Welcome back to Westeros where, as George Gershwin didn’t put it, it’s wintertime and the dying is easy! The first season of Game of Thrones introduced us to the warring empire, a savage place where men were men, women were topless, and dwarves got all the best lines. It also pulled a rather stunning bait and switch: What initially appeared to be a straightforward fantasy epic of succession and betrayal — centered on the illegitimate crowning of the illegitimate pissant Joffrey Baratheon — was really a multi-layered drama about institutional failure. It’s not just that the wrong king is on the throne — the entire kingdom is under assault from all corners by a legion of pretenders, claimants, and, in the far north, a spooky race of snow zombies. Any hopes that George R.R. Martin’s story might have a central hero to root for were lopped off right along with Ned Stark’s shaggy, moralistic noggin.
In Season 2, our story has fractured right along with Westeros itself. “The North Remembers” leaps between six different settings, linked only by a portentous comet in the sky and an unslakable thirst for power. The newest in line to usurp the usurper is Stannis Baratheon, played by the criminally underused British stage veteran Stephen Dillane. Few actors alive are as skilled at making stillness seem both charismatic and dangerous, which makes Dillane the perfect choice for Stannis, the so far inscrutable brother of the late Robert. All we know about the elder Baratheon is that he’s apparently a sort of medieval Chris De Burgh: He’d do just about anything for a mysterious lady in red. Said lady is Melisandre (played by Dutch master Carice Van Houten), a witchy mix of Stevie Nicks and Stephen King’s Firestarter. Over a hippie beach bonfire, Melisandre leads Stannis in a pagan sword ritual, anointing him a “warrior of light” (and admonishing him “not to bogart the roach”). This heresy causes one elder adviser to poison himself in protest, but not Melisandre: She out-Vizzini’s the old coot, downing his juked juice and freeing Stannis to send a strongly worded letter to all corners of Westeros outing Joffrey for what he is: the rotten fruit of the incestuous Lannisters.
In the farthest reaches of the kingdom, things are looking bleaker than ever. (Story-wise, that is. Things actually look better than ever thanks to director Alan Taylor and some remarkable location shooting in Croatia and Iceland.) In the frosty north, Jon Snow and his not-so-merry men have trekked beyond the Wall, where they bunk with a creepy polygamist who makes one long for the apple-pie Americana of Big Love: These sister-wives are also daughter-wives. And in the sprawling Red Waste, Daenerys leads a ragtag group of infirm mini-Drogos on a Moses-like desert odyssey. In her weakened, dehydrated state she barely has enough energy to flirt with her “strength,” Edwardian media baron Sir Richard Carlisle. Even her expensive new CGI pet — which sounds remarkably like a pirate’s parrot — is quickly shunted into a money-saving cage; there’s no dragon chow in the desert and he’s as hungry as the rest of them. (Although it boggled my mind why she was so bummed when her white steed collapsed and died. I saw the first season, Dany: Horse meat sashimi for everyone!)
As for last year’s main antagonists, the Starks and the Lannisters, the ill will continues to flow like delicious southern wine. From his war camp, Robb Stark menaces a still-pretty captive Jamie Lannister and sends his mother off to flirt with a potential ally. The Starks’ demands are clear: Robb will trade Jamie for his sisters, his father’s headless bones, complete autonomy from the amoral Aryans down at King’s Landing, and a long, hot shower. (Seriously. Do you know how long they’ve been in the forest?) But of course it won’t be so simple: Arya has run off with a dreamy teen heartthrob who also just might be the last true bastard heir to the Baratheons. (Joffrey guaranteed this when he sent his soldiers off on a brutal baby massacre to root out potential half-brothers.) And Tyrion has now flounced his way into upper management, acting as his father’s surrogate at the court and making even the brittle cheekbones of his sister Cersei seem sympathetic. “Death is so boring,” he purrs, making it plain he’d never be a fan of his own show. In the midst of all this sabre-rattling, throat-clearing, and deck-shuffling, it seems clear that winter isn’t the only thing that’s coming. War, certainly, but so, too, is the reality that the lawless, chaotic extremes of the outer territories — the places where Jon and Dany feel strangely at home — cannot be kept at bay forever. Walls can be scaled and oceans can be crossed as easily as a king can be killed or a dragon can be hatched.
It’s also evident that the second year of Thrones, if not the remainder of the series, is about a race to fill what may well be an impossible vacuum. Not the star power that went missing when Sean Bean took a knee, but the iron chair itself. The one thing none of the unruly pretenders to the throne seems ready to admit is that Westeros appears completely ungovernable. Not unlike The Wire, another HBO Sunday-night success story, the disparate strivers and swordsmen on display here are too taken with self-serving visions of glory to pay much attention to the systemic rot at the core of their would-be domain. (Even poor crippled Bran, Twink Lord of Winterfell, looks bored to tears when forced to perform his mundane responsibilities. He’d much rather be under the covers, dreaming in WolfVision.) This may not bode well for the long-term life plans of the potential kings, but it’s great fun for the audience. Everything feels thrillingly unsettled, as if the rules are constantly changing and the biggest prize may actually be a booby trap. (Which, interestingly enough, is also what Martin calls his female characters.) “Knowledge is power,” sneers former Charm City mayor Tommy Littlefinger with certainty in the episode’s best scene. Littlefinger’s swagger was well earned last year: His insider insight into throne-room horse trading (not to mention whore trading) saved his own neck while severing Ned’s. But things are different now, as the QILF-y Cersei quickly demonstrates. “Power is power,” she snips as armed guards point daggers at Littlefinger’s uvula. Or, as the Dothraki version of Omar might muse: It’s all in the Games.
Note on these recaps: I have not read the books and I have no intention to do so. My goal is to analyze and enjoy Game of Thrones strictly as a television show. So please, no spoilers or “I told you so”s in the comments, OK? OK!