The districts of Westeros are in rebellion as TV's most epic drama returns

April 02, 2012 at 01:55 AM EDT

It’s a dark time for the rebellion. Evil King Joffrey smirks on the Iron Throne. The noble Stark family is scattered to every corner of Westeros. Daenerys wanders the desert searching for food, shelter, or at least some effective sunscreen. But their terror and misery is our entertainment. We get to watch — and recap — another thrilling season of Game of Thrones!

We have about 435 different locations to visit this first hour, “The North Remembers,” so let’s start with those tweaked opening credits. Yes, there’s a new place added to our nifty pop-up map: Dragonstone (I know, it sounds like a New Age bookstore where you can buy crystals and incense and stuff). Also, note Peter Dinklage now has top billing. It’s not just from winning pretty much every acting award around for last season’s performance; Tyrion has a large role in season 2.

King’s Landing: The Hound beats the heck out of some poor knight, who topples to his death in the courtyard. Love that there’s a little kid, like a tennis ball boy, who comes scurrying out to scrub up his blood. This is how Joffrey celebrates his “nameday” (Thrones-speak for birthday). Fumbling Ser Dontos has the audacity to arrive late and slightly tipsy, so Joffrey orders him water-boarded in Chianti.

Joffrey’s bride-to-be, Sansa Stark, says killing a man on your birthday is bad luck. She’s clearly making this up, and, interestingly, Joffrey’s scary bodyguard The Hound backs up her claim. Between the two of them, they craftily manipulate Joffrey into briefly acting like a decent human being. Well struck!

Enter Joffrey’s uncle Tyrion. He’s been sent by his father Tywin Lannister to rein in Joffrey’s, uh, reign. Now, from the moment Tyrion arrives, everything he does is strategic. A producer explained on the set that Tyrion is being deliberately theatrical by crashing the party while still wearing his armor, flanked by his warriors. Joffrey’s whole reign is nothing but theater, he said, there’s no substance to it. So Tyrion is making a display of his own achievement and improved status.

“What work? Why are you here?” asks a hilariously bewildered Joffrey.

Book readers were probably expecting this season to open with another supernatural-tinged “cold open” based on the prologue of George R.R. Martin’s second “Ice and Fire” novel, A Clash of Kings. That scene (introducing Stannis and Melisandre) comes later this hour. The writers felt that there’s so many stories to launch, it would be wiser to organize the episode for maximum coherence. And the next scene does a great job of bringing viewers up to speed.

Here Tyrion makes his next theatrical display, disrupting the Small Council meeting. He gives his sister, Queen Regent Cersei, one of those written decrees that, as we know from season one, totally annoy her. How dare you come at her with your laws and papers!

NEXT: Jon Snow meets a dysfunctional family; Dany gets wasted

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