This image has promotionally been used to death. And so great is the excitement for this episode that I don't even care. Welcome back, Dany. We're pleased to see you again.

This image has promotionally been used to death. And so great is the excitement for this episode that I don’t even care. Welcome back, Dany. We’re pleased to see you again.

It’s no secret this is what we’ve all been waiting for. We’ve reread the books, drooled over promotional material, and added this day to our countdown clocks. And here we are. Say hello to your favorite characters and plot lines and know that by the end of this season, everything you thought you knew will be turned on its head. Forget The Walking Dead (though this show has its fair share of that, too), it’s time for Game of Thrones.

As one can imagine, this episode is a game of catch-up and also a means of establishing where we will go from here. We get a little bit of everything, and not enough of anything. All over the world of Game of Thrones, our favorite characters are out of their depth. Dany needs an army but is far from sure about the lengths she’ll go to obtain one; Robb has won all of his battles, only to feel that he hasn’t yet won anything; Sir Davos survived the battle of the Blackwater only to be imprisoned by Stannis; and Jon is living comfy in the wildling camp, unsure if he’ll survive his next days. But let’s dig in.

Our first scene takes place beyond the wall. Though the producers have made a big deal about their use of real locations, the product certainly lives up to the hype. And then some. It’s difficult to imagine the world of the wildlings while seated in your warm bedroom turning the pages of George R. R. Martin’s fantasy epic, but the HBO show quickly sets us right. The wind whips cruelly, the snow cuts harshly, and in the North beyond the wall we hear the attack of the white walkers.

Sam runs through the biting winter as quickly as his chubby legs will allow him. He doesn’t know to where he runs and neither do we, but soon he spots a figure crouched in the snow. Like a horror movie protagonist who must know he is stepping into a murder trap, but does it anyway, Sam stops to check in with the Night’s Watch brother crouched before him. But he gets no answer, for the body before him holds its severed head in its hands, frozen in the snow. Heathens, zombies, and now this. Friday night sure is fun in Westeros!

Behind Sam, a black-clad figure with an axe approaches and promptly attacks, but Ghost the valiant direwolf without a master rips the attacker off of Sam. Lord Commander Mormont sets fire to the figure before it can do any real damage. The Lord Commander, backed by a small crew of Night’s Watchmen, asks Sam if he sent the ravens for help before the White Walker attack, but our favorite craven cowers silently. It was his only job and he couldn’t complete it—story of his life. The rest of the Night’s Watch recognizes that they must set a course back for the wall and warn the rest of the world of the dangers creeping through the winter.

We don’t return to this storyline this episode, but this vignette seems to serve the same purpose here as it does in the novels. (Because I’m a new recapper, I’ll let you know that though I am a book-reader, I will never post any spoilery material in the recaps. Tabula rasa, all the way.) The fact that we open with this plot line and don’t return to it lends an air of inevitable dread over the entirety of the show. No matter what happens with our favorite characters further south vying for the throne, the viewers know that whoever wins will still have to handle the growing threat to the North. And that’s a great narrative device.

Further North, Jon is led into a wildling camp with Ygrette and stares in wonder at a Giant gathering firewood. Another point for the behind-the-scenes crew of Game of Thrones: the Giant graphics are better than those from Big Fish. Ygrette, obviously pleased to educate Jon in the ways of the northern world, makes small talk about the power of Giants and what they can accomplish when angry, but her banter better serves to illuminate the audience on just how much fun she is. Her red-headed sass and country accent lend a warm charm to a frosty world. Meanwhile, wildling children aggressively (and somewhat comically) pelt Jon with rocks, decrying the “crow” in their midst.

Jon is led into the tent of Mance Rayder, and begins a conversation with a man seated at the table therein. Because we pay attention to casting news, we know that this man isn’t Mance–after all, even without seeing his performance, there’s no one better for the role of Mance Rayder than Ciaran Hinds. The real Mance stands in the corner while Jon discusses his dispatching of Qhorin Halfhand back in season 2. He kneels at fake-Mance’s feet and tries to declare his allegiance, but both real-Mance and fake-Mance laugh, and the real Mance makes himself known. No man kneels to any other beyond the wall, he tells Jon.

Mance has strong, crazy eyes and apparently an intimate and intimidating handshake. He questions Jon’s motives for joining the wildlings, and brushes off Jon’s assertion that he wants to join the wildlings because he wants to be free. B.S. radar active. But apparently not: Jon elaborates—he saw Craster leave his child as a sacrifice for the White Walkers. Jon was confused and disgusted by this behavior, and found that when he told the Lord Commander about Craster’s sacrifice, the leader of the Night’s Watch already knew what Craster was up to. Jon wants to join the wildlings because he wants to fight for the side that fights for the living. Very convincing, Jon. Very convincing.

Winter has yet to touch King’s Landing, that’s for sure. We’re thrown back into the warm seaside capitol and reminded that nudity may just be the best part of Game of Thrones. Just kidding! There are dragons, after all. But nudity’s great, right? We get our first female frontal shot of the season in the company of our favorite sell sword. Bronn’s hanging out, trying to unwind, when Podrick, Tyrion’s squire, interrupts. C’mon, Pod, really? But Pod tells Bronn that Tyrion has sent him and that it’s a matter of life and death. Everything’s a matter of life and death when you play the game of thrones, Tyrion, or hadn’t you heard?

Meanwhile, our favorite conniving mother (clearly trying to one-up Norma Bates) comes to visit Tyrion. He and Cersei exchange their usual barbs and banter, and we remember that Tyrion is still confused that someone tried to kill him last season during the battle on the Blackwater. We also get another look at his face, which is much prettier than it’s described to be in the books, but I won’t get started on book differences. Anyway, make-up departments can only do so much. (At this thought, the make-up artists on The Walking Dead set chuckle with satisfaction.)

Cersei tries a midget joke, telling him that he’s certainly downgraded his chambers from those of the hand of the king, but then he probably doesn’t need much room. Too irritated to laugh, Tyrion tells her that our old friend Grand Maester Pycelle said the same thing to him once. “You must be proud to be as funny as a man whose balls brush his knees,” he says.

Cersei is nervous about the fact that Tyrion wants to speak to their father. She’s thinks he’s going to tell lies about her and Joffrey, but we know that no one could craft lies more chilling than what Joffrey has already done. Also, who else wonders why Cersei felt the need to approach Tyrion ahead of time with these concerns? Surely she knows she has no chance of actually changing what he wants to say, and ultimately nothing comes of their talk. Exposition, I suppose.

Bronn and Tyrion finally meet up and discuss their working arrangement. Mostly, it’s just a discussion of payment, because if times are tough in America, they’re that much tougher in Westeros.The conversation primarily just reestablishes their bromance.

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On a slightly less interesting note, Davos Seaworth is still alive after the battle of the Blackwater! After his ships sank with his son onboard, our moral onion smuggler has been stranded on an island and is looking particularly worse for wear. He tries to flag down a passing ship, and as soon as we think it’s going to turn away, a horn is blown from the deck. It sends a dinghy, and Davos has a little problem: though he relates he was stranded on the island after fighting in the Blackwater, he’s asked which king he was fighting for. Now, he could certainly lie and say what he thinks the men want to hear, but it’s only a guess as to whom these men defended. But being as true a man as any on this show, Davos tells the truth. And luckily at that. He’s allowed onboard.

Because Westeros is truly the smallest world ever, the ship is captained by Davos’ old buddy Salladhor Saan. Salladhor catches Davos up to speed: Stannis is hiding out in Dragonstone with Melisandre, the Red Woman. Hearing this, Davos begs to be dropped off at Dragonstone. Salladhor, like the smart pirate he is, declines, telling Davos that the Red Woman is turning Stannis against everyone. If Davos goes to Dragonstone, he will die there. But, oh okay, sure, I’ll give you a ride, he says.

When Davos makes it back to Dragonstone, he immediately seeks an audience with Stannis. Stannis is obviously a little pissy, and the presence of Melisandre certainly isn’t helping Davos’ attitude, either. Melisandre responds to Davos’ accusations with her Svengali voice, and it’s not difficult to see why Stannis is enraptured. Nevertheless, Melisandre claims that she could have won the Blackwater for Stannis, but she wasn’t there because Davos convinced Stannis to leave her behind. Ah, so that’s how things are. After Melisandre refers to Davos’s dead son more than a little glibly, he tries to kill her and Stannis tells the guards to take Davos to the dungeon. The only nice guy in town gets locked up. But then, what else is new on Game of Thrones?

We check in briefly with Robb Stark. Though I can’t claim he’s my favorite Stark, it’s only a matter of really awesome characters battling for the title. He’s high on the list though, even if he and his wifey are already too “good” to be any fun. Robb and his troops return to the North and inspect a ruined town. Robb looks ready to puke as he and his mother inspect the carnage and destruction, and they can only exchange brief words of lament on the topic. Then Robb gets down to business. “Find her a chamber that will serve as a cell,” he calls to one of his men. Oh yeah, she’s still in trouble for setting Jaime Lannister free. This is what we call a grounding, mama Stark.

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Back at King’s Landing, Tywin and Tyrion sit together, though it’s clear it’s an awkward meeting. Tywin pens a business letter, and once the duo begin to speak, it’s not pretty. Tywin grumbles about Tyrion’s previous behavior, bedding a whore in the bed of the hand of the king and drinking his days away. Interesting how quickly people forget that Tyrion was the only one truly concerned for the well-being of King’s Landing, despite its unfortunate ruler last season. I’m on your side, Tyrion.

“I bled in the mud for our family,” Tyrion counters. He wants a little bloody gratitude to show for it. Soon he makes his intentions clear: he wants Casterly Rock, the seat of the Lannisters. Though Jaime is the eldest, he cannot inherit the titles associated with the Lannister name because he is a knight of the King’s Guard, and Tyrion wants to be clear that he will get the lands and property for his good work. Tywin doesn’t even give this suggestion any thought. It’s a big fat “no” for you, Tyrion. After all, he killed Tywin’s wife in childbirth. He’s not worth it. Talk about justified daddy-issues.

Elsewhere in the capitol, Sansa’s hair looks phenomenal, and we are privy to a game between her and Shae. They look out at the ships in the harbor and make a story for where the ships are going and why. It’s the kind of nugget that sounds like foreshadowing, so keep an eye out later in the season. Littlefinger approaches and requests a private audience with Sansa. He tells her that her mother doesn’t know Arya isn’t in King’s Landing. He also assures her that he’s still working on a plan to get her out of her situation.

And here’s that prostitute Ros, again. As Sansa and Littlefinger talk, Ros approaches Shae and they briefly discuss their humble beginnings and how much things have changed for them. It’s just another chat between two prostitutes down by the docks, but then Ros warns Shae to be wary of Littlefinger’s attentions toward Sansa. Yeah, we’re all one step ahead of you there. Our creep-sirens have been blaring for a while with this guy.

And finally, we see some dragons! Our favorite dragons are growing quickly, but not quickly enough for Dany’s tastes. I’m not here merely to comment on the appearances of our characters, but I’ll hazard another compliment and say she looks great in her rich, blue dress. She stands on her boat as she and her mini khalasar make for Slaver’s Bay. As they sail, she watches her dragons fly, discussing their growth with Jorah. He comments that her Dothraki aren’t doing too well on the ship, and she defends them, reminding him that they are the only Dothraki ever to sail.

When Dany arrives at Astapor, a slave trainer/salesman uses a translator to pitch the sale of an army of Unsullied soldiers. These soldiers are eunuchs, castrated to remove impurity; they are absolutely loyal and intensely strong, having received training since a young age, training that only one in four boys survive. At the end of their training, in an effort to assure that each boy has completely left his humanity behind, each soldier has to find a newborn child and kill it before the eyes of its mother. In order to show Dany that The Unsullied are the perfect soldiers, he cuts off the nipple of one of the men, and the soldier doesn’t even flinch. Cue hardcore metal music. Absolute loyalty and strength guaranteed. The trainer has 8,000 soldiers to sell, but Dany’s on a clock to decide whether she wants them or not.

Dany and Jorah walk the docks of Astapor considering their potential purchase. Unbeknownst to them, a figure cloaked in black shadows them, seemingly intent in his stalking. Dany catches the eye of a child playing nearby, and the child begins to offer Dany her toy, but the hooded figure lunges for Dany so the toy falls to the ground. Jorah is quickly upon Dany’s attacker, but it seems our attacker is more of a savior. As Dany watches, a terribly dangerous-looking beetle pops out of the toy. It was an assassination attempt. When the figure unhoods himself, Jorah IDs him as Barristan Selmy, a member of the kingsguard that served her father. When Robert Baratheon took the throne, Barristan joined his kingsguard, but after that he-devil Joffrey took the throne, Barristan quit. He wants to make up for joining the Baratheon kingsguard and serve Daenerys instead.

Natalie-Dormer-Game-of-ThronesMaybe one of the most interesting stories that occurred tonight revolves around Margaery Tyrell. Another sunny day and Joffrey rides the streets of King’s Landing in a palanquin. His casual ride stops, though, when Margaery, who was following in her own palanquin behind him, tells her own driver (carrier?) to stop. She briefly encounters a rather nefarious looking citizen, but smiles, smothering her alarm in favor of charm. She runs off into an orphanage and shows absolutely no fear in the face of the poor and dirty. She actually sounds exceptionally kind in this scene, comforting the children in the orphanage and giving them toys. Clearly, Margaery majored in PR in Game of Thrones college (hmm, that sounds like a place I’d like to go). She declares that she will take care of the children orphaned in the Blackwater.

Dinner time! And another opportunity to spin more PR. The royal family and the Tyrells eat dinner together, and Cersei is acting more Norma Bates than usual. Margaery tries to flatter Cersei, but the queen regent isn’t buying it. Joffrey, on the other hand, is eating it all up. Sounds to me like Margaery could be his undoing.

But what do you think? I gasped in surprise when tonight’s episode ended; anyone else feel an Oliver Twist pang? (Characterized by a huge helping of “please sir, can I have some more?”) I was pretty bummed there was no Arya tonight, but I don’t doubt our favorite troublemaker will be around soon. Beside everyone being out of their depth, this episode felt unusually without theme. But maybe I overlooked something. Let me know in the comments below.