S2E1: Game of Thrones knows how to do a second season premiere. After the long, aching wait to get back into Westeros, the HBO series picks up exactly as it should: with expansion.
Everything is bigger, and even more promising than it was when we left it at the incredible conclusion of Season One. We are introduced to new characters, worlds and themes, but even the returning players seem new. The battling families all feel like they’re on the upswing of adventure — Robb Stark’s war and the Lannisters’ undoing are being kindled steadily, with a very palpable feeling of ignition on the way.
“More ravishing than ever, big sister. War agrees with you.” – Tyrion Lannister
Cersei Lannister’s world is unraveling—as if conceiving a child with your twin brother, passing him off as your king husband’s son, and then killing (or trying to kill) everyone who knows your secret isn’t a failsafe plan. First off, the Small Council informs Cersei that — in case you haven’t heard — winter is coming, which means that shelter and resources are beginning to wear thin in King’s Landing. The ever generous Cersei demands that all peasants be denied entry into King’s Landing as a result.
Next, Tyrion Lannister pays Cersei and the Council a visit, instructing them that he is officially the King’s Hand in the absence of their father, Tywin — an agreement that was made in the Season One finale, as a result of Tywin’s disappointment in Jaime and Cersei. She is none too thrilled to hear this news, or to appreciate what it means about their father’s dissolving trust in her. Having to admit that she has misplaced Aria Stark — a good piece of ransom — brings further embarrassment to Cersei.
“The mockingbird. You created your own sigil, didn’t you?” – Cersei Lannister
“Yes.” – Little Finger
“Appropriate for a self-made man with so many songs to sing.” – Cersei Lannister
And then to be shown up by Little Finger — Season Two does not look to be kind to the Lannister queen. Cersei meets with Petyr Baelish, a.k.a. Little Finger (a nickname he hates, according to his top prostitute) to find out information on Aria’s escape. Instead of helping his queen out (no surprise there; Petyr is anything but reverent), he makes insinuations that he knows about the Lannister twins’ secret, informing her that “Knowledge is power,” hinting unsubtly that the publication of this information will be their undoing. Cersei overcompensates by insulting Petyr’s meager upbringing and his unrequited love for Catelyn Stark and by proving that “power is power” by instructing her guards to seize him and cut his throat to make a point. She stops them before they carry out the order, but she is confident that he gets the message. Still, to the viewer, the antic just serves to highlight Cersei’s growing desperation.
“I heard a disgusting rumor about Uncle Jaime. And you.” – King Joffrey
Worst of all, Cersei’s own son is growing insubordinate. The power has gone well beyond King Joffrey’s head. At the beginning of the episode, he celebrates his name day by nearly having a drunken man drowned to death with a barrel of wine. Queen Sansa and the king’s guard the Hound convince him to employ the drunk as his royal jester in lieu of killing him, but this brief glimmer of mercy is only driven by self-interest (Joffrey learns that it is bad luck to kill a man on your name day). The king’s narcissism is only shown to grow on this episode.
For the first time, Cersei sees the danger in what her son is becoming. When he challenges her with the rumors about Jaime being his true father, Cersei responds by slapping her son — something that makes him angry enough to threaten her with death if she ever lays a hand on him again. With Jaime still prisoner of Robb Stark, her secret steadily filtering out to everyone she knows, and her own son beginning to turn against her, Cersei is learning that her grip on world power is rapidly loosening.
“This woman will lead him into a war he cannot win.” – Ser Davos Seaworth
Of course, if this secret does get out, it will mean the end of Joffrey’s reign. The rightful heir to the throne, Stannis Baratheon, finally joins Game of Thrones, and is well-aware of Joffrey’s true lineage. However, Stannis isn’t taking action with much stealth. He is calling for his people to pledge loyalty to the true king, but refuses to team up with his younger brother Renly (who is declaring himself the rightful king) or with Robb Stark and his army.
His judgment is called into question by his knights when Stannis aligns himself with Melisandre, a zealot of the new gods who thinks that he needs nothing but their powers to win a war. Melisandre manages to kill one of Stannis’ men who aims to challenge her influence over him, and to inspire paranoia in another: Davos Seaworth. The latter maintains loyalty and quiet suspicion for now, but we should predict dissention in some form.
“You married a rebel and mothered another.” – Robb Stark
Robb Stark is faced with devising strategic negotiations and alliances. He proposes to Alton Lannister, cousin of Cersei and Jaime, an independence of Winterfell and the freedom of his younger sisters in return for the Stark army’s appeasement of the royal family’s actions. This deal is not expected to carry. Robb’s best friend and right-hand man Theon Greyjoy proposes that they request an alliance with his father, but Robb and Catelyn Stark are hesitant. Catelyn insists that the Greyjoy army is not to be trusted, as they once rebelled against King Robert and, by association, Ned Stark. But Robb reminds her that now, the Starks are the rebellion; in spirit, the Starks and the Greyjoys are the same.
The subtext of Robb’s argument with Catelyn is one of the most fascinating aspects of the premiere, and a terrific example of why Game of Thrones is much more than a fantasy series. The question posed here is whether loyalty should be applied to men, or to ideas. Philosophically, the Greyjoys who rebelled against King Robert and Ned and the Starks of present are aligned. But as men, they are enemies. Robb, a purveyor of change and progression, is opting for a loyalty to the idea of rebellion. Catelyn is reluctant, all too attached to the memories of the Greyjoys’ war against her husband.
“Stars don’t fall for men. That comet means one thing, boy: dragons.” – Osha
We don’t see a lot of Daenerys Targaryen on this episode — she and her people wander almost biblically through the torrential territory of the Red Waste, victims of exhaustion and starvation. But as they press on, Daenerys maintains hope, deriving such from the friendships of her knight Jorah Mormont and her bloodrider Rakharo. Oh, and her dragons.
Although they are weak now, the signs say that the dragons will inherit the Earth once again. After Bran — who is ruling over Winterfell in the absence of everybody else in his family (Jon Snow is still with the Watch, north of the Wall, taking up with a drunken polygamist who marries his daughters) — has another one of his psychic dreams, he has the wildling Osha lead him to a lake that he envisioned in the woods. Above, the clear skies reveal a comet, which Osha predicts is a sign of the dragons’ rise.
“Death is so boring. Especially now, with so much excitement in the world.” – Tyrion Lannister
To reiterate, the premiere can be marked by the idea of expansion. The focus of the episode is the imminent fall of Cersei Lannister, who is not accustomed to misfortune. Her younger brother Tyrion, the series’ most terrific character, comes to King’s landing (with his beloved prostitute Shae secretly in tow) to aid his family, but it is unclear in which direction he will steer them, or if his loyalties are truly glued to his siblings — they are not exactly a functional family, after all. Robb’s war looks to take form soon, and in a big way. And although Daenerys is down now, the comets predict her lineage’s uprising. All in all, Season Two looks to be huge, in lots of good ways.
How did you enjoy the season premiere? What do you look forward to on this season of Game of Thrones, and what do you think will happen? Let us know in the comments section, or on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter.
In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.