HBO’s adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series is a war between two kinds of time. On one side is the time-sink of Martin’s vast, sprawling and ongoing series of novels that span thousands of pages filled with hundreds of characters and dozens of simultaneous plot threads. On the other side is the speed of televised storytelling with its ability to show tens of pages worth of content in the space of a few seconds and distill multiple conversations into a single scene relying on skilled actors to deliver volumes of meaning in one nuanced line reading. HBO has already proved its ability to create a visually stunning and suitably tense adaptation. The challenge ahead of it going into Season 2 of Game of Thrones is whether or not it’ll be able to distill an ever-growing story into one hour a week without turning the show into a 10-season monster.
GoT Season 2 opens (thankfully) in a different place than A Clash of Kings, the second book in the series. George Martin has a habit of beginning and ending his books in unfamiliar places filled either with characters we’ve never seen before or with shock twists that won’t be explained for years of real time. It takes this opening episode quite a while to introduce Melisandre, the priestess of the mysterious god R’hllor, or for that matter Stannis Baratheon, both of whom will end up being major players as the story progresses but have so far played no part in the series. “The North Remembers” opens instead in the familiar seaside city of King’s Landing where most of Season One took place. Evil brat Joffrey is enjoying a bit of mortal combat beside Sansa Stark, the girl whose father he had beheaded some time earlier. The scene sets the tone for a number of key characters, including old faces like Tyrion, but also introduces Ser Dontos, a guy who’ll be a sorta big deal a long time from now and…
…see, this is what I’m talking about. I’m among the half of the GoT audience who have read George Martin’s novels, so this all makes a lot more sense to me than it would to someone who has only ever watched the show. It’s great that the adaptation is so faithful to the source material, but Seven help us, it’s all so damn confusing. The twisty politics of Westeros are labyrinthine on purpose but the many other stories blossoming in the show are about to gather their own sprawling casts of important names and webbed relations. Jon Snow is going to mix us up in the lore of the North beyond the Wall, Daenerys will soon have several cities full of people and politics to handle in the East and we haven’t even been to freakin’ Dorne yet.
For all my misgivings about the vast undertaking of adapting A Song of Ice and Fire, the presentation of Game of Thrones remains excellent. Viewers unfamiliar with the books may never be able to sift through the ever-growing mythology and, short of reading the books themselves, I wouldn’t even encourage them to try. Rather, it’s better to just enjoy the ride. The sets are nicely appointed, the costumes are spot-on, the acting is great and the dialogue is sharp. It doesn’t require a steel trap memory of Lannister family history to appreciate the subtext-laden conversations between Cersei and Tyrion, nor is an understanding of Valayrian magic necessary for Daenerys’s dragons to be cool, nor is the montage of child murders that caps the premiere any less terrifying if one doesn’t remember old King Robert Baratheon’s tendency to make illegitimate offspring all over the city because of the deep heartache he felt for the death of his one true love.
I’m sure Random House wants Game of Thrones to be compelling enough to get viewers hooked but confusing enough to make them seek out the books (which they have in huge numbers). I’m also sure HBO wants to keep the show thrilling for all of its audience, whether they’ve read the books or not. If GoT sticks to the more visceral pleasures on parade in “The North Remembers” without getting too bogged down in names and mythology, everyone should remain happy and the show should remain a hit.