Game of Thrones is doubling-down on its big characters; its interesting plot lines; its significant events. If season 6 episode 1 was setting the scene for a show with a slightly new direction and a fresh perspective, away from the source material of the books, episode 2 hammers home the message that this show now belongs to TV, and anything goes. Expect the highs to be higher and the lows to be appallingly low. In fact, the show’s headline reveal that Jon Snow is back from the dead is perhaps the least surprising moment in the whole of this week’s episode.
Let’s talk about that for a minute. While the return of everyone’s favourite bastard will come as a shock to precisely zero people, it’s something I still greeted with an actual cheer. Well, a nod and a private fist-pump - I am British after all. It’s a moment the show desperately needed after all the doom and grind of season 5, which simultaneously forefronted plot lines that few viewers really cared about, and sidelined or killed characters we actually give a damn about.
Where it goes from here is… well, the clues are there. Jon Snow is back, and the stage is all set for the mystery of his parentage to be revealed. Perhaps you’re still someone who believes Ned Stark is his dad - if so, season 6 is likely to have some real shocks in store for you. The subject of his actual birth is one of the biggest mysteries in the books, and it’s likely to have a massive impact on the way the rest of Game of Thrones plays out.
The rest of this week’s episode is where the real surprises lie, and feels a lot like the show is really cleaning house; trimming away the fat that inevitably comes from faithfully adapting an epic series of books. The War of the Five kings is officially over, now that Balon Greyjoy has been lobbed off a (massively precarious) bridge by his wonderfully insane brother Euron. We’ve only seen this new character for a few seconds, and I already like him more than most long-running personalities in the rest of the show. More, please.
Elsewhere, Ramsay Bolton has turned on his father Roose and murdered him, his wife, and their newly-born child. We’ll get to this sequence in a moment, but it’s hugely indicative of the fact that a new generation is ascending, and it’s these people who will finally contest the end-game. That’s what “Home” was all about - the torch is being violently passed to a new, younger set of players who act, think, and plot a little differently. It’s a not-too-subtle metaphor for HBO taking over control of the TV franchise from the novels, but it serves as a stern message that this new season certainly won’t retread old ground or carry characters who hold little entertainment value. Good.
Even Bran has been made interesting, although the writers have been forced to turn him into a narrative device to achieve this. Now, instead of endless wandering with Meera and the Milky Bar kid, Bran is the show’s flashback tool as he uses his ‘gift’ to fill in some of the main plot-holes we’re all keen to see. Even Hodor is getting a bit of background, which is a personal boon for me.
Now, back to that pivotal scene at Winterfell. As if we didn’t think Ramsay was appalling enough, he’s now reached unthinkable levels of villainy by killing his father and setting hungry hounds on his step-mother and her newly born child. This is the spark that will finally send the already strained North into abject chaos, as Frey turns on Bolton, Bolton turns on the Night’s Watch, and the Karstarks and Umbers and the Greyjoys all fling their swords into the mix. It’s a deliciously unpredictable set-up, which could only have been orchestrated by someone as dangerously unstable as Ramsay. And you thought Joffrey was bad.
Speaking of the Lannisters - both their arcs are currently bubbling away nicely, along with the inevitable war in Dorne. The High Sparrow’s arrival at Myrcella’s funeral, along with a handful of his thugs, only serves to heat up the impending bloodbath between the religious fanatics and the increasingly unstable Kingsguard. The only real downside to the King’s Landing arc is that Tommen has somehow turned into a whiny emo-kid, along with moody Meera in the frozen North. Tyrion feels like he’s back on form, and his succession of genuinely funny one-liners, combined with a tender and tense visit to Daenerys’s dragons have reasserted him as one of the most watchable characters again, after he was downplayed in season 5.
In all, then, this is a great episode and a sure sign that events are getting properly ramped up in season 6. Even the violence - while reasonably infrequent - is markedly nastier than most of the previous examples. Make no mistake: season 6 is optimised for its TV audience - the heroes are getting more likeable, the villains more detestable… and it makes for excellent viewing.