(Note: I feel like tagging this with spoiler warnings is unnecessary, but just in case, this is going to be very spoiler heavy. If you haven’t finished S1, stay away.)
Ready for more political maneuvering, martial strategy, medieval barbarism, societal division, and steadily burgeoning elements of high fantasy? What may be somewhat startling about the season opener to Game of Thrones is how little seems to have happened in the last nine months; everything here is status quo, picking up right where we left off in 2011. The Starks are dispersed, the Lannisters are ruling the Seven Kingdoms, Daenerys is mothering some dragons as she leads the remainder of her people across the desert, and the Night’s Watch– including everyone’s favorite bastard, Jon Snow– is on the move beyond the Wall. The more things change, I suppose, but all of this sameness is designed only to hint at the big things that are coming this season as the second novel in George R.R. Martin’s towering A Song of Ice and Fire series, A Clash of Kings*, makes it to television.
I’m lying on one point– not everything is a continuation of the milieu established in season one’s final episodes. While the show touches on every single story thread and splinter created in the devastating events of Baelor and Fire and Blood, it introduces a whole new shard by presenting the late King Robert’s harsh, unyielding, oft-mentioned but not previously seen brother, Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane), along with the two major characters with whom he most frequently associates– Davos Seaworth and Melisandre. You may recognize their faces– Liam Cunningham is a veteran British actor with a habit of showing up in anything from Centurion to Hunger (both reviewed on this site), while Carice Van Houten will be familiar to those of you who have seen Black Death and Black Book. If their scenes here are any indication, both characters are going to have significant roles throughout the entirety of the season, though one less than the other, and also the rest of the series; they’re the sort of characters you want to get to know, and fast, as they recur across the other novels and in turn do much to shape future events. (Personally, I have a feeling Cunningham will end up being a fan favorite at the end of the season. If you’re not already an admirer, you will be.)
Speaking of fan favorites– how about that Tyrion? Tyrion’s a big player in A Clash of Kings, so count on him being enormously prominent as the series moves along. That said, I couldn’t help but feel disappointment at seeing so little of the Dink last night; apart from watching him take joy in his sister’s outrage at his appointment to the apparently cursed position of Hand of the King (courtesy of his father, Tywin, played again by the great Charles Dance), and a bawdy discussion with his favored lady of the night, we don’t spend any time with one of the most universally celebrated characters in the entire story (well, surviving characters at least). In point of fact, the entire episode follows that vein. We spend more time with some than others (notably Stannis), but overall there’s a somewhat mercurial, yet nonetheless perfect, pacing that shuffles us from one character to another and so on until the episode fades to black. It’s exhilarating and exhausting and constraining all at the same time
Of course, the reason for this is obvious: we’re playing catch-up. I imagine that from here on out, each episode will deal with a smaller delegation of characters with a greater apportionment of time, giving everyone their proper time in the sun until the finale. But The North Remembers is exactly about remembering and bringing the audience to current in the innumerable story lines running consecutively across Westeros and across the narrow sea. If the episode feels somewhat scattered, it’s out of necessity; in a way that sprawling narrative reflects the general state of the realm in the wake of season one’s power struggles. Maybe that sounds like an apology for slipshod storytelling, but truthfully The North Remembers plays very, very well, and brings a great sense of economy to each scene. It just has a lot on its plate.
As a reader of the books, watching The North Remembers unfold strongly reminded me of the varying freedoms and restrictions visual adaptations of novels alternately enjoy and endure in the production process. George R.R. Martin has thousands upon thousands of pages at his disposal to write out his characters and really allow them all to breathe as he develops his plot, but series creators D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, alongside directors like Tim Van Patten and Neil Marshal, only have one hour per episode. Conversely, the team behind Game of Thrones has a whole five novels to go off of for filtering Martin’s vision through the lens of television, while Martin must discover things as he writes; this allows the show, for example, to humanize Cersei early on, rather than wait until season four. Most of all, the show has the eye of god; this lets it show us things that we could never see while anchored to one person’s perspective, and here I’m talking specifically about the sequence leading into the final shot in which the City Watch of King’s Landing carries out a mass-purge of all of Robert Baratheon’s bastard off-spring (starting with a baby). It’s an event that we don’t see in the book– I don’t even recall it being more than vaguely hinted at– but one which logically fits into the events of Clash.
Advantages and disadvantages aside, where source and adaptation sync up lies in anticipation. The North Remembers already has me wringing my hands waiting for next Sunday, and I have a rough idea of how the season will carry out based on my knowledge of Martin’s novels. It should be clear to anyone that the real heavy lifting for this round of Game of Thrones will kick off with The Night Lands next week. 2.1 is much more about laying out groundwork for the the next nine episodes, which it does wonderfully, giving us a basic idea of where each character, as well as the over-arching story, will go in the weeks ahead; the most important thing to keep in mind, however, may well be Arya’s words in the S2 trailer: anyone can die.