Winter Is Coming And War Is Coming Too, would have been a decent enough tagline for Season 2 of Game Of Thrones, with the gradual progress towards both continuing in this slow-burning, but typically impressive opening episode.
The problem with first episodes of new seasons is that they usually follow a dramatic climax from the previous season, which they can’t possibly live up to because they’re just the start of a new run and have got to start building up towards a new climax. They’ve also got to make sure that everyone remembers what happened last time, trickier if you’re HBO and are above actually having that reminder at the start of episodes.
So, Game Of Thrones returned with lots to deal with from the awesome first season (Ned Stark‘s execution, King Joffrey and his parentage, DRAGONS, etc) and with characters scattered across the kingdom and beyond. Inevitably, this meant that some storylines barely featured like Ayra, who we only got a glimpse of at the end, but who is clearly going to be of great significance in coming weeks, as the Lannisters and Starks go head to head over her and her sister and that incestuous rogue Jaime.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the episode was how little Daenerys Targaryen had to do, given that last time we saw her, she was rising out of the ashes of a funeral pyre with baby dragons all over her. Unfortunately for her, she was also in the middle of nowhere, so it’s going to take some time before she and her dragons can affect anyone else’s storylines, especially as she spent this episode trying to find out how to get from the middle of nowhere to the edge of somewhere.
Another storyline that is going to take time to bear fruit is Jon Snow and the Night Watch, who are beyond the Wall looking for dead things. So far, all they’ve found is a dirty old man who marries his own daughters, though his particular dislike for Snow means that it might not be White Walkers who cause all of his problems in the near future. Elsewhere, his brother Bran is finding the mundanities of being Lord of Winterfell not to his taste, while Robb Stark, AKA King Of The North, is trying to gather an alliance to bring down his enemies.
With factions popping up everywhere (we finally got to meet Stannis Baratheon this week and his intriguing band of advisers and magical priestesses), it’s not looking too promising for loathsome boy-king Joffrey, so he makes the most of it with typically cowardly bullying and generally horrid behaviour. He’s so totally unredeemably awful that you wonder how actor Jack Gleeson goes out in public without being attacked, which is a compliment of course. The episode moves into new levels at the end when he sends out the City Watch to slaughter any potential bastard sons of the old King (ie, most of the children in King’s Landing), just in case any of them try to claim his throne.
It’s not this horror that is the episode’s saving grace though, it’s that no matter how many loose threads need to picked up, the writing and characterisation is spot on from the start, and there’s some delicious scenes, particularly those involving usual suspects Tyrion (his arrival as the new Hand is perfectly judged), Jaime (his angry discussion with captor Robb) and Lord Baelish. The latter’s verbal power struggle with Queen Mother Cersei is subtly epic, and he loses his usual smooth demeanour when she demonstrates the power she holds over him, despite his barely-veiled threats regarding her choice of sexual partners.
So, while it might have felt like a punt rather than a drop goal (to borrow a quote from the Beach Boys), this first episode of the new season did exactly what it needed to do, it picked up all of the plotlines from last season, set up some new ones and progressed things towards even bleaker times ahead for pretty much everyone. We’re set up for another great season if it can maintain the levels of quality in writing, acting and production that were on show here. And I’m sure there’ll be much sex and violence next week, for those who missed it this time…