Review: Game of Thrones 2.01: The North Remembers (season premiere)

By Silvia Moreno-Garcia

[spoilers ahead]

Game of Thrones returns with a bigger budget but the same amount of betrayal and murder you’ve grown used to. And is it my imagination or is everyone a bit more badass than in the novel? Robb, Cersei and Tyrion, to name a few.

Boy, Peter Dinklage must be having a helluva lot of fun playing his role. The sardonic Tyrion Lannister is fun in the books, but he roars into life on the TV screen. Appropriately, the show opens with him: Tyrion has returned to King’s Landing to metaphorically bitch-slap his sister, Cersei. Their dad has named him Hand of the King, something that doesn’t sit too well with Cersei, but, as Tyrion points out, she doesn’t seem to be able to control Prince Joffrey and has misplaced Arya Stark, one of their two very valuable Stark hostages.

Cersei reacts by ordering Petyr Baelish to find Arya, and does so with a display of power and violence (Cersei is of the Hulk Smash! power variety; more on that, later). Sadly, Cersei may be able to order Baelish around, but Joffrey is another item altogether. Though she slaps her psychopathic son, it’s obvious he may prove to be dangerous, even to his own mother.

Meanwhile, beyond the Wall, Jon Snow and friends are doing a bit of information gathering. They stop to chat with Craster, a nasty fellow who spends his time committing incest with his numerous daughters. Craster reveals that Mance Ryder, who titles himself King Beyond the Wall, has gathered a vast army and is planning on marching south. This might prove a wee bit problematic, since everyone in the south is fighting each other.

Case in point? Stannis Baratheon, whom we get to meet in this first episode. Stannis is the older brother of the late King Robert. He is a dry man (He has his secretary strike out the word ‘beloved’ when writing a letter in which he talks about his dead brother, because it’s an inaccurate statement) who refuses to form an alliance with the other contenders to the throne, be it his younger brother Renly or Robb Stark, who styles himself King of the North. Stannis seems to be a bit of a fool for throwing away the chance to combine his forces with those of Renly or Robb, but maybe he’s got a reason to be so confident. A very red-headed reason in the shape of the priestess Melisandre. Though, ‘ya know, not everyone’s too keen to start burning the old gods and worshiping this new God of Light Melisandre’s talking about.

Speaking of the King of the North, Robb Stark struck me as a bit of an idiot (a likeable one, kind of like his dad) in the books, but he seems to be made of sterner stuff on the show. His mother, Lady Catelyn, also plays better on TV. Catelyn wants her daughters back. Since they have Jaime Lannister as a prisoner, they could exchange them for him. However, Robb has other plans. He wants to strike an alliance with Renly Baratheon. With their combined forces, they might be able to crush the Lannisters. He asks his mother to meet with Renly and broker an agreement, while sending Theon to get him some ships from his dad (Theon’s from the Iron Islands).

I almost forgot to mention Daenerys, and for good reason. She’s far away, she’s got three dragons, and that’s about it. It’s not the show’s fault that her storyline seems so far removed from the action (because it is in the books), but the nature of the TV exercise magnifies just how tacked-on this character feels.

Poor Bran Stark doesn’t get much screentime, either, though it’s better than being Rickon. If you’re going, ‘Rick who?’ then you’re probably not alone.

Anyway, the episode ends with Arya Stark and Gendry (bastard son of King Robert) heading with a bunch of new recruits north to the Wall. And everyone’s looking for those two because 1) Arya is a valuable hostage and 2) Joffrey or Cersei (more likely, Joff) has initiated a bastard-cleansing, killing the numerous kids Robert had so no one can prove Joffrey is not the King’s son.

With about five hundred speaking parts, how does the first episode fare? Well, pretty good, considering those five hundred speaking parts! The show doesn’t open like the book (good!) and having Tyrion navigate us back to Westeros helps get the viewer’s bearings. Plus, the snark is pretty awesome when Cersei and Tyrion get together.

The subtle changes to the original text keep working. Cersei seems more sympathetic. Not that she ain’t a nasty piece of work, but witness her expression when Tyrion taunts her by wondering what it feels to be the screw-up for a change. Or her pained expression when her son treats her like dirt. In the novels, Cersei is Flash Gordon-villainous (muahaha), but in HBO’s version, she’s got an extra layer to her. This helps us swallow the character and believe me, she’s a hard pill, not because she’s bad, but because she’s stupid bad, a point that becomes obvious in the novels. Cersei is the kind of character who does not know the meaning of ‘subtle’. It seems her youngest brother got all the helping of brains. It is quite frustrating to read about such a person, but even though our HBO Cersei has her Hulk Smash! moments (with Petyr, for example), the performance manages to navigate the thin line between I-hate-this-woman and I-love-to-hate-this-woman. That, my friends, takes talent. I effing love Lena Headey. I didn’t think she looked Cersei enough, but she’s won me over to the Lannister side.

She’s not the only good performer. Look at Stephen Dillane, who plays the annoying Stannis. He seems a lot more fun of screen! Still dry, like day-old baguettes, but you enjoy that crunch. Though Liam Cunningham as Davos, his right-hand man, gets precious few seconds on screen, he also seems quite fine in the role of a loyal-but-conflicted man.

Oh, and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau manages to look hot, even smeared in all kinds of dirt, and throws us a bit of pathos while playing a dude that deserves, up to this point, very little sympathy.

Finally, Jack Gleeson as the boy king Joffrey is the vilest scum of Westeros, which is just perfect for such a role.

Overall, Game of Thrones is a lot of fun! If you like your epic fantasy with a lot of blood and treachery, that is. However, if you have a problem with constant violence, I recommend watching The Walking Dead, instead.

On a random note: The boob count seems to have shrunk. We got only one sex scene. I’m fine with that, though I do demand that Coster-Waldau get totally nekkid for that bath scene that happens in one of the other books. You know what I’m talking about.

About Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Silvia Moreno-Garcia lives in beautiful, rainy British Columbia with her family and two cats. She writes fantasy, magic realism and science fiction. You can read her stories in Imaginarium 2012: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing, The Book of Cthulhu, Evolve 2 and Tesseracts 13. She is the co-editor of Candle in the Attic Window, Future Lovecraft and Historical Lovecraft.

Silvia Moreno-GarciaReview: Game of Thrones 2.01: The North Remembers (season premiere)