How fantastic is to see Game of Thrones back on our screens? Peter Dinklage as Tyrion has shot to the top of the credits, suiting what is an even larger role than his Emmy award-winning turn last season.  The season opener, “The North Remembers”, is a superbly crafted and beautiful piece of theater that reacquaints us to characters we love (and loathe) while introducing new ones. King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) is still as hate-able as ever, his actions moving toward psychopathic as he now has the power to enact his whims. He continues to torture poor Sansa (Sophie Turner), the lone Stark left alive in King’s Landing, who starts to learn herself how to play the game and manipulate the young King. I can see how Sansa can eventually become like Queen Cersei – cold, hard and a real game player.

It is Tyrion though who is maneuvering to become the real power behind the throne, and Dinklage continues to strongly portay the character’s strength and wit. His arrival to the small council is a masterful slap in the face to all who sit on it, but especially his sister. Tyrion’s been given the mission by his father to “rein in” Joffrey and Cersei and he intends to get straight down to it.

The major points of note for the rest of the episode is the appearance of Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane), the late King Robert’s middle brother who sets himself as a man of honour and law but is a bland soldier and not above manipulating the new “Lord of Light” religion, brought to the realm by the red priestess Melisandre (an on fire Carice Van Houten), for his own ends. There is power in this new God, as demonstrated when Melisandre survives an assassination attempt by Stannis’s maester (does everyone note her glowing necklace as she stands over the last Maester?). Here we are also introduced to Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham), a common smuggler raised to knighthood by Stannis as reward for shipping supplies into a besieged castle and saving the inhabitants (including Stannis himself). Among the supplies were onions and Davos earned the nickname “The Onion Knight”. Loyal to a fault, Davos is right-hand man to Stannis and determined to see this war through for his King, and I look forward to more of Cunningham’s layered and likeable performance.

Robb Stark and Grey WindMeanwhile Ned Stark’s son Robb (Richard Madden), newly minted King of the North, continues to march his army south, overcoming all forces set against him, and drags the prisoner Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) along. The moment between these two men is pivotal; we see how Jaime, Kingslayer and acknowledged as the finest swordsman in the realm, is all arrogance and bluster before the “boy” King – but that bluster melts away when faced with Robb’s direwolf Grey Wind, fully grown and looking gorgeous thanks to mixing live footage and CGI.

There is also a moment between Robb and his brother in name only Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), where the Stark ward counsels Robb to send him to see his father Balon and convince the elder Greyjoy to lend his navy to the fight. This is setting up more pieces to join the fray, as we will see in coming episodes.

North of the Wall, Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and the Night’s Watch ride into Craster’s Keep, a settlement that no one sure how manages to survive when all other wildling settlements between there and the Wall lie empty. While the Keep is suitably cold and foreboding, the appearance of Craster himself doesn’t tie with my vision of him – I had thought wilder than the neatly trimmed and clean version we got. The lesson that Lord Commander Mormont (James Cosmo) gives Jon though is important; if he wants to lead, he must learn how to follow, a lesson that other Kings appearing in the realm seem not to understand, especially the one now atop the Iron Throne.

Speaking of Mormonts, across the Narrow Sea Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) and what’s left of her khalisar travel east into the Red Waste, a huge expanse of desert. Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) counsels this Queen that to go any other direction would certainly result in their deaths and her dragons being taken by whomever they first met. We see one dragon (Drogon to book readers, though not yet named in the show) on her shoulder and refusing to eat offered meat. It is a testament to the time and effort spent on visual and audio effects, as well the strong work of Emilia Clark, that we believe the dragon are real. The CGI has been fantastic all through Game of Thrones, and watching behind the scenes featurettes you discover how much work has gone in to creating the world and less obvious parts of it, such as the red comet, beautifully used in this episode as a transition between plotlines, linking them all together. It’s an excellent use of effect in service of the story.

It is the last minutes of this episode that proves we are watching the Game of Thrones we remember, as once again the show goes where few others have. A baby murdered near on-screen, followed by a montage of deaths of boys and girls of many varied ages. Someone has ordered all Robert’s bastards killed, and Janos Slynt (Dominic Carter) carries out the orders with too much enthusiasm. Until only one is found missing, sent north to the Wall by his master after payments from the Hand (Ned and Jon Arryn before him) stopped.

Which brings us to Arya (Maisie Williams). Where little Arya has gone is a subject of much discussion in this episode, and finally we discover what’s happened to her. She’s still traveling north, in the company of the Night’s Watch men, with Gendry the last of Robert’s bastards. This closing scene is fantastic as a finale to this opening episode, setting up for what the audience expects will be an exciting followup. Will the gold cloaks catch them? Will someone discover that Arya is not a boy, let alone that she’s Ned Stark’s daughter? Maisie Williams has been a revelation in the series so far, a true talent discovery. She has a lot of story weight to carry, and I look forward to seeing so much more of her.

So Game of Thrones season two has a strong opening; a little disjointed, but it lays the groundwork for what is to come. The loss of a strong, central focus with Sean Bean’s departure will hopefully be rectified by Peter Dinklage’s “long shadow” and an audience that appreciates how the death of Ned Stark, ostensibly the hero last season, is the spark that lights the flames of this Clash of Kings.