A word, before we start, on what we mean by spoiler-free in our reviews. You’ll find not a sausage of plot, character or location details in the next few hundred words, nor allusions to any of the above. We’ve said it before but it bears repeating: to us, spoiler-free means exactly that. The last thing we want to do is take away even a smidge of the delicious surprise that comes from watching a brand new episode of a drama as assured and beautifully-composed as Game of Thrones. The first thing we want to do is link your arm in ours and jig about in a mad circle yelling “It’s back! It’s finally back! And it’s still brilliant!” (though that last bit may be explained by this having been written in the wee small hours after a modest application of free post-screening booze).
Written by showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, in terms of narrative, Valar Dohaeris is more preparatory intake of breath than fiery roar. It clarifies purpose, and deftly re-establishes the allegiances and locations of Westeros with a series of largely static, tense two and three-hander scenes.
Like that of the writers, Daniel Minahan’s work in the opening episode has the steady assurance of a director who knows he’s playing with a winning hand. The camerawork is unobtrusive and unflashy for the most part, a still witness to that series of ground-laying weighty conversations.
Minahan certainly can do flash of course, as proved by a playful sequence showcasing Game of Thrones’ impressive CGI dragons, a fluent travelling shot circling the post-battle walls of King’s Landing, and another swooping through the Wildling camp, but on the whole he holds back here, allowing the script, cast and locations the space to piece together their story. Weiss, Benioff and Minahan all have the confidence of people building something in this episode, preparing a foundation to support future action. Like Littlefinger, they’re playing the long game.
A certain amount of recapping is done here, both by the script and visually as the audience once more learns how to orient itself in the vast space of the Seven Kingdoms (icy and white – we’re Beyond the Wall, hot and dusty – we’re across the Narrow Sea, dank and black – we’re in Dragonstone…), and once again, that this show manages to get us roughly up to speed with nothing so clunky as a ‘Previously on Game of Thrones’ is a feat of its narrative dexterity.
Bargaining emerges as the theme of the opener, which is structured around a succession of pairings in which the question “What do you want?” is posed and answered more than once. The slow-paced, tension-thick exchanges are leavened by short bursts of humour and bawdiness (in true Game of Thrones style, one character shares an uncomfortably long amount of screen time with a scantily clad groin), but the overwhelming tone is serious and sombre. Fittingly so, what with death and destruction being threatened at every turn.
Gravity and comedy are combined in one of the episode’s most impressive two-handers; one between Charles Dance’s Tywin and Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister that bounds fluidly from humour to cruelty to wretched pathos. That on-screen pairing alone is worth investing your time in Game of Thrones, before we even come to the locations, layered story and the rest of the impressive cast.
Speaking of which, the rivalry between Lena Headey’s Cersei and her future daughter-in-law, Natalie Dormer’s Margaery, with whom she’s forced to share King’s Landing, promises great things this season. Dormer’s character in this episode demonstrates that the path to power in Westeros is as much about PR, photo ops, and pressing the flesh as it is in Whitehall or Washington, something the ever-detestable Joffrey (surprisingly more unpleasant in wooing mode than he is meting out physical cruelty) is yet to take on board.
One development to note is that the magic drip-fed into Game of Thrones early on, a trickle that pooled towards the Khal Drogo-resurrecting and dragon-hatching season one finale, is in evidence right from the start here, as well it should be on a show that doesn’t tread water. The dragons are growing, and with them, magic is returning to Westeros and settling in for the long haul.
For years now, the acid test for any TV serial has been its ability to produce something we’ll call the HBO sigh. You know the one, it’s that involuntary expulsion of breath at the end of an episode, often accompanied by a weak, protesting “No!”, caused when the screen turns unexpectedly black. It was heard in the screening room this evening, and no doubt will be in the US next Sunday and the UK on Easter Monday. It’s the sound you made at the end of countless episodes of The Sopranos or The Wire, and roughly translated it means “That went too quickly, I want more”. Luckily for us, with a further nine episodes of Game of Thrones stretching gloriously into the distance, more is exactly what we have.
Game of Thrones season three premieres in the US on Sunday the 31st of March, and in the UK on Monday the 1st of April.
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.