This review contains spoilers. Read our spoiler-free review, here.
3.1 Valar Dohaeris
Game of Thrones is not just a television show. Game of Thrones is a full-fledged event. I have spent the better part of this weekend glued to the television, streaming episode after episode in a marathon of screaming, swords clashing, blood spraying, dragons roaring, and sexposition sexpositioning. To say that the first episode back after a very long wait was eagerly anticipated would be an understatement.
Game of Thrones has lost nothing in the long wait between seasons; indeed, the best show on television has gotten even better in the interim, even if HBO telegraphed one big surprise with its “Previously on” round-up. Even with that spoiler (avoid it if you can), the show is nothing short of brilliant thanks to the steady hand of David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.
The bulk of the episode this week picks up right where the Battle of Blackwater leaves off. King’s Landing is rebuilding, bodies are washing up on the shore, and Joffrey Baratheon is even less popular than he was before the battle – and this is a kid who started a riot and murdered dozens of starving people after being hit in the face with flying poo. However, in a clever note, we see that Margaery Tyrell giving a lesson on how to win people over in a way that instantly makes Cersei hate her with a burning passion. She’s got a bit too much of her father in her.
Charles Dance may be the show’s best actor when it comes to delivering long, blistering monologues. In season one, he ripped into the Kingslayer while ripping into a deer carcass. This season, the carcass he rips into is that of his mangled son, Tyrion Lannister. Despite being blessed with the family name and all the money and power that it comes with, he’s the black sheep, the family curse, the physical manifestation of the rot in the Lannister soul. Being a good hand of the king, saving King’s Landing with a brilliant scheme, destroying Stannis’ fleet, leading the men onto the beaches to repel the invaders, suffering a grisly facial wound… none of that is enough to impress Tywin, who tears into Tyrion with one of the most bloody, heartbreaking speeches in the show’s history. It’s a credit to both actors; Dance delivers the words with such pain and fury and hatred that it makes Peter Dinklage’s responding facial expressions, going from prideful and nervous to shattered in the course of a few simple sentences, that much more effective. It’s heartbreaking for both men and somehow even more of a betrayal than that of Stannis to his closest companion, Davos Seaworth.
More than any armed combat, the battle within each man between loyalty and honour versus a lust for power is the true war at the centre of Game of Thrones, and this episode explores that directly. For two seasons and who knows how many in-show years, Dany has been adamant about two things: regaining the Iron Throne and getting her dragons back. We’ve seen to what lengths she’ll go to get her dragons back, but how far will she go to regain the Seven Kingdoms?
It’s an interesting moral quandary (and one of the funniest scenes the show has done with the translator, the slaver, Dany, and Jorah) and a legitimate question. Dany is a woman of high morals when it comes to pretty much everything. Just how low is she willing to stoop? How many compromises will she make? It’s strange that the woman who did basically nothing in the second season except poke around Qarth and whimper about her missing dragons now may have the best potential story arc for the third season. At least it promises to be significantly more interesting (and arresting to look at).
Game of Thrones has taken massive steps towards cranking up the show from a looks standpoint. Director Daniel Minahan doesn’t do a lot of trickery this episode aside from a few very clever overhead shots and some of the dragon work, but he doesn’t have to because the crew behind the scenes have chosen some of the best-looking, most-interesting filming locations available in the world. I don’t know how they do it, or how much they have to sweeten things with CGI, but every location feels different from the next. You know Winterfell instantly and when you’re beyond The Wall, it’s obvious. I didn’t know that Dany’s ship was pulling into Astapor, but it has a completely different feel from Qarth, Pentos, or Vaes Dothrak. King’s Landing, Dragonstone, and Pyke are as different as different can be.
That’s fitting, considering the show’s different characters and story lines. Valar Dohaeris is spread across thousands of miles and dozens of characters we know and love, and it leaves out multiple other story lines in the process. The first few episodes back tend to be a bit cluttered, but as the season progresses, I have no doubt that the focus will tighten, some stories will rise to prominence over others, and loose threads will be tied off or snipped out entirely. Life is cheap in Westeros, and grudges are not easily forgotten.
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