THIS WEEK on Game of Thrones: “The North Remembers”

A long, nine-month wait for the return of Game of Thrones ended with maces and shields smashing together with glorious clamour.  All for the entertainment of a boy-king absolutely drunk with the power of the Iron Throne sitting patiently under his lanky, undeserving rear.   Patiently, in wait, for numerous contenders ready to raze the world for a chance at it.

An opening image is everything in the cinematic art, even for an episode, or better still a season of television.   What does the Hound’s crushing defeat of another soldier tell us about this new season to come?   What tone does this scene set for the year?

Bloody fucking contest.   Orchestrated violence.   Unequal rivals set against one another.   The paramount nature of power?   A king getting whatever he wants, no matter how he laid claim to the crown.

Littlefinger reminded our good Eddard Stark last year that succession hardly mattered, when Ned pushed for Stannis to claim his elder brother’s throne.   After all, Robert took it with Ned’s help by taking it by force from the Mad King.   Right, wrong, whatever it was, it was Robert’s throne, and he knew it, even if he bankrupted the realm, and whored and drank his way to an early grave proving it.

Power!  A lesson not lost on Joffrey, who writers Weiss and Benioff remind us quickly with their opening scene, is enraptured by power and misusing it grossly.   And that he should be justly hated for it.

More importantly, the source of that power, the Iron Throne, is the grail every force in Westeros and beyond is fighting for.   This scene reminds us what that throne can do to someone, and why everyone’s fucking driven to wrest it from Joffrey and the Lannister clan — either for themselves, or to prevent this new, young, callous monster from becoming another Aerys Targaryen.

Cersei, the Queen Regent, first lost control of her monstrous offspring when he called for Ned Stark’s head.   That beat repeated itself deep in Sunday’s premiere, when she dared slap her son for his evolved and expressed tone, his rebellion and his vehemence for the threat of losing his great new power.

You could see it in her eyes; it was like watching Dr. Frankenstein gaze with new horror and even fear at the terror he’d brought into the world.

It didn’t matter; the King got what he wanted, in a wonderfully horrifying scene only hinted at in the book that this season draws from as source material, A Clash of Kings.

Daddy had a horde of bastard sons?   End them.   They don’t have a right to the throne by the laws of the land, but end them anyway.   Their existence diminishes mine!   And then, every black-haired child that matched the right description was cut down, pulled from mothers’ breasts, or marked for death.

Gendry, the armorsmith’s apprentice sent with Arya to the Night’s Watch is suddenly imbued with chilling new importance in a closing scene that capped the night neatly.   Joff wants his head along with all the others; and a king gets what he wants.   Right?   Nine more episodes for a chance at finding out.

What else does Boy-King Joffrey have in our opening scene?   A continued and demonstrated talent for making enemies.

Sansa?   Check.   Now trained with clockwork ‘Yes Your Grace’-isms and rehearsed speechifying on her ‘traitorous’ family to mask her true, hidden feelings.   Hopefully, feelings that will motivate the broken girl — whose face still looks battered with emotion — to act in ways no one else can.

By some bizarre metrics, she’s the Stark with the most freedom; not bound to a battlefield like her mother and brother, not bound to a veritable death sentence and loss of identity like Arya, and certainly not bound to death itself like her father.   As the cherry on top, she’s within striking distance of the head of the snake; she almost acted on it last year when she saw a chance to shove Joffrey off a bridge to his death within sight of the lifeless head of her own father.

Ser Dontos?   Check.   Nothing like being publicly humiliated by a child playing at kingship to build some animosity in a man, no matter how unkempt and drunk.   ‘And you milady, thank you’ he adds, to Sansa, who just promoted him from death row to King’s Fool in the court.   At least Sansa will have another ally to connect with now, since the awkward and tense connection she seems to have with the Hound doesn’t resemble a bond just yet.  Also, Dontos is the realm’s Captain America.  Check the color scheme and call me a liar!  I dare you. SEVEN HELLS.

Tyrion, the new Hand of the King?   Check.   But that one was checked off a year ago when good Tyrion issued the slap to his nephew seen around the world.  Watch how Tyrion knocks Joff down within seconds, noting aloud the child’s absence from the battlefield and mocking the violent games he holds as a ‘worthy’ way to rule the Seven Kingdoms.   Watch further, as Tyrion knowingly sees the pain in Sansa’s rehearsed response, and doesn’t push further.

Joffrey has a net of enemies stitching itself together around him, and his own family constitutes half of it.

And if there’s one last powerful statement we can take from this opening scene, it’s for fans of the books.   This isn’t how A Clash of Kings opened.   The prologue that began the second of Martin’s books was incorporated into a scene at new show locale Dragonstone which appeared later in the episode.   It’s a clear message from the HBO series’ producers and writers that this show can be, and in many ways is already its own beast.

As the books grow in size and complexity, the process of adaptation becomes burdensomely massive and challenging.   I’ll throw my support strongly behind the show finding its own identity.   Scene rearrangements are hopefully just the first step in making sure these shows are as compelling and well-executed as (at least some of) their source material.

Storytelling economy, flow and execution were the real matter of interest on Sunday night.   “The North Remembers” exhibited a stronger sense of flow than most episodes in the series to date.

Anchoring disparate scenes together:   the haunting red comet that streaks the sky; meaning different things to different people, cultures and places, it still hangs the same over every land in Westeros and Essos.

Something had to powerfully connect the immense number of scenes that barely repeated a single character’s appearance for over half the episode.   It was easy to be confused even as a reader of the books; I can only imagine how disorienting the episode was to a new viewer.

This premiere’s job, like most premieres was threefold:

  1. Re-establish the world and drama we’ve been away from for nearly a year.
  2. Lay out the foundations for new stories for the season to come.
  3. Keep audiences interested by maintaining one central theme to bind the show together and function as a through-line.

Those jobs are a fucking mountain of work with a cast and series of settings this enormous.   The result was an hour that was slow and steady, very much a breather after the intensity of season one’s numerous climaxes, and a necessary foundation to lay story threads out for the coming season.

If you missed it, the through-line theme is power.   It’s always been power.   Watching everyone exercise it, plan for it, and fight for it.

Tyrion flexes newfound muscle with style; we love him because he seems to hate his family almost as much as we do.   He’s the new Hand and it wouldn’t be Tyrion unless he waltzed in to announce it….unannounced.   All the power for the rest of the scene is in his hand, not Cersei’s.

Tywin wants to reign in his daughter’s laid-back attitude toward Joff’s reckless rule.   Tyrion wants her humiliated in the eyes of their father so that at last his ‘crime’ of being born might be exonerated.   And Joff just wants to fucking play so leave me the fuck alone, Mom!   What’s a girl to do?

Flex some muscle of her own on an unsuspecting Petyr Baelish.   Oh, I had fun watching the internet nerds rage over this scene.   My addled brain couldn’t remember if this one was lifted from the text, but it seems it wasn’t, and was manufactured for the show.   Even if “Power is Power” might have made everyone cringe just a little, there’s one truth in it — Cersei and the rest of her lions will bite, claw and roar at everyone that comes at them with the gall Littlefinger did.

Petyr had some decent ammo, as always; the difference is, everyone has it now, thanks to an immense parting shot from Dead Ned that cascaded out to every corner of the Seven Kingdoms, courtesy of newcomer, Stannis Baratheon.

Let’s classify the characters at Dragonstone as new, unaccounted-for powers.   Nothing really cements that more than the intense visual shift for Dragonstone scenes; we haven’t seen anything quite this dark, fiery or hellish in any setting in Westeros to date.

Melisandre doesn’t look like any woman on the show, noble or lowborn.   Unknown quantities!   Exciting!  And she’s unmistakably the center of power in every scene she’s in.

The first scene at Dragonstone was understandably confusing to new viewers; allow me some summary and narration here to set the stage and explain why the red lady matters:

Dragonstone, the island and ancient keep not terribly far from King’s Landing, is the province of Stannis Baratheon, given to him to hold by his brother Robert after the war against the Mad King Aerys.   This is its own community or city-state, much like Winterfell’s Keep, or Riverrun or even Castle Black.   The difference is, there’s an outsider here.   Guess who it is.

Melisandre has rallied Dragonstone to a ritual in this first crucial scene; the statues being burned are effigies of the Seven, the ‘new’ gods kept by most of the Southerners in Westeros.   Every time you’ve heard a character invoke the ‘Mother’ on the show, they were referring to one of the Seven.   The easiest way to think of the Seven is as a seven-pointed version of the Holy Trinity in Christianity.   Seven faces of one god, or seven iterations of god working in unison; it’s all rather vague and just a matter of interest for now.

Men from the East, the Andals, brought that religion with them.   They supplanted the religion of the First Men in Westeros, and their belief in the Old Gods.   The Heart Trees or Weirwoods with the ghastly faces you’ve seen Ned and Jon Snow praying to are symbols of that old faith.   It’s still kicking around in the north, but its strength is diminishing in Westeros.

Enter Melisandre and her new god, the ‘Lord of Light’ she calls it in ritual.   She is a new force (from where, unclear) and is converting Dragonstone and Stannis in a cleansing fire.   The old man that races up the coast to try and stop them is wearing Maester’s chains, and is essentially a priest of the Seven like the other maesters we’ve met.

Stannis seems fully converted here, much to the maester’s frustration.   He appeals to Davos, another new character, and someone worthy enough to sit ‘King’ Stannis’ council in the next scene.   The maester asks him to tell Stannis the truth.   Davos asks, “What’s the truth?”   Which gods matter?   This monotheistic faith or the old or new gods?   Which king is the one everyone should bend the knee to?   The son?   The brother?   The conqueror?   The written heir?   What’s the truth?

Right now, the truth is that Melisandre, the red lady, has all the power in these two scenes.   She has supplanted the old religions at Dragonstone, pulls Stannis’ strings on the council, and exhibits a supernatural dominance when she imbibes the maester’s poisoned cup of wine and survives.   The maester falls, she invokes the Lord of Light’s fire, and her fiery red choker glows with unmistakable intensity.

This is the power Stannis has in his corner.   Oh, and just one little piece of juicy gossip from Ned Stark as well.

At the halfway point in the premiere, when Stannis has the letter penned that outs Cersei and Jaime’s incest (note how shrewdly he pores over the specifics in the letter; it’s Ser Jaime, and fuck all to sentimentality and ‘brotherly love’), he sets in motion the engine for almost every other scene to come in the episode.

Robb’s great power over Jaime, standing astride an immense and well-realized CG Grey Wind — Robb’s dire wolf — is complemented by Stannis’ slanderous letter.   Robb slots every piece of the puzzle into place with this knowledge, and makes sure Jaime gets to agonize over his plans while rotting in his cell.

Baelish tries to flex Stannis’ information against the Queen, but fails to properly intimidate the lioness.   And of course, Joffrey uses rumor of Uncle Stannis’ letter to get the closing shot against his mother before the episode runs out.   The implied slap he verbally issues her rings louder than any hand she doles out to him.

The Lannister secret is out, and everyone is quick to believe it, as they should.   The closing scenes of the episode should demonstrate just how much Joffrey and his court will over-extend themselves to try and either cover it up or deny it.

What good’s the power now if everyone wants you dead for it?


Closing points, and a quick touch-base for other characters:

–  Cinematography: The camera rarely trains solely on spectacle; when Grey Wind is gnashing at Jaime’s face, the focus is on Jaime’s face, showing masked terror on his handsome mug for the first time.   This isn’t a blockbuster where getting the most out of every Grey Wind shot matters; his jaws are secondary to the shot, and we get every bit squeezed out of Jaime that we need in that scene.

–  The Power of Repetition and Differentiation:  See the three stills below.  A servant armed with slop bucket and rag enters to wipe clean the extraordinary smear of blood left behind by the Hound’s victim.   When Petyr walks the same lower court later in the episode, that servant’s still scrubbing away, on the opposite side of a grand pillar.   And by scene’s end, when Littlefinger knows Cersei can put a dagger through him on a whim, there isn’t anything between him and the servant.   They’re in the same visual space now.   They exchange a glance, and Petyr knows just how easily he could become the next smear of blood to wipe down.


–  CG Maturity:   Sure, we’re looking forward to seeing the dragons and the dire wolves fully-realized.   But thankfully, owing both to budget constraints and a more refined camera eye, they aren’t onscreen merely for unnecessary wow-factor (we’ll leave the brothel scenes for that).   One drake sits on Dany’s shoulder for just a moment, just to remind us that the show’s got them around.   And when she puts him away in a cage, we don’t focus on the drake for long — other shit’s happening.   The CG is married into the scene instead of becoming the spectacle.   Mark two in the column for the use of Grey Wind against Jaime, as noted above.

–  HBO and Dem Titties:   Roz the Whore, a character manufactured for the show (happy to receive a correction on that if I’m wrong) instructing new talent at Petyr’s Brothel.   Thanks HBO, gotta cram something in there for me to race to lower the volume.   Naturally, we had to revisit the brothel to get to the first and most powerful of the bastard murders, but was that opener to the scene necessary?   In a show where time economy is becoming so fucking crucial, we gotta burn a minute on that?


–  Arya and The Art of Payoff:   Arya is remembered and mentioned numerous times throughout the episode.   Everyone’s just itching to get to her scene.   Book fans doubtless have their reasons for being extremely excited to see her story.   And then, the hour passes as deft foreplay before building us to a place in the plot where one, wordless shot of the girl and her predicament says more than any dialogue-burdened scene could.   The premiere couldn’t have asked for a better ending.


– The Distant North:   We meet our first Wilding ‘stronghold’.   Which is a house with one old dude, Craster, who beds numerous wives, has daughters, beds the daughters, and keeps it all going like some European basement horror story from the 2000’s.   Book readers sound out with me; dude’s way too clean-cut and well-shaven, right?   I imagined someone far filthier and unpleasing to the eye for Craster.   The only other point that really matters here for now is Mormont reminding us that he’s grooming Jon for leadership and needs the kid to smarten up.   At least while they attempt to handle Craster diplomatically.


–  The Distant East:   Fuck me sideways, if this wasn’t a beautiful, glorious shot of the Red Wastes that Dany and her waning khalasar are wandering through.   For this week at least, that’s all that scene really had to give us; Dany and the dragons are still around.   Stay tuned for more.

–  The Distant…Dream?:   What’s up with Bran!   We knew his dreams and visions were going somewhere, but this is a fun new direction.   Do all dire wolves and their owners share this connection, or is Bran special?

–  Mixing the Epic and the Mundane:   Baelish?  Could be a smear on the ground next week.   Dany’s Silver horse, the stunning gift from Drogo?   Yeah, dehydration’s a bitch.   Bran, a new magical power, this world’s animagus (#harrypotter)?   Spine’s still shattered.   Poor kid still needs a couple of brutes to get around.


– Details = Sex:  Stannis’ council table at Dragonstone, a marvelous detail kept intact from Clash;  a replica map of Westeros with Stannis at the head, crowning it.  Glorious.

– Winter is Coming:  The Starks are always right eventually; the long summer is declared at an end, and this much, all the faiths agree on, from the chief Maester at King’s Landing, to Melisandre at Dragonstone.

–  Next Week:   Without even taking a gander at the preview, I’ve gotta surmise from this episode that Renly is a box that needs checking next week, and Robb’s sent his mother to parlay with him.  Robb’s sent ‘peace’ terms that the Lannisters will probably vomit at the sound of; kid might be getting a little overzealous in his sexy new confidence.  Arya will almost assuredly take center-stage at last.   Theon wants Robb to take on his father Balon Greyjoy as an ally, which is fraught with a million issues.   Cat shits on that idea instantly, so we’re sure to have some incoming drama there.   And Dany’s sent her riders out in all directions; surely she’ll find something interesting out there?   Or something interesting will find her.   And her drakes.


Hope you kids enjoyed taking a look at the return of one of last year’s best shows.   Look for more on Game of Thrones every week on Omega-Level, and sound out in the comments below to talk about this episode!

Budrickton, First of His Name, Warden of the Actual North (Canada)