As 'Game of Thrones' Returns, One Question Looms: Who Will Be King?

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The season premiere offers four possibilities for who could take over in the succession crisis.

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HBO

"It's been a remarkable journey."

Tyrion Lannister

No network makes bigger gambles than HBO, and Game of Thrones was a high-risk, high-reward gamble that has paid off bigger than anyone could have imagined. The grim, dense HBO fantasy series overcame its not-inconsiderable barriers to entry to become an unexpected phenomenon: In the year since Game of Thrones premiered, it's been referenced in everything from The Simpsons to Major League Baseball, earned Peter Dinklage an Emmy Award, and set HBO records for DVD sales and digital downloads.

Game of Thrones' stellar first season set an unusually high bar, but the second season has a different challenge: Now that Game of Thrones has won audiences over, can it keep them? If last night's season premiere, "The North Remembers," is any indication, Game of Thrones' best years are still ahead of it. This is deft, bold, deeply intelligent storytelling, demanding and uncompromising, with sky-high production values and a quality cast to match.

Given the large-scale conflict at hand, Game of Thrones' 10-episode first season feels almost like a prologue to the chaos of the second season's "clash of kings" (the title of the second novel in George R.R. Martin's source material). "The North Remembers" picks up shortly after the first season ends, with the death of King Robert Baratheon and the execution of Ned Stark throwing Westeros into a heated succession crisis. As the iron throne's four claimants collect their allies and prepare for war, two additional threats loom on the horizon: Daenerys Targaryen, whose baby dragons will have the power to conquer kingdoms once they're fully grown, and the onset of winter, which the Starks continue to insist is coming. "The North Remember" offers three kings—and one khaleesi:

Joffrey Baratheon

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Has there ever been a TV character more despicable than Joffrey Baratheon? Great villains come and go, but it takes a special kind of hatred to inspire a 10-minute YouTube compilation of a character being slapped. As the current king of Westeros, the sadistic boy treats his realm like a toy box, indiscriminately smashing the lives of his subjects out of malice and boredom. "The North Remembers" finds King Joffrey celebrating his name day with his favorite pastimes: torture and bloodshed. Since his true parents are Queen Cersei and her brother Jaime, Joffrey has no legitimate claim to the iron throne. But as Queen Cersei's chillingly reminds Littlefinger, power is power, and all it takes to be a king is enough strength to make people treat you like a king. But Cersei's mantra may come back to haunt her. If power is power, she's given far too much of it to Joffrey, who singlehandedly declared war on the Starks by beheading Ned, and who threatens to have her killed in last night's episode. It's hard to send your bratty teenager to his room when he's sitting on a throne made of swords, and Cersei may live (or die) to regret the Frankincest monster she and Jaime created.

Stannis Baratheon

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Though frequently referenced, Stannis Baratheon—King Robert's younger brother, and by rights the true heir to the throne—didn't appear in Game of Thrones' first season. As it turns out, Stannis has a severe case of middle-child syndrome; his petty whining about Robert, the elder brother who didn't love him, and Renly, the younger brother who also claims the throne, is decidedly un-kingly. Stannis' chief asset, and perhaps chief threat, is a red-draped sorceress named Melisandre, who has managed to seduce him metaphorically (if not literally). As Melisandre burns the statues of Stannis' old gods in "The North Remembers," she goads him into drawing a flaming sword called "Lightbringer." It's an empty symbol of an empty leader. "The night is dark and full of terrors," Melisandre ominously chants. She may well turn out to be one of those terrors by the time the season ends.

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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