Last year, the big question surrounding Game of Thrones was whether or not it could truly capture the epic scale, brutality and moral complexity of George R. R. Martin‘s novels and be reliably entertaining television at the same time. We all know how that turned out, but the question for season two now becomes whether or not the show can keep it up. This time around the world gets bigger, the characters more numerous, the drama more intense and the story even more complex. Can Game of Thrones gain scope and ambition without losing focus?

WARNING: The following review contains spoilers from season 1. If you’re still finishing up your DVD, read on at your own peril.

“The North Remembers” picks up the story soon after the season one finale, “Fire and Blood,” left off. The kingdom of Westeros is torn by war. Several  factions are now vying for power in the kingdom, and none of them are ready to stop until they get what they want. In King’s Landing, Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) has just arrived to take over the duties of Hand of the King while his father Tywin (Charles Dance) fights battle on behalf of the young King Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson). Like the late Ned Stark (Sean Bean) before him, Tyrion finds himself thrust into a web of deceit with his sister Cersei (Lena Headey) at the very center of it. As his own political games begin, he hopes his wits will allow him to leave with his head.

The Stark family is scattered throughout Westeros in the wake of Ned’s death. Robb (Richard Madden) and his mother Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) continue to march against the Lannisters with Jaime “The Kingslayer” Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) in tow as hostage, and so far they’re undefeated. Sansa (Sophie Turner) remains Joffrey’s prisoner in the capital. Young Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) is serving as Lord of Winterfell with the rest of his family gone. Arya (Maisie Williams) is on the run after barely escaping King’s Landing with her life. And at The Wall in the far North, Jon Snow (Kit Harington) ventures out with his fellow brothers of the Night’s Watch to tame a growing threat in the wilds beyond the Seven Kingdoms.

But this war is no longer just between two families. On Dragonstone in the Narrow Sea, Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) – brother of the late Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy) – is staking his own claim to the Iron Throne based on the news that Joffrey is not Robert’s son, but rather the son of Cersei andJamie’s incest. He plans to take the Iron Throne with the help of an entourage that includes the hard but practical Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) and the mysterious Melisandre (Carice van Houten), a priestess of a new god known as the Lord of Light.

And in the east, across the Narrow Sea, things grow desperate for Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke). With no husband, no resources and few left loyal to her, she clings to the hope of survival, and to her young dragons.

If season one was all about honor, season two is all about power (a point all those trailers you’ve been seeing have no doubt driven home). For one thing, there’s more of it. More kings, more armies, more influence to barter with. In one of the more memorable moments of “The North Remembers,” Petyr Baelish (Aidan Gillen) smirks as he taunts Queen Cersei with the phrase “knowledge is power.” Cersei retaliates by launching a brief but brutal display of her own influence and declaring simply, “Power is power.” As the episode, and the season, progresses it becomes clear that every major character has their own view of what power means. Some see it as a tangible thing, to be wielded, while others see it as an illusion to be manipulated. These perceptions and their ramifications begin to develop almost immediately, and it’s the first sign of the continued quality of Game of Thrones‘ storytelling.

Carrying on with the power theme is the further development of magic in this world. Last season it existed only as legend, with the exception of a few glimpses of White Walkers and that epic final moment featuring dragons. This season, while it’s not exactly hammering the whole plot forward, it is coming out to play much more. In the opening minutes of “The North Remembers,” omens appear, symbols of the changing natural and supernatural forces that will rock the kingdom. It adds new layers to the story, but it does nothing to cheapen the rawness of what developed in season one. Magic fits seamlessly into this universe.

The new additions to the cast also fit right in, but the clear standout so far is van Houten, who hits all the right seductive, scene-stealing notes as Melisandre. The returning cast, led by Dinklage, is also stellar, though Tyrion is still the one having the most fun. I’ll talk more about individual performances as the season wears on, but for now know that everyone is performing powerfully.

Scripted by series creators David Benioff and D. B. Weiss and directed by HBO veteran Alan Taylor, “The North Remembers” is a powerful re-introduction to the most ambitious series on television. Game of Thrones hasn’t slowed down, hasn’t let up and hasn’t lost its edge. If this debut is any indication, season two won’t be as good as season one. It’ll be better.

NEXT WEEK: Episode Two, “The Night Lands.”

Thanks to our friends at HBO for the opportunity to screen the episode in advance.


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