Ever since HBO changed the landscape of television dramas back in the late 90s, a dozen other networks have stepped up to try to follow in their footsteps with their own challenging, original programming. So how does the pay cable network stay ahead of the pack? By taking risks that no other network can afford to take (literally). Many of the recent dramas in their stable have come from showrunners who have shepherded previous hits — “Luck” from “Deadwood” creator David Milch; “True Blood” from “Six Feet Under” creator Alan Ball; “Boardwalk Empire” from “The Sopranos” vet Terrence Winter; “Treme” from “The Wire” creator David Simon — but their medieval epic “Game of Thrones” is a beast all its own. Adapted from George R. R. Martin’s popular fantasy series “A Song of Ice And Fire” by novelist D.B. Weiss and writer/screenwriter David Benioff (“25th Hour,” “Troy”), the series aims to break up each massive 800+ page book into a 10 episode season. Though sci-fi, action and even horror have made their way to the small screen, fantasy has rarely been attempted and putting the series in the hands of two writers who had no television experience was, putting it lightly, a risky move.
Featuring HBO’s signature mix of sex, violence and morally suspect characters, the show was a surprise hit that inspired fans far outside the Dungeons & Dragons set to pick up the books. (It also picked up an Emmy Nomination for Best Drama in the process.) The first season had a lot of heavy lifting to do introducing its enormous cast of characters and setting up the world of Westeros, and may have taken a few episodes to find its groove. But as the season went along it picked up quite a bit of momentum and featured the one of the ballsiest moves in television history. Staying true to the books, the series unjustly killed off Eddard Stark (Sean Bean) who had essentially been the lead of the show. It became a defining moment for the series. Can you even imagine if Tony Soprano had gotten whacked during season 1? Luckily they’ve set up such an expansive cast of interesting characters that we’re more than happy to follow the show into season 2, even with its head cut off, literally and figuratively. Anticipation is running high for the new season, which begins airing this Sunday night, and judging from the first four episodes, fans shouldn’t be disappointed.
The season opener once again has the difficult task of catching the audience up with at least a dozen central characters spread out across the Seven Kingdoms. Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) — last seen fulfilling her prophecy as the Mother Of Dragons — is leading her people across the Red Waste, a vast desert wasteland surrounded on all sides by tribes who would surely slaughter her people if they were to intrude. Meanwhile, the Stark family is divided. Robb Stark (Richard Madden) has been crowned King of the North and proposes a trade with King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) for return of his two sisters Arya (Maisie Williams) and Sansa (Sophie Turner). He offers Jamie Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) in exchange for his sisters and acknowledgement that the North are now free from Lannister rule. Because he knows his offer will be refused, matriarch Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) attempts to gather an army for impending war against the Lannisters. Jon Snow (Kit Harington) is still keeping watch of The Wall that protects the North from the White Walkers glimpsed in the first episode and whatever other evils await. Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) is losing her grip on the kingdom while her brother Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) discovers that someone has ordered all of the Baratheon bastard children to be executed so that none may try to claim the throne.
We also meet the former king’s brother, Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane), who was spoken of but unseen during season 1, and his advisor Melisandre (Carice van Houten). Stannis is at odds with his brother Renly Baratheon (Gethin Anthony) who is also laying claim to the throne. Though many of the characters will never share screen time with each other, they’re united by a quest for power. The tagline for the season, “War Is Coming,” promises that these standoffs are going to culminate in some damage for the characters later down the line. Along with the series highs — Peter Dinklage continues to be the best — its issues are still just as present in the new season. Like the first season the show still has the tendency to go overboard trying to spice up dialogue scenes with gratuitous sex — did the books really set this many scenes in a brothel? — but that may be more of a network wide issue than one exclusive to this show. And with such a large cast it’s difficult to get too invested in many of the peripheral players who have such limited screentime.
With so many pieces on the board new viewers will likely be completely lost and indeed this writer was, at times, a little behind. But a show that demands a second viewing to take in all the details is always preferable to one that overloads the audience with exposition. (It’s still probably recommended everyone who hasn’t read the novels to watch this 22 minute recap just to refamiliarize themselves with the characters.) Most of the time ‘GoT’ plays like a medieval drama (or occasionally high-end soap opera) so when fantasy elements intrude — like the dragon birth at the end of season 1 or the “holy shit” moment that concludes episode 4 — it makes it all the more exciting. Featuring instantly quotable dialogue like “The night is dark and full of terrors” and “Power resides where men believe it resides,” season 2 should delight fans who worshipped the first season. While it may not achieve the depth of a show like “The Sopranos,” the intricate plotting and epic scope continue to make “Game of Thrones” really unlike really anything else on TV. [B]
“Game Of Thrones” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.