TV REVIEW: Game of Thrones, Episodes 1 & 2

The first season of Game of Thrones, based on George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, was a massive hit both here and across the pond, delighting us with courtly intrigue, battles of wits, violence, drama and, being HBO, copious amounts of gratuitous sex. It feels like it has been a very long wait since Westeros last graced our scenes but if the opening episodes are anything to go by, it's like we never really left. As always, here be spoilers... and dragons.

Episode One: The North Remembers:

Because the end of the first season saw more twists and turns than a twisty-turny thing, The North Remembers is clearly about getting you back into the goings-on of the Seven Kingdoms and reintroducing you to the characters you love and loathe. Thankfully, this didn't reduce the episode into an hour of exposition but was more akin to watching a manoeuvre being carefully planned in a game of chess (or cyvasse if you're familiar with the Westeros version). The audience was moved from piece to piece, carefully establishing where the fallout from last season, namely the execution of Ned Stark, had left the various characters.

First of all to King's Landing where we see evil-incarnate, King Joffrey, demonstrating just why it probably isn't good to be on the wrong side of him. Through a series of humiliations and mood swings, it's brought back into focus just why we're meant to hate Joffrey. With a fiery, fiery passion. Poor Sansa Stark is still stuck in King's Landing, and still betrothed to the blonde-haired demon, but has clearly been learning how to play the game, successfully manipulating Joffrey into letting someone live who was about to have his head impaled on a spike. I cannot praise Jack Gleeson's performance enough as Joffrey; he really is quite terrifying and unpredictable, and that's coming from someone who has read the books. Simiarly, Sophie Turner's Sansa is granted layers beyond the stroppy teenage girl that she was for most of the first season.

We also get re-introduced to the Small Council, the men responsible for much of the politics and manipulation that goes on around King's Landing. The newest addition, Tyrion Lannister (played by Emmy award-winning Peter Dinklage) is naturally going to shake things up and, as the most interesting character in all of Westeros, I'm not ashamed to admit I cheered when he took on Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) and won. Elsewhere in one of the standout scenes of the episode, Littlefinger (Aiden Gillen), is shaken up by Cersei after he insinuates that he is aware of Joffrey's questionable parentage and that he is quite prepared to use this against her should she step out of line. The only King's Landing moment to beat this one though had to be the confrontation between Cersei and Joffrey in which there is just a flicker of emotion across Headey's face as Cersei realises what a monster she has created.

The episode also brings the audience into the War of the Five Kings, still raging since the first season and showing no signs of slowing down. Robb Stark (Richard Madden), declared the King in the North, and defeating Lannisters left, right and centre, is the most dangerous of the bunch currently. Having captured Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) in Season One, he's currently enjoying taunting him with his wins and his direwolf, Grey Wind, snarly in CGI. Then there's Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane), the direct heir to the throne, beginning to make a move. The scenes at Dragonstone were somewhat stolen by Carice Van Houten in her performance as the Lady Melisandre, which was suitably chilling.

The outskirts of the show's geography have always struck me as the safer places for characters to be, away from the snake pit of King's Landing and the violence of the wars. That doesn't necessarily mean they're out of danger though. Across the Narrow Sea, we're given a first glimpse of the dragons since Season One as Dany (Emilia Clarke) and the remains of her Dothraki khalasar travel off in search of armies to boost her campaign to reclaim her throne in Westeros. But Dany is losing people to thirst and hunger, lacking the supplies to make the trip. Meanwhile, beyond the Wall, Jon Snow (Kit Harington) is journeying further into the most dangerous place in Westeros, the unmapped north, in which all manner of nasties are waiting to travel South.

What is perhaps most impressive about the first episode is the confidence with which the show takes us through all these various storylines, never really stopping to allow the audience to breathe. Instead of ramping up the narrative and pushing ahead into the meatier storylines, we're allowed to get re-acquainted with the characters and the locations. Also, there are more of the genre elements moving into view, rather than hiding in the background as they did in the first season, such as the dragons for example, and the magic side of things that Melisandre's introduction brings with it. Now that the audience is in place, both fans of the books and those just of the TV show, it's allowing the producers to really ramp up the fantasy without turning people off the story.

Episode Two: The Night Lands:

The audience didn't need any further proof of Joffrey's evil nature, but now it seems that the rest of Westeros is cottoning on, particularly the residents of King's Landing who are still reeling from the murder of King Robert's bastards. In his capacity as the King's Hand, Tyrion has begun making changes and is not winning any favours with his sister, Cersei. Meanwhile, the War of the Five Kings continues with Stannis and Melisandre making their alliance physical. Up beyond the Wall, Jon is forced to make a decision about one of Craster's many wives that causes a rift with best friend Sam while continuing his confrontation with Craster himself. Then there's Arya, only glimpsed briefly last week, given more scenes with Robert's bastard Gendry (who doesn't know who his father is) and continuing her journey north to the Wall.

One of the key developments in this episode is Theon Greyjoy's trip home. The Iron Islands always seem to be the most depressing place in the whole of George R.R. Martin's universe and as always, the show didn't disappoint in its portrayal. Everything is damp, clammy and not quite friendly, as Theon discovers upon his return. It also allows the series to return to one of its creepiest elements, that of incest, with Yara, Theon's sister, deceiving her brother while he indulges in some inappropriate groping. I'm glad that the series is devoting time to this storyline as it becomes one of the most interesting in the books, especially when Theon learns of his father's ambitions of stirring up rebellion... again.

As always, the performances in the episode are fantastic, each cast member filling out their role brilliantly no matter how small the part. I especially enjoyed the scenes with Arya and Gendry as it is one of the nicest relationships in the books and Maisie Williams and Joe Dempsie have done a great job of portraying it. I've been a fan of Dempsie since his scene-stealing role as Chris in Skins and it's good to see him doing the same in another series. The moment in which he reveals he knows Arya's secret and promises to keep it was just lovely. And it's not very often you can say that about Game of Thrones. That being said, it was of course Peter Dinklage who stole the show completely with his re-assigning of Janos Slynt and the rearrangement of the City Watch. Him and Jerome Flynn, as sellsword Bronn, make a great double act and I look forward to the rest of the series if those two keep getting moments like this.

The writing of this series so far has been a real highlight; whether it's journeying with Dany across the Narrow Sea or discovering what Littlefinger is up to in King's Landing, I never felt short-changed with the scenes given. Even the smallest scenes are of the greatest importance and, with an epic like this, it's even more important to keep everyone engaged with every single narrative taking place and they're doing a sterling job in this respect. I have my favourite characters, as you'll probably discover over the course of these reviews, and I'm sure most of the audience do as well. But it's good to see a show that is more concerned with the overall narrative than making sure the favourites shine brighter. Another slow-paced episode this week, but there's so much going on in Westeros that I don't think you ever notice it at the time.

Roll on next week.

- Becky

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