The second season of the densely, intricately plotted fantasy series Game Of Thrones is going to have to attempt something never before done on television. Even the most complex television series, such as David Simon’s The Wire and Treme, with their sprawling casts of characters, focused intently on different aspects of a single city. Game Of Thrones has dozens of major characters, scattered across a fantasy world. Its increasingly fractured and complicated story will, in the second season, have to maintain some level of coherence, even though the structure of Ned Stark’s tale that it used in the first season is largely gone.
Season One of Game Of Thrones was a fairly simple story, told with complex detail. It was the story of Ned Stark, a lord called by his king to maintain the kingdom’s peace, and his failure to achieve that goal, climaxing with his execution. Most of the show’s major characters were tied to Ned somehow. They were primarily his family, but also his advisors, friends, and betrayers. There were two major exceptions: Tyrion Lannister provided a necessary counterpoint to the way the Starks viewed the world. And Daenerys Targaryen, half a world away, still had a significant connection to Ned: her actions triggered a split between Ned and the king.
The novel maintained coherence by labeling each chapter with the name of the character who narrates it. That wasn’t possible for the show, so it attempted (and usually succeeded) at doing this by making its settings distinct. Most of the major players were at the capital, King’s Landing, with Ned and his daughters. Jon Snow was at the Wall, guarding the realm in the north. Dany was growing up in the exotic Dothraki homelands. Robb and Bran remained in Winterfell. Everything of import occurred in these four places, and when it didn’t, there were problems. There was very little sense of place (or time to travel) in “The Kingsroad,” the second episode. The Aerie, where Tyrion was imprisoned and tried, was the most fantastic (and least believable) locale in the series. The final war between the Starks and Lannisters was ill-defined, with apparently meaningful battles taking place entirely off-screen.
I think the show, to its significant credit, understands just how important a sense of place is in this wide-ranging fantasy world. Its credit sequence, one of the most powerful mechanisms for assigning meaning, is all about creating a sense of locale. We see maps, and we see focal points built up before our eyes. Its focus is dragged across Westeros, giving us a feel for each location on the map, as we watch those locations being constructed.
The plot of the first season demanded an increase in scope in the season following it. Ned’s failure to maintain stability in the realm has led to a massive civil war, with several different factions vying for control. On a personal level, many of the characters left their home bases last season: Jon Snow rode beyond the Wall, Arya Stark was dragged away by the Night’s Watch, Dany was forced to leave Dothraki, and Cat and Robb Stark were in the field, at war with the Lannisters. Immediately in the first episode of the new season, we see some of these new locations: Dragonstone, home of Stannis Baratheon, and Craster’s Keep, beyond the Wall.
I’ve never seen a series escalate its ambition as quickly as Game Of Thrones needs to, and I’m very interested in seeing how well the show manages to accomplish it. I’m not entirely certain that A Clash Of Kings, the second novel of the series, managed to succeed in maintaining the coherence established by the first book, and I will be fascinated to see if the second season show follows in the first season’s footsteps, falls apart, or (my guess and hope) improves upon the source material.
So, place-by-place, what is Game Of Thrones doing, and how well is it doing that?
King’s Landing is the heart of the series, ruled by the arch villains Queen Cersei and King Joffrey, and served by minions of various loyalties: Littlefinger, Varys, the Hound, Grand Maester Pycelle, and the guard captain Janos Slynt. The one sympathetic character remaining from the first season is Sansa, the most feminine of the Stark daughters, who discovered far too late that gallantry, handsomeness, and good manners do not prevent a prince from being a sociopath. And the wildcard, Tyrion Lannister, rides in to rule as the Hand, a title given to him by the father he hates, to rein in a king he hates as well. At a social level, King’s Landing is in chaos as well. Refugees are flooding the city, and Cersei demands that the guard keep them out. At the end of the episode, she (or Joffrey) also order the death of all of King Robert’s bastard children, in a real sucker punch of a montage.
Although it is the most important place in the story, I had mixed feelings about King’s Landing in the first season. It felt a little bit too artificial, all beautiful and warm reddish sets. It had memorable aesthetics from room to room, but it never felt like a bustling city or an important castle, only a collection of rooms. In a single moment, the second season dispels that effect to a certain extent—Tyrion’s new favorite prostitute, Shae, is looking over a balcony at the city, which looks cramped with houses, huge, and beautiful. It also looks totally fake, a reminder that no matter the scope and budget of Game Of Thrones, there are some things it just can’t do perfectly. Still, I respect it for trying.
The strongest location in the first season was Winterfell, home of the Starks, in the north, and the place where the whole story (except for Dany’s) started. Winterfell still feels exactly as it should, a place where civilization is scraping by in ramshackle villages, but it is ruled by rugged men in equally rugged castles.
Only one major character is left there now, Bran Stark, left crippled in the events of the pilot. He’s leading as best he can, accompanied by Maester Luwin of Winterfell, a recurring bit character in the first season, as well as Osha, the wildling woman who joined the Starks, and Hodor, his carrier. He’s also dreaming of wolves, or perhaps dreaming as a wolf. The shaky camera used for the wolf sequence was a little jarring, to be honest, but I don’t know how else this could have been done. Bran is seeing through his wolf’s eyes in his dreams, and that can’t feel normal.
Apart from those two locations, the sense of place is less solid in this season. “The North Remembers” ties disparate locations together with the red tail of a comet in the sky. Conveniently enough, everyone can claim the comet is an omen of whatever they wish, serving as a good way for Game Of Thrones to reintroduce characters’ motivations and standings in the world at large.
One theory put forth is that it signals a sign of dragons’ returning to the world (“Stars don’t fall for men”), but Daenerys Targaryen, the woman in possession of those dragons, does not appear powerful as the season begins. Her husband is dead, his power scattered, and her handful of people are stuck fleeing into an unknown wasteland. I enjoyed the constantly-changing grasses of Dany’s story in the first season. This fluid sense of place seemed perfect for the “Dothraki Sea.” The Red Waste, as the show labels her current location, is equally effective. It looks nasty, and if that’s not enough, we see Dany’s silver horse die—an appropriate symbol, as it was her best gift, when she became Drogo’s Khaleesi.
Two other settings on-the-move are less successful. Robb Stark’s Camp is where he, his lords, his mother, and Jaime Lannister are at the moment, but there’s little to be done that can give that a sense of place. Just the inside of a tent here, and a cage at night there: it’s enough to move the plot along, with Robb sending his friend Theon Greyjoy to form an alliance with his people on the Iron Islands, and his mother to treat with Renly Baratheon, the other most powerful rebel king. The characters are powerful—my favorite scene in the episode might have been Robb’s verbal sparring with Jaime Lannister —but it’s hard to grasp the scope of the war.
Likewise, it’s difficult to make much of the Night’s Watch at Craster’s Keep, Beyond The Wall in the far north. Craster is a mean little man, and the show does well to show just unsavory he is. He’s selfish, demands gifts, insults the Watch, and is rumored to have taken all his daughters as wives, but there’s not much else going on in this storyline yet. Jon Snow is still impetuous, and a “King-Beyond-The-Wall,” Mance Rayder, may be gathering his forces. And his keep, well, it’s a little shithole stopover in the middle of nowhere, and I suppose effective for that. But the excitement of being Beyond The Wall isn’t to see Craster’s tiny Keep.
I was, perhaps, most pleased with the new setting, Dragonstone, seat of Stannis Baratheon. It was quickly shown to be a foreboding place, all fire and darkness. Its statues are brown and grim, and our first vision is of scarecrows burning on the beach at night. All of these characters are brand new: Stannis was mentioned by name but never appeared in the first season. We also meet his advisor, Ser Davor Seaworth, but he has little to do other than very effectively force Stannis to reveal his painful rigid modes of thinking, refusing to even call his dead brother, King Robert, “beloved.” But the most important thing here is the imagery, and the introduction of Melisandre, the Red Priestess of the Lord Of Light. She feels alien, and survives a poisoning attempt so ominously that it demonstrates something is clearly wrong at Dragonstone, and that Stannis is not going to be a hero to sweep in and save the day, even if he is the rightful heir.
Game Of Thrones is going to have a difficult time tying all these different threads together in a meaningful fashion. It might even be impossible. But “The North Remembers” makes a fine case for the show continuing to do what it does, because it does it so damn well—it looks great, its characters are vivid, and there’s a feeling that anything can happen. The sections in King’s Landing, the Stark Camp, and the Red Waste are immediately interesting, and the final shot of Arya is also a reminder that one of the show’s best characters still has her own story ahead of her. Season premieres often have difficulties maintaining the momentum of the end of the last season, but that’s not an issue here. Game Of Thrones is more confident than ever. That’s more than enough to carry the seemingly weaker sections.
I’m a reader of the books, and I like discussing them, although they have too many issues for me to call myself whatever George R.R. Martin super-fans prefer to call themselves. So the show is doubly interesting to me as a subject of criticism and as an adaptation of something that resists adaptation. So I’m going to discuss this (without specific spoilers, although I can’t say that there won’t be thematic discussions overall, or notes of what’s important or not) in a separate section, going forward.
I’m particularly interested in two things: how the show will adapt the books in terms of overall narrative structure, and what new scenes it adds to tell its story. On the first level, this season already seems to be diverting from the source material far more than the first season did. It’s accelerating Jon’s storyline with the Night’s Watch, and seems to be accelerating the story of Jaime Lannister’s captivity, which was the biggest event in the first season. We will be seeing more of this, though—a trailer for the season showed a certain character screaming “But I love her!”, a reference to events of the third book.
I’m always curious to see what the show does outside of the constraints of the characters’ perspectives. A Clash Of Kings loses Ned Stark, of course, but gains Davos Seaworth and Theon Greyjoy. Any scene depicting characters that doesn’t include them or the original POV characters (Tyrion, Dany, Cat, Arya, Sansa, Jon, and Bran) is entirely new to the series. Fascinatingly, in the first season, those were often the best scenes, a trend which continues here in “The North Remembers.” In addition to Robb’s confronting Jaime, I also very much enjoyed Cersei’s argument with Joffrey, which depicted the story’s two biggest villains at odds, as Joffrey tried to buck her regency and insulted her to her face. And that final montage of the episode is something that would be impossible in the novel’s usual structure, and is brilliantly done here, demonstrating just how high the stakes are by depicting the murder of innocent children.
Note on spoilers: If your comment includes a spoiler from the novels, please label it SPOILER.