Well, ain't that a bastard!
Consider it official: "Game of Thrones" is back and more brutal than ever. Ned Stark's severed head can step (or roll) aside, as a new benchmark for horrific "Thrones" violence was reached with the season-two premiere Sunday night. We speak, of course, of the ruthless mass-murder of Robert Baratheon's bastards.
We covered that bloodshed and lots more in our new weekly recap series, "Watching the Thrones," which you can watch in the video below.
Keep on reading for even more of the highlights from the season premiere, "The North Remembers":
» Season two kicks off differently from the book it's based upon, "A Clash of Kings," in some key ways, not all of them bad. By beginning the season in King's Landing, viewers are immediately returned to the awful cruelty of Joffrey Baratheon and the wry wit of acting Hand of the King, Tyrion Lannister. Both characters represent the kinds of deplorable villainy and unexpected heroism found throughout Westeros, and both actors — Jack Gleeson and Emmy and Golden Globe winner Peter Dinklage, respectively — fully sell their roles. This is the season of Tyrion, after all; starting the season with his reliably memorable one-liners is an awesome choice.
» Up north in Winterfell, broken and bored Bran Stark sits through his subjects' many grievances. Normally, it would be a boring plotline for viewers craving more action as well — if not for those wolf dreams. Bran has always been deeply connected with his direwolf Summer, and now, we see just how connected they really are. Bran's "warging" becomes hugely important to the "Ice and Fire" saga, and it's excellent to see it rendered so faithfully on the show, especially since it falls pretty firmly in the high fantasy category.
» I wasn't sure how wild I was going to be about Robb Stark and Jaime Lannister having larger roles in season two — in the book, these characters spend most of their time off the page — but based on their shared scene in the season premiere, I feel pretty confident that beefing up their presence was the right call. Richard Madden and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau so perfectly embody those characters that I could probably watch them sip tea and eat cake for a whole episode and still love every second of it. Plus, there's some amazingly ferocious Greywind action in there. Direwolves are getting lots of love this season based on episode one alone.
» Really, only one aspect of the season premiere didn't sit right with me: the introduction of Stannis Baratheon and the whole Dragonstone story. Stannis is one of my very favorite characters in the books, and if I'm being honest, Stephen Dillane, terrific actor though he may be, doesn't stack up with the hard, cold, imposing Stannis of my imagination. I much prefer the fan casting that put Christopher Eccleston in the role. Also, I didn't care for how Maester Cressen's death played out. When he dies and Melisandre towers over his corpse giving him the evil-witch stink eye, you, A) Don't feel all that bad for Cressen because he's an entirely undeveloped character (unlike his novel's counterpart), and B) You suddenly view Stannis and Melisandre almost as supervillains — which is the wrong first impression to give for them, in my humble opinion. Small gripes in the long scheme of things, but gripes all the same.
» Here's a trend that "Watching the Thrones" guest Sean T. Collins pointed out to me: Children are getting an incredibly raw deal in season two so far. (Teaser alert: I've seen the first four episodes, and it just keeps getting darker for the young'uns.) In the hugely gross department is the wildling Craster and his veritable army of daughter-wives. Really, what more needs to be said? It's disgusting as all get-out, even if it's sickeningly clever stuff from the mind of author George R.R. Martin.
» Speaking of bad things happening to kids, we return to the beginning of this piece and the end of the episode: the slaughter of Robert's bastards. I've watched a lot of television in my time — too much, probably — and I think I can safely say that the death of the baby in the brothel was one of the most thoroughly effed-up things I've ever seen on TV. And that's without even seeing the actual body! Right off the bat, Ned's head on a spike barely even registers on the trauma-meter compared to the end of the season premiere. The bar is certainly very high in terms of "Thrones" brutality now; I can't wait to see how it gets topped going forward.
What did you think of the "Game of Thrones" premiere? Let me know in the comments section or on Twitter @roundhoward!