Season 2 of Game of Thrones begins where Season 1 ends—with a death. This one is for the entertainment of King Joffrey, the sadistic boy who called for the head of Lord Stark at the end of the first season. His wife, young Sansa Stark is forced to watch his cruelty and call her father a traitor.
It doesn’t take long for The Imp, Tyrion Lannister to remind us why we missed this show, as he arrives in King’s Landing as the representative of his father. “You love your children,” he tells his sister, the Queen mother Cersei. “It’s your one redeeming quality—that and your cheekbones.”
Another child, the youngest Stark Bran, has also been thrust into a position of leadership. With Robb Stark off to war, he’s left to rule Winterfell, but he has wiser counsel and a kinder heart than Joffrey.
But the real reason to look forward to Season 2 is marked by a red comet in the skies of the Seven Kingdoms. That means dragons. The eggs that hatched last season are now vulnerable babies, but they have a strong protector in Daenerys Targaryen, The Imp’s only rival for the show’s most interesting character. She’s leading her people through the desert, The Red Waste, looking for a haven. Sadly, she and her dragon only make a brief appearance in the opener.
The pilot offers only a glimpse of several of the surviving characters of last season, showing us where they are now. But with so many gone, it’s also a time to replenish the players in this game. And so we’re introduced to Stannis Baratheon and his council. The secret of Joffrey’s parentage—that he’s the son of Jaime Lannister, his mother’s brother, and not the king—didn’t die with Ned Stark but was shared with Stannis. And Stannis sees himself as the true heir, advised by a priestess of the Lord of the Light. That makes a fourth candidate for the throne—or as Lady Catelyn Stark says, “There’s a king in every corner now.”
Robb Stark, however, would be content with a throne in Winterfell. The King of the North is looking for allies in Lord Grayjoy and Renly Baratheon, Lord of Storm’s End. Yet another “King of the North” is gathering wildlings beyond the wall, getting ready for a march southward.
Season 2 also ends with death. Horrible, heartbreaking death. The deaths of every bastard child born of King Baratheon—and there are many. The only one to escape is the protector of Arya Stark, and he’ll soon have the King’s guards on his tail.
It’s a lot to keep up with, but that’s part of the show’s attraction. Game of Thrones is epic in scale, from the opening sequence to the cinematography to a character list as long as your arm. Thematically, however, it’s almost laser-focused on power—the quest for it and the abuse of it. Ned Stark, with his sense of duty and contentment of position, was an exception, and those virtues have carried down to his children. But Ned is dead now, and the game is on.