The Fantastic Ambition of 'Game of Thrones'

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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.

Like the first season, this one looks to be a triumph, though (also like the first) it takes a little while to gather velocity. Unlike Martin, who dumps readers in the middle of unfamiliar settings and circumstances and challenges them to keep up, showrunners Benioff and Weiss are more deliberate. Several scenes have been inserted with the apparent intent of reintroducing existing characters—here's a quick confrontation that tells you what you need to know about Cersei Lannister; here's another that summarizes the history between Catelyn Stark and Petyr Baelish—presumably on the assumption that there will be a sizable population of new viewers who skipped season one. (If I may pause to offer advice: Don't be one of them. Start at the beginning like a sensible person.)

Thus far the second season takes greater liberties than the first: some, as above, in the service of clarity; others for the sake of concision (an issue that will loom ever larger); and still others to make explicit an idea that Martin's books offered only obliquely—the fate of Craster's sons, for example, or the exact provenance of Melisandre's shadow assassin. In Martin's telling, it is unclear whether newcomer Margaery Tyrell is a true innocent or devious schemer; the casting of Natalie Dormer (Anne Boleyn in Showtime's The Tudors), with her sloe eyes and longitudinal necklines, quickly puts that question to rest, substituting one kind of mystery for another.

However one feels about Benioff and Weiss's infidelities, though, it is clear that they know what they're doing. The meticulousness of the show may differ in its particulars from the meticulousness of the novels, but it is unmistakable—in the first-rate dialogue, the sharp segues, the careful sowing of seeds that will bear fruit episodes later. The spirit of Martin's epic, moreover, is ever in evidence, glinting with malice and irony.

There are quibbles that can be made: I'm not yet persuaded by some of the casting choices (notably for Stannis Baratheon and his mage-muse Melisandre), and there are times when the limitations of HBO's budget show. Those who were nonplussed about the frequent sexing-up of the material—I was agnostic, but am beginning to tire of it—will have plenty more to nonplus them moving forward.

That said, there is so much more to like than not: the amiable sneer of Bronn the sellsword; the stoic decency of Gendry the blacksmith-boy; the look of moral dyspepsia that regularly crosses the lovely features of Cersei Lannister. And Tyrion, the Imp! Peter Dinklage already pocketed a Golden Globe and an Emmy for his portrayal of the most likable Lannister in season one. Given the wry wit and subtle mastery he displays in season two, they may have to start inventing new awards to give him.

At one point early in the season, wise Maester Luwin cautions young Bran Stark, "Maybe magic once was a mighty force in the world, but not anymore." One could scarcely ask for a more eloquent rebuttal than Game of Thrones itself.

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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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