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Game Of Thrones (newbies): “The North Remembers” (for newbies)

Illustration for article titled iGame Of Thrones (newbies)/i: “The North Remembers” (for newbies)
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(This Game Of Thrones post is written from the point of view of someone who has not read the books the series is based on. As such, spoilers are strictly forbidden. Any spoilers in comments will be deleted on sight. If you see spoilers, please mark them as best you can and e-mail toddvdw at gmail dot com or contact Todd on Twitter at tvoti, and he'll take care of them as soon as possible. Have you read the books and want to discuss what's coming? That's what our experts reviews are for.)

Around a year ago I started watching Game Of Thrones with a mix of casual interest and marked skepticism. I was wary that this was a show pre-built for fans of a series of books I’d barely heard of, and that it’d be impenetrable nonsense for the rest of us. Here we are at the start of season two, and although I was wrong (and happily ate my words), there was a glimmer of truth to that thought—this is a show for fans. I don’t think there are many casual watchers of Game Of Thrones. It’s hard to be casual about a show with such an epic sweep to it, with such a deep roster of cast members. Keeping track of all the back-story and everyone’s shifting alliances requires more than a casual level of attention.


But what makes Game Of Thrones such a success is how shockingly easy it is to become a fan. Like a lot of TV’s best shows, it throws you into the deep end and expects you to pick out details to get yourself up to speed. But its characters are so instantly accessible—the minute you see Arya, or Tyrion, or Cersei, you know what they’re about—that it’s not hard to concentrate. That’s important, because season two is clearly going to be just as packed with detail as season one, if not more. “The North Remembers” whisks us from location to location, catching us up with the big ensemble and throwing a few new characters into the mix, and it expects viewers to be paying attention.

If the episode has a flaw, it’s borne out of circumstance—there’s a lot of table-setting to be done, and this show is not going to be able to do it in one 50-minute episode. So while we check in at King’s Landing, Winterfell, beyond The Wall, the Stark war camp, and out in the desert. We also meet new character Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) on the isle of Dragonstone. For the moment, there’s no sign of Renly Baratheon or Tywin Lannister, two of the big players in the brewing war, which remains at the “brewing” stage for now.


But still, it’s remarkable how much gets packed in, and how much the show can get across in the brief time it spends with its many, many characters. As usual, I’ll take things location by location.

All we see of Dragonstone is Stannis’ big throne room (his castle is very castle-y) and a big dark beach where he and a crazy fire priestess, Melisandre (Carice Van Houten) set effigies of the gods on fire and pledge themselves to a newer, crazier-looking religion that seems to revolve around a flaming sword. It’s quite an introduction, but even better is the following scene, where Stannis’ maester (beautifully, briefly played by Oliver Ford Davies) dies at Melisandre’s feet after attempting to poison her.


Once again, Game Of Thrones has excelled in the economy with which it introduces its new characters. Stannis comes off as prickly and cold, quibbling about the details of his press release proclaiming himself king (he refuses to call Robert his “beloved” brother) and disinterested in an alliance with his popular brother Renly or the insurgent Starks. Melisandre, though, is clearly no ordinary svengali. That the maester is willing to drink from poisoned wine just to kill her suggests the enormity of her influence. That she somehow can’t be poisoned? That’s something else. We also get a brief impression of one of Stannis’ advisors, Davos (Liam Cunningham), who doesn’t trust Melisandre, but is full of good ideas like allying with Renly and not drinking from poisoned chalices.

At the Stark camp, there’s a relatively brief check-in with Robb and the northern lords, the main component of which is a tense conversation with the imprisoned Jaime Lannister, which is really a show of power for Robb and his fucking terrifying pet direwolf. More interesting is Robb balancing his new duties as a leader with the emotions of his mother, who just wants her kids back. (By the way, if you haven’t checked out Arrested Westeros yet, you really should.) Catelyn, as we well know, is probably the least interested in leading the North to triumph and independence—she knew from the minute that Ned was summoned to King’s Landing that her family's relatively peaceful life would be forever disturbed. But she assents to go to Renly to try and win him over for an alliance, telling Robb his father would be proud. Robb doesn’t seem so sure—is he afraid that he can’t live up to that standard, or just disturbed at the idea that Ned really isn’t coming back?


With Ned gone, it feels like we’re not seeing the show through the eyes of the Starks anymore. That’s never been totally true, of course, but season one really was about the Starks—season two is obviously going to be about everyone. Still, along with Robb, there’s a check-in with Bran, who’s conducting the court at Winterfell with far more civility than Joffrey, and a very brief glimpse of Arya, heading north with Gendry and the Night’s Watch.

Speaking of the Watch, one cliffhanger from season one that I had forgotten about was Jon and the boys going into the shit (that is, Beyond the Wall). Here’s what we can report back so far: It’s very snowy, the Watch is taking refuge with some sort of master of incest who marries his daughters and kills his sons, and Jon’s pretty face is once again doing him a disservice. This is all to figure out just how many death zombies are coming to take over Westeros, right? Man, the Watch really gets handed the shittiest jobs of all.


We spend the most time in King’s Landing, which is still reeling from the death of Ned and the crowning of nasty old Joffrey. The first scene offers a disquieting vision of the new normal: When you put a psychotic, spoiled little kid in charge of everything, fucked up shit is going to happen. It’s not just that he’s having men fight for his amusement and nearly drowning a drunken (well-meaning) knight to death in wine. It’s that it’s all going on in front of poor Sansa, who's still unfortunately betrothed to her father’s murderer and having to robotically parrot lines about her father and brother’s great betrayal and her loyalty to her “beloved Joffrey.” It’s clearly unsettling for everyone (the Hound, who has a strange soft spot for Sansa, speaks up for her at one point) but especially Tyrion, who has returned from battle to clean up his nephew’s mess.

When Ned was running things at King’s Landing, there was a delicate interplay of influence at work—Petyr Baelish in charge of the money, Varys the spymaster, Pycelle the pious master of books and science. Now that Ned and Robert are gone, there’s a real power vacuum, and it’s hard to know how the chips will fall, considering Joffrey’s impetuousness. One would presume that Cersei would wield the most control, given her link to her son. Indeed, Cersei certainly seems to think so until one of the episode’s best scenes, where she slaps her son for talking about Robert’s many bastard children, and Joffrey does not fall in line.


You could say the jig is up for Cersei the minute Tyrion shows up, because everyone’s favorite character (now the nominal lead of the show, going by credits order) clearly has his sister’s number and has been dispatched by Tywin to stop Joffrey from doing stupid things like chopping off Ned Stark’s head. But as long as Cersei can control her son, she’ll wield real power—which is what makes that closing scene so effective.

The idea of Tyrion in charge at King’s Landing is a very exciting one and probably the best twist of the episode in terms of what it promises for the future. Unchecked by his sneering, icy father or his dazzling brother, Tyrion finally has the ability to really get up to something, although he obviously faces the problem of how to deal with Cersei, who is not thrilled at being called “the disappointing child” by her hated brother. I think Tyrion says it with a modicum of sympathy, having disappointed his family for so long, and he obviously isn’t at King’s Landing just to wreak chaos. He’s his father’s son in a way—a tactician, trying to convince his sister to trade the captured Stark children for Jaime’s return.


Still, Cersei does have another ace in the hole: the gold-armored city watch and Janos Slynt (Dominic Carter), who will allow her to wield real influence within the city, if nothing else. Her scene with Petyr where she demonstrates her power by having the watch seize him and almost kill him (and then do the hokey pokey around him) felt like a mirror image of poor Ned’s interactions with Littlefinger last year. Cersei’s clearly not one to dance around the matter at hand, and she’s not afraid to use brute force to get what she wants. “Knowledge is power,” Petyr mocks, before being manhandled by the watch. “Power is power,” Cersei tells him, and at least in the short term, she’s right.

The watch also figures in the episode’s big finale, killing all of Robert’s bastard kids (except for Gendry, who’s travelling to the Wall with Arya) in a squirm-inducing montage that includes the off-screen offing of a screaming baby. The scene works as a chilling break-off point to end the episode, but it doesn’t feel like the episode was leading up to that point in particular; it’s just a nice moment to end things on. The show still has that novelistic feel, especially in these early table-setting episodes, so I can’t expect a dazzling twist for each week’s ending. But after watching “The North Remembers,” I’d be crazy to say I’m not pumped for episode two.


Stray observations:

  • The episode helpfully divides things up by location as well, putting titles onscreen. What’s even more exciting is seeing Dragonstone pop up in the opening titles so seamlessly. HBO has always been a network that works wonders with its opening credits sequences, but Game Of Thrones’ still takes the cake—the rousing music gets you right in the mood, and watching the cities grow out of the ground is still a magical sight
  • Tyrion's quick with the barbs, even to the newly crowned king. “We looked for you on the battlefield, and you were nowhere to be found.” “I’ve been here, ruling the kingdoms!” “And what a fine job you’ve done.”
  • Tyron tells Bronn that the Hound doesn't like him. "Can't imagine why," Bronn snorts.
  • He has high praise for Cersei, though. “You love your children. It’s your one redeeming quality. That and your cheekbones.”
  • Not too much to say about Daenerys yet. Things not looking too good for her in that desert.
  • Man, Melisandre's kind of badass. “The night is dark and full of terrors, old man. But the fire burns them all away.” She makes a line like that seem cool.

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