As Robb Stark and his northern army continue the war against the Lannisters, Tyrion arrives in King’s Landing to counsel Joffrey and temper the young king’s excesses. On the island of Dragonstone, Stannis Baratheon plots an invasion to claim his late brother’s throne, allying himself with the fiery Melisandre, a strange priestess of a stranger god. Across the sea, Daenerys, her three young dragons and khalasar trek through the Red Waste in search of allies, or water. In the North, Bran presides over a threadbare Winterfell, while beyond the Wall, Jon Snow and the Night’s Watch must shelter with a devious wildling.
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The first episode of the new season has a lot to live up to, recalling the magnificent one-two punch of the final two episodes of the first season, “Baelor” and “Fire and Blood”. This episode, in common with those, is directed by co-executive producer Alan Taylor whose work in those final episodes was so praiseworthy. And just like those last episodes—and the first episodes of Game of Thrones as well—this episode features the writing team of executive producers David Benioff and Dan Weiss. It’s a powerful combination, two powerful guiding hands. It was needed, because “The North Remembers” is a big episode which features the heavy task of re-establishing the playing field, and introducing new players. It’s a task that they largely succeed at, but the challenges were big enough that at times scenes feel a tad rushed. I recall similar complaints about the premiere last season, and really, I’m simply not sure there’s any other way to handle it: the first couple of episodes may simply always be an albatross around the show’s neck, a very difficult juggling act when the show has such a large cast and such an epic scope.
The opening of the episode starts strongly. It’s no surprise that the tourney has been turned into single combats—the show has had a great deal of trouble getting horses to work in scenes within the time frames they have—but they do illustrate well the kind of violence that Joffrey adores, as well as his callous, jaded attitude. His cruel punishment of Ser Dontos Hollard—notably more clothed than he was in the novel!—is a moment that serves best to give Sansa her moment to shine. She has a gentle heart, and can’t stand to see such cruel torture… and risks quite a lot, when you think about it, in a chance to save Dontos. If Joffrey disliked her speaking up enough, she’d doubtless earn another beating, but still, she did it. There’s a fire still in Sansa, but she doesn’t quite know it. The moment’s swept away by the return of the sparkling presence of Tyrion Lannister, played by Emmy Award-winning actor (it will never get old, writing those words) Peter Dinklage. He’s a breath of fresh air whenever he’s in a scene, easily dancing around Joffrey’s jibes and petulance, offering his condolences and assessing—you can see it in his eyes—how Sansa Stark has found a way to survive, by saying the words they expect.
The shift of the scene into the small council chamber is, more or less, very like the book, with the same dynamics. We’ll make no bones about the fact that the interpretation of Cersei as written and as played by Lena Headey is not our favorite—the edges have been filed down, the challenging aspects of her character made softer and easier to swallow—but the interaction between Dinklage and Headey works quite well. I should note that when the white raven—apparently from Canada, or so the rumor goes; though I wonder if it’s really a raven, and not a crow or some other corvid—was brought out during the screening of the first episode in London, the cut was slightly different: watch closely at the moment before Cersei gestures to have it taken away, and note her position, sort of leaning back and a little awkwardly braced: that’s because she sneezed or coughed a moment before, apparently betraying an allergy. Why did they cut it? I’ve no idea. I thought it was a nice little detail, just reminding us that even queens can get the sniffles from time to time.
We depart King’s Landing to Winterfell, far away from the sun and warmth that still reigns even as the Conclave of the Citadel declares summer ended. There, Bran—looking decidedly more mature than he did when we last saw him a year ago—is learning that being a lord is usually a great deal of drudgery. It’s a nice enough scene, amusing, and I’ll never say no to mentions of castles and houses such as the reference to House Cerwyn; it does its job. The more intriguing scene is our first glimpse of what it’s like for Bran to “skinchange”, to slip into Summer and see the world through his eyes. The moment the inky-black pool of the godswood appears and we see Summer—now played by an actual wolf, with the help of bluescreen—is a lovely one, matched by Bran’s journey through the godswood with Hodor and Osha to try and see if he’s changed into a wolf and realizing he isn’t. A beautiful moment, from the books, which also features a potent symbol that appears through much of the first episode: the red comet streaking through the sky, whose portents are debated and argued by a number of characters.
The image of the comet provides a link to shift of scene to the far red waste, beyond the hills of Lhazar and the grassy plains of the Dothraki sea, where Daenerys and her “khalasar”—down to perhaps twenty or thirty people, by the looks of it—stumble through the hot desert. With VFX provided by Pixomondo, who take over for BlueBolt and Screen Scene, the first thing we notice is that CGed landscape is not bad—not great, but not bad, and it’s certainly very different from anything we saw in the first season where panoramic shots were very few and far between. The best show of their ability, however, comes as we cut to Daenerys with Drogon perched upon her shoulder, who looks just as remarkable as he did last year. The shoulder armor isn’t so much a sign that she’s becoming a warrior, as it is a sign that it’s more comfortable to have the dragon perch there rather than sink its claws into her shoulders… and, more practically, I suspect it makes it a lot easier for the CG artists as well. A special note has to be given to the sound designers or artists—I’m not sure of the precise term—who designed and executed Drogon’s hisses and clicks, bringing the little creature to life. You can see why Emilia Clarke began to feel quite maternal about these dragons.
Her story is merely a brief interlude, one that gets the essential next step across: a desperate bid to find some place, any place, where they can get food, water, and shelter after the death of her silver (a deviation from the novels, where the silver is alive and well five novels in) makes her realize that they can’t continue wandering helplessly. It provides a nice, all too brief moment with Rakharo, played by Elyes Gabel, who exudes considerable personality and who has an astonishing grasp at making Dothraki sound like a living, breathing language (Clarke in this scene doesn’t really sell the language as real—it must be very hard not to make it sound like rote speech—but Gabel really gets a natural sort of rhythm). The story has omitted the first place of safety Daenerys finds in the midst of the waste—the abandoned Vaes Tolorro, the City of Bones—but this is a predictable way to compress her story. At the same time, it has to be said that by giving away Jorah’s background with his wife in the first season, they took material that could have been hung on an extra scene or two for Daenerys in this episode or the next. It weakens some of this interlude, not giving Daenerys time to process what’s happened and to grapple with her situation in a way that really draws on her earlier development. We’re wondering what she’s going to be doing the rest of the season, if they’re compressing the first part of an already-short narrative. Martin was capable of turning the interlude into an important moment of choice and development for Daenerys, even with the ostensible “quiet” in terms of plot action, and it may be that the writers lack confidence that they can achieve the same effect.
If Daenerys is on a journey, so is Jon Snow, into the lands beyond the Wall. Craster’s Keep is nicely realized, looking crude and yet formidable. Kit Harington in our recent interview with him paralleled his journey with Dany’s, and you can see why: both are moving away from civilization they knew into the unknown, moved by the force of destiny, and forced to grow with it. The scene follows fairly closely on from what’s described in the novel, although some may say that Craster looks too polished, too much like a southron lord compared to the cruel, barbaric wildling described in the novels; it’s a fair point, and it seems strange to see how very different Craster is depicted in relation to the wildlings in “A Golden Crown”, but one supposes the production had its reasons for cleaning him up. The important part of this section is the conflict between Jon and Craster—significantly increased from the novel—and, more importantly, the sharp reprimand he gets from Lord Mormont afterward. One thematic tentpole of this season may be power (more on that later), but another seems to be the meaning of leadership. You’ll see it in Dany’s story, in Tyrion’s, in Robb’s, in Cersei’s, and you’ll see it in the Baratheon story.
Which, of course, we move to. The citadel of Dragonstone—glimpsed in the credits, and if you pay attention to it you may notice how they’ve managed to make a dragon motif in its plan—is seen with a ritual taking place, the burning of the Seven, the prophecy spoken by a terrible and red woman, the drawing of a fiery sword. This section has a lot to do—introduce a major claimant to the Iron Throne, the red priestess who seems to be guiding him, the loyal men who follow them—and while the actors are fully up to snuff, we think the tight pacing leaves something to be desired, making these scenes seem a bit airless and inert (which is quite a feat, when Stephen Dillane is such a terrific presence). Perhaps only readers of the novels will realize just how gutted of emotional texture or resonance this section of the story is, compared to the poignant prologue of A Clash of Kings, which is told through the eyes of the aged, failing Maester Cressen. The beauty and the power and the purpose of the prologue is intimately tied to having this old man as the perspective, because he keeps in his heart a secret that no one else really realizes: he loves Stannis Baratheon as a father loves a son; in fact, he may well be—next to Davos and Stannis’s young daughter Shireen (who, one notes, may not actually exist in this adaptation…)—the only person who loves Stannis selflessly.
There has been some confusion regarding our criticism about the flatness of this section of the story, despite the considerable acting and production talent brought to bear, with claims that we’re needlessly struck on Cressen. The problem is that we’re not regretting that the Cressen material has been cut back—what we’re regretting is that that was one way to develop an actual emotional connection to what was happening. As it stands, Cressen is literally nameless, his motivation vague and weakly expressed (he’s a maester who sort of rails against the abandonment of the Seven… but we’ve seen Luwin and Pycelle, and maesters aren’t exactly zealous religious figures), and his death simply isn’t earned as a moment that illuminates anything. All it truly reveals is that Melisandre has magic. What it says about Stannis is almost non-existent. Personally, I would have pushed the ritual to the second episode, and after a couple other bits of trimming you’d have space to actually build up Cressen and Davos as characters with close ties to Stannis, ties that can give shading and meaning to just who Stannis and Melisandre are and what they mean—this would then make Cressen’s death meaningful in several different ways.
Failing that, we’re not slavish followers of the books—it would have been far easier to take a page from Martin and, instead of having Cressen opposing the burning, have a knight (perhaps even a Rambton knight, as per the novel) stand up and oppose the burning, and then plot the poisoning of Melisandre to meet a similar fate. A knight—a warrior of the Faith, after all—being opposed to this is imminently understandable, and needs no great explanation… while it also underscores that added dimension (the coming religious conflict) that’s lacking from Cressen’s death. I can’t help but think that they made an error with Dragonstone, frittering away a chance to give more dramatic weight to this introductory scene and illuminate more about Stanis.
Still, the acting is excellent all around, whatever the faults of the writing. This is no better highlighted than in Robb’s and Catelyn’s section of the story. With Jaime Lannister imprisoned, tied to a post in a cage, there’s an interesting dynamic as he remains defiant. The dialog here between Robb and Jaime is sharp, and there’s a crackle of energy in their interactions, an energy doubtless increased by the presence of a very, very large direwolf in Grey Wind. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (whom we’ve recently interviewed) does a particularly fine job, conveying a great deal through expression, through silence and stillness. Richard Madden has more moments going forward, from his presenting terms to the Lannisters through the agent of Ser Alton Lannister (replacing the Lannister cousin, Cleos Frey; we can only assume this is in the name of simplifying the conflict by not having the Freys seem to have divided loyalties), and then talking with his mother Catelyn. We are and always be rather dubious of the portrayal of Catelyn Stark—very well-played by Michelle Fairley (whom we’ve also interviewed), but some of her core strength has been cut away, making her motivation a desperate desire to get to Winterfell and shut out the rest of the world (eerily reminiscent of Lysa Arryn; I wonder if the executive producers are aware of that parallel) rather than a desperate desire to see her family safe—and the scene with Robb turns on this, as he forces her to accept a mission to Renly Baratheon’s court before she can return to Winterfell.
Now we come to what we consider the nadir of this episode—and, indeed, of those first four episodes we’ve seen. Having been convinced by Tyrion of the importance of finding the missing Arya Stark, Cersei goes to Littlefinger… and suddenly things go very strange. She takes a dig at him, reminding him of his futile love of Catelyn Tully. This is, on the face of it, not out of character—Cersei Lannister in the novels is quick to put others in their place, to flex her muscles and show her claws, to reveal the power she has. But then Littlefinger does something very odd indeed: he strikes back unflinchingly, insinuating knowledge of Cersei’s and Jaime’s incestous relationship and the power it gives him. In fact, he finishes with “knowledge is power”. And the response?
Readers of the novels might only wonder why Cersei stops from killing him, but suffice it to say that even though this Cersei is softened in many ways, the series has previously sold us on the notion that she can be capriciously vicious at need (RIP Lady) and that she’s prepared to unleash swift violence in defense of herself and her children, and Littlefinger—a member of the court for many years, somehow who has navigated his way through its treacherous waters, taking to it as if he was born to it—simply isn’t the sort of person to take this kind of risk. In other contexts, where he knows his opponent knows he can’t get rid of him, that’s fine—he loves toying with people—but Cersei is a live grenade, ready to explode at any moment.
It’s hard to accept such a grossly incompetent maneuver from someone we’re led to believe is a masterful manipulator, perhaps second only to Varys. Why make him so dumb? Perhaps the visual of guards snapping to attention and doing Cersei’s bidding without a moment’s thought, perhaps merely to underscore that theme of “power”: “Knowledge is power”, says Littlefinger… but “Power is power” in the simple, brutal logic of Cersei Lannister. If that’s the case, it’s very unsubtle—as a reader and a viewer, it’s hard to respond well to uncharacteristic stupidity as the excuse for a character’s setbacks. There’s little danger in the court if Littlefinger (who is played as a good decade older than the character in the novel, one should note, as surely he’d have more experience) thinks he can get away with such gross, unsubtle remarks to people who really do have the means and the ability to snuff out his life at a moment’s notice.
But enough of that.
Lets move to the other scene with Cersei, the one that acts on both the question of power and leadership: a confrontation with Joffrey that turns quite ugly. It’s a good scene on paper, and it’s actually a fairly natural and reasonable extrapolation given the fact that this Joffrey is a couple of years older than the novel’s character. In the books, the boy Joffrey is very little involved in his reign, is very little concerned with practical political concerns. Here, he’s anything but. While his notion of creating a standing army (floated last season, and not touched upon again—at least, not yet) came out of left field, the idea that the 15 or 16-year-old Joffrey might start thinking about such things isn’t so odd. So when he and Cersei argue about Robert’s bastards and about the claims from Stannis that he’s illegitimate, it fits. It’s an interesting change when Joffrey lays down the law to Cersei, but one that is plausible, and helps provide motivation for what follows: a montage of slaughter, as Robert’s bastards (yes, bastards—not just Barra and Gendry, but others in the city; never directly indicated in the novel, but it does seem rather likely that in 15 years Robert would have more than two bastard children in the city) are hunted down and slaughtered.
One, the infant girl Barra, is a call back to the first season. The scene starts… well, poorly, at rather obnoxiously loud sex education (quite literally) oveseen by Ros (a divisive character among fans, so lets just say this: in those four episodes, Esmé Bianco justifies her place in the cast, as a window into some very dark places) that brings to mind the overly-loud, overly-long simulated sex of the infamous Littlefinger scene. I would have trimmed the sex and picked up with her showing the new girl in the brothel—from Haystack Hall, of all places!—instead, just to be a bit brisker and a bit less crude. In any case, it does lead to the killing of the infant girl, this time carried out directly by Janos Slynt. It’s harrowing and ugly, as does the brutality that follows, and very much as it should be. It’s a chilling way to close King’s Landing, and very nearly close the episode (we get a last shot of the targets of Cersei’s apparent slaughter and search: Gendry and Arya).
All in all, this episode has some of the same problems that the show had in its premiere last year: a lot of ground to cover, and not enough time. In some cases, the choices to trim make sense. In others, the particular approach to trimming seem to have undermined the aim of compelling drama: Dragonstone loses most here, because the removal of a good deal of texture is not replaced by anything really gripping, leaving it mostly an exercise in meet-and-greet backed by great actors and great production values.
In the end, whatever its structural failings, “The North Remembers” is still gorgeous, sharply directed, well-acted, and often very well written. Every penny is up on the screen. As we said, it’s a feast for the senses and the imagination. It may be a retrograde start compared the stunning final two episods of the last season, but it’s a genuine start, carrying out a lot of the heavy lifting that help propel later episodes to their high points. What Benioff and Weiss had to do was not an enviable task, and we’re glad they’re struggling to do their best, even if we could wish that they took different approaches with certain things.
[Executive producers David Benioff and Dan Weiss, and director Alan Taylor, discuss the episode below.]
The episode covers the following chapters of A Clash of Kings: Sansa I, Tyrion I, Bran I, Daenerys I, Jon III, Prologue, Davos I, Tyrion II. Parts of Arya I and Jon I were already shown in Fire and Blood. Jon II—set in the village of Whitetree—is skipped entirely.
Changes of note, chapter-by-chapter
Linda and I provide background for fans who haven’t read the books, and discuss the highs and lows of the episode:
We also contribute to MTV News’s “Watching the Thrones”:
And last, but never least, Sky Atlantic’s Thronecast features us each week:
(Also available on iTunes)