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Bleeding Stars and Fiery Hearts: Thoughts on the Second Season Premiere of HBO's Game of Thrones

"For the night is dark and full of terror..."

Where does power reside? Is it contained within the knowledge of a wise man? The sword of a warrior? The magnanimity of a king? The coin purse of a wealthy man? The foresight of a manipulator? When a sharp knife is drawn against your throat, who is the one who actually holds the true power?

These are but a few of many questions pondered in the sensational opening chapter of Season Two of Game of Thrones (“The North Remembers”), written by David Benioff and Dan Weiss and directed by Alan Taylor, which returns with all the roar of a lion, the beating wings of a dragon, the pride of a stag, and the cunning of a wolf. Finishing its first season on such a pitch-perfect note of dread and chaos, Game of Thrones returned with a stellar episode that picked up the multitude of story strands from last season and gave them a meaty tug. (You can read my spoiler-free advance review of Season Two of Game of Thrones over at The Daily Beast.)

Just where does true power live and who wields it? Poor Ned Stark (Sean Bean) believed that he had stumbled onto a truth last season that threatened take down a clan and perhaps an entire kingdom, but his efforts to use that knowledge--to transform information into the currency of influence--only lasted so long as his head remained atop his body. Standing outside of Baelor's Sept, any last vestiges of power he may have wielded in his position as the Hand to the King faded the second Ser Ilyn swung the blade. As did the illusion that Cersei (Lena Headey) had any control over the tempestuous and volatile boy-king Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), who ordered the execution without thinking through the consequences of his actions.

Season Two of Game of Thrones follows the power vacuum that ensues in the wake of Joffrey's folly. The death of King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy) and the murder of Ned Stark has precipitated an all-out war: Robb Stark (Richard Madden) has declared himself the King of the North, while Robert's feuding brothers, Stannis (Stephen Dillane) and Renly (Gethin Anthony), each claim that they are the true heir to the Iron Throne, the perilously sharp seat of power on which the boy-king now sits. Elsewhere, Daenerys Stormborn (Emilia Clarke) treks through a barren desert, the last of the Targaryen royals devoid of any power but in possession of three dragons. Mance Rayder, a former brother of the Night's Watch and self-crowned King-Beyond-the-Wall readies an army with sights on the south... and a red comet streaks through the sky, a crimson knife slashing through the heavens, that unites each of the characters: soldiers, beggars, and players alike.

(A brief aside: while I've already seen the first four episodes of Season Two of Game of Thrones, these thoughts contain no spoilers and will only reference the events depicted in this particular episode of the series. Likewise, while I've read all of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire novels, I won't spoil events based on knowledge from the novels as well. So confidently read with the knowledge that you're not going to be spoiled here. Additionally, this is not a recap, so I won't be covering the plot details beat by beat, but rather the themes of the episode and anything of interest that warrants discussion/analysis. Whew.)

While the Seven Kingdoms are beset by wars on multiple fronts, with several factions claiming ownership of the throne, there is--as always--another war brewing, the eternal battle between light and darkness, fire and ice, good and evil. We've already seen that an ancient evil, thought to be slumbering, is once again stirring beyond the Wall; the White Walkers are no mere bogeymen of children's fairy tales and dead men are rising to walk once more after death. While the players in the never-ending game of thrones make their moves, the cold winds are once more stirring, and the true battle is the one that poses the greatest danger to humanity.

Enter Melisandre (Carice van Houten), the "Red Woman," a priestess who follows R'hllor, the Lord of Light. She brings with her fire, light, and blood, as well as political and religious upheaval. She's placed her bets on Stannis, and sets herself up in his court, converting the possible King to her religious doctrine as well as his followers. When we meet her, in fact, she's burning the statues of the Seven--emblems of the seven-sided aspects of the god of the Andals--who have ruled over the hearts and minds of many of the Westerosi for centuries. But her actions go beyond the burning of mere effigies; in her bonfire, she's burning away the past, burning away beliefs, and of loyalties. The statues of the Seven are but sacrificial logs to her "true" god. Yet, while Melisandre's motives are questioned--by both Maester Cressen (Oliver Ford Davies) and by Lord Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham)--she is right about some things: a star does bleed (that red comet), the dead are walking in the North, and they should be wary of the cold and ice promised by the winter at hand.

A white raven, sent from the Maesters of Oldtown, signals the end of summer and the eventual arrival of a long winter. It may also signal the end of the rule of Man. Not everyone will make it through a decades-long winter, and as viewers we know that the residents of the Seven Kingdoms have more to fear than just starvation. Whether Stannis truly is mythical hero Azor Ahai reborn, whether he will come to be in possession of the fabled sword, Lightbringer, remains to be seen. But Melisandre believes, and belief is a potent and powerful thing. The ruby at her throat burns with a most terrible fire, not least of which when she proves herself impervious to the poison that Cressen slips into the goblet in an attempt to kill her. (His sacrifice proves worthless; he dies instantly and grotesquely, robbing Stannis of an adviser, but he fails to even injure Melisandre in the slightest. It's this sequence which provides the prologue in Martin's "A Clash of Kings." It's moved later in the episode, and the order of events is altered. If I remember correctly, Cressen has Melisandre drink first before he takes a sip; his surprise at her invulnerability registering more sharply. Likewise, some characters in Stannis' court in the books don't appear here, including two intriguing minor characters that I've long harbored theories about.)

As I mentioned in my advance review, Alan Taylor does a superb job here, and he's fluent in the underlying language of the show. I loved the way in which the red comet acted as a crimson threat lacing together the disparate plots. It's seen overhead from all over the world: Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) glimpses it at Winterfell, Daenerys from the Red Waste, Jon Snow (Kit Harington) from Beyond the Wall. It's a brilliant way of connecting the plots and shifting the action between perspectives, cutting between Bran to Danerys, from Danerys to Jon. (There's also a beautiful moment when Bran's hand moves through the water of the pond under the weirwood tree in Winterfell's godswood, creating ripples that disturb the tranquility of the pond, much like Ned's death has done for the Seven Kingdoms. It all comes back to consequences again.)

I also love the different ways that characters view the red comet. It becomes, alternately, an emblem of Robb's victory, Ned's death, Lannister red. But it's the wildling Osha (Natalie Tena, once again captivating in her scenes) who sees it for what it is: an omen of dragons. With the beating of their wings, magic appears to be returning to the Seven Kingdoms once more. Bran's dream, in which he experiences a moment through the eyes of his direwolf, Summer, also augurs interesting developments down the road. He wears Summer's skin as a man wears a shadow, he sees through eyes that are not his own.

It's a moment of magic, of raw, natural power, that connects Bran's subconscious to something large and eternal, much like last season's dream of the three-eyed crow. Even internally, there are battles to be waged. It's also a powerful way to allow the viewer to see directly through Bran's eyes, much as the novel's readers were able to do via the shifting point-of-view of the chapter narrators. By plunging us within Bran's unconscious mind, we're able to experience that narrative fluidity and specificity anew.

That sense of perspective echoes through the episode and the show itself. There's a moment at Craster's Keep, beyond the Wall, which demonstrates a sense of cultural relativity: the Starks and Jon Snow see themselves as Northerners, defining the term "southerners" to mean the summer soldiers of the South, of King's Landing and elsewhere. But, to Craster (Robert Pugh) and the wildlings, these black crows and anyone from south of the Wall are "southerners." Which poses an interesting intellectual question: Which is more important and more powerful: cultural boundaries or physical ones? Is our sense of self-identity as simply mutable as that?

It's an internal struggle that's also manifesting itself within Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), ward to Ned Stark who has spent the majority of his life at Winterfell, a "guest" of the Starks who is nonetheless a hostage and the heir the Iron Islands. While he pledges his fealty to King Robb, is happy to call him "your Grace," and fights by his side, where do his loyalties lie? Is a wolf or a kraken? Is he a child of the North, or an Ironborn? When he pledges Robb to act on his behalf and seek his father, Balon Greyjoy, and ask for a fleet of ships, saying "We can avenge [Ned] together," can he be trusted? Is blood thicker than water, even in the frigid reaches of the North? Are we ever truly free of our families, our pasts, our selves?

Those shackles, whether metaphorical or real, bind us in ways we can't imagine. Witness poor Gilly (Hannah Murray), one of Craster's daughters/wives, forced to endure a life of toil and servitude to a man who has abused her in horrific ways. "Better to live free than die a slave," she chirps, the motto of the "free folk," the wildlings. But they too claim fealty, whether to Mance Rayder or, as Craster's possessions, to the man they serve. Likewise, Sansa (Sophie Turner) saves the life of Ser Dontos (Tony Way), who nearly meets the wrath of Joffrey after embarrassing myself during the king's name-day festivities. But is it better to die a knight or live as a fool?

Did Ned Stark's honor serve him well? Did his death achieve anything except chaos and bloodshed? Is it better just to live, in any sense, than to die? Is the wisest course of action to just find a way, as Gilly and others (including Maisie Williams' lost little bird, Arya, and Sansa) have, to survive?

They are questions that harken back to those posed at the opening of this review. What is true power? It's a philosophical debate enacted between Cersei and Lord Petyr Baelish (Aidan Gillen) at King's Landing. He believes knowledge is power, but his awareness of the incestuous relationship between Cersei and Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) matters little when steel is pressed against his throat. It's a lesson he should have learned from the deaths of Jon Arryn and Ned Stark: don't go asking questions, don't put honor above survival, and don't poke a sleeping lion. For her part, Cersei proves her point: that power exists within the individual ordering whomever holds the knife. But really, it's the knife itself which holds the power, and the hand that holds it. Mercenaries and sellswords, as well as even sworn soldiers, are only too changeable. Jaime Lannister proved this when he strode into the throne room and slew the Mad King, despite his oath. Men play plot wars, but it's swords that win them. The threat of personal violence can stay anyone's hand, even a man as shrewd and manipulative as Littlefinger.

Cersei, now Queen Regent until Joffrey reaches the age of majority, seems to take particular pleasure in the influence she's carved out at King's Landing, fitting seeing as much crimson-and-gold everyone--from Cersei to Joffrey--is wearing. Lannister colors, not Baratheon ones, naturally. But her mistakes can and will catch up with her. The arrival of Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) at court poses a threat to Cersei's rule, as does her son's volatile and violent nature. It's interesting that when Cersei slaps Joffrey, in full view of the workers making alterations to the throne room, no one moves to stop her or intervene; they quickly go back to work. Joffrey may sit on the Iron Throne, but he's largely a figurehead; it's Cersei who is charge. Otherwise, she'd be dead before her body hit the ground.

Naturally, Tyrion walked way with the best line of the evening: "You love your children. That's your one redeeming quality. That and your cheekbones." Dinklage is phenomenal here, wielding his position and his intellect like a badge of office, becoming for once not the "disappointing child" of the Lannister family, but an important and instrumental force within the kingdom. He quickly puts Cersei in her place, despite her tantrum, and seizes the reins of power. His arc is only just beginning here and it's fitting that Dinklage gets top billing in the title credits (which awaken such excitement in me every time); Season Two is a significant one for Tyrion Lannister, who more or less takes over the role of "main character" from Ned Stark in many respects, and his arrival in King's Landing is likely to stir up animosity within this nest of vipers.

Ultimately, "The North Remembers" was a brilliant and provocative opening to the season, demonstrating a willingness on the part of Benioff and Weiss to stir things up, to stray from the source material, and to adapt with a clear view of how television is inherently a different medium than the printed word. This is an even more dangerous world than the one we left behind last season, even more fraught with peril and possibility, and the war is only just beginning.

Personally, I'm curious to know just what the reaction will be to the ending of the episode, and of the slaying of Robert Baratheon's bastard offspring. While there is no shortage of violence on Game of Thrones, it's typically not enacted against babies and children, and the show tackles yet another taboo here. There's a sense of the Biblical at play here: the slaying of the firstborn, a blood sacrifice. Here, it's meant to consolidate power, to tie up the loose ends of Robert's dynasty, to ensure that Joffrey is the strongest claimant to the throne. But the sight of soldiers skewering babies is also something else: a sign of weakness, of fear, and of uncertainty. And somewhere along the long road to the Wall, another of Robert's bastards, Gendry (Joe Dempsie), begins his own journey, a bull's head helm in his hands, a disguised daughter of the North at his side. Where the winds will take them will become clear enough. But when even the powerful show their hand so brazenly, there's a whiff of possibility, and of revolution, in the air.

Next week on Game of Thrones ("The Night Lands”), in the wake of a bloody purge in the capital, Tyrion chastens Cersei for alienating the kingʼs subjects; on the road north, Arya shares a secret with Gendry, a Nightʼs Watch recruit; with supplies dwindling, one of Dany's scouts returns with news of their position; after nine years as a Stark ward, Theon Greyjoy reunites with his father Balon, who wants to restore the ancient Kingdom of the Iron Islands; Davos enlists Salladhor Saan, a pirate, to join forces with Stannis and Melisandre for a naval invasion of Kingʼs Landing.

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