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Game of Thrones – Review: All Men Must Serve

Review of Game of Thrones – Season 3 Premiere – Valar Dohaeris:

While I pretty much adored “Valar Dohaeris”, the third season premiere of Game of Thrones, there’s something to be said for a more focused approach to storytelling. The sheer scope of the series makes every episode seem too unwieldy to be contained in one single, hour-long episode, particularly when we’re jumping around from one location to another before the story can really be allowed to sink in. It’s hard to imagine that the show wouldn’t be better off focusing on two storylines per episode (or three, at most, to allow for the fact that many characters’ stories often intersect, and chronology is critical on a show like this). For example, the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones’ second season, detailing the climactic Battle of the Blackwater, was set entirely within King’s Landing. This led to one of the most focused episodes of the entire series, allowing us to engage with the story and all its various thematic elements, without interruption: from Tyrion’s development as a leader to Stannis Baratheon being brought to heel by his hubris. “Valar Dohaeris” almost follows this structure completely by accident: the sheer number of storylines we have to follow means that several significant characters have to sit this one out. Fans of Jaime Lannister, Brienne of Tarth, Arya Stark, Varys, Theon, Bran, and Hodor (what? He has his fans) are pretty much SOL when it comes to this premiere. Yet even with those omissions, the premiere still manages to feel overstuffed. As someone who’s read the books, this is more of an issue with the story itself than with the show, but I still couldn’t help but feel that there was probably a less cumbersome way of structuring this premiere.

Credit: HBO

Credit: HBO

With that said, when setting aside this issue, the premiere manages to deliver in all the ways we could have reasonably expected it to. It’s nearly a consensus for many fans that “A Storm of Swords” is the best book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, and its story is so rich and dense that showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss made the decision to split the book in two, with half of the story taking center stage this season, while the latter half will comprise season four. As “Valar Dohaeris” rolls on, even fans of the show who haven’t read the books might be able to see why this is a wise decision, as certain characters completely drop off the face of the Earth for a sizable portion of the episode. Yet it’s to the episode’s credit that I never really noticed that, say, Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) was barely around, or that the scene with Robb Stark (Richard Madden) and Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) seemed to exist for no other reason than to tell us, “Hey, Robb Stark is still around! And he’s totally doing stuff.” This is an episode that manages to remain compelling all the way through, to where the hour pretty much flies by.

Credit: HBO

Credit: HBO

“Valar Dohaeris” is the High Valyrian term for “all men must serve”, and the episode depicts several characters at odds with the necessities of their service. Sam (John Bradley) failed to send out the ravens to warn Castle Black, his only job. This has the potential to condemn the entire Night’s Watch to the siege of the White Walkers. Meanwhile, Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) is at conflict with his mission to infiltrate the wildlings, as there’s no one left living to verify that he’s only turning his cloak for show, and not actually going all-in with Mance Rayder (Ciaran Hinds) and his band of misfits. We also have Robb Stark realizing what is required of a king, as he confines his mother to a cell for freeing Jaime Lannister. He can’t allow his emotions to get in the way, particularly when so many of his men have lost their own lives, or the lives of sons, brothers, fathers and friends. We also get a storyline contrasting Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) and Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer): Joffrey is situated as a King above his subjects, passing through the slums of Fleabottom in his closed wagon, separated from the filth and famine all around him. Meanwhile, Margaery is depicted as a future Queen of the People, visiting an orphanage and encouraging the children to be proud of the fathers they lost on the Blackwater, before making arrangements to provide for the childrens’ care directly. We know about Margaery’s ambitions to be THE queen, but there’s a wonderful ambiguity to her actions that makes her compelling, as we can never really be certain just how much of it is sincere and how much of it is politicking amongst the plebeians.

Sansa (Sophie Turner) is also having pangs about her duty: while it might be better for her to stick it out in King’s Landing until she can find a clear route of escape, she’s eager to make her break now. Enter Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen), who hints at a possible way out, though Sansa would have to be ready at a moment’s notice. Three seasons in and Sansa’s storyline still feel ancillary to the more worthwhile scenarios of the series, though her arc seems to be headed in a more substantive direction now that she has agency in her own storylines. Sansa is intent on making things happen, instead of simply waiting for fortune to fall in her favor. One person whose favor fortune has no interest in is Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham), whose fealty to Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) is compromised, as Davos believes that the “one true king of Westeros” has effectively been brainwashed by the Red priestess Melisandre (Carice van Houten). Davos feels that the necessities of his service requires him to free his king from the influence of “The Red Woman”, and he resolves to kill her. However, when Melisandre states that the death of Davos’ son by wildfire is the purest death a person could hope for, Davos snaps and blindly charges at Melisandre with a knife. Stannis’ guards are there to intercept him, Stannis orders his former friend confined to the dungeons of Dragonstone. Perhaps better than any of the other plots of this episode, this storyline best exemplifies the conflict between duty and one’s own desires and beliefs, as true, blind fidelity would necessitate Davos following Stannis no matter what. However, he can’t abide the painful business of watching his good friend slowly turned toward madness. These are conflicts that will be expanded upon as the season goes on, and it’s good to see them given such a winning start here.

Credit: HBO

Credit: HBO

The best storyline of the episode, however, proves to be Tyrion’s (Peter Dinklage), and it’s also among the briefest. Tyrion is recovering from the scar he received at the Blackwater while quelling rumors that he lost his nose in the conflict (in an amusing shout-out to the books, in which he does). When Cersei (Lena Headey) visits him in his chambers, we learn that their father, Tywin (Charles Dance), hasn’t been in to see Tyrion once, despite his being invaluable in preventing the sacking of the city. Tyrion announces his intentions to take a meeting with their father, and Cersei asks what it is Tyrion is after. This sparks an episode-long theme where the people in Tyrion’s life expect ulterior motives for every interaction, from Bronn (Jerome Flynn) to the magisterial Tywin Lannister himself. The issue culminates in a terrific scene that establishes the battle of wills between father and son, as Tywin accuses Tyrion of taking the considerable power he was given, and using it as a means to bed whores and drink with thieves. When Tyrion rightly responds that he was instrumental in organizing the city’s defenses, Tywin asks what it is Tyrion wants from him, exactly. Tyrion then explains that since Jaime is a member of the Kingsguard, he can neither take wives nor accept inheritances, meaning that Casterly Rock passes to him by rights. Tywin recoils at the suggestion, saying that Tyrion might be able to wear the Lannister colors and display the Proud Lion that has been the sigil of their house for generations, but only because he can’t prove that Tyrion isn’t his son. He tells Tyrion he would rather allow himself to “be consumed by maggots” than “to let you turn Casterly Rock into your whorehouse.” It’s a wonderful scene, well-played by both Dinklage and Dance, as there’s a sense of the immense weight carried by Tyrion’s long-standing disappointment, as well as Tywin’s even longer-standing enmity against his son for causing the death of his wife in childbirth. For Jaime, he could have stomached it, but for an “imp”? It’s a tragic depiction of a father-son relationship that, even in its best moments, was unreservedly cold.

Credit: HBO

Credit: HBO

The other huge story of the episode was Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) leading her khalasar across the sea to Astapor, a city on Slaver’s Bay. Once there, she and Jorah (Iain Glen) meet The Unsullied, an army of eunuch slave soldiers without names or identities of their own. They are bred toward the singular purpose of war, trained in every art of combat that exists under the sun. They’re described as cold and unfeeling killers, and their training is described in detail, including the final act to earn their shield: the murder of a newborn babe in front of its mother’s eyes. In a demonstration of their fortitude and unthinking obedience, the slaver cuts off an Unsullied’s nipple right in front of Dany. Though the soldier doesn’t even flinch, Dany doesn’t seem all that impressed — in fact, the practice of slavery actively disgusts her, as does the murder of 8,000 newborn babes (one for each Unsullied who successfully earned his shield). That said, Dany has no real army, and these 8,000 Unsullied could help her in a big way. As she strolls around Astapor, giving consideration to purchasing this army, an assassination attempt is made on her life. Dany is lured into accepting a gift from what appears to be a little girl, but is actually a projection of the warlocks. The ball she is given opens to reveal a scorpion, and this might well have spelled the end for her if not for the arrival of a whitebearded stranger who comes to the rescue. Dany thanks the man for saving her life, and asks his name. Ser Jorah, however, knows all too well who this man is: Ser Barristan Selmy (Ian McElhinney), formerly of Aerys Targaryen’s Kingsguard, and of Robert Baratheon’s, before being dismissed by King Joffrey. He’s celebrated as “Barristan the Bold”, perhaps the greatest living warrior in the Seven Kingdoms. He falls to his knees and explains that he hasn’t forgiven himself for failing her father, and that’s he journeyed across the sea to find her, and to beg a place in her Queensguard. The episode ends here on the question of a further link between Dany and the Seven Kingdoms, a development that’s been a long time in coming.

“Valar Dohaeris” is a great way to kick off the season, even though it often feels too busy to really have any time to sink in. Hopefully, the rest of season three, with its slightly-extended episode length, allows each episode more room to breathe. There’s a lot of story to tell, and it’s one hell of a story. As it stands now, however, the season is off to a promising start.

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