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

“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


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


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.

Robb Stark


Ned Stark's eldest son and the "King in the North," Robb is the closest thing we have left to a hero. He's undefeated on the battlefield so far, and he carries a particularly shiny prize: Jaime Lannister, the legendary Kingslayer. Robb has proved a savvier player than his father, but he defies mother Catelyn's advice for the first time in "The North Remembers" by seeking a truce with Ned's former enemy, Balon Greyjoy. The message will be delivered by Theon Greyjoy, whose position as the Stark family's longtime "ward" (a gentler word for "hostage") makes him a wild card in the game of thrones; he declared loyalty to Robb with the rest of his bannermen, but he's shown a more reckless and occasionally crueler side. Given the string of betrayals the Starks suffered in season one, it's hard not to be wary that Theon will seize the opportunity to avenge his family's dishonor (as the old saying goes: If you want a friend in Westeros, get a direwolf). But Robb is also the only king smart enough to realize that he can't win the iron throne without an ally, sending Catelyn to broker an alliance with Renly Baratheon that would split the kingdom between the two. Robb's three victories are, as he notes, far better than three defeats; he's grown into the canny leader that even his father couldn't be. If Westeros was a democracy, I'd be voting a Stark ticket.

Daenerys Targaryen


Daenerys ended Game of Thrones’ first season reborn, emerging naked from a funeral pyre with a trio of newborn dragons. But if last we saw her in her greatest triumph, “The North Remembers” gives us Daenerys at her most desperate. Stranded with her small khalasar in a seemingly endless desert called the Red Waste, she sends her three strongest riders in three different directions, hoping that one of them will find some semblance of civilization before she dies. It’s been a rough year for Daenerys, but if she can hold on, she may yet fill the promise that her enemies will die screaming: she had the last woman who betrayed her burned to death, and when her dragons are grown there will be much, much more fire and blood to come.

The table is set for a clash of kings—and, perhaps, one khaleesi—and all of Westeros lies in the crossfire. “The North Remembers” ends with the cold-blooded murders of Robert Baratheon's lowborn bastards, including an infant child. It’s an apt metaphor for the series as a whole: as the high lords play their game of thrones, the common people are put to the sword, and no one—no matter how blameless or innocent—will be spared. In Westeros, it snows on the just and the unjust alike, and winter is coming.

Read all of The Atlantic’s Game of Thrones coverage.

Note: For the sake of viewers who are experiencing the Game of Thrones story for the first time, we request that those who have read the Song of Ice and Fire series avoid revealing spoilers for upcoming episodes in the comments section below.

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