'Twas the thud heard round the world. In the penultimate episode of the first season of HBO's Game of Thrones, our hero Ned Stark (Sean Bean), after a brief, fraught tenure as the King's Hand, discovered the Lannisters' incestuous affair, was falsely declared traitor to the realm, and was beheaded in front of a frothing horde in the town square at King's Landing.
Much like the Brotherhood of the Night's Watch, who alone stand between civilization and an undead race of murderous ghouls, Game of Thrones writers face a daunting obstacle: how to follow up a season filled with scintillating treachery, triple-X incest, child defenestration, dragon birth, and more gruesome slayings than you can shake a scepter at. Well, they do. Lucky for them, they have for their source material George R. R. Martin's A Clash of Kings, the riveting (and thrillingly gory) second novel of the epic fantasy series upon which the show is based.
Please don't bother trying to watch the second season without having watched the first (beginning Sunday at 9 pm). In fact, unless you took notes or spent your summer growing pasty while plowing through Martin's 5000-page series — not that I'd know anything about that — it's probably necessary to watch the last season again, or at least consult Wiki. Don't feel dumb: Martin's plot is so Byzantine that each book contains a map of the realm and a list of characters, organized by house, followed by a short description of their tangled affiliations.
And so we return to Westeros to find King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) celebrating his Name Day by watching knights fight to the death. The scene — and Gleeson's curled upper lip and odiously petulant high-pitched voice — evokes enough righteous anger to drive an entire season. Ned lost his head because of this brat? Could they have found a more perfect actor to play the deranged, malevolent spawn of brother-sister incest? The problem with Gleeson is that he is so good at his role that he makes most of the cast look amateur in comparison.
SINCERELY As Tyrion Lannister, Peter Dinklage manages to channel both Kenneth Branagh's Iago and John Cleese's Sir Lancelot.
Especially Daenerys. Poor Emilia Clarke! To play the exiled Targaryen heiress, she must deliver her lines in the inane language of the Dothraki horse people, a grating mélange of Klingon, Pig Latin, and the sound my cat makes when coughing up a hairball. Another of the season's important threads finds her plotting to return to Westeros while wandering through the Red Waste, streaked in dirt, clad only in a skimpy, ragged burlap tunic. At any moment, one expects Charlton Heston and Dr. Zaius to spring out from behind a boulder.
The thrill of watching Game of Thrones — and believe me, it is thrilling — is due in no small part to the frisson created by actors of such varying talent delivering lines with the utmost sincerity. Peter Dinklage is the only playful one of the lot. As Tyrion Lannister, he is superb. He also has all the good lines, and channels both Kenneth Branagh's Iago and John Cleese's Sir Lancelot. This season, he is tasked with keeping hideous Circe and King Joffrey in line, and lucky for us: any other character slapping down those shits wouldn't be nearly as rewarding.