The One Where: Tyrion arrives at King’s Landing to take over as Joffrey’s Hand, Stannis stakes his claim to the Iron Throne, Daenerys attempts to survive the Red Wastes and Jon finds no friends north of the Wall.
Verdict: There are plenty of ways to make an impact with the first episode of a new season, but few of them top butchering babies. That sort of thing tends to stick in the mind. Throw in armoured knights fighting to the death, incest, a boy king with a murderous rage and mysterious new characters, and it can mean only one thing: Game Of Thrones is back.
Riding a wave of critical acclaim and public adoration, there’s a swagger about this episode that points towards big things for the rest of the season. What could have easily been an hour long catch-up instead dives straight in, with new characters, locations and ideas hitting home thick and fast.
It would be overwhelming if it wasn’t so well handled. Things kick off in King’s Landing, with King Joffrey having knights batter each other to death for his name day celebrations. You wouldn’t have thought it was possible, but Jack Gleeson’s performance as the odious Joff is even more hateful than last year. He’s a school bully given absolute power, pulling legs off men instead of wings off flies, and he makes my fists itch.
Fortunately, it’s not long before Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion saunters on screen to prevent any Joffrey based TV bashing. Dinklage is on dependably fine form, and Tyrion’s arc is already shaping up to be a fascinating one. Throwing himself into life as the King’s Hand, his barely constrained glee as he tells Cersei about his new position is a joy to behold. The power plays that now look set to dominate King’s Landing life as Tyrion, Joffrey and Cersei attempt to assert their authority on each other should make for some tumultuous TV.
Up in Winterfell, we got a glimpse at some supernatural strangeness as Bran appears to dream himself into his Direwolf. It’s Bran’s conversation with Osha that sticks in the mind though, as they discuss the meaning of the red comet that’s blazing across the sky. These Wildlings must know more than they’re letting on, because she’s right – there be dragons across the sea.
Ah, the dragons. They look so damned good. The same can’t be said for Dany’s people of course, who are bedraggled at best. Emilia Clarke is immediately impressive as the last remaining Targaryen, scarcely recognisable as the meek and fearful young girl we met at the beginning of last season.
At the Stark camp, King Robb is becoming a force to be reckoned with, and Richard Madden is doing a phenomenal job as the young northern rebel. He has undeniable presence, demanding your attention and managing to be funny, frightening and commanding all at the same time. His conversation with the Kingslayer was riveting stuff, only let down by a slightly below par CG direwolf. Maybe the dragons swallowed all the imaginary animal budget.
Alongside all the familiar faces, there's plenty of fresh blood to contend with. Stannis Baratheon finally makes an appearance after being nothing but a name last season, and Stephen Dillane’s teeth are clenched so tight they could break at any moment, as is befitting the unflinching Storm Lord. Stannis’s entourage is full of interesting new characters as well, especially Mellisandre the fire priestess (near-victim of the most blatant poisoning in TV history) and Davos the ex-smuggler.
The new locations – and there were many, from Dragonstone to Craster’s Keep and the Red Waste – were simply stunning. Westeros felt more like a living, breathing world, the stink of King’s Landing and the cold of the far north almost leaking out of the screen. Somehow, a show that was already pretty huge has gone super-epic, and it’s breathtaking.
The flood of new faces and locations could easily have been a confusing mess, but Alan Taylor (who was recently confirmed for Thor 2 ) kept things moving along at an even pace, allowing the unfamiliar elements to bed in before exploring elsewhere. He had a lot of information to deal with, and inevitably there was always going to be some lengthy exposition. As a result, there are some scenes that clunk a little, but by and large it’s all for the good, and the whole thing looks so bloody beautiful it’s hard to fault him at all.
Everything about this episode feels bigger, better and more sure-footed than last season. Game Of Thrones is a show that credits its viewers with enough intelligence to keep up and there’s plenty here to follow, from the political tussles and gossip mongering in King’s Landing to the supernatural weirdness and war in the North. Religion, sex and power, violence, family and paranoia – all human life is here, no matter how noble or disgusting. Bursting with confidence, unapologetically complex and able to shock, disgust and entertain in equal measure, this is exhilarating, fearless television. And the best bit is we’ve got nine more weeks to come.
Don’t I know you?
Can’t figure out where you know the drunk Ser Dontos that Sansa saved from the wrath of King Joffrey? It’s Tony Way, the brace-wearing paperboy that Daisy cops off with in Spaced (the episode is “Gatherings”).
Osha: Stars don’t fall for men. The red comet means one thing, boy: dragons.