Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister in HBO's Game of Thrones.
This review contains major spoilers for the first season of Game of Thrones and minor spoilers for the second season.
When the second season of Game of Thrones, the fantasy series based on George R.R. Martin's bestselling books, premieres this Sunday on HBO, it will do so without first-season protagonist Ned Stark. That's because (spoiler alert) Stark was publicly beheaded at the whim of tween megalomaniac King Joffrey Lannister at the end of last season.
Shortly after being appointed to replace Stark as Hand of the King, sort of a prime minister with dictatorial powers, Tyrion Lannister, played by the fantastic Peter Dinklage, explains to Varys, the kingdom of Westeros' spymaster, why he won't also lose his head.
"I'm not Ned Stark. I understand how this game is played," Tyrion says.
"Ned Stark is a man of honor," Varys replies with feigned shock.
"And I am not, threaten me again and I'll have you thrown into the sea."
The second season of Game of Thrones is an ensemble show, but it does not, strictly speaking, lack a protagonist. Although technically based on A Clash of Kings, the second book in George R.R. Martin's fantasy series, through which the absence of Ned Stark loomed like a shadow over the entire narrative, the second season has embraced Tyrion as its main character, and all the better for it. We see Tyrion succeed everywhere Stark failed, carefully identifying and uprooting spies for his sister, the devious Queen Cersei, manipulating his rivals on Westeros' governing body, the small council, and trying desperately to mitigate the consequences of his nephew King Joffrey's sociopathic tendencies.
That we have shifted from identifying with the patriarch of the Stark family to the black sheep of their sworn enemies, the Lannisters, is more than in keeping with Martin's themes of moral ambiguity and conflicting motivations. It's one of several areas in the series where the shift from the written word to the small screen actually improves on the original story. It helps that Tyrion is no less devoted to his family than Stark—it simply happens that his family is full of moral monsters. Sean Bean's Ned Stark was the archetypical fantasy protagonist: Strong, loyal to a fault, capable in combat. Tyrion, a dwarf, requires the constant protection of his sarcastic and capable sellsword Bronn and has only a utilitarian commitment to social mores. Yet it becomes immediately apparent that he is more suited to running a kingdom than Ned Stark could ever have hoped to be.