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

By James Hibberd
April 02, 2012 at 01:55 AM EDT
HBO
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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

Even though this scene is largely exposition, it’s my favorite in the premiere. Look at how much information is covered here — that Tyrion has been appointed Hand of the King, Ned Stark’s fate, Cersei’s feelings for her imprisoned brother Jaime, that young Arya Stark has escaped. Yet you don’t feel all that information coming at you because watching Tyrion ear-box Cersei is so much fun.

“Must be hard for you,” Tyrion taunts, “to be the disappointing child.”

Cersei looks like she’s about to storm off to her room and take out her rage on her scratching post. But wait. We just spent several minutes in a single location. Better move quick to…

Winterfell: Crippled Bran Stark holds court, listening to a bannerman who wants assistance with home improvement. Joffrey would have crucified this guy in seconds. But Bran reluctantly agrees to send him some masons. Later, getting a ride in Hodor’s backpack, he spies a red comet in the sky. His Wildling nanny Osha (who looks like she’s had a bath since last season … a bath) says a red comet can only mean one thing: Dragons! Which for us viewers, can only mean one thing: A transition to Dany!

The Red Waste: Young Dany is in bad shape. There’s not much left of her warrior tribe. She’s got three dragons, but doesn’t know how to feed them. She’s wandering a desert known as The Red Waste (which, along with Shagga Likes Axes and Making the Eight, is another awesome potential Game of Thrones band name).

Ser Jorah Mormont — a grizzled exiled knight/Barely Legal subscriber — notes this is the “furthest east I’ve ever bean.” Dany is too exhausted to correct his pronunciation. At least she has a rather cool armored shoulder guard for carrying her dragons like they’re evil parrots. Plus, she picked up a handy set of Pier 1 dragon baskets. Now, I’m not sure dragons need to be protected from the sun, but it sure does protect Thrones from having to spend thousands of dollars on CGI every time we visit Dany’s story. She sends out bloodriders in every direction in hopes of finding shelter.

Next we comet-transition from the fire of the desert to…

North of the Wall: … the ice of the white waste. Jon Snow and his Night’s Watch brethren arrive at a grim homestead run by a character named Craster. “I was born in a house like this, later I fell on hard times,” notes one character, proving wealth is truly a matter of perspective.

Inside, we’re introduced to an insane variation on Midwest farmer’s-daughter jokes. Craster has 19 daughters. They’re also his wives. Sons are … we don’t know what happens to the sons yet. Yup, it’s 20 minutes into the second season and we have a new incest storyline!

The Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch and Craster talk strategy, but we’re barely listening because we’re watching Jon look at all the haunted faces in the rafters, each doubtless wondering if they’ll win or lose the Craster lotto that evening. Craster calls one of the women “wife” rather than use her name, and you wonder if that ever gets confusing for them.

Quicker than you can say Chinatown, Craster senses Jon Snow’s disapproval and lashes out at him. He accuses the Nights Watch of being jealous. He threatens to cut off their hands if they dare touch his harem. “You chose the path with no one but boys on it,” he taunts, which is just … maddening.

“Your roof, your rules,” assures the Commander, as if Craster is just a dad who sets an 8 p.m. curfew on weeknights instead of running an inbred shack of molestation and murder. Seriously, couldn’t the Night’s Watch just kill Craster? Then they could turn the homestead over to his daughters, or station a couple Night’s Watchmen there to manage things while — hey, look, a comet!

NEXT: The wicked witch of the South; Jaime Lannister, right where you want him

Dragonstone: Let’s break this scene down for those who haven’t read the novel, because you’re just plunged into the action here: We’re on an island not too far from King’s Landing that’s ruled by Stannis Baratheon, the rightful heir to the Iron Throne and King Robert Baratheon’s brother. This is the same guy Ned Stark r-mailed near the end of season one and told him that Joffrey was secretly the illegitimate incestuous offspring of Cersei and Jaime.

The gray-bearded balding guy is Davos Seaworth (who I always sort of pictured as a little younger and more roguish). Davos used to be a legendary smuggler who could, like, make the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs. He now serves Stannis and is sometimes called The Onion Knight (long story, produce related).

That mysterious MILF redhead is Melisandre, a religious zealot who worships R’hllor (don’t worry, you don’t have to pronounce it), a god who’s frequently referred to as the “Lord of Light.” Melisandre believes Stannis is bound for greatness as some kind of religious holy warrior. But Stannis is not religious. He just wants the Iron Throne and believes Melisandre’s powers can help him get it.

Even before they go after Joffrey, however, Stannis must first contend with his younger brother Renly, who fled King’s Landing last season when the Lannisters got all head-spiky. Renly has a formidable army and wants the throne too.

So after a beach party where the old religious idols are being burned, we get a perfect introduction of Stannis’ rule-following character: Having him copyedit a letter. He objects to addressing Robert as “beloved brother” (“I did not love him”), insists Jaimie should be called the derogatory title “kingslayer,” but also demands that Jaime is respectfully addressed as “Ser” (“He’s still a knight”). Stannis also decides to send out a bunch of letters telling all the lords of Westeros that Joffrey is illegitimate.

Then, Stannis’ old maester foolishly tries to kill Melisandre. He’s the clumsiest assassin ever. He drinks his poisoned wine first to prove it’s safe, then starts hemorrhaging almost immediately. She drinks some anyway to prove just how cool she is. She doesn’t drop to one knee and Tebow, but she might as well.

Are there any comets around? Because we need to transition to…

Stark Camp: Jaimie Lannister is held captive in a big cage. He’s wearing a collar and his leather outfit. This might be a fun season for all you S&M-loving Kingslayer fans. We learn Robb is dragging Jaime from camp to camp as he wins battle after battle. Robb has also figured out the Original Sin that sparked this whole mess: That Jaime is sleeping with Cersei and tried to kill Robb’s younger brother Bran to keep the secret. He brings in his direwolf to menace his prisoner.

OK, while Dany’s dragon looked awesome just like last season, the wolf was not feeling all … there. By taking a regular wolf and making it bigger, the direwolf does look like a real animal rather than some fake CGI creation. The problem is everybody knows how big a wolf really is. So seeing it enlarged next to an actor just looks … odd, like a funhouse mirror, an optical effect. Let me know what you think in the comments (but don’t go to comments yet, there’s fun stuff on the next page).

Robb makes two key decisions: To send his ward Theon Greyjoy home to ask his father for help fighting the Lannisters, and to send his mom to broker a pact with Renly.

NEXT: Shae is back; The Hunger Thrones

King’s Landing: Hey, are we actually visiting a location for a second time? Crazy! We meet up with “Shae the Funny Whore,” who’s getting settled with Tyrion. We learn he’s going to keep Shae in the city despite his father’s order to leave her behind. She loves the odors of the city, and lists them as the smell of crap, dead bodies, semen, garlic and rum. Ugh. Remind me never to buy potpourri from King’s Landing.

Courtyard: Cersei calls over Littlefinger for a chat. She wants him to find young Arya Stark, something that Littlefinger feels isn’t his job. He’s like the FBI, while Varys is more CIA. She notices that Littlefinger, who’s not a member of a Great House, has crafted his own sigil, like he’s a Stark or Lannister or something. His sigil is a …. a …

A mockingbird pin! Could the crafty urbane Littlefinger be the Thrones version of Cenna?

Heck, it’s close enough to a mockingjay for me. And I certainly wouldn’t put it past Joffrey to stage a Westeros edition of The Hunger Games for his next nameday party. So what if Joffrey does capture Arya and tries to put her into his twisted competition? Why, her older sister Sansa might grow a backbone and declare that she volunteers, she volunteers as tribute! Unlike some Katnisses out there, she’d at least be close to the right age. Then crafty drunken Tyrion can be Haymitch, and Cersei can be Effie Trinket. What do you think–

What? … No?

Later: Joffrey is remodeling the Throne Room. I’m excited to see what Joffrey’s decorations look like. I’m picturing Third Reich-meets-Marquis de Sade. Stannis’ revelation of Joffrey’s parentage has reached him (though you have to wonder how Joffrey found out … I mean, who would dare tell him that rumor?). And Joffrey’s worried. Not because he thinks the rumors are true — he has way too high an opinion of himself to entertain the idea that he might not be the rightful king. He’s concerned that if enough people believe the rumor, that one of his father’s bastards might be used by his enemies as a figurehead with a better claim to the throne. Naturally, he’s as insulting as possible to his mother when asking about this. She smacks him.

“What you just did is punishable by death,” Joffrey warns, “you’ll never do it again.” She must be really bummed she can’t hit him anymore and we are too. We had Tyrion slap Joffrey in season 1, now Cersei in tonight’s premiere. If only every season of Thrones could start with somebody hitting Joffrey. But now we might never get another satisfying Joffrey bitch-slap scene. Does this occasion call for another gif to be created?

Brothel: We get the briefest of sex scenes (you’re slipping, Thrones!) and learn that Ros is helping manage the prostitutes now. Enter: Janos Slynt and the Goldcloaks (okay, that’s yet another great band name). They’re basically the King’s Landing police force. They want King Robert’s bastard infant, who’s being raised in a place that was surely going to leave the kid messed up for life anyway. Somebody is ordering a King Herod here.

I’m torn between admiring the Thrones team for finding some heavy emotional drama in a story thread that was merely hinted at in the book and being pretty disturbed by the choice.  The first Thrones premiere concluded with Bran being crippled, this one is going for infanticide (Spartacus, btw, beat Thrones to the punch with its finale Friday. Baby killing, it’s the new incest. Great minds…). All over King’s Landing, black-haired bastards are being murdered. Robert apparently was a busy man…

FINALLY: Arya on the move! Links and comment warning…

The Kingsroad: And finally we cut to young blacksmith Gendry en route to Castle Black. He’s one of Robert’s bastards too. And he’s traveling with … Arya.

Whew! That episode was packed. And yet, since there are so many storylines, it felt like things barely got started and then the hour was already over. I know, it’s going to be such a long wait until next week’s episode, right? Until then you can check out our in-depth Q&A with the Thrones showrunners about the new season, and be sure to check the Inside TV blog Tuesday for the Thrones ratings (prediction: up … a lot).

Now, to the comments. I really want to hear what you thought of the premiere. And I know there’s many more Thrones viewers who have read Martin’s books this year (more than 8 million copies sold in 2011, don’t ya know). BUT please keep in mind, EW’s Thrones recap comments is a spoiler-free zone. You know who would post spoilers in a Thrones TV recap? Joffrey, that’s who. Don’t be like Joffrey!

So until next week, may the whores be ever in your favor!

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UPDATE: Somebody made a Cersei slaps Joffrey gif.

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HBO’s epic fantasy drama based on George R.R. Martin's novel series A Song of Ice and Fire.
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