“The North Remembers”
In a way, it’s too bad I’ve read the five extant novels in George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” series in the last nine months, because it’s impossible for me to view the TV series in the same light as I did when I watched the first season with unvarnished perspective. And truly, HBO’s series is a remarkable piece of television in its own right, just as Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is a remarkable achievement. But that didn’t stop me from missing Tom Bombadil and it doesn’t stop me from noticing the little things here – like how all the Stark children are too old, and how the loving details of a character introduction are skipped. These are mostly necessary changes, no doubt, but they still cut.
There’s also the matter of the wait, which is likely to be a long one – Martin seems to take about six years between the publication of the books, and the fifth (of a planned seven) was just released in 2011. Of course that wait is even worse with the TV series, which figured to catch up to the books somewhere around the release of the sixth novel. So it is what it is, and my approach is going to be to blog the TV series as a distinct entity, and to avoid offering any spoilers as to future events. I would ask that any comments please be written with the same courtesy, for the benefit of the majority of the TV viewers who haven’t read the novels.
The second season then, picks up more or less where the first left off. They didn’t change the theme music, thank goodness – I love it and it suits the material perfectly – and we still have plenty of nudity, depravity, intrigue and shocking violence. Missing this season, of course, is the comforting presence of Sean Bean as Ned Stark, who lost his head late in the first. Ned’s death – which provided a hell of a shock to those not expecting it (I didn’t know it was coming, but sensed it might be) – significantly changes the experience of Game of Thrones. He was the moral anchor of the story, an easy man to root for in a cast of dubious characters, and the closest thing the show had to a main character. With a huge cast spread across the Seven Kingdoms and beyond, Game of Thrones can often feel like many small stories rather than one large one, and often seeming only tangentially connected. This is unavoidable given the format, but it can make watching the series challenging – even the most prominent characters are absent for most of the episode in any given week. And with Ned gone, there’s no obvious center of this story – although my vote goes to Tyrion, who presents a viewpoint that’s wider than anyone else in the cast at this point of the story.
Novel readers will certainly note the arrival on the scene of several major characters. On the island fortress of Dragonstone we have Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane), eldest surviving brother and in Ned’s view, rightful heir to the throne of Westeros. There, the Seven Gods are being burned by the woman in red, the Lady Melisandre (Carice van Houten) as a symbol of Stannis’ conversion to belief in the Lord of Light. This horrifies Stannis’ old Maester Cressen (Oliver Ford Davies) and displeases Stannis’ Hand, Ser Davos Seaforth (Liam Cunningham). Cressen tries to poison the Lady, drinking the poison himself first to deceive her, but while he dies, Melisandre mysteriously appears unaffected.
Stannis isn’t the only King, of course – Westeros is crawling with them. Youngest Baratheon brother Renly claims the throne too, and the loyalty of many of Robert’s bannermen and an army of a hundred thousand. Robb Stark has declared himself King of the North, and dispatches Queen Cersei’s cousin with terms he knows the bastard King, Joffrey, will never accept. In the Red Wastes of the far East, Danerys and her hatchling dragons slog through the trackless desert with the remains of her Khalasar, and she dreams of the throne she believes is rightfully hers as the last of the Targeryen family. At Winterfell, kind, wounded Bran is left to do his best as Lord (and dream strange wolf dreams), with the armies of the North called to Robb’s service far away. North of the Wall the scraggly Black Watch treks further into Wilding territory searching for missing Benjen Stark and intelligence as to the plans of the mysterious Wilding King, Mance Rayder. And Arya has escaped from King’s Landing disguised as the boy, Arry, in a convoy of conscripts headed for the Wall. All all occurs under the watchful gaze of a comet, its tail burning red across the sky…
It’s a lot to keep track of, this story – and really, I’ve only scratched the surface of what happened in the episode, which only scratches the surface of what was happening at this stage of the novels. I have many friends who are serious fantasy fans who dislike Song of Ice and Fire, because they see it as all politics and sex and gore, and not much fantasy. This is the challenge HBO has taken on, because this is not only a huge tale but a somewhat inaccessible one too. There aren’t a lot of warm and cuddly characters here, though there are an abundance of loathsome ones. I’ve always viewed the series as an example of what would happen if otherwise fairly normal modern people were yanked out of our world and placed in this medieval, magical setting – and they bring with them the same sort of pettiness and incompetence that’s rife in the corridors of power in the real world. It’s the antithesis of most epic fantasy, which is about exceptional people fighting exceptional evil. I can see where not everyone – fantasy fan or not – might find that appealing. For me, it’s rather fascinating and I can’t take my eyes off it.
If there’s an anchor in this story for me, it’s Tyrion – currently ensconced in the role of Hand by the decree of his father, to try and rein in the excesses of the vile and sadistic boy King Joffrey and his venal mother, Cersei. King’s Landing is the nexus point of the story, the center of the swirling chaos – where the City Watch is sent to murder the dead King’s bastard children, and the schemers and deceivers on the Small Council try and outflank each other in their games of treachery. Into this morass comes the perennial outsider, The Imp, loathed by his family (all but brother Jaime, imprisoned by Robb far away), with only his whore, his champion and his army of savages. He’s no fool and far from naïve, yet he’s tasked with keeping order and with defending an illegitimate King from a hostile kingdom.