Westeros burns in the wake of the War of the Five Kings. The bodies of burned men bob in the Blackwater. Beyond the Wall, the white walkers begin their assault on the realms of men. Yet, beneath the trappings of epic fantasy, “Game of Thrones” is, at its heart, a drama. Personal ambition, vengeance, and hunger for gold or glory – these ultimately human motivations drive the characters of HBO’s award-winning show and play a major role in the show’s success. And the premiere episode of season three brings the element of human drama front and center.
There’s little blood spilt in the premiere, titled “Valar Dohaeris,” but there’s plenty of talking. However, this doesn’t subtract from the quality of the episode. Indeed, “Valar Dohaeris” underlines everything that makes “Game of Thrones” so enjoyable. The interactions between the characters and the introduction of new players form the core of the premiere. After all, in the aftermath of the last season’s finale, there needs to be a body count of some sort.
The Battle of the Blackwater brought season two of HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ to a climactic finish. Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane), thwarted by the heroic efforts of Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) and a last-minute alliance between House Tyrell and “Papa Lion” Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance), agonizes over his defeat on Dragonstone. He sees no one but the Lady Melisandre (Carice van Houten), until the Onion Knight and his erstwhile Hand of the King, Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham), washes up surprisingly alive. Meanwhile, Robb Stark (Richard Madden) takes the ruins of Harrenhal and his bastard brother Jon Snow (Kit Harington), a prisoner of the wildlings, meets the King Beyond the Wall, Mance Rayder (Ciaran Hinds). In King’s Landing, Tyrion finds himself at the bottom of the ladder, despite all his work to prevent the city’s fall, and his father soaking up the glory as the new Hand of the King. He trades barbs with his sister Cersei (Lena Headey) while his henchman Bronn (Jerome Flynn) threatens some Kingsguard. And Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), the Mother of Dragons, sails for Astapor where her loyal knight, Ser Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen), proposes they purchase an army of slave-soldiers.
Absent from this episode are Arya (Maisie Williams) and Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) Stark, as well as Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie). Viewers will have to hope that these arcs show up in the next episodes. Arya remains one of the fan-favorites of the show and Williams has done a splendid job portraying her thus far.
Peter Dinklage and Charles Dance dominate this episode as Tyrion and Tywin Lannister. In the last episode of season two, we saw Tyrion awaken from his wounds in what seemed to be a forgotten corner of the Red Keep – not necessarily a reward fitting someone who bled to defend King’s Landing. So, in “Valar Dohaeris,” he confronts his lord father to demand rightful recompense. Dance is a masterful Tywin. He exudes the disgust for a son that he cannot imagine could possibly be his. He reminds Tyrion that no matter what Tyrion accomplishes, he will always be a living reminder of his dead mother. But all Tyrion wants is to please his father and when he heartbreakingly asks his father why, Tywin’s response is cold dismissal. Dinklage’s performance is worthy of another Emmy. You feel the squirming in your guts, the crushing disappointment of a son who can never please his father.
The scene on Dragonstone deserves special recognition too. When the camera cuts to Stephen Dillane sitting alone, brooding, (as Stannis is inclined to) he is the paragon of disillusioned failure. He came close to taking the Iron Throne, but his victory was snatched from him. Now, he burns traitors at Melisandre’s command. Our perspective shifts when Davos is brought in: Stannis is not alone, his red shadow is always with him. Carice van Houten smolders as Stannis’ red queen, mysterious in her motives, and still so dangerous. When she whispers in Davos’ ear, Liam Cunningham’s pain, his guilt, and his anger all come pouring out of him like seawater.
In the north, Jon Snow’s arc takes him in a direction as fantastical as Dany’s journeys in the east. Among the wildlings, he is stunned speechless when he and Ygritte (Rose Leslie) see a living giant. Her delight at Jon’s expense cements the showrunners’ decision in casting Leslie as the fire-kissed spearwife; she’s perfect for the role. When he drops to his knees in the presence of Tormund Giantsbane (Kristofer Hivju), mistaking him for the King Beyond the Wall, the wildlings have a laugh at the kneeler’s expense. Hivju seems a fitting man to play Tormund, though readers of the series may reserve judgment until he cracks boasting joke about the size of his member before deciding. But Ciaran Hinds commands the scene as Mance Rayder. Hinds isn’t a stranger to costumed epics; he was, after all, Julius Caesar in HBO’s short-lived “Rome.” When Hinds interrogates young Kit Harington in the wildling tent, it isn’t difficult to feel echoes of Caesar come through in his portrayal as the King Beyond the Wall.
As far as premieres go, season three is off to a solid start. While a fraction of the audience may feel it was slow, the episode was necessary in setting up the action and twists to come. The appearance of the giants and Dany’s dragon snatching a fish out of the water could also be interpreted as the showrunners just flaunting their new budget. If Drogon scorching a Ghiscari fish for a meal is just the start, then who knows what else the audience may be in for? Well, Varys might, but he probably isn’t telling.
Speakeasy Grade: A+
“Game of Thrones”
Starring Peter Dinklage, Lena Headey, Emilia Clarke, Kit Harington, Richard Madden