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Monday, April 1, 2013

Review: Game of Thrones, Valar Dohaeris

Season 3, Episode 1

Grade: A-
Verdict: Game of Thrones returns with a bang, focusing on characters either in power, tied to those in power, or Daenerys. Despite the energy imbued in each scene, I couldn't help but feel like there were a few scenes that needed a bit more room to breathe and to establish context. But in all, a great premiere that lays the seeds for the potential downfall for a number of players despite the lack of an overall thematic underpinning that marks some of its stand-out episodes.

This'll be an interesting review to write, as I come to it with some pretty decent foreknowledge of the events to occur within the books and subsequently what's coming to the television series. I will attempt to keep this as spoiler-free as possible and focus only on what is presented in the given episode.

Valar Dohaeris re-opens on the icy north in which Season 2 closed on, with Samwell Tarly on the run from the White Walkers. The series continues to give us more detail on these mysterious creatures than the books themselves and it pays off quite well, as we the viewers continue to get drawn more and more into the fantasy elements that continue to grow out as more time is spent in this world. It's funny to think about how Game of Thrones started as a fairly grounded series in it's first season right about until the birth of the Dragons, and then the more magical elements like green wildfire, and shadow assassins began to appear. The White Walkers making their most pronounced appearances yet continue to build on that fantasy momentum. We don't get much of Sam and the conflict that he and his remaining brothers are facing down, but the terror is adequately framed and palpable. Something bad is coming to Westeros, something far worse than any petty squabbling about a crown. Though, my guess? We won't see much of another peep about this for much of the rest of the season.

Post-prologue, we tackle Jon and his eventual meeting with Mance Rayder, "the King Beyond the Wall". There's some really nice moments here, particularly viewers getting their first view of a Giant, another race that hasn't gotten much mention in the series thus far, and the mis-direction of who Mance Rayder actually is. Ciaran Hinds is a slightly older choice to be playing the part, but the man has such incredible chops, I was sold almost instantly. We only get the one scene to catch up with Jon, but it's a fairly momentous one. Rayder is an interesting creation, a fairly clean-cut musician and former Night's Watch member that now controls the respect of an army of shaggy looking ruffians. Rayder sticks out and it will be exciting to see this character develop in what will likely develop into a pseudo father and son relationship with not perhaps? Probably not, if there's anything I've learned about Game of Thrones, it's that you can toss your normal expectations out the window.

Davos also returns, who after getting flung off his ship in the Battle of Blackwater is stranded on a deserted isle. Davos is basically channelling his best Tom Hanks in Castaway here, and the makeup is done quite well as they nail that look of dehydration. After he's finally recovered by his friend Salladhor Saan, he asks him to bring him to Stannis, despite his warnings of Stannis' continued religious fervor with Melissandre. When Stannis arrives, he's more or less tossed right into the dungeon for attempting to kill Melissandre. It's maybe a bit too "big" of a scene, you'd think maybe Davos would wait until he's at least sure he's in Stannis' good graces before trying such a maneuver but Liam Cunningham as Davos continues to be possibly my favorite actor of the entire ensemble. He portrays dogged loyalty so well, and the look on his face when he expresses to Saan about his son's death is heartbreaking. Stannis is definitely pretty far gone at this point, but I look forward to seeing the show tackle his next big move as a few key characters haven't been introduced as of yet.

Tyrion, for his part, spends a scene recovering from his injuries at Blackwater before being interrupted by Cersei and her horde in a scene that's best described as "Jerome Flynn is really funny as Bronn" where we get a nice reminder that Bronn hates that bearded member of the King's Guard. All of this leads to what is probably my favorite scene of the episode where Tyrion demands his right to Casterly Rock from his father, Tywin. Charles Dance and Peter Dinklage have a pretty amazing scene that so fully displays the years of pent -up disgust Tywin has for Tyrion, both earned and unearned. Of everything that occurred within the script for this premiere, this may be the scene of greatest consequence down the line, just masterful stuff, particularly Dinklage's ability to contain so much emotional complexity within one look.

Finally on the positive side of things, Daenerys finally has some plot momentum that goes beyond "where are MY DRAGONS???", in that she is attempting to build an army. There's a tremendously funny scene where Dany and Jorah are attempting to buy these fearless warriors called "The Unsullied" and the dealer in which she is attempting to work with has a great back and forth with his servant translator. An attempt on her life occurs afterward, and its an exciting scene with the Warlocks still apparently in play (a change from the books) trying to poison her with a manticore, with her life being saved by Barristan Selmy, a character who hasn't appeared since the First Season. All of these exciting moments really underline how little the writers gave Emilia Clarke to do last season and just how bad everything in Quarth sucked. So, as long as no one invokes a "rite of Sumai", I think we may be okay here. Also, the Dragons looked really great. I've struggled with my feelings about how the dragons might appear on screen as they grew larger, but if they're used as sparingly as they are here, the CGI will likely not grate much.

The breakneck pace of the show does have its moments where it chokes the story just a bit, nowhere is this better in evidence than in Robb Stark and Roose Bolton's arrival at what appears to be Harrenhal, though it's never quite defined as such in the dialogue at any point. We're not given much of a clue as to why it was abandoned, nor what Robb's next move is. I also wasn't crazy about Margaery Tyrell's doing her best Princess Diana in order to win over the hearts of the people of King's Landing. I feel like that scene could have easily have been one of those exceptions to the "show, don't tell" rule, particularly given the much more successful scene at the dinner table setting up some nice antagonism between Cersei and Margaery, and the time could have been better spent on Sansa or Robb, the latter especially. I also saw very little tie between the episode title itself and the scenes as portrayed; the concept of "all men must serve" wasn't particularly inherent beyond perhaps what was happening with Tyrion. Generally the show does a stronger job of this, so I don't expect it to be a trend.

But minor quibbles aside, this was a wonderful hour spent with the folks of Westeros and Essos. I look forward to next week, where it seems as though we'll be catching up with those characters on the run like Jamie and Brienne, Bran, Hodor, Osha and Rickon, and of course, Arya. A nice bit of thematic unification may be in order there, but either way, I'm so glad the show is back. Sundays have just dramatically improved.

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