Game of Thrones returns to HBO this Sunday, and at last our burning questions will be answered. For some of us, those questions include, "What happens next to Arya and Sansa in the wake of their father's death?" For others of us, they're more like, "How can a television show possibly capture everything that happens in George R.R. Martin's A Clash of Kings?" Either way, we're happy to tell you that we've seen the first four episodes of the season, and we don't think you'll be disappointed.
We've seen the first four episodes, and here's our spoiler-free preview of Game of Thrones season two.
And as usual with our spoiler-free previews, we really do mean spoiler-free... we're assuming you've seen Game of Thrones season one, but there are no plot details about what happens in season two or A Clash of Kings below.
It really is an epic
We've been wondering how this TV show could possibly include the huge cast of characters and wealth of incident that Martin crams into the second book of A Song of Ice And Fire. And indeed, the first episode does jump around in a way that might give you whiplash — we visit a whole slew of subplots one after the other, and they barely seem to interact with each other at first. I was left wondering, in places, whether people who hadn't read the book would know what to make of some of the new storylines.
But the relentless pacing does pay off, eventually, as we start to get a complete picture of the sweep of the war that's engulfing Westeros. The following episodes feel a lot more coherent, partly because some subplots are placed on the back burner and partly because the show does a great job of showing how everything connects up. And one of Martin's central concerns in the series — the way in which war affects ordinary people who are caught up in the struggles of nobles and leaders — shines through again and again, in many scenes that are both horrifying and thought-provoking.
Also, you have to admire the deft job the show's makers have done of condensing and combining scenes, to the point where characters seem to be colliding a bit more than in the books. There are some very well-choreographed sequences that manage to cover a lot of ground and handle a bunch of incidents all at once.
And even if you do end up having to rewatch some episodes a couple times to pick up on everything that's happened, it'll be a pleasurable task — this show really is rewarding close attention, and the zingy dialogue and attention to minor characters that made the first season such a stand-out are very much in evidence again. This show really is pulling off "epic" in a way that's never been done before.
The heartbreak doesn't stop
The death of Ned Stark hangs over this season like a shroud, and people refer back to it over and over again. It's one of the lodestones that all the events revolve around, and it comes back in ways you might not necessarily expect. But also, in keeping with the wartime theme, we're confronted with heartbreak and loss over and over again. Death is all around, and the show makes us feel it, and the effect it has on all the people around it.
It's much more dystopian.
Sure, season one wasn't exactly a basket of kittens. But season two is much more horrifying — there's less sex and more brutality this time, although the "sexposition" is definitely back in a few places. This time, it's clearly a world where wicked people often prosper, and good people are often killed or ground into the dirt. A lot of this comes from the book, but there's also a lot of casual brutality, and the show lingers on some bloody, horrifying sights here and there. Not only that, but there's a relentless pragmatism to all of it — we see good people tolerating or supporting foul situations, because the greater good demands it. It's not just that the Seven Kingdoms are at war, it's that life is harsh everywhere, and casual cruelty is the norm. When we do see someone try to do the right thing or make a difference in the world, he or she usually winds up paying a horrible price. Oh, and the gender politics get even more fascinating, as we get more examples of women being terribly victimized — as well as women being strong leaders and fighters, in spite of the scorn that's tossed at them.
A lot is resting on Peter Dinklage's shoulders.
Because of the aforementioned juggling of a million subplots, Tyrion still has to share screen time with a ton of other characters. But he's clearly the show's leading character now, and Peter Dinklage has top billing now that Sean Bean is gone. And without giving anything away, Tyrion gets a lot of the coolest moments in the first four episodes, on a par with your favorite Tyrion scenes in season one. Now that Tyrion has clearly been anointed as a fan-favorite character, just as he was in the books, he's like a spark of brightness in the midst of otherwise terrible gloom — both because of his sense of humor, and because of his strength of character. He's one of the most fascinating characters on television, and in season two he goes to town.
Dinklage is being asked to carry a lot of the show's humor and warmth, with a lot of the real standout scenes in these opening episodes — and he mostly pulls it off. Mostly. There were a few moments where I felt like the show might be asking too much of the awesome powers of Peter Dinklage, and a few of his "hero" scenes fell just a tad short of convincing me. But he's still immense fun to watch.
Fans of A Clash of Kings will notice a few delightfully clever changes
Again, without giving anything away... none of the changes I noticed bothered me, and some of them made a lot of sense, especially with the limited running time and resources. Some of the relationships between the characters are quite different, and also a few new coincidences and connections are introduced that may pay off wonderfully down the line. Also, the decision in season one to foreground the sexual relationship between Renly Baratheon and Loras Tyrrell inevitably means a lot of fascinating new elements are introduced to Renly's story in season two, and it makes his character infinitely more interesting.
We called Game of Thrones season one an astounding achievement — and this continues to be true in season two. This show is continuing to redefine what's possible on television. Some of the leaping around from subplot to subplot may get a bit dizzying, but you see pretty quickly how it's going to pay off, and the show is continuing to do a great job of developing minor characters and strengthening the connections between them. Most of all, this is a great political epic, in which the nature of power and government is questioned, over and over again, and it's left to the audience to come up with its own disquieting answers.