WARNING: SPOILERS for the first episode of season two lie beyond, plus spoilers for season one as well.
OK, let's get this out of the way. I don't like George R. R. Martin's prose style and thus I couldn't get into the books. Great plot and some fascinating characters, but the constant shifting narrators was pretentious and detracted from the whole - often creating a frustrating elipsis of time as events were covered by more than one side with little benefit. In the seminal Japanese film, Rashomon, different narrators were used to weave four accounts of a murder, before a final version of the story reveals the truth. This has been mimicked many times since in both films and TV, and of course you can trace its roots throughout storytelling. However, Martin rarely seems to use his changing of the point of view to add to the story.
Thankfully, the TV series benefits from a move to third person narration, presenting us with the interesting plot without the pretentious prose style, reminiscent of a 15 year old boy convinced he'll be the next big thing in fantasy fiction. The characters are brought to life with compelling actors - an international cast that is a credit to HBO's dedication to the series. I loved the first series, pleased to see a television series with the scope of a feature film - and a rare example of an adaptation that surpasses the source material.
And so to the second season of A Game Of Thrones, eagerly awaited both here and in the US (as parodied by Funny Or Die below).
This opening episode is a compelling example of why this series is such a triumph, expertly weaving the introduction of new characters, whilst re-establishing the existing characters. A huge cast, with armies raising in all four corners of Westeros and beyond - juggling that is now small feat, not to mention all the intrigue and petty machinations in the court of King's Landing.
Joffrey has grown into a full blown horror - a malicious and vindictive King who delights in torturing his subjects and tormenting Sansa Stark. Jack Gleeson continues to portray a character I love to hate and I eagerly await his inevitable downfall. Sophie Turner's Sansa is believably hollow and broken after the execution of her father. Thankfully, Tyrion sweeps into the court - newly appointed to the role as Hand of the King - bringing with him better manners, a touch of courtesy and a light humour. All of which belie the towering intellect that resides within this short man. Peter Dinklage continues to deserve every award he receives and has become my favourite character on the show. His knowing banter with Cersei is superb.
Other returning characters find themselves in a variety of new situations. With his brother away to war, young Bran Stark is now Lord of Winterfell in the wake of his father's death. At night he dreams of running through forests as his dire wolf and seeks to visit the same spot the next day. The portentous comet he spots in the sky can be seen across the land, even as far as the Red Waste where Daenerys and her people are suffering from the effects of starvation on their long journey. Even her newborn dragons are refusing to eat the meet they are offered. Through it all, Emilia Clarke's character remains the strong, fiery young leader she matured into during the first season.
In the North, beyond the Wall, Lord Commander Jeor Mormont's party make came with a disgusting new character called Craster - an aging man who makes his daughters into his wives, in order to have more wives. Jon Snow rightly finds this foul man offensive, though he fails to hide his feelings. While this opening episode has very little of the sexposition that the first series became known for, the harsh words from Craster to Jon were a sharp reminder that this is an HBO show and will not pull its punches. It also seems there is a man who has declared himself King-Beyond-The-Wall and is amassing an army. Winter is indeed coming.
The other major host of new characters are another army rising to challenge the Lannister rule. In season one, Ned Stark sent word of Joffrey's true lineage to the late King Robert's eldest brother, Stannis Baratheon, the Lord of Dragonstone. He has pledged himself to a new God, The Lord Of Light and has had all remnants of the older Gods destroyed. A clever and seemingly capable man, Stannis sends ravens to all corners of Westeros, laying claim to the throne and exposing the incest between the Lannister siblings. The Red Priestess who has his ear, Melisandre, is a dangerous new addition to the cast. I look forward to seeing what developments the court of Dragonstone will bring to the series. The island is certainly an intriguing new element in the title sequence.
The episode really is a pleasing balance between the old and new, even stopping in on Robb Stark and his captive, Jamie. A tense exchange that once again showcases just how large the dire wolves have grown. The episode ends with Joffrey's outrage at the message from Stannis. Growing beyond even his manipulative mother's control, the vicious young King orders his guards to murder all of King Robert's illegitimate children. Only one son eludes them - the blacksmith's apprentice Gendry - currently travelling North to the Wall in a caravan with a disguised Arya Stark.
It's triumphant return for the fantasy series, once again blending a variety of locations and a multinational cast to create a TV series that is a true feast, elevating the story above the clumsy prose style and exposition of the source material. Another nine episodes of murder, war, intrigue, manipulation, camaraderie, tragedy and of course, sexposition await are coming. I can't wait.
Ben Fardon is bracing himself for the flamemail from enrage George R. R. Martin fans...