Half the work of any Season 2 debut comes from letting both fresh and forgetful viewers what the devil’s going on, and the other half is making a statement of intent and slamming the chainmail gauntlet down. Both require extreme deftness to pull-off in such a way as to keep the audience from consciously noticing it – Downton Abbey is a fantastic (albeit non-genre) example of a TV show coming to a screeching halt mid-plot to pull over and patiently explain what’s going on for the hard of thinking.
HBO veteran, and future Thor 2 helmer Alan Taylor may not entirely succeed at the former, but when he takes off the Game Of Thrones Season 2 gauntlet to issue his challenge, the thunderous impact of armoured fist hitting flagstone will knock men from their feet.
The differences of location are immediately obvious as filming in Dubrovnik, on Croatia’s Dalmation coast, places the opening King’s Landing scenes leagues ahead of the somewhat stagey and claustrophobic precursors in Season 1 – we now get rooftops, horizon, and waves lapping at the shore, which does wonders for the authenticity. Even opening shots of Winterfell, Robb Stark’s camp and the all-new Dragonstone are heaving with extras rhubarbing anxiously, or admiring each others’ broadswords instead of sad looking CG castles on Ulster scrubland.
Where ‘The North Remembers’ is less than excellent is in the inevitable grot-work of bringing people up to speed – the conversations and scenes constantly hovering on the border of contrived as the swelling cast all patiently line up to remind the audience of their motivations and rivalries, or else just politely introduce themselves like a vicar at the village fete.
An early exchange between the increasingly vile Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson), the browbeaten Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), and doting henchman Sandor ‘The Hound’ Clegane (Rory McCann), and Robb Stark (Richard Madden)’s exposition-heavy conversations with Jamie Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and then Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) are particularly guilty of the former, while the introduction of Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane), Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) and Melisandre (Carice van Houten) is an example of the latter, albeit it one that instantly ratchets up the tension and baroque atmosphere of this incredible show.
So much of Season 1 is re-established that not all of it is able to really progress in the first 60 minutes of Season 2, but Taylor’s superb, cinematic direction, and Weiss and Benioff’s instinctive knowledge of what aspect of George RR Martin’s extensive source material works on screen and what needs massaging into shape, turns the demands of episodic storytelling from a what could be a clunky necessity into something of substance for the most part.
The earnest Jon Snow (Kit Harington) begins his Joseph Campbell-like journey North of the Wall, Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey)’s increasingly fragile position begins to humanise the vinegary Queen Mother whose white-knuckle grip on events had begun to slide at the end of Series 1, and Joffrey tries his hand at an unspeakable crime from the Biblical tyrant’s box of tricks, finally provoking that crucial, stunned intake of breath that lets you know Game Of Thrones Season 2 is not only hitting all the right notes, but pushing HBO’s TV revolution further and further with every lapsed second.
Game Of Thrones Season 2 begins April 2 on Sky Atlantic HD.
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