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Last night's episode of Game of Thrones was a significant improvement over the first, mostly because they had already done a lot of the hard work of setting up a vast interconnected network of families and kingdoms (or at least the ones that matter at this point), and just let the story threads they had put in place unfurl for about an hour. There were a few new faces to introduce, most notably Sandor Clegane, a knight with a scarred face in the king's service known as The Hound; and Doreah, one of Daenerys' servants who teaches her about lovemaking. With the introductions kept to a minimum the quality of the production was allowed to shine, and it was just an entrancing episode. The viewing numbers I gave last week turned out to be inaccurate, but they were still good enough to earn the series a quick renewal for a second season, and I'm excited to see these actors portray these characters for at least another 18 episodes.
It was an episode full of goodbyes, as Eddard left Winterfell with Sansa and Arya in the king's caravan to take the office of the Hand, and Jon went north with his uncle Benjen to join the Night's Watch, with Tyrion coming along to visit the Wall. The Stark family had a stroke of luck as Bran survived his fall from the tower, though he is in a coma and will never walk again even if he pulls through. His mother won't leave his side, and one night alone she is startled by a disheveled man with a knife who goes for Bran. Catelyn holds him off, her hands getting cut badly, before Bran's direwolf mauls the man and rips his throat out. She thinks that Bran was thrown from the tower and the man was sent to finish the job, suspecting the Lannisters. She decides to ride to warn Ned herself, taking only a single man with her. Meanwhile, Sansa is walking with Prince Joffrey when they come across Arya and the son of a butcher sparring with sticks. Joffrey tries to make sport of the boy, but Arya hits him and her direwolf bites his arm when he tries to retaliate. She scares the wolf off to protect it, but Sansa won't back up Arya's story out of loyalty to her future husband and her wolf is put to death in place of the escaped one. Right as Ned puts the wolf down himself, Bran's eyes open. We also learned a couple details about the past - such as Jaime being a knight for the old king before killing him during the rebellion and Robert holding the king's son (and Viserys and Daenerys' older brother) responsible for the death of Ned's sister. The truth about Jon's mother also became a much bigger question.
One thing that stood out about this episode is how effectively they're establishing the Lannisters as a very different family from the Starks. Things aren't perfect in the Stark household - Catelyn disagrees strongly with Ned's decision to become the Hand, and her treatment of Jon is overly harsh, driving him to a life of exile and celibacy. Arya and Sansa don't really get along well either, Sansa loving to knit and do what's expected, while Arya is enthralled by the gift of a sword from Jon. But they still seem like a family, one with issues to be sure, but a loving family that just happens to hold a seat of power. The three Lannister siblings on the other hand, don't seem quite that close. It's not that they hate each other, although Cersei certainly doesn't care much for Tyrion. There's just a cold calculation to their words and actions, and they obviously place their political goals over any sense of general decency. Cersei gives comforting words to Catelyn, telling her about the death of her first child by Robert. Knowing that Bran's life is only in danger because of her indiscretions makes it an insincere gesture, and it's the only remotely nice thing she does in the episode. Her coddling of Joffrey has turned him into a monster, and her decision to kill Lady in Nymeria's place shows how she values the last word over any real sense of justice.
Jaime and Tyrion don't seem to be quite as foul a person as her, though the way they both tease Jon for choosing to take the Black over the normal life of a bastard shows they aren't quite the nicest of people. Tyrion's a bit different though, as he pretty much knows how Jon feels, seen as an abomination by his father and needing to visit a whorehouse to get any female attention. Peter Dinklage only gets a few scenes in this episode, but he runs with them, establishing Tyrion as a very interesting figure within this setting. We see him scolding Joffrey for failing to give the Starks his condolences, joking with his niece and nephew at the dinner table, and explaining how he needs to read to keep his mind sharp. We quickly learn with a few bits of dialogue and actions that he finds the king's heir distasteful, that he has a love of history, but also doesn't believe in the strange creatures the Wall supposedly guards against. Dinklage does a lot with not a lot of screen time, and seeing him nail my favorite character from the books has been my favorite part of the show so far.
The scene where Ned and Robert discuss the news of Daenery's marriage to Khal Drogo is a very good one, tying a subplot that has otherwise been sort of off on its own into the main story and showing that the two old friends maybe aren't perfectly in sync. Robert still has a burning hatred for all Targaryens, while Ned assures him that a Dothraki army is no threat to Westeros. The tension between them is well played by Sean Bean and Mark Addy, and it's not helped by Ned's continued refusal to tell him about Jon's mother. You get a really good sense of the dread they're both feeling towards a new war that is starting to seem inevitable, even if they aren't sure who they'll be fighting yet. And there's some dramatic irony as they're worrying about an attack from another kingdom when the audience knows how real the supernatural threat from the north really is.
I'd just like to restate how high the quality of the production on this show is. It begins with the opening, which is another in a long line of great intros on pay cable shows. It shows a map of the land the show takes place in come to life, the camera sweeping by castles and towers as a soaring piece of music plays, getting you in the mood for some epic fantasy action. And the show just looks marvelous in high definition, with so much thought put into the sets and costuming, bringing George R. R. Martin's imagination to life. The Wall looks just as impressive as it should, and I've been very pleased with how they've handled the growth and development of the direwolves, with the scene of Bran's leaping to his aid being particularly thrilling. And although she didn't have much to do this week, watching Dany in bed with another girl didn't exactly hurt the look of the show either. They're realizing the books on screen with a fidelity I hardly hoped they could reach, and I'm more than excited to see more.