"Game Of Thrones" - "Valar Dohaeris": We Think We've Climbed So High Upon The Backs We've Condemned
Part of the genius of "Game Of Thrones" lies in their confidence in the show itself, in its actors and writing and story. The easiest thing to do with the premiere of a hugely popular series is to start things off explosively, with a bang, with revelations and action and to simply pull out all the stops. Instead, "Valar Dohaeris," the first episode of Season Three, began much as the finale, "Valar Morghulis" ended. It was a deceptively quiet episode, more a gathering of forces and wills than an action-packed opener. Perhaps what made it so fascinating is that, through a series of short vignettes with a handful of the major players, we are given a glimpse into what the larger themes and motivations will be for each of them. This wasn't just a series of short conversations, it was a preview into what struggles each character will face as we travel through this new season.
Before we get to anything else -- the smoking crater of Winterfell in the credits? Devastating and perfect.
As always, it begins in the North, where the Night's Watch is fractured and desperate and reeling from the encounter with it's terrifying new foes. Poor Samwell Tarly, destined to stumble when he is needed the most, is attacked by the dead, saved, only to be quietly and brutally castigated by the Lord Commander for his failures. As such, they are left alone in the white wilderness with an army of the dead to contend with. Meanwhile, Jon Snow finds an entirely new army when he is brought before the King Beyond The Wall (Ciarán Hinds). Among the Wildlings, Jon finds an entirely new lifestyle, of free folk and lawlessness, but also families and independence and a fierce, savage loyalty. And giants. Great, big giants. Jon's parlay with Mance Rayder was a fascinating one, a meeting of two men with similar pasts -- after finding no place in the world, they ended up in the Night's Watch, only to find that even there, the last stronghold for the outcasts of the world, they still don't feel like they belong. Yet this land, of giants and Wildlings and icy strength, this is the place where blood doesn't matter, where kings require loyalty but not subservience, where one looks a king in the eye and clasps his hand instead of kneeling. Is it as true for Snow as it was for Rayder that only there, in the white, wild north, they can find peace? It was a fascinating, if brief conversation, with brilliant dialogue written for Snow (even if Kit Harrington still struggles with delivery a bit), who used the sad truths of his life to add weight to his lies.
Meanwhile, Jon's half-brother Robb, yet another of the world's kings, finds his war taking a toll in more ways than one. His mother has broken his trust and shamed him with her release of the Kingslayer, and as such he is forced to treat her like a criminal. His people are being torn asunder, and his family scattered and lost. Worse, his enemy is merciless and relentless. That one scene contained more slaughter and anguish than most shows will have in a season. As Robb's bannerman lay dead and broken around him, new fuel was added to the fire of vengeance that rages through Robb's army. It's for that reason, among many, that Catelyn's release of Jaime Lannister hurts so much, and why Robb must give her no quarter if he hopes to keep his forces bound together.
To the south, Davos Seaworth is saved from a most unpleasant death in the aftermath of the debacle that was the Battle of Blackwater, only to find his king has sunk even further under the spell of Melisandre. Desperate, scarred, and sorrowful, Davos only wants his king to see the truth of his words and understand that the horrors that he inflicts upon his people -- burning the unbelievers -- are leading him down a dark and twisted path from which there can be no return. Yet such is the power of the Red Woman; to softly, seductively steer him further into a madness that was born out of his stubborn arrogance. Her final moments in their scene was an impressive, if horrible coup -- cementing her hold over Stannis Baratheon while widening the wedge between him and Davos, the lone brave voice of reason that seeks to bring him back from the brink. There's an understated chemistry between these three actors, each working with totally different characters and motivations, each with a sense of urgency and anger, yet each conveying their emotions in radically different ways. Between Dillane's stoic, steely demeanor, Davos' righteous pathos, and Melisandre's smoky, snake-like charms, watching their interplay has become a highlight for me.
One of the most enjoyable sequences was that of Joffrey Baratheon, the loathed boy king, and his replacement bride-to-be, Margaery Tyrell. It was a splendidly rendered series of events, nicely demonstrating everything you need to know about the respective characters. Sweet, charming, caring Margaery, stepping through the muck to sit with the poor and afflicted, giving them the care that they need, while Joffrey hides, terrified of the common folk who hate him so, despite the fact that he earned that hatred through his own actions. Even more intriguing was the soft, subtle battle of wits between Cersei and Margaery, a flurry of deft and deadly-sweet parries and thrusts as Cersei learns that her son has hitched himself to someone far more devious and cunning than she expected, someone remarkably like Cersei herself -- only one who uses a gentle kindness to manipulate those around her. The rivalry between them promises to be a thoroughly satisfying one.
It should come as no surprise that the two most powerful and affecting segments were the ones that featured Tyrion Lannister and Danaerys Targaryan. Each was full of trouble and heartbreak and fury, each ended with a feeling of despairing impotence. Tyrion, scarred and abandoned despite his heroics at Blackwater, is first forced to deal with the condescending arrogance of his dear sister (though he does seem to give better than he gets), while sequestered in his drab, ramshackle new quarters. Yet nothing was more harsh and scathing than his truly awful confrontation with Tywin Lannister. Charles Dance's withering, scornful, and worst of all hateful condemnation of his son was almost staggering. All of Tyrion's wit and cleverness, those things he uses as both weapons and armor, are of no use to him in the face of the vicious truth that his father presents him with -- that he will never end up in his good graces, he will never inherit the land and title that his so desperately wants. In the end, Tyrion is left with nothing -- no family, forced to pay his one friend, his authority ingloriously stripped from him, and a scar on his face to remind him of those things each day. Also? Charles Dance needs to be catapulted to the top of the "best villains on television" list, because his arrogant, vicious, merciless demeanor is just... breathtaking.
Across the Narrow Sea, Danaerys brings her people to new lands, the lands of Astapor where she seeks the army that will help her take back the crown. Her dragons have grown, and credit is due to the show's effects crew for a terrific demonstration of their new growth and abilities as the ships sail for Astapor. Once there, however, Danaerys finally discovers the truth about the legendary Unsullied, puported to be the greatest fighters in the world. That revelation is a nasty one -- the Unsullied are born out of everything that Dany hates -- cruelty, slavery, and torture. Yet there is the slavemaster, proudly demonstrating their unflinching power and their virtual immunity to pain (the nipple scene almost destroyed my evening completely), even as he disdainfully sneers at her behind the veil of language. Danaerys must now come to grips with the fact that to claim her birthright, she may have to do it on the backs of those bred like animals by the worst of humanity, bred to kill by doing the unthinkable. An army built on the deaths of thousands of infants. The realization is a stunning, horrific one that Emilia Clarke conveyed beautifully. Yet despite all of those horrors, Danaerys is not without hope, for at the end of the episode she finds herself an unlikely new ally in the surprise reappearance of Barristan Selmy.
And thus, we return to the land of a Song of Ice and Fire. Season Three shows us that there are new trials awaiting our favorite characters, even as we anticipate learning about the ones we have not seen yet. So many of them emerged victorious at the end of Season Two in one fashion or another, only to learn now that their futures are perhaps even more treacherous than before. Each of them learned that the peaks that they'd reached are nothing compared to what lies ahead now, that trust is a rare and unreliable thing, and that to go forward will result in more trouble. The world of "Game Of Thrones" is a harsh and unyielding one, where small men can be great and great men can be small, but where few are allowed a lasting satisfaction. The night is, as they say, dark and full of terrors, and that night looms ever closer.