's epic sweep and titanic clashes and yet, not forget the flawed, struggling people at the heart of multiple stories. It's a tall order, but Taylor makes it look easy. He has both the sensitivity and the command of visual language to bring the story alive in enthralling ways, and in his subtle visual style and his facility with actors, he belongs in the company of my favorite television directors (which include, among others, Michelle MacLaren, who's most closely associated with "Breaking Bad"; Michael Nankin of "Battlestar Galactica"; Paris Barclay of "Sons of Anarchy" and "In Treatment"; and Lesli Linka Glatter of "Mad Men" and every other good show ever).
Taylor's shots of Dragonstone, the home of one of the contending kings of the kingdom of Westeros, are gorgeous, and he does a terrific job of building suspense toward key moments, whether it's the crafty, well-timed reveal of that castle (we see a courtier approaching by firelight first, which adds atmosphere and mystery to the moment) or the first speech from its lord and master (and self-proclaimed king), Stannis Baratheon. Taylor frames the characters and their world in handsome ways, but he never forgets that the people are focus of the story -- and that those people are flawed and often distracted by mundane concerns (in another nice touch, the season premiere featured a few shots of a low-level servant who wordlessly clears up after the revels -- and murders -- at the Red Keep).
Taylor's direction, the effortlessly excellent cast and the efficient, elegant script by Weiss and Benioff all help make the season premiere very pleasing, but so do some tweaks that may not seem significant in the grand scheme of things -- but they are actually vitally important.
No doubt "Game of Thrones," which shoots on multiple continents with an enormous cast, is one of the most daunting projects that HBO has ever taken on (and that's saying something). But in "GoT's" first season, that struggle to bring Martin's vision to the screen showed at times. As readers of my Season 1 episode reviews may recall, I could not stand Cersei's wigs (all of the wigs on the show bothered me, to be honest); I thought the interior decor of the Red Keep resembled an upmarket chain hotel; the godswood at the core of the Stark castle complex looked like something out of a dinner-theater version of "Brigadoon"; and at times, the Dothraki encampment resembled a Pier 1 warehouse sale. Though, as I said, I thought the season came together wonderfully as it headed into its home stretch, there were times when the direction, the aesthetic choices and the pacing were frustrating.
You may think I was obsessing too much over details, and more power to you if these kinds of things didn't trip you up (and of course, many of aspects of the production were stunningly great, especially the costumes and various sets and settings, such as the Eyrie and the Wall). But when it comes to "Game of Thrones," the details really matter, for a couple of reasons. First, this is HBO, and its production values should be (and usually are) at the very highest levels. We expect the best from the network's drama offerings, given that HBO so often delivers phenomenal aesthetic experiences.
The second reason is: This a fantasy universe where it's all the more important that the world being created looks, feels and practically smells real. You either believe Hogwarts and Mordor are real places, totally and unquestioningly, or you don't. To buy into the characters' experiences and to ground the more supernatural elements in reality, nothing can seem fake or off. I completely understand that it's much harder to make a world look real when everything in it has to be made from scratch; but believing in the totality of a world like this is absolutely crucial. Thinking about a character's wig certainly doesn't help a viewer immerse himself or herself in a world where there are zombie-like beings, "blood magic" and dragons. You pull one thread and it can threaten to unravel the whole fabric.
I say all that to preface the following rave: "Game of Thrones" looks consistently magnificent now, in every respect. The directors and directors of photography are making each aspect of Westeros and beyond look even more rich and textured, the gritty realness of every object the characters touch and own adds to the atmosphere, and the location scouts have absolutely outdone themselves. The castle perch on which King Joffrey's cruel birthday games took place was appropriately breathtaking; Dragonstone was incredible inside and out (if I had won the Mega Millions lottery, my first action would have been to commission a table like Stannis'); and the special effects were seamless and excellent, especially those relating to the dragons and the direwolves. And if the godswood at Winterfell still looks a teeny bit off, at least Taylor found ways to shoot around its shortcomings. Also, breaking news: I'm completely okay with the wigs.
More importantly, there was a confident sense of flow to "The North Remembers," even though the season premiere had a lot of ground to cover. We checked in on all of the major Season 1 characters, (even if we only got a few seconds with Arya), and we met a few of the new characters whom we'll get to know this season. So let's check in briefly with the residents of Westeros (as well as those north of the Wall and traversing the Red Wastes):
- Joffrey: If you ever want a textbook demonstration of the phrase "power corrupts," look no further than this boy king, who, since his ascension to the throne, has become a horrifying tyrant who frightens his own mother (a woman who is not easily thrown off balance). The tragic truth about Joffrey is that he was raised to be this person; in him, the Lannister arrogance and entitlement is not checked by the intelligence and shrewdness the adult members of the clan possess. His overindulgent mother and his indifferent father allowed him to grow into the monster he is now -- a monster who is only adding to the Lannisters' troubles, not helping cement the clan's shaky grip on Westeros.
- Cersei: She raised her son to think that, as a nobleman and an immensely wealthy Lannister, he could exercise power exactly as he pleased. Now that her bratty boy is king, how's that working out for Cersei? Not so well. She's still able to inspire dread in courtiers like Lord Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish, as she did in their powerful courtyard scene, but deep down, Cersei is afraid, and Lena Headey did a terrific job of depicting Cersei's own growing dread about her family's future. Joffrey would have been a handful even at a relatively peaceful time, but during an enormous war among multiple factions, he's clearly a disastrous king. Could Cersei actually wish that Robert had remained on the throne -- and could it be that she'll actually need to rely on the counsel and strength of despised brother, Tyrion? That's one of the delightful things about this saga: Loyalties and forced alliances sometimes spring up where you least expect them. Not that I think Cersei will ever forgive her younger brother for ... existing.
- Tyrion: His hard-won swagger was a great deal of fun to watch. He loves nothing more than to make a dramatic entrance, and Peter Dinklage wrung the maximum enjoyment out of Tyrion's surprise announcement to the Small Council. One of the great themes of Martin's books is how the powerless sometimes find themselves in situations in which their decisions have important consequences, and Tyrion is loving the fact that he's not just a barely tolerated annoyance any longer; he can now affect the most important affairs of the kingdom. He's also got a woman beside him whom he cares about. It's not giving away a spoiler to wonder: How long does anyone in this story get to enjoy that kind of contentment?
- Robb: I was blown away by Emilia Clarke in the first season, and from day one, Kit Harington has been impressive as Jon Snow. "GoT" has always done a very good job of casting in all the major roles, and some of the younger cast members were especially good in Season 1, especially given their status as relative newcomers. But just as Clarke and Harington wowed me in Season 1, this may be is my season to be bowled over by Richard Madden. He had a few moments to shine in Season 1, which he took full advantage of, but I was especially impressed with how differently Robb carries himself in Season 2. His carriage and presence are kingly and charismatic, yet he is still able to take on a more friendly tone with Theon Greyjoy and show a slightly more vulnerable side with his mother, Catelyn. But for all his newfound experience as a leader of men, he still occasionally shows the naiveté of a teenage boy; he's desperate for his family to be reunited, but that looks like a very unlikely prospect right now. Madden's range is truly impressive: He was imposing and savvy in his confrontation with Jaime, yet weary and wistful with his mother. There are a lot of stories to fit into this season, but I hope we see a lot more of Robb.
- Sansa: Sophie R.R. Turner did a wonderful job in Sansa's brief screen time. She's one of the most difficult characters to like in the books; her life is by no means easy, but on the page, she can come off as a one-dimensional prig at times. I hope the TV show continues to make me feel emotionally moved by Sansa's captivity at Joffrey's court, where her main role is to flatter the boy king's ego and to keep servants and other small fry off his radar, even as she attempts to privately grieve for her father. When "GoT" is really on its A-game, a short moment can speak literal volumes: When Tyrion attempted to sympathize with Sansa's loss and she replied with boilerplate about her "traitorous" family, there were so many things going on: Turner showed that Sansa really was in a great deal of pain and appreciated Tyrion's acknowledgment of that, and Tyrion quietly accepted the fact that she has to say those kinds of things in order to keep her head attached to her body.
- Daenerys: It's one thing to make promises, but quite another for a leader to keep them, a hard truth Dany is learning in the Red Wastes. I still find myself mildly astonished at Emilia Clarke's wondrous skill at playing this role, given how little experience she had prior to this. I've gone on record as saying I never could quite get into Dany in the books; that story and character just didn't speak to me on an emotional level, though I had nothing against them per se. I don't have that problem with the Dany of the TV series, thanks to Clarke's wonderful work. In her moments onscreen, we felt both Dany's desperation and her unshakable determination. Can you imagine Daenerys played by anyone else? I just can't.
- Jon Snow: Lord Stark's bastard is getting an education about being a warrior, especially the old saying about discretion being the better part of valor. He can't quite believe how Craster conducts his life, but all bets are off beyond the Wall. I'm on record as loving everything about Sam and Jon and not to sound like a broken record, but I hope we see a lot of them this season.
- Stannis and Melisandre: As Stannis' spiritual advisor, Melisandre, Carice van Houten makes the wise choice to underplay the character, instead relying on her cool, compelling presence. And Stannis is every bit the hard, unyielding man of the novels, yet here, Stephen Dillane gives him the kind of remote charisma that helps us understand why so many follow and obey this man. Looks like the casting of these roles was once again spot-on, as is the case with Ser Davos Seaworth, who, as my friend Axechucker points out in his review, is a bit of a "dull hand-wringer" in the books, but is played with vitality and command by Liam Cunningham in this season of the show.
- Bran, Catelyn and Arya: The rest of the Stark family attempted to keep it together in various ways: Bran was safe but bored by his role as the temporary lord of Winterfell; Catelyn exhibited her characteristic practicality and concern in her role as Robb's personal advisor; and Arya continued on the road north, alongside Robert's bastard Gendry.
All in all, "The North Remembers" was an elegant and compelling start to the season, but there's a fear I have for the second season of this show: I fear there won't be enough time.
Benioff and Weiss did a good job of putting various bits of exposition and necessary information into the conversations among the characters; all of that was as elegantly and concisely done as it could be. But I was aware that every scene had to work as a building block for another part of the story; I was intensely aware that the storytellers are trying to fit more than a thousand pages of novelistic detail into 10 hours of television. My fear for the season as a whole is that they'll get a lot of the story in, but not enough of the emotional depth.
As I've said in the past, the reason these books are so beloved is because they take us not just into a dense and morally ambiguous saga, but inside the thoughts, fears, desires and choices of a range of interesting characters we come to care about deeply. The point-of-view strategy Martin uses in the novels means we go deep inside each character's head and heart; we get up-close views of that person's relationships and immensely detailed chronicles of their experiences and emotions.
It's not that "GoT" hasn't done that kind of thing in its first season, or even in "The North Remembers" ... but will the experience of the TV show be as richly compelling, poignant and moving as the books? What I long for in HBO's "GoT" are scenes that don't matter.
Here's what I mean by that: I don't know if you watched "Luck," which ended its first and only season last week, but there were many scenes of various characters just hanging out. We didn't learn much about them in many of those individual scenes, but over time, David Milch added layers and layers of detail to each portrayal, slowly but surely. You almost weren't aware of how much you knew about or cared about the characters until some big crises or opportunity came along and they swung into action. When they did go through those crises, you absolutely understood what was motivating them; you got what was making their heart sing or their blood curdle.
Will there be time for that kind of slowly accumulated detail in Season 2 of "GoT"? I absolutely understand that the two HBO shows are very different and can't employ the same strategies, but will we ever just get to hang out with these people, and watch them talk and live their lives? Will we get some scenes that don't necessarily add to the structure of the story, but give us valuable information about what motivates and angers and excites these people? Will we get the kind of details that help us know them as intimately as we know them in the books? Will the show continue to provide powerful moments that bring tears to my eyes, as "Baelor" did?
There's reason to continue to be optimistic in that regard. As it has gained confidence, the drama has done a good job of giving us terrifically layered moments that weren't even in the books, and to me, that's the surest sign that the writers, actors and directors have a confident grip on the characters and know how to deploy them well. As it stands now, even small moments involving non-speaking characters can have a great deal of resonance.
Just one example of that: "The North Remembers" takes a very dark turn at the end, with the murder of Robert's bastards, which is sensitively handled, yet harder to watch than Bran's fall last season. The killing of babies is just horrendous and stomach-churning; there's no way around that, and the show depicts that without exploiting the awfulness of the sequence in the slightest. As jaw-dropping as that moment was, we were reminded that the people in "Game of Thrones," whatever their ambitions or situations, are still operating in a recognizable moral universe. Though there's clearly much ambiguity mixed into this tale, we're not in some fantastical, unrecognizable realm when it comes to the horrific decision Joffrey has made. And to remind us of that, there's a second in which we see the face of one of the men of the City Watch, who's clearly disgusted by the task he's been given.
Power is power, but no one person has the upper hand forever. Ned had some power, but he was killed. Arya had power as a member of her house, now she has none. Sansa had the power to save one man's life, but at what cost to her? Robb has power over Jaime for now, but how long will that last? And in the eternal battle between Cersei and Tyrion, who's really in control there?
Power is a slippery thing, and the face of that gold cloak served as a reminder that underlings and the powerless can't necessarily be pushed around forever. There is a line, and a ruler repeatedly crosses it at his or her peril.
In any event, it's that kind of telling detail -- the face of a man whose whole ideas about loyalty and obedience has been destroyed -- that can bring a world alive and make it more than the sum of its parts. This is a saga not just about knights and battles and bastards, but a serious exploration of power, loyalty and honor and the passing away of an old way of life. There's a lot to explore, and in my perfect world, Benioff and Weiss would have 13 episodes or many more to bring the long, dense story of "A Clash of Kings" alive in the most comprehensive and compelling way possible.
But they've got 10 hours, and we'll just have to see whether that's enough time to tell the story not just efficiently and beautifully but deeply. There's no doubt that they're off to a solidly enjoyable start.