In the premiere episode of the third season of Game of Thrones, titled “Valar Dohaeris” (a term that means “all men must serve” in High Valyrian) we’re quickly reminded of the stakes of the game. The episode opens north of the Wall where the Night’s Watch has run into some issues at the Fist of the First Men and are bloodied and battered by attacking Wights and White Walkers. To make matters worse Sam Tarly hasn’t managed to send any Ravens south to warn their compatriots back at the Wall of the coming cataclysm. It’s enough to make Commander Mormont all light and bubbly “It’s a long march but we have to make it” he declares, “or everyone you’ve ever known will be dead.” And cue title sequence!
Melodramatic declarations aside, starting with the threat up at the Wall helps add context to all the dithering and infighting that this episode dwells on in Westeros. While Cersei delights in Tyrion’s fall from grace and bristles at the political mastery and forthright sexuality of Margaery Tyrell – the Night’s Watch is being attacked by dead people. Robb Stark is forced to jail his mother (who released Jaime Lannister at the end of season two) in order to placate his banners after they examine the massacre that Tywin Lannister has left behind at Harrenhall – but up North, twenty foot creatures march south in fear of the White Walkers.
The political machinations that characterize King’s Landing may be fun to watch for the audience, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s all small potatoes and frivolity when compared with the real threat up North. It makes sense to underscore that right off the bat.
Meanwhile, Jon Snow is being pelted with rocks by Wildling children, as his honour and person is defended by his companion Ygritte. “What happened to their fathers?” he asks naively. “Some of them were killed by crows like you,” is the answer he receives. It’s the first of two major appearances by orphans in the episode – the second being when Margaery Tyrell visits an orphanage in Flea Bottom. A reminder of the cruelty of the world we’re so happy to spend an hour in on a weekly basis, but would never actually want to inhabit.
A quick side note: the production did an excellent job making the giants look frightening and bad ass. I imagine we’ll only see giants on occasion as the series looks to preserve their budget for upcoming battle scenes, but that was pretty cool.
We’re then introduced to Mance Rayder, the so called King Beyond the Wall, who waits to reveal himself until after Jon Snow has bent the knee for Tormund Giantsbane. The show has to rush their characterizations of critical figures like Mance, who I’m sure won’t get more than ninety minutes of total screen time this season, but they do so quite efficiently.
In this case, the show manage to quickly convey that Rayder is an independent figure with an odd sense of morality and loyalty by having him both congratulate Jon Snow for killing Qhorin Halfhand, “He was our enemy, I’m glad he’s dead” while extending his hand. Then pulling Jon in close, he also admonishes him, “He was my brother once, back when he had a whole hand.”
Mance proceeds to try and sniff out Jon’s intentions – which. as viewers hopefully remember, are to infiltrate the Wildlings in order to obtain information. I thought this was a solid interaction too because while Jon isn’t a good liar in the Tyrion mold, he finds just enough truth in a story about Craster’s Keep and seeing a White Walker to spin a convincing story to Mance. He ultimately handles a sticky and very political situation with aplomb, which runs somewhat counter to type for Jon Snow: “I want to fight for the side that fights for the living. Did I come to the right place?”
The action then whisks us south and if you bet the under on, “ten minutes before we see some boobs in Game of Thrones season three” you made the safe bet. Our first sexposition moment of the season occurs as the action turns to King’s Landing where we catch Bronn being interrupted by Tyrion’s cunning linguist squire Podrick Payne. Payne is summoning Bronn on behalf of Tyrion, whose has been thrust into a dingy cell with his face messed up from last season’s Battle of the Blackwater.
It’s not just Tyrion’s face that is wounded, he’s emotionally wounded by his father’s failure to visit him while he lay recovering from his injuries. He’s also paranoid as hell, convinced that his sister tried to have him killed and will try again. Cersei, of course, is at her passive aggressive best when she murderously assures her little brother that, “If I wanted to kill you do you think I’d let a wooden door stop me?”
Cersei is pretty much unchanged and just as one-dimensional as ever. With her characteristic lack of proportion, she brags about having had a nine year old girl beaten to the point that she lost her eye back in her childhood “she never stole another necklace.” That boast segways nicely to Bronn’s mocking of the knights in her Kingsguard who he describes as “better at beating little girls than fighting men.”
Bronn’s interaction with Tyrion, as the two of them walk around King’s Landing — which seems a much more stable place than we last saw it, and is quickly being rebuilt — was pretty delicious. Bronn’s driving a hard bargain with Tyrion for his services, complaining that “I grow poor protecting you” even though he’s done as well as anyone in the series over the past couple of seasons. Pleading for a reprieve, Tyrion makes a critical mistake in admitting that “I don’t even know what I pay you now” and Bronn seizes on it quickly, “which means you can afford it.”
We jump from civilization to a deserted island, where a salty and sunburnt Davos regains consciouness upon a remote rock island. I’m curious to know how viewers who haven’t read the books react to Davos being alive and almost unrecognizable thanks to his sun-kissed skin. I’d wager a good few viewers were confused. Davos gets lucky when he’s picked up by men who are supporters of Stannis and brought to his old pal Salladhor Saan.
We learn that Stannis has gone nuts and is, in Salladhor’s words “a broken man” and a recluse who has taken to burning non-believers at the stake. Davos is insistent however that, “this war is not over” and is determined to speak sense into his King or die in the attempt.
The attempt, which we see a few scenes later, goes about the way we’d expect. Stannis refuses to see Davos without Melisandre present and Melisandre goads Davos by blaming him for his side’s failure to invade King’s Landing and assuring him that his son died a “pure death.” All the while Melisandre’s Tears for Fears-style synth theme music plays ominously in the background while Stannis sits there: observant, stoic, and silent. If every time Stannis is on camera we’re listening to synth while he says nothing, then by seasons end I’m predicting that he’ll transform into the Ryan Gosling character from the film Drive.
We get a quick scene with the Stark host as they take Harrenhal without a fight. The burned, creepy castle was abandoned by Tywin Lannister when he left to save King’s Landing and everyone inside of it was massacred. When Robb sees how his men are reacting to the presence of his mother Catelyn amidst the wreckage of the latest Lannister atrocity, he has no real choice and has her locked away. Robb’s itching for a fight but he doesn’t look likely to get one anytime soon, which makes me wonder how Benioff and Weiss will keep his particular plot line interesting at all through season three. I’m thinking that this could be a big weak point of this coming season.
While Robb Stark struggles to handle his mother, Tyrion Lannister is awash in daddy issues back in King’s Landing. Tyrion, take it from me, it’s time to accept that your dad is a jerk and move on – you’re just torturing yourself buddy!
Tyrion asks for what is lawfully his and, of course, Tywin refuses to grant that to his son in the most melodramatic and stern tone imaginable, “I’d let myself be consumed by maggots before mocking the family name and letting you be heir to Casterly Rock.” Tywin is also pretty self-righteous on the subject of making merry or whoopee which probably explains why he’s such a prickly sort.
“You brought a whore into my bed,” he says with disgust while adomonishing Tyrion for spending his days, “bedding harlots and drinking with thieves.” “Occasionally I drank with the harlots” responds Tyrion as the laugh track plays. Is his son’s philandering the reason that Tywin won’t grant his son his birthright? Tywin certainly suggests that when he tells Tyrion that “neither gods nor men will ever compel me to let you turn Casterly Rock into your whorehouse,” but the viewer should know better. It has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with Tywin’s inability to look past his son’s physical deformities.
While Tywin ensures that all of the Lannister’s gold will eventually be used to pay a shrink, Sansa is living in a fantasy world and making up stories about people escaping King’s Landing in the passing ships on Blackwater Bay. Her handmaiden Shea, meanwhile, isn’t very empathetic and certainly has no interest in playing along.
She perks up, however, when Ros suggests that Littlefinger might be a threat to Sansa. If that’s the case Sansa’s certainly not wary of it, which makes sense since Littlefinger is the guy offering her up what her heart most desires – an escape.
Elsewhere in King’s Landing, Margaery demonstrates her political cunning. Clearly this is a vixen who knows how to win the hearts of the people, and how to control a hormonal teenage boy too – much to Cersei’s frustration. Like Bronn battling her child-beating Kingsguard, it appears that Margaery versus Cersei will be a lopsided tug of war and this is a plot line that I’m particularly excited about watching this season.
The episode checks in on Dany before she actually arrives in Astapor and her dragons are getting wilder and hunting for themselves in badass fashion. The dragons are getting increasingly self-reliant and presumably more and more dangerous, but the CGI remains largely unconvincing.
In Astapor, Dany is negotiating with a slave trader to buy some eunuch soldiers referred to as the Unsullied. The Unsullied are treated poorly, their dicks are cut off, and they’re made to kill a baby in front of his mother to complete their inhuman training. This cruelty isn’t lost on Dany who can only think about the “8000 babies” these soldiers have killed, rather than how their martial efficacy might help her cause.
I’d also mention that the “lost in translation” negotiation scenes were very well done, in that, I think the show milked them for full comedic value. I also thought the set piece involving the little girl sorcerer and her manticore based assassination attempt was exciting. Certainly the manticore looked a hell of alot better than Drogon does.
Finally, much like when we found that Davos had survived the Battle of Blackwater Bay, I’ll be curious to see if those audience members who haven’t read the books even remember Barristan Selmy. He didn’t really factor into the second season much, and he’s now sporting a hipster beard that was absent from his face back in season one. I’m glad that the show dispensed with the weak plot in the book where Barristan Selmy hides his identity from Dany at first, but unless the show includes a “this is who Barristan Selmy is – remember him!” vignette in the “previously on” segment before the show – I’d imagine a lot of viewers will react to this cool scene with “who the hell was that?”
Overall, I think the premiere worked in reintroducing us to the world and catches us up to what’s going on there now. The show continues to bring more to the table than it takes off of it though I’d imagine that some elements of the premiere will confuse some viewers. What did you think?