Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) in Game of Thrones. (HBO)

Knowledge is power, says Petyr Littlefinger Baelish (Aidan Gillen), Westeros' scheming master of coin, towards the end of the season two debut of HBO's Game of Thrones.

It's an intolerable taunt for Queen Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), dangling Baelish's knowledge that her son, Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) the golden-haired and black-hearted scion of incest, is no rightful king at all. She responds by touching a dagger to Baelish's throat.

Power is power, she spits back. But the threat is enough, she figures, and Baelish lives to plot another day.

Sunday's episode, The North Remembers, is full of such buried truths interlaced with brutality. Even for the viewer, with far more perspective than any of the characters, uncertainty is the theme. (A shifting chronology and added scenes keep those who've read George R. R. Martin's book series on their toes as well.)

There are now three challengers to Joffrey. Renly Baratheon, the young upstart who doesn't make an appearance, looms formidably with a Southern army.

The fan favorite is Robb Stark (Richard Madden), the noble Eddard (Sean Bean)'s frosty legacy, who has won three battles to liberate the north.

Robb appears in the only obvious misstep of the episode, as the awkward rendering of his direwolf, Grey Wind, snaps menacingly at the captured Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). The wolf is not only clearly fake, but his presence suggests Robb's insecurity in a way that's absent in the book.

Meanwhile, on the isle of Dragonstone, Stannis Baratheon (Stephan Dillane), probably has the most legitimate claim to the throne as the slain Robert's eldest brother, but with a diminished force, he turns to a new religion.

Stannis debuts amid a conflagration of the Seven, symbols of Westeros' pagan polytheism, in favor of singular worship of the red god espoused by the beguiling Melisandre (Carice van Houten), the religion's flame-haired priestess.

Again, truth -- in this case, the question of the true god -- is secondary to promises of power.

Maester Cressen (Oliver Ford Davies), a devout worshipper of the Seven, urges Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham), Stannis' smuggler-turned-knight, to stand up for the right deity.

If you carried the truth... says Cressen.

What's the truth? replies Davos, unmoved.

Aside from his flexible worship, Stannis comes off as stubborn and relentless, but immune to the powers of intrigue. He dictates a letter with precision, calling Jaime both Kingslayer and Ser. And when questions of alliance come up, he is uncompromising.

They're all thieves, says Stannis. I will destroy them.

Martin's series is distinguished by unflinching horror of life and death, from the butchery of King Robert's bastards to the cyclical incest of Craster (Robert Pugh), who fathers daughters from his own daughters in the northern wilderness.

Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) and Jon Snow (Kit Harington) grapple with harsh environs of heat and frost -- despite their previous triumphs, they remain shackled by their locations and remain on the periphery to the drama at court.

The most powerful man in the kingdom is now Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), the battle-hardened new Hand of the King. His new position -- and prominent place in the show's credits -- echoes that of Ned, but he is subtle where Ned was blunt, deceptive when Ned was naive.

But Tyrion displays a similar streak of compassion, a rarity in King's Landing -- he offers his sympathies to Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) for Ned's death and genuinely loves his younger nephew and niece. His relationship with Cersei is combatative and fueled by the dominance of their father, Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance).

It must be hard for you to be the disappointing child, Tyrion remarks during their first meeting,

But when reality is a facade, a small man's shadow can loom large indeed.