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 the dialogue-free opening sequence of Shame director Steve McQueen introduces us to Brandon (Michael Fassbender) a handsome New Yorker who goes through a morning routine tackles the responsibilities of his high profile day job socializes with co-workers and all the while struggles with an insatiable desire for sexual pleasure. As the strings of composer Harry Escott's score swell we see Brandon in two scenarios: holding back from advancing on a beautiful young subway-rider and succumbing to carnal instinct with the help of a prostitute. It's a powerful setup for Fassbender's breathtaking performance which ranks among the best of the year.
Shame forcefully declares that sex addiction is just as tangible devastating and perplexing as any drug or alcohol problem but does so without didactic lessons or over-the-top indulgences. Fassbender's Brandon is on the other end of the spectrum from Nicolas Cage's crazed alcoholic character in Leaving Las Vegas with McQueen breaking long stretches of repression with harrowing moments of emotionless lust. The film works as a character portrait following Brandon as he finds himself falling deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole and witnessing the effects of his descent on the people around him. Picking up women isn't a problem for the dashing gent—he does so with ease on many an occasion—but when he tries dating the one woman he has feelings for he's void of sexual stamina. Unfortunately even in the sprawling city of New York there's no outlet for Brandon to confide in—his work buddies are all looking for an easy lay and his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) who shows up at his door one inopportune day has a heap of her own problems.
McQueen shoots Shame with precision that never feels staged each scene camera angle and directorial choice amplifying Brandon's dizzying situation Whether Brandon's entranced by Sissy's passionate rendition of "New York New York " working off his own sexual frustration with a quick jog or seducing a barfly's girlfriend at a hole-in-the-wall joint Fassbender and McQueen work in perfect tandem to bring the audience into the struggle. You will feel the raw power of Brandon unleashing his sex drive and you will feel the sadness behind Fassbender's face as he drifts alone through the city streets. Both moods are powerful moving and true.
Shame doesn't have an easy-to-swallow narrative a real beginning or an end. When you expect things to align into a traditional structure McQueen and screenwriter Abi Morgan subvert expectations—as life often does. What keeps us engrossed is Fassbender who can pull off the balancing act of suave and broken without tipping us off that he's acting at all. Shame received an NC-17 rating because of its racy imagery but the real maturity on display in the film is the bare bones depiction of human behavior.
With its twisty-turning plot and military setting Basic could be the love child of an illicit affair between The Usual Suspects and The General's Daughter; it even borrows the star of the latter. In Basic John Travolta plays Tom Hardy a former Army Ranger and interrogator extraordinaire who's now a DEA agent in Panama suspended from duty on suspicion of bribery. He's hitting the rebellious law enforcement officer's requisite bottle of Jack Daniels heavily--until an old friend on the local army base Col. Bill Styles (Tim Daly) calls him in to investigate the disappearances and probable deaths of an elite group of trainees and their commander Sgt. Nathan West (Samuel L Jackson) during a training session in the Panamanian jungle. Staff investigator Lt. Julia Osbourne (Connie Nielsen) a plucky Southern gal who's none too pleased with Hardy's invasion of her turf is assigned to help Hardy question the unit's surviving members Kendall (Giovanni Ribisi) and Dunbar (Brian Van Holt). As their stories unfold over a series of flashbacks the interrogators discover a military underworld of drugs murder and coercion--and the mysterious existence of a rogue Ranger unit called "Section 8." Now for an interrogation of our own. Is the plot convoluted? Sir yes sir! Is it too tricky for its own good? Sir yes sir! Thank you soldier. You may stand down.
The trigger-finger pointing winking cluck-clucking "gotcha" persona Travolta (Swordfish Domestic Disturbance) creates in Hardy is as appropriate to the story as it can possibly be; the way he manipulates his subjects under interrogation is much the same way the story manipulates its audience. He leads them--and the observant Lt. Osbourne--to believe one thing then pulls the rug out from under them to prove the old cliché of military movies: that nothing is as it seems. In Nielsen's (The Hunted One Hour Photo) Osbourne we're given a character who could lead us through the jungle of the plot (she discovers the "facts" at the same time as the audience so her reaction is meant I suppose to be ours) but since Hardy spends much of his time making her look and feel like an idiot she comes off as one and frankly so do we. The talented Jackson (Changing Lanes) mostly does the bellowing drill sergeant bit while Ribisi (Heaven) as the homosexual son of a high-ranking general talks like he has cotton wool in his mouth and moves and twitches like he's mildly brain-impaired. (His character's not supposed to be; he only got shot in the leg.) One bright spot in this movie is the featured role for hunky Van Holt (Windtalkers Black Hawk Down) whose chiseled good looks and heroic demeanor make him a shoo-in should anyone ever make a live-action Johnny Bravo movie.
Director John McTiernan has given audiences some heavy-duty action in Die Hard Die Hard With a Vengeance and The Hunt for Red October but he's also the director who brought us such gems as Rollerball and Last Action Hero so it's not surprising that in Basic we get some action and intrigue paired with the out-there story stylings and narrative confusion of some of his less successful work. Here each flashback brings new information that conflicts with what we've been told before and the story never really resolves those conflicts in any satisfying way. The "big twist" at the end instead of bringing it all together creates gaping holes in the plot or at least creates so much doubt in the story we've just spent an hour and a half watching that it's easy to get fed up with trying to figure it out. Naturally no one likes to be spoon-fed plot resolutions but in order for twists to work they have to give the audience something to focus its doubt on--they can't just call the whole kit and caboodle into question. We have to be able eventually to figure it out. But hey maybe we aren't supposed to work out the details; after all this movie with its catchy one-word title and colorful cast of characters is just begging for a sequel: Basic 2: Explaining the First Movie.