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Critical Preview: Game of Thrones Season 2

HBO’s critically acclaimed fantasy drama Game of Thrones returns for its second season on April 1. In what can only be described as sheer blind luck and unbelievable coincidence, I found myself in possession of one of HBO’s screeners containing the first four episodes of the upcoming season. I genuinely have no idea quite how this happened, but the Seven must have been looking out for me this weekend. I promise there are no spoilers ahead, but this is what you can expect to see in the upcoming weeks. Here’s a who’s who and what’s what of everything new for season two.

The Places

Dragonstone:

Even without the helpful graphic explaining where you are, fans of the books will instantly recognize Stannis Baratheon’s current home. There are only a few scenes taking place in Dragonstone, but the massive castle covered in stone dragons is unmistakable. My personal favorite little detail is the table in the main hall. In the books, it is described as being a massive carving of Westeros, and it was always hard for me to wrap my head around what it would look like. Now that I’ve seen it, it makes perfect sense. Nobody ever explains that this is what the table is, and the characters simply treat it like any other table. It’s just another example of the show’s exceptional attention to detail.

Late night bonfires on the beach work a little bit different on Dragonstone.

Pyke:

A significant portion of the first few episodes is spent on Pyke in the Iron Islands. The ancestral seat of House Greyjoy, Pyke is as brutal as it is impressive. You can almost smell the salt air as Theon is led around the island. Everything looks cold and damp, and it certainly gives the feel that this is a place that has been battered by the ocean for thousands of years. It’s a subtle thing, but it definitely helps characterize the Ironborn as hardened men who take great pride in never having anything handed to them.

Theon prepares to receive a blessing from Aeron Damphair on the shores of Pyke.

Harrenhal:

Perhaps the most impressive location, strictly from a size standpoint, is Harrenhal. In the books, Harrenhal is described as the largest castle in all of the Seven Kingdoms, dwarfing every other. Its smallest tower is nearly twice as high as Winterfell’s highest, and its kitchens are larger than Winterfell’s great hall. We don’t necessarily get a sense of the overall size of Harrenhal from being shown. Its mass is more of an atmospheric, almost smothering presence. There’s almost no sunlight, even outside, since everything is cast in the shadows of its massive walls. The castle’s most distinctive feature always looms ominously in the background. The five giant stone towers that have been twisted and melted by dragonfire give Harrenhal its distinctive feeling of foreboding and dread. It genuinely feels like a cursed place.

Of course, that might also be due to The Tickler.

Qarth:

The final new city we get a glimpse of is Qarth. We only get a brief shot of its interior, as the Qartheen only open their gates to Daenerys towards the end of episode four. It’s rumored that Qarth will play a larger role in the show than it did in the books, which is fine by me. I’m dying to see how the rest of Qarth looks, considering the first glimpse is even more beautiful than anything that was shot in Malta last season. There’s a reason its residents call it the greatest city that ever was and ever will be.

Qarth is an immense, lush paradise located in the middle of a vast desert wasteland.

The People 

Xaro Xhoan Daxos (played by Nonso Anozie):

Speaking of Qarth, the main representative we meet is the enigmatic Xaro Xhoan Daxos. As with Qarth itself, Xaro only makes a brief appearance towards the end of the fourth episode. In the few minutes he’s on screen, Nonso Anozie does a brilliant job of conveying everything you need to know about Xaro. He’s a gregarious charmer, but there’s something dubious about him that you can’t quite put your finger on. You want to love him, but you know he’s got his own agenda. If possible, he manages to come off as an even more subtle schemer than Littlefinger. He does make mention that he’s not originally from Qarth, but left his home of the Summer Isles to make his fortune in the greatest city in the world. His little monologue is to explain why Xaro is being played by a black man, while in the books the Qartheen are described as being so pale the Dothraki refer to them as the “milk men”.

Brienne of Tarth (played by  Gwendoline Christie):

Gwendoline Christie does such a good job of portraying the aura of Brienne. She’s a woman who is completely awkward in her skin, and it seems almost painful for her to interact with people. There’s something special about the way she blurts out, “I’m no lady.” There’s a definite feeling that she’s ashamed of herself in almost every way, but still carries herself with the confidence of an elite soldier. She’s she perfect for the role, especially considering she’s 6’3″ and absolutely towers over most of the cast.

Jaqen H’ghar (played by Tom Wlaschiha):

Since I promised no spoilers, all I can say is to keep an eye on Jaqen H’ghar. He only makes a brief appearance in the first few episodes, but Tom Wlashiha delivers his lines with a certain quiet intensity. It’s certainly appropriate, considering the role he will play later on in the season.

Asha Yara Greyjoy (played by Gemma Whelan):

This one actually disappointed me a little bit. It has nothing to do with Gemma Whelan’s performance. She’s just as salty and harsh (no pun intended) as you’d want her to be. She just…isn’t the smoking hot pirate babe that I really wanted her to be. I’m not a huge fan of the name change either, but you know how television works. Asha sounds too much like Osha, and apparently the wildling takes precedence. I wonder what the writers are going to do when they realize there’s like 20 different characters named Walder.

Stannis Baratheon (played by Stephen Dillane):

One of the interesting things about casting a character for a film or television show based on a book is how the actor lives up to the reader’s expectations. For me, Stephen Dillane is exactly how I envisioned Stannis Baratheon. Not only does he look exactly how I imagined, but he plays the part perfectly. He has all the honor of Ned Stark, but none of his grace. It seems like everything and everyone just pisses him off to no end, but he still gives off that sense that at his core he’s a good and just man.

Ser Davos Seaworth (played by Liam Cunningham):

Liam Cunningham rules. The Onion Knight is one of my favorite characters in the series. Davos essentially fills the role vacated by Ned Stark as the man whose honor puts him in a horrible set of circumstances, but is at his core such a good person that you really want to see him come out on top. It’s so hard to not to spoil anything here, because the best scene he has comes at a pretty pivotal point. If you’ve read the book, you might have an idea what I’m talking about. The way he expresses shock, fear, and disbelief while tempering that through a point of view of a man who has staunchly denied the existence of any gods is such a beautiful thing.

Yes, if you’re going to be that guy, his shortened hand is on the incorrect side.

Melisandre (played by Carice van Houten):

If we’re fortunate enough to get future seasons of Game of Thrones, we’re going to start seeing a greater focus on the different religions of Westeros and Essos. Of course, that means I won’t be able to say much about what’s going on with Melisandre right now. She’s from across the Narrow Sea, and serves a god that is more or less foreign to the people of Westeros. Carice van Houten conveys that sense of being exotic and mysterious, while at the same time holding herself up with the same grace and nobility of the ladies of Westeros. Also, she is smoking hot. Spoiler: she looks good naked.

Margaery Tyrell (played by Natalie Dormer):

One thing that the show seems to do is outright tell us things that are merely suggested in the books. For example, it’s never expressly stated that Renly Baratheon is a homosexual. I don’t think it’s the writers lacking faith in the audience as much as it is there just isn’t enough time to cram 900 pages worth of subtext into 10 hours worth of television. So, there will be absolutely no doubt as to who Margaery Tyrell is and what she wants. Spoiler: she looks good naked.

Bronn (played by Jerome Flynn):

Bronn isn’t a new character, but he has a much bigger role this season. As Tyrion’s right hand man, he’s basically the Hand of the Hand. Jerome Flynn continues to play the unscrupulous sellsword with a certain unrefined smartassery that makes him the perfect foil to Tyrion’s subtle and calculated snark. He’s also now responsible for the best line of the series, discussing King Joffrey’s rapidly worsening temperament.

Tyrion: “Do you think dipping his wick will cure what ails him?”

Bronn: “Well…there’s no cure for being a cunt.”

Overall, the series should please the diehard fans of both the show and the book. However, I do feel like it may be a little hard for new fans to come on board. It also might be difficult for fans who haven’t read the books to follow everything that’s happening. Season two introduces a lot of new characters, locations, and plots. It feels like, in a way, the onus is on the viewer to understand everything that’s happening. Excessive exposition wouldn’t make a pleasant viewing experience, and it may not help that the bulk of the first four episodes is political maneuvering, plotting, and scheming.

I’m also interested in seeing the reception to the increasing fantasy elements being introduced. The first season, other than one shot of a white walker, a couple wights, and the closing scene with the dragons, was a relatively straightforward medieval drama. Season 2 is going to bring in a lot of new elements, including the introduction of magic. Episode four ends with something that is a huge departure from anything the series has done, and takes a giant leap into the fantasy pool. The show has a lot of fans who aren’t necessarily fantasy buffs, but are drawn in by the political intrigue and excellent writing. I’m a bit curious to see the reaction once the more fantastic elements start showing up.

I can’t wait for the new season to start up. It’s almost torturous that I’m not going to see a new episode until May. It seems ridiculous to complain about that, but I need to know what happens next. That’s the amazing thing. I already know what happens, but I still need to see it. That’s how good this show is. For anyone who might get a little discouraged by how overwhelming the story is, or may feel like things are moving too slowly, please stick with it. Don’t forget that we’re in the middle of a war, and by the end of the season, the whole thing is going to come to an explosive head. You will not be disappointed. There’s a reason why this is the best show on television.

Game of Thrones Season 2 premiers Sunday, April 1 at 9:00PM on HBO.

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