Last week, I enjoyed the kind of fortune that peasants residing in a Joffrey-led King's Landing will never possess: I watched the first four episodes of Game of Thrones, writing an advanced season two review in which I marveled at how this sweeping epic has incorporated new characters, while still upping the ante for our returning favorites.
Now, let's dig in specifically to "The North Remembers, an episode that reminded us that the night is dark and full of terrors...
Often, when a series kills off a major character, it does so for the sake of shock value. The Internet explodes in outrage, water cooler discussions grow heated, many fans decree they are never watching again... and then life pretty much returns to normal.
But Ned Stark would be proud to know he did not die in vain. Quite the opposite, in fact, as the most startling development from season one informs every move and every decision we see on the premiere of season two.
The fallout of Stark's beheading is made clear both in action and in words, with Tyrion laying into his sister (what is it like to be the disappointing child?) for allowing Joffrey to rule out of emotion rather than reason. The kingdom is now in danger not so much due to Cersei's sordid, naked deeds (foul, Sam might call them) with Jaime, but due to the childish decisions of her son.
What can the Lannisters even offer the Starks now to quiet this revolution? Ned is dead. Arya is missing. Joffrey would kill his mother before he'd give up Sansa.
Indeed, when that axe came down across Ned's neck, it served as the opening whistle to the true game of thrones. And players from across the seven kingdoms heard its blow.
Robb - sorry, the King of the North!!! - is more confident than ever, taunting his enemy, ordering around his mother, making the sort of strategic decisions that, as Catelyn so rightfully says, would make his dad proud.
Stannis, who we meet here, is as gruff and as straightforward as they come, insisting that he never loved his brother and that Jaime be held responsible as the "King Slayer," but also acknowledging the respect his title affords him in the letter sent to all corners of Westeros. It doesn't seem like a man of his nature would rely so heavily on the Lord of Light, as brought forward by another new character, Melisandre. Stannis comes across as all business. Melisandre comes across as all... mysterious. It's far too early to judge, but the two make for an odd alliance after one episode.
(* It's important for me to stop here and say: I have not read the George R.R. Martin novels on which Game of Thrones is based. I will be writing these reviews simply as a fan of great television, meaning I may make comments or suggestions at which book readers will scoff. I ask that you do not spoil the story for others who simply know it on HBO.)
While there are plenty of new characters on the way, Game of Thrones makes the keen decision on the season opener to merely introduce these two, one of whom has been referenced before, making the addition a natural one. The bulk of "The North Remembers" is spent with the deeply-developed individuals we got to know over 10 episodes last year, and they are each in very different places.
Tyrion may not be from King's Landing, as he's quick to point out, but he's in the perfect position, both for viewers and for those around him. Peter Dinklage is more entertaining than ever here, reciting his "remarkable journey" of pissing over edge of the Wall and fighting with the hill tribes, while still doling out actual useful advice to his sister. Tyrion may be the best source of Game of Thrones quotes, but it would be a mistake not to take him seriously. This is someone who "understands people" and also - unlike the previous, late Hand of the King - understands how the game is played behind the Landing walls.
He has the potential to get a lot more done than Ned ever did. And he won't even need to put down his glass of wine to do it.
Daenerys, conversely, is not in the prime position she thought she would be in via the birth of her dragons. They are just babies. Her people are tired and weak. There appears to be no end in sight to the desert. That's all we get of her journey on the premiere, though it's important to note the Khaleesi's strength is not yet broken.
Jon Snow, meanwhile, must learn to control his strength. He's tough and he's stubborn and he believes in doing what's right, but those traits can be a weakness if they are never reigned in. Yes, in order to lead, Jon must first learn how to follow, but he also must learn how to look ahead. He and the Night's Watch have scarcely started their trek beyond The Wall, yet another self-appointed king (Mance Rayder) is way up north and who knows what creatures lie in between.
Snow must sometimes consider the bigger picture before acting, even if that means ignoring the horrible actions of a man who marries and enslaves his daughters.
How to properly lead. It's one of the ongoing themes on Game of Thrones and it's a major focus of this episode, sometimes overly - the Master Commander giving Snow this speech - and other times subtly: viewers watching as Bran receives a rational lesson in ruling, which stands in stark contrast to the petulant Joffrey, someone who wasn't exactly reared by Cersei or Robert to listen patiently to the complaints of those below him.
We also see Petyr Baelish try to exert power, thinking it's all based on knowledge, before Cersei corrects him and makes it clear that being a self-made man can only get you so far. Connections do matter. So does one's standing. And, more often than not, power is power.
And that's what everyone is seeking on Game of Thrones: the ultimate sign of power, that iron throne. It's a saga that will take us to different lands and to many different characters before the battle even truly begins. But Ned Stark is dead, the pieces are moving into place and, thankfully, the game isn't simply back. It's finally on.
NOTE: TV Fanatic will be publishing two Game of Thrones review each week, one written by yours truly, from the perspective of someone unfamiliar with the source material. And one written by Carissa Pavlica, who takes a different approach to each episode, comparing events and characters to the book on which they are based. Read her take on the season two premiere now.