Omens, visions and rituals combine to herald the next chapter of HBO's obsession-worthy fantasy series, Game of Thrones. After leaving the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros in the hands of a despotic boy-king, the series roars back to television, picking up right where it left off like a book opened to a dog-eared page.
From the start, it's clear that, as much as season 1 followed the reluctant exploits of Eddard Stark (Sean Bean) and his ruinous turn as the Hand of the King, season 2 immediately begins gathering steam from the performance of Peter Dinklage. Yes, he was the break out star of season 1, but this season (awards and accolades aside) Game of Thrones feels very much like Dinklage's program to carry. With his wit, charm and wry sensibilities, Tyrion easily handles the task.
At our first sight of Tyrion, it's clear he is not taking the role of Hand of the King lightly, and knows that his family – particularly his sister and her son – are also the unscrupulous kind that, if they are to remain in charge, will require the guidance of one who - despite having many vices - is not ruled by them. That is to say: Tyrion has the mettle, and the smarts, to make the rule of Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) a long one.
And so we are introduced to the kingdom as ruled by a young tyrant - one beset by the unnervingly casual nature of extreme violence. The violence and utter disregard for human life serves a potent reminder that though the audience may favor one character over another, Game of Thrones refuses to guarantee anyone's term on the program – especially now that war has broken out between Eddard's eldest son Robb Stark (Richard Madden) and the Lannisters.
When last we saw them, the Lannisters seemed on top of the world, but now they're faced with the real possibility that retribution for the beheading of Eddard Stark (Sean Bean) may be coming to the south more swiftly than winter. There is an air of resentment and disgust about King's Landing regarding the unsubstantiated (but totally true) rumors of King Joffrey being the bastard son of his uncle Jamie (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). It seems as soon as they took power, the knowledge of the Lannister twins' indiscretion was poised to be their undoing. As Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) demonstrates, though, knowledge may be a powerful tool, but only if it is used by those with a captive audience - which, at the moment, King's Landing is short on. But power comes in many forms, and right now, Cersei and her family still wield the kind that could end a dissenter's life.
Meanwhile, Jamie is still held captive by Robb, who has made a rather auspicious debut by handing the wealthy and immense Lannister army three consecutive defeats. While Jamie plays mind games with the young leader, Robb reminds him without a hint of subtlety that, for the moment, control – including that of the incestuous Lannister's life – rests in Robb's seemingly capable hands.
For Robb to be able to take King's Landing, however, he must be able to broker some kind of alliance with the father of Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) – an alliance Robb's mother Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) warns him against. But this is a time of war and uncertainty, a fact Robb makes clear to his mother by reasoning the conflict may have been born of his father's execution, but it has now grown into a fight for independence for the northern people - and that may mean adding unstable elements like the elder Greyjoy to an already tenuous and risky undertaking.
Through this conflict, the world of Game of Thrones is instantly more vast and complex than the already elaborate world detailed in season 1. Not only has the issue become the North rebelling against a fraudulent king, but the turmoil resulting from who sits upon the iron throne has set into motion many other men laying claim to such a perch. The ongoing dispute and expanse of the world is made evident through the journey of dragon-hatcher Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) and the small group of Dothraki that still travel with her across the desolate expanse of the Red Waste. As her counselor, Ser Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) elucidates the plight of the group by informing the Khaleesi that, given the hostile forces surrounding them, crossing the Red Waste is their only hope for survival. But in a fitting metaphor for the realm of Westeros, the unforgiving heath may spell doom for the small caravan, regardless what people lie beyond its breadth.
In regards to the expanded scope, it would only be fitting to mention the addition of Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane), the oft-mentioned but unseen brother of the late king Robert (Mark Addy). He becomes an important player in the game, as he actually has a legitimate claim to the throne. However important, Stannis' introduction is one that also cautions a certain amount of unease considering the company he keeps in Melisandre (Carice van Houten). Her unwillingness to fall victim to a poisoned drink is yet another portent that season 2 will be filled with all sorts of unnatural (read: supernatural) occurrences.
It is a lot to take in, but writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss artfully point the audience in the right direction, even when being introduced to a character for the first time. This is why when Jon Snow (Kit Harington), and his other wall-watchers come across the hatefully possessive northerner who marries his daughters, we feel a notable amount of disgust and need for retribution on behalf of those who cannot defend themselves. It may, in some small fashion, help make up for all the wrongs that have gone without retribution since the series began.
But that is how Game of Thrones works: the just are often punished while the wicked find delight in the gratification of nearly every whim. This concept is not modern, but still feels very resonant in today's society; a testament to why this series is so easily accessible and consumed with such ferocity by its legion of fans.
Throw in some truly quote-worthy lines of dialogue, clever twists, and the scattering of hints and nods to events that will later leave the audience reeling as they did in season 1, and you have a mindful adaptation of George R.R. Martin's books that dares build upon the world he has crafted, rather than be a shallow, visualized mimic to the printed word.
Game of Thrones gets off to a fantastic start with its second season premiere. Though it will take some time to regain the kind of velocity felt at the end of season 1, the seeds of an epic season have certainly been planted.
Game of Thrones continues next Sunday with 'The Night Lands' @9pm on HBO.