After the ratings and critical heights scaled by the first season of HBO’s Game of Thrones, expectations are dangerously high for the launch of Season 2, which begins this Sunday. Based on the second volume (A Clash of Kings) in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, Game of Thrones has a lot to prove to fans of both the books and of the award-winning HBO drama. Can it top the addictive thrill of the first season? Will it prove to be both loyal to the source material and still work for television?
Fortunately, judging from the four episodes sent to critics, Game of Thrones thrills on all levels. The show is a profound achievement, fusing together the taut narrative framework of the novels with a momentous and swift pace that drives the action forward, while writer/executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss manage almost a baker’s dozen of separate storylines.
Viewers are once against thrust into the brutal world of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, a land where no one is to be trusted and where the thirst for power fuels the twin fires of greed and corruption. The two men who were able to maintain a tenuous peace—Sean Bean’s Ned Stark and Mark Addy’s King Robert Baratheon—are both dead, victims of betrayal, and their murders plunge the entire continent into chaos.
The rush to fill the void left by Robert’s death sets up much of the conflict for the second season. The boy-king Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) sits perilously atop the Iron Throne, a Caligula-in-the-making whose penchant for perversity and cruelty is only just beginning to come to the surface. His mother, Cersei (Lena Headey), now serving as the realm’s Queen Regent, learns to her disappointment that her headstrong son is more difficult to control than she believed; Ned Stark’s daughter Sansa (Sophie Turner) is subject to Joffrey’s every horrifying whim. Her sister, Arya (Maisie Williams), disguised as a boy, is headed toward The Wall and, she hopes, out of harm’s way. Elsewhere, their brother Robb (Richard Madden) has crowned himself King-of-the-North and prepares to bring war to King’s Landing and enact vengeance for his dead father, with their mother Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) by his side.
The grief-stricken Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), the last remaining offspring of the Mad King deposed years earlier by Robert, has hatched three dragons, the first of their kind in centuries. Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and his companions in the Night’s Watch cross beyond The Wall to investigate mysterious goings-on while ancient evils awaken from their slumber in the icy north, and a fiery comet overhead augers more blood, destruction, and fire.
While the action shuttles back and forth between these and multiple other new storylines—including one involving Robert’s brother Stannis (Stephen Dillane) and the “Red Woman” Melisandre (Carice van Houten), and another dealing with Robert’s upstart youngest brother Renly (Gethin Anthony), his new bride (Natalie Dormer), and an imposing female knight, fan-favorite Brienne of Tarth (Gwendolyn Christie)—the true star of Season 2 is Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion, the small-framed but intellectually gigantic Lannister scion who truly comes into his own here. Quick-witted and cunning, Tyrion might just be the most dangerous man in the Seven Kingdoms, fathoms ahead of everyone. Dinklage once again shines in the role that earned him an Emmy and a Golden Globe, and it’s only to be expected that he’ll pick up another trophy later this year for a performance that grows ever more deep and subtle, even as he walks off with some of the show’s very best lines of dialogue.
Devout readers of Martin’s novels will quickly realize that there are clear instances of the plot of the television series diverging from that of the books, but it’s a good sign that Benioff and Weiss’s choices here both strengthen the narrative and streamline it—it’s only a 10-episode season, after all. Tangential characters are combined into composites or eliminated entirely; the same holds for certain events. But their approach to the source material—reverence for the world created by Martin as well as a willingness to play loose with elements while remaining true to the spirit of the words—pays off spectacularly. (I’m curious to see just where the show is going with Esmé Bianco’s haughty prostitute Ros, a character created specifically for the show. At first just window-dressing, she becomes an intriguing and well-placed entity within the power games here.)
With Game of Thrones, Benioff and Weiss have created an offshoot to an immersive world that manages to be both inclusive and expansive: there’s no sense that the viewer has to have read the books in order to follow the complex plots unfolding here, but turning to the source material also deepens that understanding. In fact, the two media both support and expand upon each other.
While the first season focused significant time on world building, Season 2 fleshes out the characters further and builds on the already strong foundations of the story, exploring memory and perception as underlying themes for the season. The third and fourth episodes, written respectively by Bryan Cogman and Vanessa Taylor, display this with heartbreaking clarity, depicting the beauty of the landscape at odds with its harshness. The civilization that is encountered here is a far crueler and darker place than one might have imagined: morality is a mercurial concept here and honor makes a poor shield.
In Alan Taylor, the show has found a director who understands scale, delivering powerful sequences that ricochet between the epic and the intimate, and who is exceptionally fluent in the visual language of the show. There’s a sense of grandeur to the exterior shots and a sense of earthiness and caked-on dirt to the interiors; snow and mud are as lovingly shot as a glittering ruby at the throat of a fiery woman. Likewise, David Petrarca—who directs the breathless fourth episode (“A Garden of Bones”)—deserves recognition as well, bringing to life several unforgettable sequences with a raw power and haunting savagery that would make Martin proud.
Ultimately, Season 2 is a return to a world of dragons and of bones that many of us have missed terribly. With war approaching on multiple fronts, treacherous double-crosses now de rigueur, and the possible return of long-dead magic to the land, Season 2 of Game of Thrones is fantastic, overflowing with majesty and mystery. The night, we’re told, is dark and full of terror, and so is this provocative and enthralling show. Miss an episode—or even a minute—at your own peril.