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First Thoughts on Season Two

Late last month, I had the privilege of attending the screening for international press of the first episode of the new season of Game of Thrones, “The North Remembers”. It was my first ever screening of anything—last season we received DVD screeners nearer to the premiere—and doubltess that added to my excitement when I saw it. Since then, we’ve had the opportunity to rewatch this episode and also see the next three episodes on screeners.

I do go into some detail as this review goes on, so if you prefer to be utterly unspoiled, I’d skip it (for you, I’ll just say: the visual and musical scope of the show has expanded to epic levels, as has the story, which is well-acted, but I do have a handful of quibbles and concerns)

Watching the sharply directed, beautifully shot first episode on a big screen, with a professional audio system in the screening room, was quite an experience, I have to say. It’s a show made for the big screen, to paint a lush image on that big canvas and fill your eyes with wonders. If HBO decided to premiere each new episode in cinemas in selected cities, I’m pretty sure they could sell out every single screening. Of course, part of the marketing promotion for the show entails early sneak peeks in theatres, so if you get wind of it taking place in an area where you reside, I really recommend trying to get in to one of those, if you can.

So, it looks fantastic on a big screen, in HD (whether it was projected in 720p or 1080p, I don’t really know), but it remains impressive on the smaller screen because this first episode is epic in its visual scope. The familiar, Emmy Award-winning opening sequence includes new locations for each episode: Dragonstone and its citadel, depicted not as GRRM imagined it (a fantastical castle shaped to look like a mass of dragons, thanks to the magic arts of the Valyrians that allowed them to sculpt stone as if it were clay), but as an imposing structure of towers with angled tops ... and there’s a little something to it that should appease those who want more dragons.

There is a sculpted dragon or two when we finally come to Dragonstone late in the first episode, including a seaside statue of a dragon, and then walls and chambers within the citadel itself feature dragons in relief. More visual beauty appears in later episodes, as we see well-rendered shots of Pyke (looking very nearly as I imagined it), Harrenhal (more ruinous and not so gargantuan as I hoped, but much bigger than I feared), and even the city of Qarth. And King’s Landing gets a new panoramic landscape to admire, newly Dubrovnik-ized to better fit the architectural style of the production’s new home for exterior shooting.

More epic images appear as the episode progresses, some linked together by the comet that streaks across the sky and preoccupies characters such as Bran and Daenerys. Bran’s scene is, as I recall, the first time we see the “new” direwolves—instead of dogs, the show has gone with actual wolves shot against bluescreen and digitally composited into the scene. It works pretty well. This works especially effectively later on, when Grey Wind is shown next to Robb (and, in the second episode, Ghost next to Gilly)—the digital compositing works very well indeed, making the wolf look enormous and frightening. All in all, the work by new FX lead Pixomondo has been exceptional this season, fully up to the standard of last season, and perhaps even breaking new ground in some areas. There’s an extremely memorable—unforgettable, really—scene at the end of episode 4 that was just ... remarkable, and entirely dependent on the quality of the effects. In other visual areas, such as set design and art direction, the show has really built upon what came before, retaining a high level of quality.

To compliment the rich, horizon-expanding imagery we also have what seems to be a significantly expanded score by Ramin Djawadi, with a deal more variety than the episodes from last season. There’s definitely strong music, and now we’ll all be able to see what Djawadi is able to do when he isn’t brought on board a show with just a few weeks to spare before its premiere, when he’s able to spend more time on working scoring cues throughout the episode. If you enjoyed last season’s soundtrack, I’ve a feeling you’ll be blown away by this season.

These episodes also mark the introduction of several new characters on Dragonstone, on Pyke, and in Qarth. They’re all skilled actors, in some cases quite superlative (Gwendoline Christie as Brienne of Tarth has a great deal of presence, as does Stephen Dillane, Liam Cunningham, and Carice van Houten) , and they certainly look good. But the task of introducing the Dragonstone cast in the first episode in particular leads to some problems that highlight some of the problems the show may have this season.

The first two episodes—which have the difficult task of re-establishing the playing field, getting viewers up to speed on what went before, and introducing Dragonstone to viewers—end up feeling somewhat rushed, with scenes whipping from one to the next. To give an example, the Dragonstone introduction particularly suffers for this, not least because they flop around the order of events (so as to start with a very strong visual) and severely compromise Maester Cressen’s story. The result is that the character of Cressen makes no connection with the viewers, because we have no idea who he is—he’s just a maester, nothing more. If I had my druthers, the fiery ceremony that opens the Dragonstone section in episode one would have been held to episode two, and more time would then be given to fleshing out Cressen and Davos Seaworth and why they follow Stannis.

It’s a concern that the rush to introduce the new characters and highlight some strong visuals appears to have detracted from an affecting part of the narrative that grounded what happened on Dragonstone within pathos for Cressen’s plight and his unique outlook on Stannis and Melisandre. All in all, the expanding scope of the story seems to have led the writers to focus on getting to those characters, and certain exciting moments, a bit quickly, sacrificing characterization in a way that is a concern if this is setting the tone for the adaptation through the next season. This tendency is found in one or two other places in those first two episodes. I’d argue that a certain subtlety is lost in all the episodes, as well, as compressions and changes lead to some subtle details from the books becoming much more overt. There’s a rather too-neat wrap-up to episode three, for example.

In a similar vein, the producers have decided to stick to a strong central theme for this season, and that’s “power”. Every single episode has some reference to different conceptulizations of power, different approaches to using it. It’s generally very well-handled (especially when it’s in a scene taken pretty much word-for-word from A Clash of Kings). But then sometimes… There’s a scene in the first episode that came off as quite heavy-handed and forced by the writers as a means of making a point about power.

The scene, a dialogue between Littlefinger and Queen Cersei, pivots on Littlefinger acting quite… stupidly, frankly. It undermines Petyr Baelish as a wily manipulator, every man’s friend and no man’s enemy who pulls the strings from the shadows, when he can blunder about like a proverbial bull in a china shop. I understand the point the writers wanted to make, but it seemed a genuine disservice to the character we see in the first season, who never needles someone without a purpose to it, or at least a well-reasoned belief that it’ll do him no harm. I was dissatisfied with that moment, quite strongly, because they’ve already shown their capable of better writing—it felt clumsy and heavy-handed.

Most of the actors give good (and occasionally brilliant!) performances, and the writers give new and familiar characters alike engrossing scenes to work with. While I’m unsure about certain decisions to compress or rewrite events, certain storylines that seem less subtle and more hurried than in the novels, at the same time, they make some very clever choices that work very well (Littlefinger in episode 4 comes to mind).

All in all, this is a good start to the season, despite my quibbles, and one that certainly improves as it goes on. While I find myself liking episodes 3 and 4 more (hats off to writers Bryan Cogman and Vanessa Taylor, and a special congratulations to Alfie Allen and Maisie Williams for their turns in those episodes)—and, in certain areas, significantly more—than the Benioff & Weiss episodes that opened the season, the task the executive producers had before them was a difficult one.  All four episodes certainly set a stage for the widening scope of the story, promising the kind of feast to the senses and the mind that viewers have become accustomed to for what some might call HBO’s most impressive and entertaining current drama.

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