The Fantastic Ambition of 'Game of Thrones'

The HBO show's second season, which premieres this weekend, has an even wider scope than the first.

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HBO

Among the fondest memories of my 1970s childhood is that of my father reading Tolkien to me: The Hobbit first and, later, The Lord of the Rings. I followed up with what was, at the time, a fairly common male-nerd-adolescent diet of science fiction, Dungeons & Dragons, and the occasional foray back into sword-and-sorcery lit. I'd read the Narnia books, of course, and tried my hand at the Sword of Shannara series, Michael Moorcock's Elrics and Hawkmoons and Corums, and various other shadows cast by Tolkien's sun. But by my mid-teens, I'd pretty much concluded that the fantasy genre had reached a premature apogee with J.R.R. that it was unlikely to approach again. My infrequent toe-dips into the enchanted pool in the years since (His Dark Materials, etc.) did little to alter this assessment.

Until Games of Thrones. I approached the first season of the HBO show, based on George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, with great skepticism—and burned through it at a two-episode-a-night clip. Then came the books. My initial plan was to read only the first, and save the others (there are a total of five to date) until after I'd watched the relevant seasons of the show. That plan lasted for perhaps an hour beyond my completing the first book. (Perhaps less.) A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows, A Dance with Dragons—the pages flew like ravens, despite the burgeoning girth of each successive tome. (The most recent could double as an end table.) And then: emptiness. An absence of purpose. The endless ticking of days until the resumption of HBO's exceptional adaptation, by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.

Relief is at hand, at last.

In the show's first season, we were introduced to Martin's vast chessboard, the land of Westeros, and its central pieces: the Starks of Winterfell (chilly, stubborn, loyal to a fault), the Lannisters of Casterly Rock (rich, sly, addicted to ambition), and, spiraling outward from them, Arryns, Baratheons, Targaryens, and their respective retinues of warriors and whisperers. The dynastic was leavened with just a hint of the fantastic: a pack of dire wolves, a crate of dragon eggs, a smattering of undead.

With the second season, set to premiere this Sunday, the focus widens further still: wildlings from the north, the Ironborn from the west, storylines scattered across two continents. Indeed, nearly every one of the early episodes has been forced to amend the mechanized map featured in the show's title sequence in order to squeeze in yet another relevant locale: the island redoubts of Dragonstone and Pyke; cursed, molten Harrenhaal; exotic Qarth. (Not to be confused with Tarth, which is another place altogether, the alphabet itself scarcely capable of accommodating the breadth of Martin's vision.) The peace that had prevailed in Westeros has been broken, and self-anointed kings lie thick on the ground. Plots and counter-plots unfurl, alliances are made and betrayed. Through the first four episodes (which are all I've seen), no one of consequence has yet lost his head. But unless I'm mistaken, regal blood will run red before the credits roll in episode 5.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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