|courtesy of HBO
Quick Note: I have only read the first book in George R. R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire and therefore have no knowledge of what’s to come in future episodes. I have read no spoilers and any predictions I make that come true are pure coincidence.
The technical prowess of Game of Thrones is truly unmatched for the television medium. If combined together, each 10-episode season could be a theatrical film that would rank up there with the latest blockbusters. The amount of detail that goes into the various elements of the show (dragons, sweeping landscapes, undead creatures, epic battles) is astounding; it’s no wonder the show cleaned up at the Creative Arts Emmys last year. When this level of production matches the intricate, fantastical story and world George R.R. Martin has created, there is truly no greater experience on television. “Valar Dohaeris” mostly had this intrinsic mixture of elements but the amount of storylines packed into this episode without a greater overall theme to tie them together create a slightly unsatisfying sense of chaos.
In this episode we travel to five different locations: Beyond the Wall, King’s Landing, Dragonstone, Harrenhal, and Across the Narrow Sea.
~*Beyond the Wall*~
We pick up exactly where we left off at the end of Season 2 with Sam running away from a fleet of White Walkers. He is facing certain death until Mormont and the Night Watch come and free him, chastising him for not sending a raven of warning. This is an engaging opening scene but I can’t imagine that it sets the stage for what’s to come. Season 1’s White Walker attack introduced us to the brutality of this world and Season 2 showed us the monstrous King Joffrey enjoying a fight to the death in front of him, signaling the impending war. What we have here doesn’t feel like a new beginning. If anything though, this may be an indication that the White Walkers and others beyond the Wall will play a much bigger role in this season than the first two. The idea of a more animalistic threat being out there just beyond the trivial fight for power between warring families has been fascinating since the start of the series so it should be interesting to see the looming threat become more and more of a reality.
Some miles away, Jon Snow is still under the capture of the Wildlings and ultimately wins the trust of their king, Mance Rayder (played by scenery-chewing Ciarán Hinds). I’m intrigued to watch the level of trust unfold with this relationship over the course of the season, considering the initial hesitation on both sides. Snow may very well be playing a long con here but it’s tough to imagine him keeping up the charade for too long.
The goings-on at King’s Landing have always been the most entertaining storylines of the show, especially when the witty Tyrion Lannister is involved. I was pleased to see the Lannisters (the world’s most dysfunctional family) bickering amongst each other yet again even though they should ostensibly be closer to each other given their win at Blackwater. We see Tyrion, battle scar strewn across his face, alone in his room and staring into a mirror. With his father Tywin taking all the credit for riding in and winning the battle for the Lannisters and Joffrey still acting up as king, he is understandably feeling unappreciated. He plans on discussing matters with Tywin, causing Cersei to become paranoid so she grills him on what exactly he intends on saying. I always love scenes between these two; their relationship is so undeniably brother-sister and Peter Dinklage and Lena Headey play off each other like they’ve known each other since birth. Tyrion’s later discussion with his father is a particularly brutal one, casting Tyrion as vulnerable for the first time in a while. Tywin sniggers at his desire for recognition and frequently mentions that his reputation would be sullied if he put Tyrion in any sort of leadership role in Casterly Rock. I can definitely sense that Tyrion’s daddy issues will be an overarching storyline this season, especially now that Tywin is at King’s Landing.
At the end of last season’s “Blackwater”, most of Stannis Baratheon’s men are burned to death or killed in the line of battle. The fate of Davos, the well-regarded knight we met at the beginning of the season was left ambiguous. In this episode we see him wake up on an isolated rock on a small island, face blistered. After getting the attention of a nearby ship, he travels back to Dragonstone to have a word with Stannis. Davos learns that the mystical Melisandre is determining the men and women of Dragonstone who don’t believe in the Lord of Light and burning them to death. Davos meets with Stannis and Melisandre and loses his temper on the latter, forcing Stannis to send him to the dungeons. The religious undertones in the storyline of Melisandre’s persuasion over Stannis have been captivating since each character’s introduction. Stannis, a man of great power, has ascribed to a religion that many men say they don’t believe in anymore and is using its dogma to gain greater power. I’m very curious to see how this storyline plays out; there has to be a point at which Melisandre’s whispers of persuasion cause Stannis to lose someone or something he dearly cares about.
Robb still hasn’t forgotten his mother Catelyn’s decision to let Jaime Lannister go free and tells his men to lock her away in a cell at Harrenhal. Robb is among the weaker characters in this cast so it’s hard to get behind his decision, considering his mother is in a position where her family has been split apart and desperately wants things to return to normal. His desire to fight the Lannisters at Harrenhal is soon thwarted; he is shocked to see the castle grounds in such dire straits, with blackened corpses lying about and nary a soul in sight. Except one, and a former maester at that. This was a particularly dull storyline that could have been saved for the second episode in place of more interesting characters we didn’t get to see (Arya, Bran, Jamie and Brienne).
~*Across the Narrow Sea*~
Finally, we reach what is the most engaging storyline of the premiere: Daenerys has rounded up her dwindling crew of Dothraki soldiers onto a ship headed for Astapor. There is a great tracking POV shot of one of her dragons (who have become bigger) flying into the ship majestically to meet their mother. I am consistently impressed with the level of detail and realism that has gone into these CGI dragons and I only hope they serve Daenerys’ story as well as they did in the season finale. Alas, for now she has her sights set on an army of men at Astapor called the “Unsullied”. To demonstrate why they received that name, their leader cuts off one solider’s nipple, to which the soldier is unfazed. Offended by this demonstration, she receives council from Ser Jorah that she could treat these men well if she took them away from this environment. Daenerys shows her softness again when she gets tricked by a warlock under the disguise of a little girl. The warlock performs some black magic in an attempt to kill her but is thwarted by a cloaked man. The man reveals himself to be Ser Barristan Selmy, who served under Daenerys’ father King Aerys Targaryen (the Mad King) during his realm.
With five different storylines to juggle, this episode felt very bloated and scatterbrained, despite its plethora of great individual scenes. As with each season the first episode is not the most exciting since it needs to set the foundation, so I’m willing to forgive a lack of huge, character-defining moments. This season is said to cover the first half of Book 3, A Storm of Swords which is supposedly the best book in the series so I’m excited for things to come. What is most impressive about Game of Thrones is that it is truly unlike anything on television, a true cinematic fantasy experience that never fails to engage its audience. Seasons of television often depreciate as the show runs its course, but Game of Thrones has maintained a level of consistency from the very first episode to “Valar Dohaeris” and doesn’t show any sign of stopping.
MVP: Peter Dinklage