These Westerosi knights need to learn to stop fucking dueling in places they can fall off.

The episode opens with Joffrey’s nameday tournament. Rather than trying to do another outdoors, traditional joust scene, they opted for a large physical set that shows off the show’s increased budget and ramped up sense of scale. That the tourney scene from season 1 was arguably the most nitpicked in the whole show by both the viewers who’d read the books and those who hadn’t is precisely why this is the opening scene of the second season. It’s a statement, one that will ring through the entirety of the season and potentially the rest of the show as it seems HBO will continue to increase budgets as long as Game of Thrones continues to be a huge fucking success.

Joffrey and Sansa begin some of the most economical and precise storytelling this show, and any other, has to offer. Their scene reconnects us to Joffrey’s casual cruelty, especially toward Sansa, and her own penchant for sympathy and mercy. Through the vessel of Ser Dontos the drunkard, we also get to see the clever side of Sansa which didn’t start to become a thing until the fourth book. I’m glad they’ve sped up her awakening  some as it makes her a far more tolerable character overall.

The heraldry on his armor is familiar, isn’t it? Hahaha.

Having Dontos show up is a nice touch but also a bit odd given that other characters with only brief introductions in the first book (the Blackfish, for example) were not cast and will apparently be brought in later to correspond with when their roles are expanded in the books. Blackfish will be cast in season 3, for example, the one where we’ll see Riverrun and where presumably he’ll be the chief defender of the Riverlands. In the case of Dontos, who doesn’t appear again in this season from what I recall (guess we’ll see), it’s certain that he’ll be around in season 3 so why cast him now? It recalls the season 1 example of Berric Dondarrion, the actor for whom is rumored to have a stipulation to play him in the later seasons where he pops up again though he only got the one scene so far and they seem to want to recast. Dontos is certainly used well in his scene as an object in the deadly game of pretend Sansa has going with Joffrey. Still, that could have been conveyed in other ways and I have to wonder why they cast Dontos when they’ve shown a consistent “hands off” approach to his type of character.

I’ve argued that the reason they save characters for later and shuffle introductions around is so that they can keep costs down and have more control over both the number of actors in the production as well as who they are exactly. The inclusion of Dontos sort of flies in the face of that if he’s going to appear again later. I guess I think my argument still holds weight, especially since enough characters will die per season to make room for new ones (at least within the methodology described).

Death is boring, Cersei! Shutup!

Then Tyrion gets to make his swaggering introduction, all swelled up from his victories both political and personal and showing everyone he’s ready for his expanded role. The performance and staging of his introduction are deliciously meta, cementing in place the notion that Tyrion is, for season 2, Ned Stark’s spiritual successor. Hand of the King, basically a good guy, what could go wrong?

A recurring theme of this season is Cersei’s contempt for the plebs and, in larger terms, what this all is to them anyway. Very few major characters are “smallfolk” or come from humble origins in this saga. A large part of season 3 will tackle the consequences and ramifications for them as the wars rage across Westeros. In A Clash of Kings there was a lot more of this stuff but it’s been remanded to the next season, I guess, in favor of concentrating on how the Lannisters (with the exception of Tyrion) simply don’t fucking get it. It’s a more important theme here, too, because it foreshadows what’s going to happen toward the end of the season when the populace has finally had enough. Cersei’s comments, which echo shit she said in season 1, also set the stage for Joffrey’s ridiculous extremism along the same lines. Later in the episode, he kills all of Robert Baratheon’s bastards still in King’s Landing and issues a hunt for Gendry, perhaps the last remaining one (not in the books, but the show will tell eventually).

Sadly, Joffrey never learns to not be a scab on the ass of the Seven Kingdoms.

This show, and especially this episode, spends a due amount of time setting up the contrast between the Starks and the Lannisters. With some time spent showing us Joffrey and Cersei and how they run things, it’s time to segue over to Bran who is busy being the Stark in Winterfell. The scene gives us a bit of what I was talking about, with one of Bran’s bannermen complaining about the decline that’s befallen his Holdfast since Robb took all the young men South. Showing backbone and a quiet dignity even while he’s somewhat childishly piping up in defense of his big bro, Bran is depicted as a much more “together” kid than he is in the books. In A Clash of Kings, all he does is whine about wanting to be a soldier or whatever. In the show, we’re already seeing a gravitas that will command respect and loyalty. He also seems to be getting more out of the instruction and counsel offered by Osha and Maester Lewin. TV Bran has already evolved a lot from who we knew in season 1.

Perhaps that’s why they didn’t bother with the Reeds (yet) as they play a big part in helping Bran grow up some between this bit and the 5th book. All of this is to say that I think TV Bran is more likable than book Bran. A lot of that is due to the actor and this shows one of the demonstrable advantages television has over the book.

Plus Lewin and Bran are a fun pairing!

Then we get some more Stark Youth as they tour the Godswood with Osha and Hodor. They note the comet in the sky, which I can’t remember seeing before this. It gets a lot more fanfare in the books than in the show and I sort of suspected in later episodes that they just forgot about it or thought the significance it has to magic, dragons, etc was already established. Who knows! Osha is pretty sure it means dragons and that’s as nice a transition as any to the Mother of Dragons herself.

First, though, I want to point out that this is a really nice scene in terms of reintroducing the concept of the extinction of the dragons and reminding folks that their return is why Dany is such an important person. It also foreshadows the general sense that Osha always knows a bit more than she says. In the show, they put way more in her head than might necessarily make sense but it works great as a bit of mystery and storytelling economy. Perhaps they’ll delve into Osha’s backstory at some point in either book or show or both and we might learn just how much she does know and how she knows it. She’s one of my favorite characters on the show so I’m down even if it is pulled from the land of unbook make believe.

The dragons are still lookin’ mighty good.

Love Dany’s dragonproof shoulder armor in this bit. As the comet roars over the same basic sky as in the North, Dany leads her merry troop through a horrible desert called the Red Waste. They look pretty fucking haggard too and it takes the death of her beloved horse, Drogo’s first gift to her, to snap Dany to task. She quickly dispatches Rakharo and gets a nice farewell with him that telegraphs the shit out of his death (in hindsight), a change I kind of hate… but more on that later.

Jorah Mormont’s counsel is to keep going East anyway cuz they’re fucked if they don’t. Lamb Men on one side and rampaging Dothraki on every other. The bloodriders, including Rakharo, are to go in search of an end to the wasteland. She looks up at the comet and we segue again, this time to a completely different wasteland.

Hide yo wives, hide yo daughtas, hide yo daughta-wives!

In the North, the expeditionary force approaches Craster’s Keep, a glorified hunting lodge which is the last safe haven before the true lands beyond the Wall. We get no proper introduction to Dolorous Edd, one of my favorite characters in the books, who only shows a glimmer of the dry, wit-by-way-of-Eeyore that defines the character. Later, this will be dropped altogether and I will be a very sad guy. I mean, why even have the character if you’re going to take his sullenness and turn it into a bitter snarl? Again, though, more on that later.

We learn quite a bit about Craster and his whole fucked up operation. Once we finally see the guy, it’s a bit weird. Most people have told me that they imagined something quite different from the books. Maybe something more like a deranged, fur-clad Walder Frey? In any case, Craster looks pretty Southron and I think that may be intentional. Here’s a guy who bitches and moans about the South but basically dresses like he’s from there and has set himself up as a sort of lord in a twisted version of the Westeros style. I think there’s envy here and it goes further than the wine. There’s a part of him that enjoys having Jeor Mormont scraping to him for a night under a roof. He’s still a total creep, but I think the show manages to imply a set of motivations, traits, etc that are a bit more nuanced than in the book, where he’s sort of a bit more simple: a perverted, incestuous, baby-sacrificing asshole. I mean he’s still all these things here, as we’ll see in future episodes, but there may be just a bit more going on. Or I’m just making shit up to explain why he looks like Janos Slynt’s uncle.

I think Carice Van Houten is perfect. Melisandre or no Melisandre.

So while we process how we feel about Craster basically telling Jon Snow that he wants all up in him, we get to finally see the stuff that shaped the prologue of A Clash of Kings. Melisandre, Stannis, Davos… they’re all present and accounted for. Skipping a lot of the dry politicking on Dragonstone in favor of a more rapid delivery of crucial info and a brevity of characterization that’s borderline astonishing, the Dragonstone stuff might be my favorite part of the episode. I always thought Stannis and his corner were fairly boring in the books but there’s an attention to detail, especially in his war room, that gives everything a certain gravity which supplements some of the best acting in the show. Plus, when I go to read the books again in a couple of years (probably when the sixth comes out), this will be who I see when I read about these characters.

Melisandre is perfectly alien, exotic, and menacing. The foiled assassination attempt is a nice wtf moment for non-readers, a bit of set up for the eventual reveal that there’s a lot supernatural about the supernaturally alluring Red Woman. Davos is not as I imagined him but Liam Cunningham totally owns the character. Then there’s Stannis. Oh, Stannis. In the book, he’s a hateful self-righteous prig and no fun at all. In the show, he’s all that except the no fun part. They got a guy who just sinks his teeth into every bit of this character, from the arrogance of his principled self-righteousness to the (more developed in the show) assurance he draws from Melisandre’s messianic B.S. to support it all. This is a painfully sensitive chap, a man who needs the intangible endorsement of a distant alien god to justify his inherent entitlement. It’s marvelous how much they get this across in just 2 scenes.

Moreover, the beach scene allows for the utterance of one of the key themes of this season, and the one which most affects the loyalty triangle between Melisandre, Davos, and Stannis: loyalty means telling the hard truths. The show waxes philosophical with Cersei’s tautological demonstration of power (is power) for Littlefinger’s benefit later on in the episode but both scenes are the kind of theoretical digressions that the show uses to summarize the historical/political themes Martin infuses into his books. They are what gives this show its brain.

Heavy lays the crown, Robbie.

The establishing shot of Robb’s camp again demonstrates the expanded scope and scale of the season. They actually do establishing shots now! It does a lot to make the proceedings feel more cinematic and ambitious. In this introductory scene for Robb and Jaime, we get a brief recap of where they’re coming from since last season and the kind of witty exchange that dominates Jaime’s interactions with other characters. In this case, Robb has the upper hand and not only because Jaime is a prisoner in chains. Robb vibes hard motherfucker even before Grey Wind shows up to teach us all about not doubting that CG dire wolves can work.

The scene also establishes a major departure from the book, one which makes total sense. Jaime is imprisoned not in Riverrun, which we’ll likely see next season, but within the moving camp of Robb’s forces. Robb explains why, as much to us as to Jaime, and it works. It’s one of those little “no duh” changes that makes you feel like the guys running this show know what they’re doing. They also serve to maintain some level of confidence when things seem to go off the rails later.

A little later, Robb gets to demonstrate more of why he’s the most likable of the hard, violent men in this show. He delivers his demands in the voice of a king, inspiring his men and even the Lannister messenger he’ll be sending to carry them. That Robb emerges as a stand-out character owes everything to changes from the books. In the books, he’s mostly always “off screen” and we don’t get to see a lot of how he treats people, where he’s coming from, etc. We are instead told by other characters. Here, Robb gets to do and be a whole lot more and it’s a major rallying point for the audience while watching a world that sometimes seems made up of total fucking assholes only.

Theon tries to convince Robb that he can get the Ironborn to help out by appealing to his father, Balon Greyjoy. Since I know what Theon does and who he is in the books, I watched all his scenes until halfway through this season just hating the little fuck. Now, though, I can see that the work they did for the show in trying to make him more loyal, conflicted, and sympathetic is all here. You really believe him when he professes his loyalty to Robb, when he explains that though he’s no Stark, the Starks raised him to be an honorable man. He isn’t, in the end, but he does try and that’s more than I can say for book Theon. Here, we get a character who is more of a tragic figure, too weak and self-absorbed to rise to the challenges he faces and acquit himself in a respectable way. In the books you just wave him off as another asshole but the show is determined to make more of him, drawing from material from A Storm of Swords to make it work. And seriously, as I’ll continuously be pointing out, Theon is a character that this show works the fuck out of.

Catelyn, however, thinks Robb is bonkers to trust Theon. She’s right, of course, but is also offering another tautology that echoes Cersei’s and continues the show’s tendency to draw parallels between the two women. Here, it’s that she doesn’t trust Balon Greyjoy because he’s untrustworthy. Sure he rebelled against Robert Baratheon, but that isn’t the first thing she says and we happen to know better, as she does, because Robert rebelled against Aerys and thus rebellions don’t have to make you untrustworthy by nature. Catelyn doesn’t care about being rational about it, though, she knows what she knows and while I have to scoff at the basis for her claims, there’s no doubt by the end of the season that they were mostly correct.

One of the most heart-breaking of the reintroduction/path-setting scenes in this episode is this one because it underscores the later pains they inflict on each other and their mutual goals through their deceits, self-interest, and destructive decision making. It also draws a parallel to the very next scene.

If you’re gonna have a Joffreyslap in the premiere, make that fucking shit count.

The most important parts of the scene between Cersei and Joffrey are to do with the dark reflection it evokes between them and Catelyn and Robb. It’s no accident that the scenes are back-to-back. Cersei is getting to understand that Joffrey is a major problem, even before he threatens her after she gives him a big ol’ slap for being a crude little goof. Moreover, this scene is crucial to an early understanding of another big difference (I think?) wherein it’s Joffrey who has Robert’s bastards purged, and not Cersei. In the show, Joffrey is evil monstrous hellspawn and Cersei is a misguided, twisted creature what birthed him.

So now we get to baby murder and Janos Slynt being himself. Roz has been upgraded from random showborn character used for sexposition to full-on teacher, using a speech that echoes Littlefinger’s to her while instructing a whore. Yes, Roz is moving on up in the world but even she can’t stop the Goldcloaks from marching in and doing the unspeakable. Following this horrible scene are more horrible scenes as King’s Landing is turned upside down while the Goldcloaks search for raven tressed bastards and wipe them out.They torture Gendry’s old smithing master and now they know he’s on his way up to the Wall.

Finally, the  episode closes on a beautiful shot of the Night’s Watch recruitment procession passing under the eaves of some mist-laden trees. It’s a beautiful shot, yes, but a totally freaking ominous one! It also works to foreshadow the deep shit Arya is going to find herself in, doing in one shot what every other scene did with plot refresher dialogue. It’s a confident close and it’s one of the most earned in the series thus far.

Of course I love this. Trees, guys!

Phew! That was fun to write but a bit exhausting. I’ve gotten a lot of the big picture stuff out of the way and will hopefully be able to keep a more concise and detailed analysis for specific episodes going for future recaps. I dunno, though, I sort of feel like most episodes will have one or two things, good and bad, that will get me going for a few hundred words. Oh well, as long as it’s fun right?

Hope you enjoyed reading and I’d love to see your thoughts in the comments section so I can argue with them.