"Game of Thrones" (9 p.m. E.T. Sunday, HBO) is back, and it's better than ever.
The first half of "Game of Thrones'" debut season wasn't a particularly graceful experience. There's no doubt that the team adapting George R.R. Martin's compelling novels about knights, dragons and a land convulsed by rebellion faced an incredibly difficult challenge in boiling down a 700-page novel into 10 hours of television. Despite a first-rate cast and palpably respectful intentions, the first few hours of Season 1 contained quite a few rough spots, awkward transitions and clunky passages.
It's gratifying to be able to say that the first four hours of Season 2 of "Game of Thrones" are far more elegant and engaging. It helps that most of the characters are already established, but there's more to it than that; the confidence and dexterity that were on display in the second half of Season 1 are even more in evidence in Season 2. The show occasionally felt weighted down by expectations in its first season, but it demonstrates a lighter touch this year; there's a particularly amusing sequence in Episode 3 involving Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) that is both dramatically effective and comedically pleasing. It's a sign of the show's maturation that it can have a little fun with its narrative style even as it continues to take the characters and their ever more complicated world seriously.
The increased assurance and momentum are gratifying, but the show's spectacular visuals are even more rewarding on an eye-candy level. The "Game of Thrones" location scouts, set-builders and directors have really outdone themselves this time, but there's a lived-in quality to the settings that make the action that happens in them seem real and even relatable at times. The barren hall in Pyke helps inform the personality of the irascible Balon Greyjoy (Patrick Malahide), one of many warring lords in the land of Westeros, and Dragonstone, the spectacularly forbidding castle of Stannis Baratheon, is as hard and well-hewn as the man himself. There was a rather disappointing jousting set piece in Season 1, but this year, the outdoor scenes are suitably crowded and filled with exuberant detail, and the depiction of the desert exile of royal princess Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) is terrifyingly dry and desolate.
This is a tale that demands mastery of epic locations and sweeping themes, but those themes play out on a very personal and granular level: Arya Stark of the noble House Stark is now on the run and in fear for her life, and spends her life clad as a boy, hiding in muddy forests. Tyrion Lannister (Emmy winner Peter Dinklage) has gone from being the reject of the wealthy Lannister clan to serving as the powerful Hand (or chief advisor) to King Joffrey, his bratty (if not sociopathic) nephew. Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), formerly the foster brother/hostage of the Stark clan, is torn between allegiance to his father and loyalty to his adopted brother, Robb Stark (Richard Madden), one of several newly crowned kings vying for power.
Given that the second season is also only 10 hours long, the show doesn't have a ton of time to outline these conflicting alliances or establish new characters, but the actors who've been cast in key Season 2 roles have little trouble making an impression. Stephen Dillane is chillingly charismatic as Stannis Baratheon, one of several men contending for the throne of Westeros. Carice van Houton makes a wise choice as his spiritual advisor, Melisandre; she underplays what could be a melodramatic character, and lets her considerable presence weave an enigmatic spell around her.
Even though I'm a fan of Martin's novels, I must confess that I always found the Stannis retainer Davos Seaworth fairly bland and boring, but Liam Cunningham, like Emilia Clarke, ably brings to life a character who could seem rather remote on the page. Several other smaller roles have been filled with lively specificity, but I have to wonder if we'll get enough time with each of these people. Will the plight of Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie), a stoic warrior who nurtures an unrequited love for royal contender Renly Baratheon, be as sadly evocative as it was in the books? Will there be time for the show to do more than lightly sketch the dilemmas of minor but interesting characters like her?
And that's the challenge of this epic: Despite the great leaps forward in quality and confidence, the degree of difficulty remains high. Each novel in Martin's projected seven-novel series adds characters, locations and relationships, and the question hanging over Season 2 is the same one that hangs over the TV endeavor as a whole: Can it convey Martin's themes about the perils of loyalty and love in a changing world and take us deep inside the characters' emotional dilemmas without quite literally losing the plot?
It's a tall order; there may not be a taller one in all of TV at the moment. "Game of Thrones" has a lot of material to condense and synthesize, and speaking for myself, I care more about the characters than absolute fidelity to the story. But there is good news: The storytelling by executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and their writing staff is increasingly assured and judicious; the first-rate cast continues to mine the full depth of the material; and the show itself is visually commanding, especially in the hands of Alan Taylor, who directed the first two episodes of the season.
Martin's books take what could be generic ideas about morality and honor and make them compelling through very specific and individual dilemmas and concerns. There are wars, love affairs, surprising reversals and a persistent, powerful but unpredictable magic that continually asserts itself at key moments. Through it all, knotty questions are constantly asked of kings, servants, mercenaries and outcasts: At what point do you draw a line and assert that someone else's actions are wrong? When do you risk everything you have to fight what you've decided is evil? How do you even decide what evil is? What ideas and relationships are worth fighting for, and when is discretion the better part of valor?
There are no easy answers, but as it gains mastery in its depiction of Martin's complex and compassionate saga, "Game of Thrones" is doing an increasingly satisfying job of exploring those questions.
Please come back here 10 p.m. E.T. Sunday for my detailed review of the first episode of Season 2 (which I'll be writing about weekly). And check out next week's Talking TV with Ryan and Ryan podcast for our "Game of Thrones" discussion with a special guest; it should be posted here and here no later than Tuesday morning.
Follow Maureen Ryan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/moryan