Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 4–Garden of Bones

SPOILER WARNING – THIS IS FROM LAST NIGHT’S US BROADCAST, AND MAJOR PLOT POINTS ARE DISCUSSED. DON’T READ AHEAD IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN EPISODE 4 YET.

“You’re fighting to overthrow a king, yet you have no plan for what happens afterwards?”

GameOfThronesJoffrey

After last week’s tight focus on a handful of characters and plotlines, this week’s episode of Game of Thrones widened its scope to include almost every one of the series’ increasingly complex web of subplots. As a result, it moved like a rollercoaster; but the detailed character development explored in depth last week was necessarily absent. What we got instead was more like snapshots, brief but revealing sketches of characters as the action rattled along at lightning speed.

None of this is necessarily a bad thing. This second season has a hell of a lot to pack in in terms of plot; as the War of the Five Kings gathers pace, there’s a lot more to keep up with than there was in the relatively straightforward first season. It follows that you can’t have every episode scrutinising little details when there’s simply so much plot to move along. Still, while we didn’t really learn anything new about the people in the show this week (with a couple of notable exceptions), there were plenty of telling character points amidst the breathless action.

The episode opened with an almost Shakespearean scene of a couple of Lannister spear carriers gossiping about the best fighters in the realm, unaware that Robb Stark’s army is about to fall on them like wolves. It was a nice intake of breath before the action began in earnest, seeing these two lowly soldiers, the most ordinary of people, and getting to know them a bit before they ended up ripped to pieces by Robb’s direwolf. The ensuing battle, as previously, wasn’t actually shown – possibly an indication of budgetary restrictions even on a show this expensive. Equally probably though, it simply wasn’t considered important enough with so much plot to get through. We need to know that Robb won the battle; showing the spectacle is really incidental.

The aftermath was predictably bloody, with eviscerated bodies scattered hither and yon. It gave some real sense of how it must have been after a medieval battle, as the victors looted their fallen foes for their boots, coup de graces were delivered to the mortally wounded, and grisly impromptu amputations were carried out.

The amputation we saw was performed by a pretty young nurse called Talisa, with Robb’s stoic help. There was clearly a spark between them, and I’m guessing she’s going to take the place of another character from the books who served as Robb’s love interest. It’s a little uninspiring to see the cliched approach whereby she is a stern critic of what he’s up to but you could cut the romantic tension with a knife; but their little scene, as she poured scorn on his lack of an endgame plan to justify the slaughter, was still rather good. Her comment about him not knowing what he’ll do after overthrowing Joffrey felt pointed, but hopefully it wasn’t yet another example of a TV show trying to comment on current events in the Middle East. Mind you, there’ve been so many of those recently that I might be seeing such allusions where none are intended!

But there wasn’t time to linger on the theme of ordinary people caught up in a war of their rulers’ choosing. There was far too much to pack in. Aside from the continuing intrigue in King’s Landing, this episode caught us up with Dany Targaryen in the desert; Arya and Gendry at Harrenhal; both Renly Baratheon and his brother Stannis’ war efforts; and the machinations of Stannis’ sinister Red Priestess, Melisandre.

It was all well done, but we found ourselves racing from place to place with dizzying speed as the plot and events interweaved to affect each other. At King’s Landing, Joffrey was continuing his descent into full-on cruel tyrant mode, much to Tyrion’s consternation. With so much authority vested unquestioningly in the King, Tyrion showed quite some nerve remonstrating with him after he had Sansa beaten in retaliation for her brother’s actions. He got away with it though, with the ever-sardonic Bronn to back him up. It’s always good to see those two on screen as a double act; discussing whether a bit of sex would cure Joffrey of his sadistic tendencies, Bronn pithily opined, “there’s no cure for being a cunt.”

Perhaps Tyrion should have listened. This week’s only sex scene was a revealing glimpse of quite how twisted Joffrey was, as we saw how he planned to enjoy himself with the two whores Tyrion had sent him. It was a nice bit of continuity to see Ros again; but her involvement in every scene involving the local prostitutes does make it seem like King’s Landing has a rather limited supply.

Still, she might reconsider her profession after Joffrey had her first beat fellow whore Daisy then violate her with an eye-wateringly jagged and wide royal sceptre, Joffrey’s intent being to get his sadistic jollies then send the result to Tyrion as an object lesson. Whether this actually killed Daisy was unclear, as even this show wasn’t going to put sexual violence of that level on the screen. It was a genuinely nasty scene to watch; Esme Bianco as Ros conveying the terror of having to obey the hideous orders of the capricious king, and Jack Gleeson being every bit the salivating monster as the spoiled boy king.

With so much to pack in, the script didn’t follow up by showing Tyrion’s reaction to Joffrey’s ‘message’. Perhaps it’ll be followed up on next week; but then, I suppose both we and Tyrion already know what a monster Joffrey is, and reminders aren’t really needed. Besides, Tyrion was busy intimidating his cousin Lancel, who turned up with an order from Cersei to release the imprisoned Grand Maester Pycelle. Lancel was really no challenge for Tyrion, who’s dealt with far more sophisticated operators than this dim prettyboy. Once Tyrion revealed that he knew (and might tell) of Lancel’s dalliances with the Queen, Lancel was putty in his hands, easily malleable into a useful little informant.

It was another scene dominated by Peter Dinklage as Tyrion, who pretty much steals every scene he’s in. Eugene Simon is pretty enough as Lancel, but the boy is, basically, an idiot. He’s obviously a poor replacement for the Queen’s real lover, her brother Jaime.

And it was negotiating for Jaime’s release that brought Littlefinger to Renly’s camp this week, where Catelyn Stark is still hanging out trying to negotiate an alliance with Robb. We saw tow sides to Lord Baelish this week; his usual smooth political facade crumbling as he impulsively tried to grab Catelyn, confessing his long term love for her. It was just a moment, and he soon regained his composure, but it was a revealing glimpse into Littlefinger’s insecurity beneath that controlled veneer. It was another great little scene, well played by Aidan Gillen and Michelle Fairley; the latter’s warrior queen facade cracking too when presented with the bones of her dead husband.

Outside, Littlefinger was back to his usual smooth self in a heavily freighted discussion with Renly’s wife Margery Tyrell. His thinly veiled comments made it clear that Renly’s relationship with her brother Loras is very much an open secret about court; but Margery, as shown in the series, is a canny political operator herself, and was giving nothing away. As a fan of The Tudors, it’s hard to see Natalie Dormer in a bodice and not think of her turn on that show as Anne Boleyn, but Margery Tyrell is a far cleverer woman than Henry VIIII’s doomed lust object.

Over the Narrow Sea, we caught up with Dany Targaryen and her starving Dothraki followers as they finally reached civilisation in the form of the city of Qarth. This led to a brief vignette as Dany was faced with the ruling Thirteen of the city, who were less than keen to let her and her “Dothraki horde” in. But Dany showed some real fire (appropriate for the ‘”Mother of Dragons”) as she boldly stood up to them. Emilia Clarke was as impressive as ever, as was Nonso Anozie as her eventual guarantor Xara Xhoan Daxos, and the gates of Qarth eventually opened to display a breathtaking CG vista of a releif from the baking desert. Still, as CG vistas go, I’m not sure Qarth (either its interior or its high walls) is up there with the best the show’s done.

Rather better was the realisation of Harrenhal, where Arya and Gendry found themselves imprisoned this week. A grim, forbidding half-ruined giant castle, Harrenhal was a place of terror where prisoners were taken one by one to be sadistically tortured to no real purpose other than their captors’ sadistic satisfaction. The torture was imaginatively nasty; the prisoners had a rat in a bucket strapped to their chests, whereupon the bucket was heated and the maddened rat would have to chew its way out through the terrified torturees’ bodies.

It all looked bleakly nasty, with Arya and Gendry held ina cold, wet cage outdorrs, awaiting their turn for torture. But just as Gendry’s turn came, they were saved by the unexpected arrival of Tywin Lannister, making a welcome first appearance this year. Charles Dance is magnetic in the role of the Lannister patriarch, and I must admit I’ve missed him onscreen so far this season, so it was as much a relief for me to see him as it was for the prisoners.

Tywin may not be a very nice man, but he’s not wilfully cruel. To him, it makes far more sense to put the prisoners to work than sadistically torture them to death. He’s also not stupid; he spotted immediately that Arya wasn’t a boy, and she found herself appointed as his cupbearer – an ironic place for Ned Stark’s heir to be. Tywin might have recognised her to be a girl, but not which girl. That could be interesting…

Just when you thought the episode couldn’t pack in any more plotlines, up popped Stannis, having arrived at Renly’s camp in a futile attempt to get his little brother to abandon his claim to the throne. Renly, who’s got a nice big army, was having none of this, so it was time for Stannis’ back up plan – Melisandre and her tricks from the Red God.

After Liam Cunningham got to fill in Davos Seaworth’s back story in another revealing vignette aboard Stannis’ ship, he was sent off to row Melisandre into a handy nearby cave, and it was time for one of the show’s rare depictions of actual magic in its fantasy universe. It seems that the queasily uncomfortable coupling between her and Stannis has indeed borne fruit. Carice van Houten, a veteran of Paul Verhoeven movies, got to do yet another full frontal nude scene as she shed her robe to reveal that she was about as pregnant as you can get. But it wasn’t a baby she moaningly gave birth to; it was a scary looking smoke monster that kept taking and then losing human form. As Davos cowered against the wall, it was an excellent place for this week’s cliffhanger.

There was so much packed into this episode (admittedly of necessity) that, while it was breathtakingly exciting, it was actually a bit hard to keep up with. About the only plotlines not covered this week were events north of the Wall, and what the Greyjoys are getting up to on the Iron Islands. The twists and turns of the intricate, interweaving subplots were great, but I have to say, I missed the longer, more detailed skulduggery so much in evidence last week. Still, from memory of the book, there’s still a heck of a lot to pack in in the remaining six episodes, so this breakneck pace may be more of the norm as the season progresses. If so, it’ll be a shame to lose so many of the thoughtful, lengthy character scenes, but a necessary progression of pace for the story. Still, excitement is always good, right?

Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 3–What is Dead May Never Die

“Power resides where men believe it resides. It’s a trick. A shadow. And a very small man can cast a very large shadow.”

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Wow. I swear, it seems like this show gets better every week. With the plot well and truly motoring along now, this third episode of Game of Thrones seemed the best yet, for a variety of reasons. Yes, it had the requisite amount of impeccable dialogue, gory battles and gratuitous sex and nudity to liven up exposition that we’ve come to expect from the show. But best of all, it served up a monster portion of what I like best about the show – portraits of Westeros’ devious, Machiavellian characters in all their scheming glory. For that, it’s up there with another favourite of mine, I, Claudius, which I wouldn’t be surprised to find is one of George RR Martin’s inspirations for the books.

King of the schemers this week – taking the crown from Varys – was undoubtedly Tyrion. Having flexed his muscles as proxy Hand of the King last week, with his exile of Janos Slynt, this week he was clearly in his element among the slimy, untrustworthy denizens of the Small Council. In a cleverly scripted and edited scene, we saw him testing,one after the other, Grand Maester Pycelle, Varys and Littlefinger as to their trustworthiness. They’re all veteran schemers too, of course, but this was Tyrion’s chance to hoodwink them before they’d got his measure as every bit their equal.

And it worked, too. Having fed each of them separate stories about who he was planning to marry off Princess Myrcella to, then stressed that “the Queen mustn’t know”, all he had to do was sit back and wait to see which story she went ballistic over. In hindsight, it was perhaps no surprise that it turned out to be Pycelle who went running to her; much as I love genre veteran Julian Glover in the role, the character is far less interesting than either Varys or Littlefinger and thus more expendable.

All of this was played beautifully by the actors concerned. Peter Dinklage continues to be masterful as the irreverent, sardonic Tyrion, and Conleth Hill is more than a match for him as sly spymaster Varys. Their scene together, in which Varys smoothly compliments the newcomer (“nicely played".) was one of the highlights in an episode full of memorable scenes. I’ve seen some sceptical reviews of Aidan Gillen’s performance as Littlefinger, but I have to say that he too worked well for me in the scene where he realised he’d been had, only for Tyrion to hook him all over again with the promise of Catelyn Stark.

Lady Stark was back herself this week, and with her we finally caught up with the last – and perhaps least – of the pretenders to the throne, Robert Baratheon’s youngest brother Renly. Renly’s been busy between seasons; not only has he grown a beard, he’s married one – Margery Tyrell, sister of his true lover Loras. Slipping smoothly into a bodice yet again after The Tudors, Natalie Dormer was surprisingly good as Margery. The script here made her out to be a another astute political operator, far more so than in the book. She knows that the true way to cement their alliance, and Renly’s power, is for him to get her pregnant asap.

Unfortunately that may be harder than she thinks. She’s perfectly aware of her husband’s dalliances with her brother – and ruthless enough to suggest he join them in bed, if that’s what it takes – but Renly just can’t get it up for her. Indeed, poor old Renly got most of the gratuitous nudity this week, but was perpetually thwarted when it came to actual sex. He can’t get it up with Margery (is there a Westerosi equivalent of Viagra, I wonder?), and pretty young Loras is in a snit with him. Not that this stopped Gethin Anthony and Finn Jones having some pretty raunchy semi-clad foreplay, ticking a box for those like me who enjoy a bit of man on man action.

The reason Loras is in a snit is his humiliation at the hands of another fan favourite from the books. Yes, Brienne of Tarth – Brienne the Beauty – has finally arrived, clobbering the Knight of Flowers but good in a playful tournament (nobody died). Gwendoline Christie certainly looks the part as Brienne – apparently she took on a monster training regimen to bulk up suitably. But even her almost defensive fearlessness can’t disguise that she’s got the hots for the King she’s meant to be serving. Shame, she’s barking up the wrong tree there.

With all that going on, Catelyn barely got much of a look in, dramatically. But when she did, she was as dour and grim as you’d expect from a woman who’s already lost one fiance and one husband to war. "It’s just a game to you, isn’t it?” she bitterly asked the affable Renly, before commenting on his youthful army, “I pity them… They are the knights of summer. And winter is coming.”

She wasn’t the only one quoting the Words of her House; this week we also got to hear those of House Greyjoy (“We do not sow”), as Theon was faced with a very hard choice by his unyielding father. Would he continue to help Robb Stark, son of the man who’d thwarted his father’s rebellion and held him captive for his entire childhood? Or would he prize his true family over his adoptive one?

It’s a measure of how surprisingly good Alfie Allen is as Theon that I truly felt for him as he first swallowed his pride then betrayed his honour, siding with the bitter, twisted father he’d never truly known, all in the hope of glory. It was another nice visual touch from director Alik Sakharov as the decision was shown without words; Theon, a lone point of light in a vast darkness, choosing to burn the warning letter he might have sent to Robb.

Patrick Malahide is his usual chilly self (albeit more unkempt) as Lord Balon Greyjoy, a hard man shaped by the culture Theon was taken away from. Still, good though he is, I couldn’t help thinking that, visually and in personality, he seems very similar to David Bradley as Walder Frey last season. We haven’t seen Walder yet this year, but when/if we do, hopefully the producers will be able to clearly differentiate the two…

With the focus of the episode firmly on these three plotlines, the script still found time for some vignettes from elsewhere in the Seven Kingdoms, and even these were replete with rich character detail. North of the Wall, we found out the resolution to last week’s cliffhanger, as Jon Snow, having been bashed about the head by Craster, was dragged bloody to the loathsome wildling’s hall.

Lord Commander Mormont was none too happy, after last week’s lecture about learning how to follow; and Jon himself got a Star Trek Prime Directive-alike lesson from Mormont, who turned out to be all too knowledgeable about what Craster did with his unwanted son’s. “The wildings pray to crueller gods,” he muttered darkly, and Jon replied that he’d seen one – that dark figure taking the baby in the wood had been one of the mysterious and deadly White Walkers after all, unseen since the prologue of the show’s very first episode. They’re plainly the greatest of the threats facing Westeros, but as yet they’re in the shadows – perhaps a good thing, as a Sauron-like unstoppable magical threat is less interesting than all the political wrangling going on all over the Seven Kingdoms.

Back at Winterfell, we’re seeing more of the crippled Bran’s mysterious ability to ‘green dream’ himself into the bodies of animals; yet again, his direwolf hunting in the night. Isaac Hempstead-Wright as Bran got a short but effective scene with Donald Sumpter as the sceptical Maester Luwin. “My dreams are different,” Bran protested. “Mine are true.” But Luwin’s had a go at magic, as an impressionable student, and like Arthur C Clarke with his Mysterious World, doesn’t believe in any of it: “Maybe magic was once a mighty force in this world. But not any more.”

The equally compelling Maisie Williams got a bit of the action too, as Arya heard the backstory of Ranger Yoren. His brother had been killed in front of him when he was a boy, and every night after he’d repeated the name of the killer like a prayer – until one day the killer returned and Yoren butchered him with an axe, fleeing to the Wall. You could see Arya mulling this over thoughtfully…

But not for long. Like in a classic war film, Yoren’s revelation of his hard life was an obvious prelude to him getting brutally killed, as Lannister thug Amory Lorch turned up to assist with the search for Gendry. Yoren took some killing though; even after a crossbow bolt in the chest and a spear through the back, he still managed to take down a few thugs before a sword in the spine felled him for good. Francis Magee turned in another of the show’s great performances as Yoren, and he’ll be missed.

Still, this sequence usefully compressed a much longer – perhaps unnecessarily so – plotline from the book, omitting the escape and subsequent wanderings of Arya, Gendry and a couple of the other recruits. Here, they went straight into captivity, heading for Harrenhaal Castle – but not before Arya, smartly, led the thugs to believe that the hapless boy they’d already killed was Gendry, the conveniently placed bull’s head helmet lending her story credence.

This is epic stuff, but with the fate of kingdoms depending on the whims of treacherous backstabbers, it doesn’t stint on the character portrayal either. Obviously it has excellent source material, but this week’s writer Bryan Cogman expanded it well, with acres of quotable dialogue. It could be argued, again, that making some of the book’s more implicit plots explicit – Renly and Loras’ affair, Margery’s political cunning – was unnecessary for a show with this much intelligence; but I think the overt scheming displayed as a result makes for some hugely entertaining scenes. With all the pretenders to the Iron Throne now in place, and the plot already speeding along, I can’t wait for next week!

Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 2–The Night Lands

“Another king. How many is that now?”

GameOfThronesTheon

With the season premiere having firmly planted the pieces in place, Game of Thrones’ second episode sees the plot beginning to really move. Taking in fewer of the players than last week, series creators David Benioff and DB Weiss were able to focus more closely on those we did see, giving us some meaty conflict between the well-drawn characters, and giving depth to some of those who’d previously had little attention.

Most notable of those was Theon Greyjoy, who had so little to do last year that you could have been forgiven for wondering why he was there. Having been held hostage since childhood by Ned Stark against his rebellious father’s good conduct, this episode saw him returning to his ancestral home of Pyke on the Iron Islands, introducing yet another player into the game.

But before we reached the Iron Islands, the viewer would need some instruction as to the culture of yet another region of Westeros. How best to explain the Ironborn’s rugged, seafaring ways? Ah yes, the show’s tried and trusted ‘sexposition’ tactic. Lest we get bored with Theon’s explanation of how his culture works, it was delivered while he was busy having sex with the daughter of the captain of the boat taking him there. You had to admire Theon’s power of concentration at being able to deliver a sociological lecture while having some pretty vigorous sex.

It’s easy to have a teenage smirk whenever the show does one of these scenes, and they certainly do seem like titillation, but they’re very much part of the show’s established style now. The main problem, I suppose, is that the more frequent they are, the more the show runs the risk of slipping into self-parody. It’s not there yet, though, and this viewer at least was happy to be titillated by the surprisingly buff Alfie Allen as Theon. I seem to recall that last year, he was one of the only main male cast members to appear full frontal nude. Which was nice, given that the other one was Hodor.

Anyway, having arrived at the Iron Islands, we got some faithfully recreated scenes from the book as Theon was reunited with his family – in the case of his sister, quite unknowingly. Yara Greyjoy (renamed from the book’s ‘Asha’ lest she be confused with wildling Osha) is plainly another formidable player in the game, and not above some fairly dirty ttactics. Having been flirting unwittingly with her as they rode to the castle, to the extent of having a hand in her pants, Theon looked pretty queasy when he realised who she was. It was blackly amusing, as if Luke and Leia from Star Wars had done far more than kiss before realising they were siblings.

We also met Theon’s father, the bitter and formerly rebellious Lord Balon Greyjoy. As played by Patrick Malahide, Balon’s an unforgiving, harsh, proud man, who’s less than happy with the seemingly soft, spoiled boy Ned Stark has turned his son into. It’s clear that (unsurprisingly) Balon Greyjoy is not going to forget the past and ally with Robb Stark, the son of the man who ruthlessly crushed his rebellion and killed Theon’s brothers. Catelyn’s advice to Robb in that regard was spot on. What’s less clear is exactly what Balon is intending to do with the fleet that Yara’s been put in command of…

Over at Dragonstone, ships were also much in the minds of Stannis Baratheon and Davos Seaworth. As in the books, Stannis is a cold, remote figure, and hard to empathise with. This is why his more moderate, sensible aide Davos is more usually given screen time, and Liam Cunningham has already established him as a much more likeable character.

Davos and his son Matthos (Kerr Logan) meet with flamboyant pirate Salladhor Saan, in the hope of gaining his ships’ support for an attack on King’s Landing. Salladhor is one of the book’s most memorable characters, despite being fairly minor, so it was nice to see the writers giving him a pretty good amount of screen time as he declared that his condition for agreeing was to be allowed to “fuck the queen”. Not ‘rape’ – actor Lucian Msamati made it clear that this likeable rogue believes he can charm anyone into sex. As he remarks to the uptight, unconvinced Matthos, “I haven’t tried to fuck you yet.”

It was a good scene, that did much to establish the history and nature of the relationship between Davos and Stannis, despite the latter’s absence; but I did think the sudden switch from the bleak seaside locale of Pyke to the bleak seaside locale of Dragonstone was potentially a little confusing for viewers. The locations were so similar that it only remembering which characters were based where made the distinction clear.

Not much scope was given this week to Daenerys Targaryen and her small tribe of Dothraki over the Narrow Sea, but their one scene continued to show their privations in the Red Waste. Dany was dismayed to receive the severed head of the faithful Rakharo, which caused much lamenting from her handmaids that the manner of his death barred his entry from the Dothraki afterlife – the Night Lands, from which the episode’s title was drawn. Rakharo’s death is a significant deviation from the books, where he lasts a good deal longer; but it works because he’s made a much more significant character here, so his death has a lot more resonance. As he plays no particularly notable part in any of the books’ plots, it’s a good gambit for the screenwriters to build him up and then kill him off, yet another sign that nobody is safe in this game.

Given similarly short shrift were the Night’s Watch, still quartered with the loathsome Craster in the North beyond the Wall. Deftly signposted last week, this episode showed us more of Craster’s fearful daughter Gilly, and her fear as to what would become of her soon-to-be-born baby if it was a boy. Gilly is played by Skins’ Hannah Murray, who I’m glad to see back on the screen after a long absence to, presumably, finish her education. There’s the beginning of a nice relationship between her and loveable ‘coward’ Sam Tarly, as he first rescues her from Jon’s impressively realised direwolf Ghost then lends a sympathetic ear to her troubles.

The normally heroic (but fallible) Jon is less than eager to help, presumably remembering the earful he got from the Lord Commander last week about pissing off Craster, but it doesn’t take long before he’s reverted to heroic type and off to nose around the woods as Gilly’s baby is born, getting clobbered by Craster for his pains. This is a small but important plotline in the book, so it’s good to see it getting a fair shake of screen time – even if viewers might be impatient for the Night’s Watch to get a move on with their mission of investigating the sinister happenings in the snowy North.

Those concerns are also echoed in King’s Landing, as Cersei summarily dismisses an urgent message from Lord Commander Mormont, pleading for more men to help with the cold, blue-eyed walking dead. She thinks it’s all just superstition, and Tyrion must be a fool for giving it any credence.

But Tyrion’s no fool, as this episode again makes clear. We got a terrific scene between him and Varys (Conleth Hill), as the softly spoken spymaster implicitly threatens to reveal the presence of Tyrion’s whore Shae to his disapproving father. As Tyrion reminds Varys (and us), unlike Ned Stark he is no honourable man, and smart enough to see how the game is being played. Having already banished City Watch commander Janos Slynt for his part in Joffrey’s slaughter of the innocents, Tyrion makes it clear that if Varys threatens him, he can expect something similar or worse. Varys, typically, is unfazed, and points out his continued survival when so many more visible players in the game have fallen. It was a powerful scene between these two most devious, cynical men, reminiscent of Varys’ more veiled exchanges with Petyr Baelish last year.

Lord Baelish himself got one of the episode’s other great scenes, as he dealt with young Ros’ grief over last week’s slaughter of one of the brothel’s babies. At first seeming uncharacteristically sympathetic, his soft tones belied the increasing harshness of the story he told; of how an unhappy whore is, for him, a pretty bad investment, and one that can be easily disposed of by pandering to some of the clients’ scarier sexual peccadilloes. No fool herself, Ros got the message. She’d get a day off to grieve, and then be back at work – and happy. It was a cracking scene, one of those created solely for the screen version of the story that work so well; a similar highlight last year was the temporary truce and neutral discussion of their relationship by Robert and Cersei.

Arya Stark, meanwhile, was still headed north with Yoren’s Night’s Watch recruits, and we got to see her first encounter with the mysterious Jaqen H’gar, a caged charmer played by German actor Tom Wlaschiha. As Arya, Maisie Williams is one of the show’s best child actors, and it’s god to see her continuing to have such a prominent role. We also got to see more of Gendry, the fugitive bastard son of the dead king, who’s realised his travelling companion Arya is really a girl – and is soon informed that she’s a noble to boot. Not that being addressed as “my lady” pleases her very much. Arya and Gendry look to be shaping up into another of the show’s effective double acts, and it’s nice to see another Skins alumnus, Joe Dempsie, getting more to do as Gendry than he did last year.

It was another great episode from a show that shows no sign of flagging in quality. The pacing is excellent, with the plot beginning to move but still not too fast; there’s still plenty of time for the character building scenes that Benioff and Weiss do so well. The writers have also taken it upon themselves, as last year, to take some of the books’ more implicit plots and make them explicit; last year, it was the relationship between Renly Baratheon and Loras Tyrell, this year it’s the sexual coupling of Stannis and Melisandre. This has been a divisive tactic for some of the books’ fans, but I think it works well and is justified in this different medium of storytelling. Check back next week for, likely, more fulsome praise.

Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 1–The North Remembers

SPOILER WARNING – I’M GOING TO TRY TO REVIEW EACH EPISODE AS SOON AS POSSIBLE AFTER ITS U.S. BROADCAST. IF YOU’RE IN THE U.K., AND WATCHING THE SKY ATLANTIC SHOWING THE NEXT EVENING, DON’T READ THIS REVIEW UNTIL AFTER SEEING IT, AS MAJOR PLOT POINTS WILL BE DISCUSSED.

“There’s a king in every corner now.”

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After Mad Men last week comes the return of another much-anticipated, highly acclaimed show – HBO’s Game of Thrones, based on George RR Martin’s massive, convoluted fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, is back. It’s got a lot to live up to; its first season was widely touted as the latest contender in legitimising genre television as serious drama, after the likes of Battlestar Galactica and The Walking Dead.

HBO is used to critical acclaim and viewer respect, but I wonder if even they were quite prepared for the smash hit of Game of Thrones’ first season. Fantasy is generally the most looked down on of genres, after even science fiction and horror. The problem really is that JRR Tolkien set the standard with Lord of the Rings, and so many fantasy novels written after that are perceived as pale imitations. Cheap fantasy B-movies (often made by Italians) compounded the problem, with the genre becoming disparagingly known as ‘sword and sorcery’.

I have to admit, I felt much the same. I tuned in to the first episode of Game of Thrones expecting little, and having not read a fantasy novel for years, for exactly these reasons. Ten gripping, complex and violent episodes later, I picked up Martin’s books and devoured all five within a space of months. The TV series is a very faithful adaptation, as the books (at least the early ones) come fully formed as thrilling stories of political intrigue, backstabbing and internecine warfare.

Significantly, the overtly fantastic elements are used very sparingly. There is magic, but not much. There are dragons, but they don’t even hatch until the climax of the first season. And the dead walk, which is a signifier of the real danger hanging over the inhabitants of Westeros – but not often. Instead, the story focuses much more on the feuding Houses of Westeros, in their struggle to gain the upper hand and win outright rule of the country’s Seven Kingdoms. It’s heavily influenced by the English Wars of the Roses – the leading Houses even have names reminiscent of that struggle’s combatants. The more sympathetic, aggressively northern ones are the Starks (York), and the sneering, coldhearted rich southerners are the Lannisters (Lancaster).

The season 2 opener has a lot to catch up on, establishing where all the major players are now after the tumultuous events of season 1, and introducing a few new ones along the way. This opening episode manages that surprisingly well. We get to see what’s happening with almost every main character, along with introducing the oft-heard of but never seen brother of dead king Robert, Stannis Baratheon – technically the true heir to the throne.

Queen Cersei’s incestuous son Joffrey is still ruling at King’s Landing, his capricious madness an uncontrollable factor in her Machiavellian schemes. His hostage bride-to-be Sansa Stark is already learning how best to deal with his unpredictable cruelty, manipulating him into sparing hopeless chubby knight Ser Dontos, who he was about to have killed on a whim. Cersei, used to having control over her spoiled son, has not learned the lesson so well; slapping him for impudence, she’s genuinely frightened as he coldly reminds her that he could have her executed for it. Jack Gleeson is a really nasty piece of work as young Joffrey, with the impulsive nastiness of a Caligula in training.

Thankfully, his uncle Tyrion has turned up at King’s Landing to deputise as Hand of the King in his father Tywin’s absence, and may be able to keep Joffrey in line. Instantly the fan favourite after season 1, Peter Dinklage is still superb as Tyrion, and gets rather more screen time this week than a lot of others. His dry, barbed wit is still very much in evidence, never more so than in the Small Council scene as he takes his place with his outraged sister, Cersei.

In the North, Robb Stark is still waging war for northern independence, with Cersei’s brother (and lover) Jaime as his captive. Obviously heir to the same dry wit as Tyrion, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau continues to make Jaime an intriguing character, and more sympathetic than the standard villain. He’s actually rather more interesting than the conventionally heroic Robb, though Richard Madden is certainly very nice to look at. Robb’s direwolf has grown too; after criticisms that the direwolves in season 1 looked a bit too much like cuddly dogs, this time we see a genuinely huge beastie menace Jaime. It’s presumably a product of the same very impressive CG that realises so many of the series’ settings, but it’s so well done you could really believe it’s actually there.

More CG is to be found across the Narrow Sea, where last Targaryen (and another claimant to the throne of Westeros) Daenerys is trekking across the desert with her newly-hatched dragons. Again, the dragons are used sparingly, in fact we only see one of the three, perched cutely on Daenerys’ shoulder before being locked in a little cage.

What remains of Dany’s Dothraki tribe are struggling through the Red Waste, a parched piece of desert with seemingly no end (actually Malta). As she sends her riders off to search for some sign of life, she reaffirms her friendship with exiled knight Ser Jorah. Seemingly hard to connect to the events across the sea in the first season, this narrative thread is one of my favourites. As a little-experienced actor, Emilia Clarke is stunning as Daenerys, and Iain Glen is reliably good as Jorah. I was a little sad, therefore, that this plot strand only got one scene this week; but with so much to cram in, it’s hardly surprising that some characters get little more than a cursory nod.

Given similarly short shrift, sadly, were Conleth Hill as oily spymaster Lord Varys, and Jerome Flynn as Tyrion’s mercenary bodyguard Bronn – again a shame, as these too were fan favourites last year. Varys barely gets one line, and Bronn no more than that either. But I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of them as the year goes on. Robb Stark’s mother Catelyn at least gets a whole scene, with actress Michelle Fairley making the most of her limited screen time.

A little more time was devoted to events beyond the Wall, as Jon Snow and the Night’s Watch trekked into the icy wilderness to discover why dead men are walking and attacking people. Robert Pugh popped up as nasty piece of work Craster, who marries his daughters then impregnates them to give him more daughters to marry, and so on. This led to some tense scenes as Craster took an instant dislike to pretty boy Jon (well, to be fair, Kit Harington is pretty).

As Craster, the usually aggressively Welsh Pugh was affecting no less a convincing Northern English accent than the rest of the Watch. More thought has clearly gone into the accents than simply allowing the actors to use their own; aside from Pugh, Night’s Watch Commander Mormont is played by the very Scottish James Cosmo, and he still sounds like he’s from Yorkshire. The more posh Lannisters have cut glass south eastern accents, and would sound quite at home on the current Conservative Party front bench – aside from, perhaps, Peter Dinklage as Tyrion, who for all the excellence of his performance, hasn’t quite mastered a consistent English accent.

Elsewhere, we were introduced to a new set of players, as we cut to the castle of Dragonstone, home to another contender for the crown – Robert Baratheon’s elder brother Stannis. As portrayed by Stephen Dillane, Stannis is a stern, unyielding man, as in the books. We establish this pretty early on with his overly literal pedantry about the propaganda letter to be sent out to Westeros – “strike out ‘beloved brother’. It’s not true.”

Stannis is accompanied by the sinister priestess Melisandre, devotee to a new, fierce religion worshipping the Lord of Light. We first encounter them both symbolically burning the idols of traditional gods the Seven, to the consternation of Stannis’ Maester, who then perishes in a futile attempt to poison the priestess – both drink from the same glass, but only the Maester dies. Incarnated by Dutch actress Carice van Houten (previously seen in Paul Verhoeven’s wartime thriller Black Book), Melisandre is clearly a force to be reckoned with, and has Stannis in her thrall. His more reasonable adviser Davos, played by the reliable Liam Cunningham, is clearly going to have a fight on his hands to moderate her influence.

The usual massively graphic violence was present and correct from the outset, as tournament knights cheerfully slaughtered each other for Joffrey’s entertainment. Also predictably present was the gratuitous sex and nudity for which the show has become
(in)famous. A tour of one of Lord Baelish’s brothels was introduced by yet more instruction in the art of shagging for money, with the participants very much in the forefront of the frame.

This scene led to into the episode’s climactic montage, as Joffrey, concerned by the possibility of the late King Robert’s bastards laying claim to the throne, started his own slaughter of the innocents. It was a genuinely shocking moment when the King’s Guard slashed the throat of that young whore’s baby, one even this series had to leave offscreen. But the mother’s reaction was shocking enough. This was followed by yet more scenes of children being violently killed; proof, if you still needed it, that this is not fantasy for the faint at heart.

But Joffrey can’t get them all. As we saw at the end of last year, blacksmith’s apprentice (and unknowing heir to the throne) Gendry has headed off north to join the Night’s Watch. Gendry is incarnated by the very attractive and personable Joe Dempsie, late of Skins and The Fades; unfortunately, he doesn’t get so much as a line this week. But it’s a good cliffhanger as we see him, together with Ned Stark’s other daughter Arya, heading away from the city amid a stream of refugees.

A sterling season opener this, written by series creators David Benioff and D B Weiss. It hits the ground running, with all the quality, thrills and sometime flaws of the first season. My only complaint would be that perhaps it tries to take in too much, with various characters left virtually mute even if we see them. There again, I was a little disappointed not to see Charles Dance pop up as the arrogant Lord Tywin Lannister, or Gethin Anthony as the pretty (and gay) pretender Renly Baratheon. So clearly, even the writers thought it was biting off more than they could chew to fit in every major character.

I have a bit of a dilemma reviewing this series episode by episode. Because I’ve now read all the books in the series that Martin has written (so far), I obviously know what’s going to happen, since the show is almost completely faithful to the source material. So my solution is this: I’m going to review each episode as though I didn’t know, trying to see it as someone who was seeing the story for the first time. Equally, I’m going to avoid referring to anything that happens in the books after the point the series has reached; I don’t want to spoiler anyone, as I know many people are watching this show having never read the books. It’s going to be an interesting exercise in self-discipline – check back in coming weeks to see how it works out!