Tuned In

Game of Thrones Watch: Dark, and Full of Terrors

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SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, throw a couple of your gods on the fire, and gather your friends around to watch last night’s season premiere of Game of Thrones.

“A comet means one thing, boy: dragons.”

I have never seen a dragon take flight, but I imagine it being a kind of ungainly thing at first. There are those long, delicate wings, and then all that, well, dragon to lift: head and bones and muscle and whatever it happens to have eaten weighing down its belly. I imagine a lot of heaving and straining and choking dust kicked up before the thing finally gets some loft and gains cruising altitude.

That, for me, was the beginning of Game of Thrones season 1. There was so much lifting to do–about half the season–before it established the many storylines and got the wind under it. This year, that’s not the issue. And while Game of Thrones is steadily expanding–just look at the new pit stop on the map flyover in the credits–“The North Remembers” began hustling off steadily and confidently.

One of the show’s biggest challenges is that its world is so big, with dozens of characters scattered across different locations. The season premiere brought that world down to size, just a bit, with a great unifying device: the blood-red comet in the sky, hanging over everyone from capital to provinces to desert to Wall, a reminder that for all the separate subplots, these characters are all part of one larger, still mysterious story.

So we’re quickly updated: Dany is wandering the Red Waste with the remnants of her khalasar; Bran is holding down the fort in Winterfell; Arya is on the run; Jon is seeking intelligence about Benjen, the wildlings and the Walkers north of the Wall. (Craster’s creepy, incestuous camp is another reminder that, for all the more powerful women the series is introducing, the lot of everyday women is not so great in Westeros.)

In King’s Landing, meanwhile, Joffrey has grown ever more sadistic in power, waterboarding–wineboarding?–a hapless knight until Sansa contrives to save him, with backup from Tyrion. Tyrion! I’m as delighted to see him as everyone else in the capital appears unhappy, and for the same reason: he is the wild card come in to upset his ruling family members, or save them from the consequences of their own blind brutality.

Just as the Imp has been empowered by Tywin’s decree, making him Hand in his dad’s stead, so too has Peter Dinklage: after Sean Bean’s departure, he now tops the credits. (I hadn’t thought of this when Ned Stark was first offed, but I like the idea that the “star” of the show could potentially change from season to season, or even within seasons, as fortunes change and the action shifts.) Dinklage always had a fine time with the role, but now he positively has swagger.

And while he doesn’t literally get to slap any Lannisters up this week–we can’t always be so lucky–he delivers some well-targeted verbal smackdowns as he tells Joffrey and Cersei what their iron-fisted style of ruling has bought them: a losing war and an influx of peasants, just as the long summer has ended. (Not that anyone is necessarily inclined to listen, as Cersei’s scary Simon-says demonstration with the City Watch and her King Herod imitation at the end of the episode attest.) Is Tyrion a good guy now? Let’s not be hasty: this is Game of Thrones. Better to say that good and bad, friend and enemy, are situational, and Tyrion is the one who best understands this: “I know people. And I understand that our enemies hate each other almost as much as they hate us.”

Sitting on the Small Council, bringing his lady to town (if on the sly), Tyrion is bursting with confidence, and so is this new season so far. It moves quickly, advancing the story and adding characters without getting into long, episode-stalling data downloads. The dialogue is natural, nimble, sometimes funny. And visually, the episode is grand, using a limited number of locations and interior sets to convey a sense of vastness.

About which: “The North Remembers” also managed to introduce an entire new location–Dragonstone, home of Stannis Baratheon–with entirely new characters, yet it felt wholly of a piece with the rest of the episode. Partly, this is because we’ve heard of Stannis before we met him, but it’s also that Carice van Houten is mesmerizing–chilly, fiery and apparently with a Rasputin-like tolerance for poison–as Melisandre. Also, because the image and storyline of Stannis’ conversion is suitably epic, conveying a sense of how everything is at risk in Westeros, not just thrones but theology. This is, essentially, the equivalent of a medieval king in Europe going to the beach and burning a bonfire of crucifixes and holy relics.

A game of thrones? It’s looking like a game of gods too.

Critter Watch: We have dragons! Still tiny, still not breathing fire, but I like the notion that Dany–generations separated from her family’s dragon lore–has to learn how to care for them without the usual supports, as she must learn the same way to be a leader. Also: Love the direwolves’ growth spurt.

Joffrey Slap Watch: One! Mama Cersei’s turn! Jack Gleeson, by the way, doesn’t get a ton of praise in writeups like this compared with his older co-stars, but look at the aftermath of that slap again: his first reaction to look away–to see whether anyone saw, and how it undermines him–the momentary sulk, then puffing himself up to remind his mother that he could have her executed (in a way that shows both that he’s growing more full of himself and that he probably does not have the guts yet to actually do it).

Sexposition? Not so much! Sex, yes–it doesn’t take long before we’re back in a whorehouse, now with an equal-opportunity male whore–but nobody humping while explaining three hundred years of a royal house’s lineage yet. (Maybe the writers have challenged themselves to find other ways to do data dumps in talky scenes; Robb’s faceoff with Jaime was, arguably, wolfsposition.)

Bonus section for those who’ve read the books: A note first–I’ve read A Clash of Kings, and the rest of the Song of Ice and Fire books. But like last season, I made a point of not re-reading them. I don’t want to be distracted comparing what’s on the screen with what was on the page. So if there’s new dialogue and I don’t notice that it’s new, I take that as a good sign. Likewise if something’s been removed that was in the books and I don’t notice.

That said, a couple quick departures I’ll note (without spoilers for nonreaders). This season seems more willing to take liberties with the order of events in the narrative than season 1. (I’m fine with that, because once you get into the more sprawling later books, it’s going to be a necessity.) I did, however, miss the prologue of ACoK, in which we saw the poisoning of Stannis’ maester in a similar, but to me creepier fashion. I don’t think the series needed the prologue, but season 1 retained it, and I do think the prologues serve a purpose: drawing attention to the longer, mythological game before we get back to the political game of thrones. Then again, the red comet substituted as a unifying device, and maybe a better one for the screen.

(Here’s my usual request for those who have read the books: you’re welcome to compare what’s happened already on the series, but no referencing plot points or upcoming events–nothing possibly spoilery for the book virgins out there. Thanks.)