Game of Thrones

Banter, blood and betrayal, Game of Thrones pulls no punches in the opening episode of its second season

Game of Thrones is back and, based on ‘The North Remembers’, it is going to be as bloody, grim and clever as ever it was. Starting as it means to go on, the show opens on a death by Hound and ends on infanticide. These aren’t nice people, even the ones we like.

Picking up shortly after the events of last season, ‘The North Remembers’ avoids any traditional ‘previously ons’. Even newcomers to the series, though, should be able to pick up the bare bones of what is going on within 15 minutes or so.

Which was, to recap very briefly, that Ned Stark (the much-missed Sean Bean) found out that the Queen was cuckolding the King with her twin brother, making her children illegitimate. Being a practical woman, the Queen killed her husband and Stark and put her son on the throne. Objections to her methods and her son’s right to the throne led to war.

Meanwhile, old, dark magic of both fire and ice woke from a long sleep. In the frozen North the White Walkers stirred and killed and in the Dothraki grasslands dragons were born from a funeral pyre.

It might all seem a bit overwhelming on paper. On screen, however, the clear, visual demarcation between factions by director Alan Taylor makes it easy to follow. Each side has its own distinct look, whether it is the brightly lit, gold stoned elegance of Joffrey's court at King’s Landing or the brutal ice-covered, desaturated lands Beyond the Wall. It serves as a nice bit of visual short-hand as the story shifts from one character to another.

There are, of course, much-loved characters we won’t be seeing this season. Sean Bean’s grimly righteous Ned Stark, surprisingly to those who didn’t read the books, is quite definitively dead. Although a character that could easily have been joylessly honourable, Bean imbued his Stark with layers of regret and pain and kindness.

Dead too is King Robert Baratheon, the cuckolded king. Never a personal favourite in the books, Mark Addie winkled out surprising depths of humanity and pathos in a character doomed to be a footnote in fictional history.

They will be missed, but not because Game of Thrones has flagged in their absence. Established characters such as Robb Stark (Richard Madden) and Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) are more compelling than ever as their storylines mature.

And Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who plays Jaime Lannister, gets a chance to start digging into the meat of his character. The famed Lannister Kingslayer grubby and caged has more potential than he ever did at his sister’s elbow. His interaction with the Robb Stark in is revealing. Although he is Cersei’s twin, Jaime was always more like his brother Tyrion in some ways. They both like their enemies more than they like themselves.

The villains don’t disappoint either, whether in their villainy or their complexity. Joffrey is probably one of the most despised characters in Game of Thrones, and whatever sadism he showed as a prince is doubled now that he is king. Actor Jack Gleeson, however, manages to bring a brittle, febrile desperation to the character that makes him pitiable if not sympathic. Even his doting mother has learnt to fear him.

New characters are introduced in this episode, Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane), the dour Lord of Dragonstone, and Carice van Houten as the powerful Priestess Melisandre. Described before as having the ‘personality of a lobster’, Stannis is a rigid, bitter man, in the thrall of a prophecy that promises him greatness. The prophet, red-haired Melisandre , seems to have been given some strange power of her own by her Lord of Light. It will be interesting to see how they develop once they encounter the rest of the cast. 

As always in Game of Thrones, the world of Westeros is created in exquisite, sometimes unlovely detail. It is hard not to feel a sympathetic chill as Kit Harrington's Jon Snow trudges into Craster’s sprawling hovel, past his downtrodden, inbred daughter-wives. Not just because it looks cold, but because it conveys so precisely the thankless, unglamourous task that Snow pledged himself to in the Night Watch. Something Snow is still only starting to realise. 

The Stark direwolves, now shoulder-high CGI monsters, on the other hand manage to, somehow, be less 'real' than the dragons. Still, one flaw in an otherwise convincingly fantasy world is a fairly minor complaint. Although hopefully they will get more convincing in future episodes.

‘The North Remembers’ is a strong start to Game of Thrones second season, setting the stage for both political and unnatural conflicts to unfold. Based on Clash of Kings, the second book in Martin’s series, this is going to be an eventful and dramatic season. Plus, after Ned Stark’s death, we know no character is really safe.

In King’s Landing the long Summer is declared officially over. Winter is on its way, and war is coming with it.

The next Game of Thrones is on Sky Atlantic at 9 on April 9.