'Game of Thrones' Season 2: TV Review

Helen Sloan
Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister
The acclaimed HBO fantasy series that was Emmy nominated for best drama last season, returns as strong as ever. There's a power vacuum in Westeros, and the rule of King Joffrey is openly resisted by the emergence of as many as five self-proclaimed kings. Let the war begin.

Fantasy epic makes strong case for being one of TV's best series.

At their best, genre series tend to be creative and fun and compelling, but held up to the standards of great dramas, they tend to lack gravitas. This is especially true in the science fiction and fantasy categories, where The X-Files broke the mold and received a best drama Emmy nomination four consecutive seasons from 1995 to ’98 but never won. Lost was nominated four times, winning in its first season (2005) in a battle with the unquestionably great Western series Deadwood (which itself only managed one nomination in three seasons). Perhaps the last sci-fi or fantasy series to be truly taken seriously was the now-defunct remake of Battlestar Galactica, which never received a nomination.

And despite Lost’s victory, the series is unlikely to ever be considered among the truly great dramas of the past 20 years (nor will True Blood, inexplicably nominated for best drama in 2010).

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Ah, but from the fantasy realm comes a legitimate contender in HBO’s Game of Thrones, which received a best drama nomination in its freshman season of 2011. The epic series, based on the collection of books from George R.R. Martin, created an amazingly ambitious worldview and supplied it with a vast array of complicated and nuanced characters. The result was a series that immediately put itself in the discussion as one of the best shows on television, a rare and lightning-fast emergence.

On April 1, Game of Thrones returns for its second season and impressively cements the reputation it earned when it burst onto the scene. The first four episodes are rich in storytelling and action and ambition  -- a thrilling return to brilliance.

Fans of Martin’s work are lucky (and they know it) that Game of Thrones ended up on HBO, which seems to have spared little money in letting executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss bring Martin’s vision to the small screen. It’s an incredible undertaking to tell such a sprawling story and keep numerous story arcs not only functioning but riveting. (Martin, for those who don’t already know, is a co-executive producer, ensuring nothing hinky or subpar happens to the work.)

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After the shocking conclusion (to those who haven’t read the books) of Season 1, where all rule was lost and war was encroaching, Season 2 wastes no time deftly setting up the battles for power yet to come.

Westeros is about to become a battlefield as the five kings (that almost never works out, does it?) try to unite the lands under the Iron Throne. Everyone should know by now that a thirst for power needs a thirst for blood -- and the leading up to war amounts to a lot of conniving and allegiances, not all of them obvious. This is where allies become enemies, and if you don’t have your house in order, as it were, someone will likely try to trample it out of existence.

Although there will probably be myriad twists, we know already that Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) is holed up in King’s Landing sitting on the Iron Throne (that he didn’t earn). His mother Cersei (Lena Headey) continues to pull the puppet-strings. But it’s her brother Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) who seems to be the one to watch, as he’s the smartest Lannister and knows that having a brat for a king -- who mistreats all those around him -- could cause major backlash.

(Some viewers may consider minor plot description in the next three paragraphs to be small spoilers, though they are mostly setting up the main players this season.)

In the north – and the title to the first episode is “The North Remembers” – Robb Stark (Richard Madden) is taking the fight to the Lannisters while seeking to consolidate houses and armies. And for the first time, we see that Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane), next in line to the late King Robert, has risen up from the island of Dragonstone to claim what he believes to be his. This is complicated in two parts: first because he’s allied himself with Melisandre (Carice van Houten) a priestess of otherworldly powers, and secondly because younger brother King Renly Baratheon (Gethin Anthony) doesn’t want to join him nor get out of the way. Renly has married Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer, a familiar face in these types of shows), thus annexing land and armies under the House Tyrell.

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Even farther north, Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and the Night’s Watch hear rumbling of yet another king, this one north of The Wall and not from Winterfell. In more arid lands – called the Red Waste – Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) tries to keep her three young dragons alive (hatched when she walked into husband Khal Drogo’s funeral pyre and lived to tell about it) as well as a ragtag band of Dothraki.

Let’s see – any more kings? Well, yes, sort of. When Robb Stark sends Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) back to his father’s homeland to seek an alliance, we find out that Theon’s father and sister would rather resurrect the Kingdom of the Iron Island if there’s going to be a power vacuum. Nobody wants to share?

As you can sense, the lure of the throne and of power won’t make these various forces unite easily, so Season 2 is shaping up to be, what’s the word – bloody?

It’s a pleasure to see that Game of Thrones hasn’t lost a grip on its ability to tell a vast, interconnected story without slowing down the pace. What’s truly impressive is that as life is breathed into these storylines, Game of Thrones just gets better and more fulfilling as a top-tier television series. The intrigue of the plot and the keenly drawn characters – plus the sense instilled in Season 1 that absolutely anything can happen and no one is safe – makes the show all the more compelling.

There’s a rich tapestry at work in Game of Thrones that precious few series have pulled off, or even attempted. This series makes HBO's late, lamented Rome seem like a minimalist stage play. The result is that fans (and not just the die-hards who have read the books) soak up each episode and wish – like I did after the fourth episode – that there were more than 10 episodes per season. That kind of insatiable sense of wanting to absorb the fertile storytelling, excellent characters/acting and magnificent visuals is a definitive sign that a series is doing virtually everything right.

Game of Thrones is so much more than a genre series, a fantasy epic. It’s a series that doesn’t need to feel dramatically inferior up against the likes of Mad Men or Breaking Bad, Justified or anything else.

It’s quite a feat, this amplification of the achievements in Season 1,  and -- though it may be early yet in Season 2 – should ensure more Emmy recognition, genre be damned.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine