[Review] - Game of Thrones, Season 3 Episode 1, "Valar Dohaeris"

Courtesy of HBO

I try, as much as I can, not to compare the novels and the series of Game of Thrones. Partly because not everyone has read the books (though really, at this point, what is your excuse?). But mostly its because they are their own things, and spending time focusing on what they did right, what they did wrong and where they went off the rails does no one a service. Point in fact, the third season premiere, which has firmly established that the TV show is its own beast.

And it is good to have it back.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that were also once denied their rightful claim.

It is a credit to the show that they continue to find interesting and exciting ways to do big things in cheap ways. When last we left Westeros, Sam Tarly was cowering in fear as an insurmountable hoard of undead White Walkers trudged through the snow towards the Fist of the First Men, setting up an epic confrontation between the Others and the Black Brothers. An epic confrontation that the show dispenses with via a held black screen and an unearthly scream, the faint echo of swords giving way to the desperate huffing of Sam, the battle over and lost. I have, as recently as last week, given the show some grief about the tendency to tell, not show. However, I have a hard time staying angry at it when it tells so well, almost completely removing the need to show (this is not an absolute; every once and a while, you need a Blackwater). Any other show that tried to rely so heavily on exposition would crumble under the weight of its own unbearability, but not GoT. And that is talent.

I was heartened when the premiere didn't attempt to do everything at once, however there were some signs of that narrative inflation that was beginning to slow the show last season. This episode again is a prime example of what could have been a new organisation structure, but missed the opportunity. The majority of Valar Dohaeris was focused on the effects of the battle of Blackwater, on the various peoples of King's Landing, on the defeated Stannis, and on the desolate Davos. This is where the episode should have focused entirely, after the highly effective prologue. Unlike last year, the show did not attempt to fit every part into the pie, with Arya, Bran, Theon and Jamie completely absent, and Jon and Robb only putting in minor appearances. And so it was that I wondered why they were included at all. Blackwater had no direct effect on them, so why were they clouding up a perfectly good plot of recovery? Might it, in the interest of pacing, have been wiser to push them into next week? The introduction of Mance Rayder alone, considering the buildup, should have been given more episodic focus. Instead, we get it straight away, and then it gets pushed to the side while Tyrion seethes and dragons fly.

For the first time since season one, Dany's story was interesting and worth the time spent on it. And not just because it reintroduced one of my favourite characters from the novels. The dragons effects were top notch, so I can only assume we won't be seeing them again for a few episodes. But, and I'm going to break my rule here for a moment, in this first episode they managed to run through a good quarter novel's worth of her story, making me worry that Dany will once again suffer from a strung out and atrophied narrative. Last year, the first and final episodes were Dany's strongest, and while I hope that won't be the case this year, so far we are one for two.

Did any of you watch Ripper Street? I'm biased in that the late 1800's are my favourite historical period, what with the Victorians on one side of the Atlantic, and the American West on the other. So I quite enjoyed the show, which blended the sensibilities of the western with the setting and vernacular of the Victorians. And it starred Jerome Flynn, who I didn't say enough good things about on this show last year. Obviously, the producers realised exactly what they had in both Flynn and the character of Bronn, because they've been steadily increasing his role on the show since his introduction, and this episode was no different. He even got his own scene, without Tyrion or any other member of the primary cast present. This is, I feel, a wise choice. The show has a lot of talent up front, but it isn't beyond recognising and rewarding talent from further back the lines. Same goes for Ros, who has seen her role grow from sexposition to a character of some regard. How do we know: she hasn't appeared nude in her last three appearances.

The series is wisely branching out on it's own, creating story lines to fill in character motivations and the keep things from getting too thing between the things that must happen. Case in point was the brilliant story crafted for Natalie Dormer's Margaery. Having her hand out toys to the orphans of Fleabottom, ingraining herself on the poor (and majority population) of the city, like a medieval Princess Diana is a cunning power play. A lot this season, I suspect, will be setting up the contrasts between her and Cersei, and it begins here, with one wearing a wisp of a gown, while the other has hers armour plated. They aren't different, Margaery showed her colours last season with her manipulations to get close to whatever thrones she could. But Cersei is the stick, and Margaery the carrot. And while he failed to flog anyone, the power struggle for control over Joffery is already favouring the younger of the players. Also, anyone who might have thought the symbolism of Joffery being a caged animal during the orphanage scenes didn't mean anything, needs to pay attention more closely.

There was much to love about this first episode, but like every episode the weight rests on the acting, and the acting rarely disappoints. All the CGI dragons, and impressive costuming and set design in the world only augments, but cannot replace, a scene like the one between Charles Dance and Peter Dinklage. Tyrion is always quietest in his father's presence, and here the silence was his best attribute. As much as it would be nice to see these characters get into a full hearted battle of words, the truth is that Tyrion is no match for Tywin, and this scene proved it. Dance was at peak form, and reminded every viewer why moral ambiguity is nice sometimes, but every so often you need an out-and-out villain to add some much needed menace. And, I think for the first time, we see that Tywin properly hates his son. Not just is embarrassed or disappointed, but hates. This is the moment that will define them both from here on out, and it was wonderfully done.

So, not all the issues fixed, but the premiere showed some work at fixing the issues the show had when it left us last year. Can it continue to improve on this work, making the series a stricter structured, tighter power house, or fall back on the way things were last year, and risk burying itself under the weight of the story? For the next nine weeks I'll be happy either way. Just happier one way then the other.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.

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