Game of Thrones – Valar Dohaeris
Game of Thrones’ third season launches with a choppy episode that fervently tries to pick up all of last season’s dangling plot threads.
A very brief overview of how season two ended: Stannis’ assault on King’s Landing was thwarted by Tyrion’s use of wildfire and Tywin’s timely arrival from Harrenhal. Arya escaped Harrenhal. Robb married his sexy nurse friend even though he pledged to marry Lord Frey’s daughter, then couldn’t figure out what to do with his mother, Catelyn, who freed Jaime Lannister in hopes of ensuring the safety of her daughters, both of whom she thinks are still at King’s Landing. Sansa is, but Margaery Tyrell shrewdly got herself betrothed to Joffrey so she can become queen. Jon Snow is captured by the wildlings north of the wall and kills Qhorin Halfhand (at Qhorin’s urging) to convince the Wildlings he wants to join them. Samwell and the Black Brothers with him are attacked by an army of white walkers, icy zombies.
Game of Thrones has always suffered when it tries to touch on too many of the show’s copious plot lines within a single episode. A season opener needs to establish the status of all the major characters and through lines, I suppose, so there’s no way around it. This episode had some fantastic smaller moments and was visually stunning, but the story only stumbled forward hesitantly. I love the updated title sequence, by the way – the old one, brilliant as it was, felt pretty abstract. The new one gives you a much clearer view of the key locations in Westeros.
Our adventure begins north of the wall, as Sam finds a mutilated man (the white walkers do bizarre things with corpses), then is attacked by an axe-wielding zombie. Jon Snow’s dire wolf Ghost saves him, then the rest of the rangers arrive and set the zombie on fire. Jon, meanwhile, is lead into the main wildling camp to meet Mance Rayder, the former Black Brother who is now King Beyond the Wall. Jon (and the audience) gets his first look at a giant. And that giant was awesome, even just going about his mundane giant business.
Jon meets Jormund Giantsbane, who fires off a corker of a one-liner: “Lots of little men have tried to put their blades into my heart, and there are lots of little skeletons in the woods.” Mance Rayder himself then presents Jon with something of a riddle, asking him why he wants to join the wildlings. Jon gives a trite answer, “I want to be free,” and Rayder knows it’s a crap answer, so he asks again. Then Jon tells the story of learning about Craster feeding baby boys to the white walkers, and how the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch already knew about it, and he wants to be on the side that fights for the living. Rayder accepts this answer because there’s at least a little truth in it. Jon feels as duty-bound to the Night’s Watch as anyone, but between this and his strange attraction for Ygritte, his time with the wildlings will be emotionally and ethically complicated for him.
There’s a lot going on in King’s Landing. Tyrion has recovered from his injuries, but has been stripped of his title as King’s Hand, replaced by his father. Cersei comes to meet him, they have a verbal joust, and Cersei makes reference to the fact that Tyrion was much more severely disfigured in the books. “They said you lost your nose, but it’s not as gruesome as all that.” I was doubtful that they were going to saddle one of the show’s breakout stars with a hideous injury, and lo and behold, this version of Tyrion sports only a wicked scar that serves to make him seem even more impressive.
Bronn’s prickly encounter with Cersei’s guards is classic Bronn. “Ser Whogivesafook.” I also loved the shot of ongoing repairs in King’s Landing. I’m assuming that was CGI, but it was cunningly made so that I’m not entirely sure.
Tyrion’s meeting with his father was harsh, and one that I think will set the tone for a lot of what happens this season. At first Tyrion asks for some gratitude for his part in winning the battle, and it’s hard not to agree with Tywin for once when he says, “Jugglers and singers require applause. You are a Lannister.” Tyrion then makes his real request – he demands Casterly Rock, the traditional Lannister home castle. Since Jaime joined the King’s Guard, Tyrion is the legal heir to Tywin’s holdings and titles.
Tywin then obliterates Tyrion, calling him all manner of names, alluding to his habit of drinking and whoring (which is true), but also calling him ill-formed and practically denying that he’s actually his father. In other words, Tyrion is utterly and finally rejected by his own father, in absolute, concrete terms. He leaves without a snappy response, but there’s a dire look on his face.
Joffrey is cruising around the city in his litter with Margaery in hers. She stops the procession in Fleabottom, trudges through the sewage and visits an orphanage. There, she assures the war orphans their fathers died bravely and saved the city under the leadership of King Joffrey. Then her handmaidens distribute toys to the kids. It’s a brilliant bit of public relations, and while Margaery is cunning through and through, she’s also not a bad person, so you can allow yourself to revel in someone on Game of Thrones doing an actual good deed.
Later, Margaery and Joffrey meet with Cersei amidst a flurry of obsequious compliments with an undercurrent of loathing (Cersei suggests that Margaery is indecently dressed by remarking that she must be cold; Margaery pointedly observes that the common people are the same as royal people, just less fortunate). I’m not sure how thoroughly Margaery believes that, but this class struggle things adds an interesting new elements to King’s Landing politics. Joffrey, daft as he is, seems to get that Margaery’s sweet way is going to do him a lot more good than his mother’s acid tongue.
The Margaery vs. Cersei political battle is going to be incredible. Cersei finally has a match for her scheming, but Margaery plays the game in her own way. It’s difficult for Cersei to take a clear shot when Margaery armors herself in such a thick layer of politesse and charm. Beneath that smile is a mind every bit as calculating at Cersei’s. Margaery was not a character that made an impression on me in the books, but she’s grown into one of my favorites on the show.
Davros the Onion Knight has been stranded on a rock, and his old friend Salladhor Saan rescues him and reluctantly returns him to Dragonstone. There’s an absolutely brilliant matte painting of the castle in the background as Davros stands on the shore. Stannis seems wholly given over to Melisandre’s fire-worshipping ways, and a protesting Davros is thrown into the dungeons.
Robb Stark and his troops have taken Harrenhal from Gregor Clegane, and they enter to find that Clegane slaughtered virtually everyone inside, including many northmen who’d been taken prisoner. Robb sends his mother to a “chamber suitable as a cell,” and his skinny nurse/wife acts annoying.
Finally, we have Dany and her crew of seasick Dothrakis sailing toward Slaver’s Bay and the city of Astapor, where she negotiates to purchase 8,000 soldiers known as the Unsullied. These men are trained from age five to be perfect warriors, with no fear or testicles (literally). The dragons have grown to dog-size, flying around the ship and catching their own food.
The whole Astapor sequence had a very cool Star Wars feel to it, like Mos Eisley, but with people using R-rated words. Danaerys clearly despises slavery, not to mention the brutality of the Unsullied training regimen. Near the docks, a young girl playfully rolls a ball toward Dany, who catches it and begins to open it. A cloaked figure who’d been stalking them (adding to that Star Wars vibe) leaps forward with a dagger. Dany falls and drops the ball, which opens to reveal a bizarre scorpion. As it lunges for her, the dagger falls, killing it.
The cloaked figure turns out to be Ser Barristan Selmy, the legendary knight who was dismissed from the King’s Guard by Joffrey. He pledges his sword to Dany, increasing her personal power exponentially.