Game of Thrones Season 3 Premiere – “Valar Dohaeris” – Review & Recap
Warning: This review contains spoilers from “Valar Dohaeris” as well as Game of Thrones Seasons 1 & 2
Fans of Game of Thrones’ first two seasons should not be surprised that the premiere of Season 3 is a bit slow. With so many characters and story arcs to juggle, it’s amazing that David Benioff, D.B. Weiss and the show’s other writers can tell a satisfying story in a mere 10 episodes.
Nevertheless, “Valar Dohaeris” is a testament to the reality that series like Game of Thrones are not ideally suited for an episodic format. In the context of the whole season, episode 1 is completely necessary, without a wasted moment in terms of character development.
Fans of the book who know what to expect will no doubt savor the foreshadowing of certain major, game-changing events on the horizon. More casual fans who expect every episode to stand alone will also not be disappointed, as the writing, acting and cinematography on display here are nearly unequaled on television (only Breaking Bad, Justified and Mad Men can compete with the outstanding quality on display here).
Even as it lays out new plotlines, Game of Thrones, like George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels on which it is based, is a show just as concerned with the past as the future. So naturally, picking up only a short time after the climactic events of Season 2’s penultimate episode “Blackwater,” the denizens of Westeros are still picking up the pieces. Every so often, a new character or eight crops up to add some fresh flavor to the proceedings.
Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane), whose ambition to take the iron throne quite literally went up in flames in the events of the aforementioned episodes, seems to have been enslaved by Red Priestess Melisandre (Carice van Houten) if the fact that he’s burning subjects alive is any evidence. When former smuggler and inexplicably loyal friend Davos Seaworth attempts to murder the red priestess in order to free his king from her influence, but fairs little better than Maester Cressen at the beginning of Season 2. For now, though, the last Baratheon sibling is not in a position to do much more than lament his defeat and plan an unlikely comeback.
Ironically, the half-man responsible for said defeat, one Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), has also fallen far, with his father Tywin (Charles Dance) claiming credit for his family’s unexpected victory and usurping the ambitious dwarf’s position as Hand of the King. If Season 2 dealt with what happens when the powerless find themselves in positions of authority, Season 3 will likely deal with the emotional and practical repercussions when that power is taken away.
On the other hand, characters like Margaery and Loras Tyrell (played by Natalie Dormer and Finn Jones respectively), relatively minor players last season, find themselves in positions of unprecedented authority. But as Game of Thrones fans have learned over the course of two tragedy-rife seasons, holding great power can be just as unpleasant and perilous as having none.
Case in point: Margaery Tyrell’s new status is incumbent on her betrothal to the sadistic King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), possibly even more uncomfortable to watch when he’s actually interested in a suitor than when he despises one. It must be noted however, that if any woman in the Seven Kingdoms can stand up to Joffrey, it’s Lady Tyrell. Natalie Dormer brings a savvy boldness to the character that is much more understated than in the novels. If anything, it’s an improvement.
With a show as vast as Game of Thrones, not every character can immediately fit into the broader thematic framework of the show. Outsiders Danaerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) and Jon Snow (Kit Harrington), still disconnected from the action in King’s Landing, face unique challenges of their own. The former, in possession of newly acquired wealth and a pair of teenage dragons, is out to charter ships and hire an army of emotionless killers known as the Unsullied to take back the throne her father lost. Here, she encounters Barristan Selmy (Ian McElhinney), formerly of the Kingsguard, who pledges his service to her. Based on the trailer, this season promises great things for the Mother of Dragons, and episode 1 gets things rolling nicely.
Beyond the Wall in Westeros’ frozen north, the bastard Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) meets the wildling king Mance Rayder, played with great magnetism and charisma by Ciaren Hinds. Although technically undercover for the Night’s Watch, it’s an open question how long Snow will remain loyal to his oath in the face of a new surrogate father figure and the not-so-hidden affections of feisty wildling Ygritte (Rose Lesley). His friend Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) escapes from some wights (essentially ice zombies brought back from the dead by the mysterious White Walkers) and gets scolded by Lord Commander Jeor Mormont (James Cosmo) in the episode’s one awkwardly-executed scene.
With so many promising storylines springing to life in the season premiere, one cannot help feeling a little cheated when the screen cuts to black without a hint of resolution. Watching a show as languidly paced as Game of Thrones from week to week can be a frustrating experience, suggesting that perhaps the powers that be behind the show would be well-served following the example of House of Cards and releasing the season all at once on Netflix.
Alas, such a move is not likely to come from an HBO desperately clinging to its outdated business model where only cable subscribers can view their series (earning Game of Thrones, an unprecedented hit, the distinction of being the most pirated show on TV).
That beings aid, it’s hardly fair to blame Game of Thrones for the failings of its network and for being so engaging that it’s painful to wait a week for the next episode. As things stand, “Valar Dohaeris” provides a tantalizing glimpse of what’s to come, in the process refreshing the memories of an increasingly large percentage of its audience that has not read the books.
In a way, the episode is of a piece with the Season 2 finale “Valar Morghulis,” another episode more concerned with setup and reflection than forward momentum. But even at its most languid, Game of Thrones is one of the best shows and TV and well worth the time it takes to get to know its enthralling world and many complex characters.