The most exciting thing about the season-two premiere of Game of Thrones is its refreshing sense of focus. Several episodes from the show's first season reached the cusp of greatness, but the show's creators seemed somewhat hampered by how much plot they had to disseminate in 10 episodes. Season one is a good adaptation of the first book in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice series, even if it isn't as well-paced. Thankfully, "The North Remembers," the season-two premiere, is thematically focused in ways that all of last season's serial installments were not. It's a very auspicious beginning, indeed.
Practically all of the plot developments on tonight's episode are thematically grouped around a single central question: How do you rule? This is a crucial theme in Martin's world. And while might almost never makes right in the Song of Fire and Ice books, the series's more righteous characters are usually the ones that are most ethically flexible. "The North Remembers" gets that point across nicely, climaxing with Robb Stark (Richard Madden) yelling at his mother that their current predicament is "more complicated than that, you know it is!"
On a spectrum of ethical righteousness, you'd find the Starks and the Lannnisters on opposite extremes. It's fitting then that "The North Remembers" begins with a dilemma involving the Starks and ends with a Lannister problem. First, we see how the disillusioned Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) has learned to live and, in her own way, rule beside the tryannical Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson). In this scene, Sansa saves the life of Ser Dontos Hollard (Tony Way), a poor knight who upsets the boy king by showing up drunk to a duel. Joffrey wants the man's head, but a quick-thinking Sansa convinces him that Dontos would be more thoroughly humiliated if he were instead demoted from a knight to a court jester. In this moment, Sansa is able to be slyly compassionate while also appealing to Joffrey's crueler nature.
"The North Remembers" also concludes with Joffrey, who, at the behest of his mother Cersei Lannister (Lena Heady), is ruling with impunity. Joffrey orders the Gold Cloaks to kill children that are known to be the bastard kin of the late King Robert Baratheon, the man he believes to be his father. This order effectively comes from Cersei, who, in defiance of her father's wishes and her brother Tyrion's warning, pushes Joffrey to commit this terrible deed.
Thanks to a command from Lord Tywin (Charles Dance), Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) is now performing Tywin's duties as Joffrey's Hand, or head advisor, back at Casterly Rock. So with that understanding, Tyrion warns Cersei that she needs to think before she puts her hand over Joffrey's and makes a fist. The mass slaughter at the end of "The North Remembers," including a memorable scene of infanticide, proves that that lesson has fallen on deaf ears. That point is driven home in the episode's very last shot of one lone bastard escaping with a fugitive Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) on the King's Road.
In between these two crucial bookend sequences, we're given some other examples of how future and current rulers exercise their power. Generally speaking, the most morally upright characters are instructed with mere talk. Jon Snow (Kit Harington) is counseled by his mentor, Lord Commander Jeor Mormont (James Cosmo), that sometimes one has to be patient to lead: "You want to lead one day? Well, learn how to follow." And before that, Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) is told by one of his advisors at Winterfell that he needs to listen to the petitions of men that he doesn't want to in order to be a good king: "But listening to people you'd rather not listen to is one of your responsibilities as Lord of Winterfell."
By contrast, the characters that would probably inhabit the middle section of a Games of Thrones ethical spectrum make their decisions based on omens and errors. In one scene, an imprudent man that advises Ser Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham), a merchant nicknamed "the Onion Knight," on how to provide counsel to King Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane), is murdered because he's too bold in opposing Melisandre (Carice van Houten), Stannis's mistress, and her monotheistic religion. And before that, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), the disenfranchised daughter of the former king of the realm, learns on the fly how to keep her men alive in the Red Waste's interminable deserts. She sends out a search party to discover just how much farther her group needs to go, but she only decides that her cabal needs this information after one of their horses collapses from exhaustion.
On our imaginary moral spectrum, Daenerys, now the sole monarch leading her group after Khal Drogo's death, is probably closer to the Starks than the Lannisters. She's just as morally upright as the Starks, on the whole, and she certainly has more of a rightful claim to Joffrey's throne than the boy king does. Still, her decisions as a ruler are more pragmatic than they are ethical. She's an amoral ruler because her decisions are primarily a result of her survival-oriented concerns.
And yet, the most complex character in the season-two premiere is probably Robb Stark, the character that best defies the episode's delineation of moral complexity as a matter of actions vs. deeds. He's already been tested in battle and won three skirmishes against the Lannisters. Robb's even captured Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). So the fact that he defies his mother Catelyn Stark's (Michelle Fairley) counsel and maintains that he needs to form an alliance with the Greyjoys shows you that he's now beyond counsel's influence, meaning that Robb's in over his head and his mother's advice doesn't really help him.
Robb's like Daenerys and Davos in that he learns by counter-example. But he's also like Bran and Jon in that he learns from discussion. Caetyln's not wrong for pointing out the Greyjoys are untrustworthy. But Robb is also right when he cries out, "it's more complicated than that." In that way, "The North Remembers" sets up Robb Stark, a deceptively square-jawed hero, as the most complex character of the season. It's an interesting position to put him in, but a fitting one as Robb has big boots to fill now that his father is dead. Here's hoping the rest of season two can keep up with its premiere's big ideas.