Game Of Thrones (experts): “The North Remembers” (for experts)
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Game Of Thrones (experts): “The North Remembers” (for experts)

B+

Game Of Thrones (experts)

“The North Remembers” (for experts)

Season 2, Episode 1

(This Game Of Thrones post is for people who have read at least the first two books in the book series. It is written from the point-of-view of someone who has read those books and for the benefit of fans of the books. All discussion points are valid, up to and including the events of the fifth book. However, we would ask that you clearly mark spoilers from the third, fourth, and fifth books. The review itself will be non-spoilery, and talk of how events here portend future events will be clearly marked with a spoiler warning in the section following Stray Observations. If you would still like to read the review but haven't read the book, thus, you can, but you should proceed with caution after the spoiler warning and in comments. Those of you who haven't read the books can also check out our reviews for newbies.)

My initial plan for this season of Game Of Thrones was to treat this all a bit more like a review for people who’ve read the books and want to discuss what’s changed between page and screen—at least somewhat. I had thought, “Oh, hey, I’ll figure out roughly which pages of A Clash Of Kings have been adapted and put that information in the review.” And that was a good thought and all (especially since I finished my re-read of the book last month), but when I pulled out my well-worn copy, I began to realize something: This season of the show moves much less like a novel for TV—as the first season did, even at its best—and much more like a TV series. Creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have taken George R.R. Martin’s novel and made some judicious edits to it, making sure certain timelines match up and depicting events directly on screen that weren’t on the page in the novel, due to its “point-of-view” structure.

To be sure, the show did some of this in season one. Many of the best scenes were between two characters who were never point-of-view characters in the original book, and the series seemed to gain confidence in utilizing this device as the season went on. But this season essentially makes that the operating principle going forward. Take tonight’s big climax. Somebody—Joffrey? Cersei? Tommen?—orders the deaths of all of dead King Robert’s bastard children, sending the King’s Guard in their golden cloaks into the city’s many corners to root these children out. The centerpiece is the guard swarming Littlefinger’s brothel, plucking a baby from her mother’s arms and stabbing it. It happens just off-camera, but it’s still visceral and horrifying.

So I went looking for this passage in the book. I knew that it wasn’t nearly as direct as it was in the show—after all, there are no point-of-view characters present in the scene—but what I hadn’t realized was that the whole thing was barely even alluded to. Tyrion goes and has a talk with Janos Slynt about what’s happened, and that’s pretty much it. (That scene, as a matter of fact, is in next week’s episode.) Sure, the monstrous horror of what happened still comes through in Martin’s prose, but it’s at a distance, removed from the main action. The baby’s death here is utterly horrifying, and it sets the stakes for the season and cements its main question: What the hell do you do when the man appointed to rule you (as well as those around him) is evil?

To be fair, “The North Remembers” only really scratches the surface of this question and doesn’t dig as deeply as subsequent episodes will. This episode is the ultimate in “let’s catch up with everybody” season premieres, sending us on a picturesque tour of Westeros, the lands across the sea, and the wastes beyond the Wall. Again, the series makes some great adaptation choices here. Daenerys doesn’t pop up in the book until around page 150, but she’s present in this premiere, while Tyrion’s story is barely getting started. (We get to about page 25 with him.) I don’t know how much work Benioff and Weiss have done to make sure the timelines all match up, but this little trick of jiggering storylines so we’re getting to the most exciting stuff straight off makes the whole series move with a muscularity and confidence it sometimes lacked at the start of season one.

The central device of the episode is a great one: The characters throughout the world of the series look up in the sky at a blood-red comet that’s constantly visible. The comet means different things to different people. It’s an omen of blood being spilled to some, a promise of the return of dragons to others. From the point-of-view of Benioff and Weiss (and episode director Alan Taylor), however, it’s just a really great way to tie all of these disparate storylines together. There’s been plenty of talk from me and other folks about this show’s episodic structure (or lack thereof), how it tends to fall into a collection of things that happen, with a big cliffhanger at the end of the episode to get us to come back next week. That structure is probably most similar to a miniseries or a daytime soap opera, where every episode isn’t a story unto itself, but they add up to a story, more than even something like Breaking Bad (which always gives its protagonist a goal, no matter how tiny, in each episode).

For season two, Game Of Thrones appears to be using the idea of unity to hold its episodes together. This week, that unity comes from the comet. In an elegant device, the camera will peer up at the red streak coursing through the sky, then pan down to the ground and end up somewhere else in Westeros. There are so many storylines running at the same time—again, like a daytime soap—that the show needs the bulk of its running time to check in on all of them. (Indeed, we don’t return to a character we’ve already seen until over 40 minutes of the show have passed, when Tyrion reappears with Shae.) Indeed, we cover so much ground that few—if any—of the storylines really get a chance to stick. It’s like a tantalizing showcase for what’s to come, especially if you’ve read the book. The hope is that we’ll get to revisit the buffet and sample each of these dishes at length, but for now, we have to be content with just a little taste.

The story that probably suffers most from this treatment is the adventures of the gang at Dragonstone. Here, however, we get to see how Weiss and Benioff’s streamlining is working this season. The two take a couple of different scenes and mush them together, so that Maester Cressen’s prologue is roughly combined with the first Davos point-of-view chapter. This is probably for the best. The Cressen prologue is wonderfully atmospheric, but it probably would have taken up too much screentime if it had proved more faithful to the book. Having Cressen’s plan to kill Melisandre be carried off at a tactical meeting, rather than a giant feast, doesn’t make a whole ton of sense, honestly, but I’m willing to forgive it because Carice Van Houten is so chilling as Melisandre. One of the best things about this series is that we’re going to get to meet some great new characters as the show goes along, and Van Houten brings a nice touch of unearthliness to her character, as though she’s at once here on this plane and idly channeling magical forces on another at the very same time. Stephen Dillane and Liam Cunningham make less of an impression as Stannis and Davos, respectively, but this is, again, just a quick taste of what’s to come.

New characters are all well and good, of course, but there are also more than enough old characters it’s a pleasure to catch up with. Even Sansa, who could be a bit of a pain in season one, is much more interesting this season, as she tries to walk the difficult tightrope of steering Joffrey away from his petulant, borderline-psychotic episodes and toward… not justice or mercy, exactly, but something that will keep more people alive. (The way she delicately walks him back from killing the drunken knight via wine with the help of the Hound is pretty solid diplomacy for a young teenager.) Robb’s ordering his mother around, Arya’s making her way north to the Wall, Jon’s wandering out in the cold and encountering old men who take their daughters as wives, Dany’s out in the desert, and Jaime’s bitterly waiting out his stay in Robb’s “care.” We see all of this very briefly, but all of these scenes are like instant reminders of just how large the cast of characters is, and just how many of those characters are instantly gripping. Arya’s easily my favorite, but the fact that she didn’t appear until the very last scene of the episode (and then didn’t say anything) didn’t bother me all that much.

This looks like it will be the season for Tyrion Lannister, both given how Peter Dinklage is now the top-billed star in the opening credits and given how he and Robb are the two characters the first episode spends any significant amount of time with. Tyrion arrives in King’s Landing, determined to get a handle on his seemingly around-the-bend nephew. He begins by letting Cersei know exactly why Ned’s death was unacceptable and rolling his eyes at her inability to keep Arya as a hostage, but he also carves out a home for Shae and starts pulling at the city’s power structure to see where it bends and breaks. Again, we get only a tiny hint of what he’s up to, but I love the way Dinklage seems to suggest how Tyrion is scanning all situations for political escape routes. He’s going to get out of this cursed job alive, one way or another, and that most likely means making himself simultaneously indispensable to the king and independent from him.

The overriding question of Game Of Thrones is what makes someone a good ruler. Ned seemed as if he would be the ruler Westeros needed, but he was done in by his inability to realize the threats posed to him by less scrupulous people and the fact that he seemed to think everybody would play the game as honorably as he did. At the same time, essentially everyone—even Cersei, on some level—could agree that Joffrey’s not the picture of the ruler you want to have. The problem is that no one’s perfect, and the person who came closest was removed from the story before it had barely even begun. Seeing all of the characters laid out for us like this just underlines that fact: No one out there is ready to bear the full weight of responsibility being a leader owns. But that comet plows through the sky, uniting them in a fear of something that’s coming, even if they don’t yet know its name.

Stray observations:

  • Welcome back to Game Of Thrones! This thread is for experts, for people who’ve read at least the first two books and ideally more. You can read everything up to the “spoilers” section without being spoiled for what’s coming beyond very vague intimations (I make sure of that), but you should know that the comments and spoilers section are going to have chatter about what’s coming, though we always ask folks who are spoiling to indicate as such. We’re a little more lax on that here than we are in the newbie reviews, however. So: Feel free to read this without fear, but know that the comments are enter at your own risk. Also, these reviews are yours, so let me know what you want. More comparisons to the book? Fewer comparisons? Dance numbers?
  • I say this to myself as much as anyone. I got through the first three books in the time since the series last left us, finding the reread enjoyable, refreshing my memory on some of what happened that I’d forgotten. Then I got to the start of book four and came to a screeching halt. As such, I still haven’t read that one or book five, though I’m hopefully going to get through them as the season proceeds. (Then again, I’m not someone who cares if I’m spoiled all that badly, so I’m happy to continue playing police officer.)
  • Given a bit of short shrift here is Dany, who’s stuck out in the “Red Waste,” waiting for some sign of which way to go. She decides to follow the comet, which is as good of an idea as anything, I suppose. Also: Her dragon is still cute.
  • The show’s choice to play up the relationship between Theon and Robb, as well as Theon himself, last season (something I wasn’t always in favor of) pays dividends here, as the scene in which the two talk about Theon heading off to his ancestral home is quite well done.
  • Oh, right, Bran’s in this episode. It’s kind of fun to watch a little kid playing Lord of Winterfell, but what’s really interesting here is that he’s having dreams in which he’s a wolf. Because that happens all the time.
  • Another really great scene that Benioff and Weiss have invented: Cersei corners Littlefinger and has her guards very nearly cut his throat after he intimates that he knows about what went on with Jaime (because everybody does, apparently). “Knowledge is power,” he says, before nearly dying. No, she says, “Power is power,” which might be something the show could stick in a promotional campaign. (Admittedly, “The night is dark and full of terrors” is a better tagline.)
  • I found the scene of the burning of the idols very, very eerie and beautiful. One of my favorites in terms of atmosphere.
  • The direwolves just are never going to look convincing, are they?
  • Joffrey slaps: One, delivered by Cersei. We can only hope there are many more.

Here be spoilers!:

  • I’ve seen the first four episodes and can potentially answer some of your questions about how certain events are portrayed. I will say that I think the series does a tremendous job of playing out Tyrion’s gamesmanship and how he manipulates various parties within King’s Landing to get what he wants and needs. Dinklage really earns his first billing.
  • Since discussing literally anything that happens in this first episode would be a spoiler for what’s coming, I’ll just say that I’m surprised at how some stories are stretched out—particularly Tyrion’s, which plays roughly close to the book—and how some are compressed. You may have noticed we dive straight into the thick of the Jon Snow story, for good reason, I think.
  • As indicated in an Entertainment Weekly article about the series, we’re going to see Benioff and Weiss taking some liberties to give storylines to the characters who don’t have much to do in this book, Jaime and Robb, especially. This should be… interesting to see play out. 

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