Here's one Game of Thrones that's already got a winner: Peter Dinklage now takes top billing in the show's opening credits. Gone is Sean Bean and his heroic, honorable, doomed leading character Eddard Stark; in his place is Dinklage's Tyrion Lannister, a diminutive antihero whose weapon is his wit rather than his sword, played by an actor whose size would relegate him to comic relief on nine shows out of ten. The message is clear: This isn't your average heroic fantasy, and this isn't your average show. No, it's Game of Thrones, and in case you had any doubt what that means, someone dies not 15 seconds after those credits finish rolling. That sets the tone for the whole affair. Game of Thrones episode 11 is fast, crisp, confident, relentless, and above all intense.
From those opening seconds on, characters coming to grips with their newfound power – often over life and death – provide as much of a connecting thread for this episode as the blood-red comet streaking across the sky; both elements, and the effortless direction of Alan Taylor, seamlessly link the show's many settings and scenes. The architect of that first death and current ruler of Westeros, the boy king Joffrey Baratheon, is every bit as nasty, brutish, and short as the lives of his subjects. Played with impeccable insufferability by Jack Gleeson, Joffrey is increasingly ungovernable by his adult relatives, even threatening his mother Queen Cersei (Lena Headey) with death when she slaps him after he insults her.
Then along comes Joffrey's uncle Tyrion, appointed Hand of the King by his powerful dad and rolling deep with bodyguard Bronn (Jerome Flynn), secret prostitute-girlfriend Shae (Sibel Kekilli, who injects so much sex into lines like "Cities make me want to fuck" that you should probably wear protection), and an army of what's-in-your-wallet-style barbarians. For the first time since the series started, Tyrion's up against the realm's real power-players and smooth-operators: His own ruthless sister Cersei, backstabbing moneyman and pimp Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen), polite but lethal spymaster Varys (Conleth Hill). Watching character and actor alike raise their game accordingly ought to be one of the season's great pleasures. We're off to a good start as is. Tyrion nails Cersei with one of the episode's best lines: "You love your children. It's your one redeeming quality. That, and your cheekbones." Simply watching his face as he processes Cersei's revelation that the Starks' wild-child younger daughter Arya (Maisie Williams) escaped her clutches was worth half a dozen Walking Dead episodes. (Ditto our all-too-brief shot of taciturn badasses Bronn and the Hound (Rory McCann) standing next to each other. Dare we hope for a scene between those two?)
To the north, rebel King Robb Stark (Richard Madden) has mommy issues of his own. She wants him to trade the captured Kingslayer, Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) for the missing, presumed kidnapped Stark sisters. But he's riding high off a string of victories over the Lannisters, so he's not above Joffing it up a bit himself, as we see when he pays a sneering visit to the imprisoned Jaime. Coster-Waldau plays Jaime as a man going through the motions of bravado, as though learning what it's like to lose is even more frightening to him than getting menaced by Robb's massive pet direwolf. Which looks great, by the way: The effects department uses CGI's inherent uncanny-valley slickness as a feature rather than a bug, making Grey Wind truly feel like a creature from another world.
Robb's upwardly-mobile right-hand man and foster brother Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) has been tasked with recruiting his ex-rebel family's fleet for Robb's assault on King's Landing. Allen's joli-laid Jaggerface and goggle-eyes give him the perpetual appearance of a man who vehemently disagrees with whatever it is he just heard, and his hunger to earn recognition (if not redemption) is palpable. At the Stark stronghold of Winterfell, Robb's kid brother Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) alternates tedious meetings with the lords he now commands with listening to ominous prophecies from his wildling helper Osha (Harry Potter's Natalia Tena, who apparently got her hurr did between seasons). When a brief POV sequence starring Bran's direwolf Summer cuts directly to a sleeping Bran, however, we get the sense that the boy may have a different sort of "power" altogether.
The most interesting up-and-comer is Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane), the late King Robert's warrior brother and rightful heir (Joffrey is Cersei & Jamie's twincestuous bastard, while Robert's other brother Renly is the baby of the family). The problem? It seems like only two people in Westeros like him enough to fight for him. The first is former smuggler Ser Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham), fiercely loyal but also brutally honest, a tough combination given Stannis's precarious situation. Then there's Melisandre (Carice Van Houten), a red-headed priestess who looks like Tori Amos at the Renaissance Fair and who eggs Stannis on by casting him as her religion's long-awaited messiah figure. It's to the show's great credit that this brand-new trio – and the dark, fossil-encrusted island fortress of Dragonstone where they live – hold their own against people and places and plotlines we've all waited a year to revisit. Stannis and Davos in particular, never the most charismatic of characters in the books, greatly benefit simply by becoming living breathing actors rather than lines on paper. Hearing Dillane growl his way through Stannis's declaration of kingship, refusing to call his brother beloved (not by Stannis he wasn't) while insisting that Jaime Lannister be referred to as "Ser" – "Whatever else he may be, the man's still a knight" – makes his black-and-white personality pop.
Power's a slippery thing, though. Case in point: season one ended with the triumphant, transcendent image of a nude, fireproof Daenerys Targaryen (breakout star Emilia Clarke) encircled by freshly-hatched dragons and worshipful followers. But the show zigs where others would zag: She and her people are now slowly starving to death in a desert wasteland, outnumbered by and on the run from forces that could destroy her and her tiny band, dragons or no. Even her horse drops dead by the episode's 15-minute mark, proving once again that yes, this is Game of Thrones.
Cutting from fire to ice, we catch up with Ned Stark's bastard son Jon Snow (Kit Harrington), now a Sworn Brother of the Night's Watch, the ragtag black-clad fighting force tasked with guarding the realm's northern border. Beyond the Wall that marks it he encounters the deeply creepy Craster, whose wooden stronghold is staffed exclusively by his inbred daughter-wives and used as an outpost by the Watch. Played by Robert Pugh, who looks like a feral Dick Van Patten, Craster's a leering, sneering fuck who puts his own medieval spin on the live-free-or-die rhetoric of the Tea Party. Knowing when to shut the fuck up is a lesson of leadership Jon's dad never quite learned, and it could lead Jon into trouble here. "He marries his daughters – what's he do with his sons?" Jon asks. Dun dun dunnnnn!
Jon's half-sister and Joffrey's fiancée-cum-hostage Sansa is also struggling to keep her feelings in check. The impressive young actress Sophie Turner plays Sansa with the thousand-yard stare and flat-affect voice of an abuse victim living from beating to beating. Sansa gets a lot of grief from fans of the show and the books alike – she's stupid, she's insipid, she's prissy, she's gutless. Bullshit. She's doing what she needs to do to survive, as the episode's opening scene demonstrates. She instinctively plays to Joffrey's narcissism and cruelty, convincing him to spare a drunken knight's life while dropping enough "Your Grace"s on him to make him think it was his idea. If she'd been less courteous, like the other Starks would have been, she'd be dead.
Even the ever-slick Lord Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish finds himself on the wrong end of the sword, attempting to bigfoot Cersei with rumors of her relationship with Jaime and nearly getting his throat cut for it. "Knowledge is power," he tells her; "Power is power," she retorts, her obedient goon's knife at his neck. It's a killer exchange for Headey and Gillen, in the show's grand wordplay-into-swordplay tradition. But as the venerable fan site Westeros has pointed out, it's also too clumsy by half for Littlefinger, a master manipulator whose motives remain far more mysterious in the book than they do for his openly power-hungry TV incarnation.
Taking the power theme to its "absolute power corrupts absolutely" extreme, the episode concludes with a move out of King Herod's playbook: The City Watch massacres the late King Robert's bastard children before they can grow into rivals for Joffrey's crown, quite literally killing babies in the process. It is, frankly, excruciating to watch – and to hear; gods know I never want to listen to a baby's cries silenced by the draw of a knife and the wet sound of a blade through flesh ever again. That scene took place off-screen, as it were, in the books, where we learn about it in passing during a conversation between an outraged Tyrion and Lord Commander Janos Slynt. In choosing to show rather than tell, writers and showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss tap into imagery as old as the Bible, as intimate as a mother's nightmare, and as powerful as both. They've laid down their latest and boldest marker yet that Games will go places most dramas, let alone most fantasies, wouldn't dare. And they speak directly to George R.R. Martin's conception of war as an engine of careless cruelty and wasted human potential. But it's also unbelievably grim and uncomfortable television. I know that's the point, but I'd imagine many casual viewers (and some die-hards as well) ended up wishing they were on that oxcart with runaway Arya Stark and bull-helmeted bastard boy Gendry (Joseph Dempsie) in the episode's final shot, fleeing the horrors of King's Landing, hoping never to return. Until this time next Sunday, that is.