Apr 1, 2013

Game of Thrones: "Valar Dohaeris"


By Paul Krueger


Hello, and welcome to our weekly coverage of HBO’s Game of Thrones.  We’re diving into the third season, which is based on half of A Storm of Swords, the third book in the series.  As someone who’s read all the books several times, I can say to those of you who don’t know what’s coming: this is a good one.  There will be intrigue.  There will be betrayals.  There will be death.

But it’s okay, because there will also be a wedding.

Each season before this one has had a difficult task to mount.  Season one had to introduce a whole new world and its people, then make viewers care.  Season two had to expand that world without testing viewer patience, introducing new faces and locales while still finding time to service old favorites.  Both seasons succeeded wildly, and in the process ensured that Peter Dinklage would never want for good roles.

The first two seasons were world-building.  Imagine Westeros as a chessboard (or, for book readers, cyvasse).  We’ve had twenty episodes of introducing all the major pieces and positioning them for what’s to come.  So season three’s mission, in my mind, is to finally loose those pieces on each other in a maelstrom of fire and blood.  I think it will succeed in this regard, and I expect by the end none of you will disagree.

With as sprawling a cast as this, it makes sense that our first episode back would be a check-in episode to establish where everyone is in relation to everyone else.  So, running down the line:

-Beyond the Wall, the Night’s Watch has realized maybe they don’t have what it takes to go toe-to-toe with an undead army.  If only they could impart some of that wisdom to their timeslot rivals over at AMC.  Meanwhile, Jon goes native with the wildlings, swearing false fealty to their king, Mance Rayder.  Mance will be a big character going forward, and while Dominic West famously turned down the role, I think Ciaran Hinds is precisely the man to embody him.

-In King’s Landing, the Lannisters are being horrid to each other, as ever.  Joffrey and his new queen don’t see eye to eye on, well, anything.  Cersei, knowing that with Margaery in town her days as queen are numbered, is being a bigger bitch than usual, because that’s totally how you win support for your cause.  And Tywin gives Tyrion the dressing down of a lifetime.  This was one of my favorite scenes in the books, and it’s realized to perfection here.  Charles Dance disappears so completely into Tywin that it’s impossible to tell where one man ends and the other begins.  And Peter Dinklage should make room on his mantle for another Emmy; his reactions to Tywin’s words carry serious weight both because he wants to defend himself against them and because deep down, he knows his father’s not wrong.

-Robb Stark doesn’t really do much this week except remind us that he’s hot.  It’s okay, though.  I’ll tell you upfront that this is a big season for Robb, and I’ve no doubt he’ll be hot every step of the way.

-Stannis is pissed as usual, both at Davos’ insistence that he leave his pet witch behind and Davos’ insistence that she not be alive anymore.  It’s an excellent showcase for all actors involved, but especially Stephen Dillane, who projects a great balance of the charisma and dickishness that make Stannis such a fascinating character.

-Daenerys is now in Astapor to purchase an army of slave eunuch psycho warriors.  It’s a great deal as long as you’re cool with slavery, which it turns out she’s not.  One episode into the season and already Dany has a vastly improved storyline from last year laid out for her.  There’s character drama, action, and dragons that have definitely been drinking their milk for the past nine months.  As cool as the wildlings’ giant was, the sight of a soaring dragon was this week’s true special effects triumph.

Is it all a bit scattered?  Sure.  Are several favorite members of the cast missing?  Also sure.  But as I watched it, I wasn’t in the slightest bit concerned.  The advantage Game of Thrones has over other TV series like it is that its story is already set in stone.  There’s been much talk of television-as-a-novel (see any thinkpiece on The Wire ever), but Thrones is the real McCoy in that regard.  Its structure can’t be judged episode-to-episode; its main focus is the big picture, and it can’t be accurately assessed by viewers until that picture’s been completely unveiled.

Future entries of this series will be less summary-driven and take a more critical eye to things.  But this is an episode of television that didn’t take much of a critical eye to things, so doing so in this review felt inappropriate.  Though I personally didn’t, it’s completely understandable to come away from this episode feeling unsatisfied.  To those of you that did, though, I say only this: many of the greatest stories ever told started with a prologue.

A note about grades: Like I said, it's hard to judge this show episode-by-episode.  It's even harder for someone with my foreknowledge to do so, since I know what things are Chekhov's dragon eggs just waiting to hatch.  I'll be assigning grades each episode, and when I do so I'll try my best not to let my book knowledge color my assessments.

Grade: B+

Miscellaneous:
  • The episode’s title, “Valar Dohaeris,” means “All men must serve.”  
  • Ser Barristan the Bold, last seen in season one, turns up in Astapor to serve Daenerys’ cause.  There’s been much talk in the show of his badassery, and hopefully this season will give us a vivid demonstration.
  • There are certain departures from the events of the books, but for the most part they work.  Jon Snow’s stated motive for joining Mance, though, isn’t as powerful as it was in the books, where he spins a sympathetic (and true) story of what it felt like growing up with the knowledge that he was Ned Stark’s bastard.
  • Bronn’s certainly come a long way from being a grimy sellsword on the Kingsroad, hasn’t he?
  • As a final warning: the net is dark and full of spoilers.  A lot happens this season.  Be careful what you google.

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