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Spring may have just recently sprung, but winter is coming as HBO’s smash Game of Thrones roared back to life last night with “Valor Dohaeris”, its third season premiere. As is frequently the case with the show, the premiere served up a lot on its plate, bringing us up to speed on the happenings in King’s Landing, the slave traders’ city of Astapor across the sea, and the frozen wilds beyond the wall. One of the criticisms frequently levied against the show is that it attempts to shoehorn in too many narrative threads per episode, giving us fun-sized bits of a breadth of storylines and opting to skim the surface rather than offer a meaty, in-depth look at just one or two characters. (In comparison, last season’s “Blackwater,” which focused on the immediate, visceral impacts of war in King’s Landing felt epic, despite its limited scope). While there wasn’t a tight focus or a unifying theme to “Valor Dohaeris,” the episode served the necessary expository functions of a premiere and also offered some great moments, which promise tantalizing material lying ahead.
“Valor Dohaeris” picks up immediately where we left off last season, with The Others and their undead army attacking the men of the Night’s Watch. Although we don’t see the actual battle (just a black screen and the sounds of clashing swords and otherworldly screams), it’s clear that it’s becoming an increasingly dire situation for the men beyond the Wall. After a frightened Sam (John Bradley) neglects to dispatch the ravens during the fight, Lord Commander Mormont (James Cosmo) decides they must return to the wall to warn the blissfully ignorant people of Westeros of the encroaching danger. While the scene serves primarily to set up the season’s trajectory for Sam and the Nights Watch, it also offers some striking visuals, from the unsettling menace of the blinding snow to Ghost, Jon Snow’s (Kit Harington) massive direwolf, on the attack.
Elsewhere in the true North, Jon Snow continues his covert operations with the Wildlings and we’re finally introduced to the oft-spoken of Mance Rayder (Ciarán Hinds), the King Beyond the Wall, as Jon pledges his allegiance to his new companions. As Ygritte (Rose Leslie) leads Jon to meet Mance, he’s pelted with shit by the rowdy free folk and it’s clear that the Wildling campgrounds have an almost festival-like atmosphere that should at least provide Jon with a livelier backdrop this season. Again, the scene mostly serves to set the stage for the rest of the season, but in just a brief glimpse, effectively characterizes the world beyond the Wall as its own darkly enchanted, separate universe where the laws of Westeros don’t apply and men and kings (and giants!) mingle as equals.
Back in Kings Landing, Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) is still smarting from his fall from grace. Bruised and disfigured by a massive facial scar (Cercei’s (Lena Heady) remark about the false rumors of Tyrion having lost his nose was a nice little in-joke for those who have read the novels), the youngest Lannister’s station is seemingly even lower than before he was named Hand of the King. Relegated to insultingly shabby quarters and stripped of all power, Tyrion asks his father to grant him his inherited claim to the Lannister stronghold Casterly Rock, but is cruelly rebuffed by Lord Tywin, who refuses to let the whoring, drinking, full of “low cunning” Tyrion make a mockery of his ancestral home. As Tywin, Charles Dance is all controlled malice, blaming Tyrion for his mother’s death and calling him a curse the gods bestowed upon him to teach him humility. Those are truly cutting words and it’s a great scene, as it illustrates just how powerless Tyrion has become. When Tywin speaks of befitting living arrangements and a future arranged, it’s clear that Tyrion has about as much freedom and sway in Joffrey’s court as captive Sansa Stark.
Perhaps as a result of having lost his button man when the Hound went AWOL, King Joffrey’s (Jack Gleeson) cowardice has become ever more apparent, particularly as, obviously shaken by last season’s riot, he hides in his barge in Flea Bottom, fearfully peeking out the window at the crowd of curious commoners whom his new queen-to-be freely mixes with. Although Joffrey’s taken aback by Margaery’s (Natalie Dormer) unauthorized stop at the orphanage, the usually sadistic King doesn’t react to the infraction, as he recognizes and is perhaps intimidated by her poise and will. Margaery is no shrinking violet and it seems the cruel boy king realizes that he can’t abuse her as he did Sansa Stark.
In the novels, Margaery is a bit of a cipher and her motivations aren’t clear, so when she said she wanted to be THE queen last season, I assumed the show was going to portray her as a power-hungry political player, a less evil mini-Cercei. However, as she warmly mingles with the peasants at an orphanage and later tells Cercei that the low and the highborn aren’t really that different, it seems that perhaps Margaery’s queenly ambition is born of a revolutionary streak rather than a desire for power. Either way, Margeary clearly has her own agenda and is clever enough to keep up with the Lannisters and the dynamic between her and her future husband and mother-in-law is one I’m looking forward to see play out this season.
Of all the major characters, Daenerys fared the worst last season with a meandering plotline that saw her spending too much time tantruming about her stolen dragons, so it was good to see a heavier focus on her in the premiere and the beginnings of what promises to be a much more compelling storyline for the Khaleesi. Dany, Ser Jorah (Iain Glen), and her loyal Dothraki arrive in Astapor (a brand new location on the opening map), contemplating the purchase of a highly-trained army of slaves to help her reclaim the Iron Throne. The introduction to the Unsullied was great, particularly the cringe-inducing nipple scene, which forces Daenerys to acknowledge how unbreakable – and thus, powerful – a tool they could be, despite her moral objections. Later, when the warlocks from Qarth (apparently still carrying a grudge against Khaleesi and her dragons for burning down the House of the Undying) send a creepy, blue-lipped street urchin to murder Daenerys via scorpion, we’re reintroduced to another character who will become a player this season, Barristan Selmy (Ian McElhinney). Last seen being forcibly retired from Joffrey’s Kingsguard, the knight pledges his sword to Dany and promises to help her reclaim her rightful throne. While Selmy’s certainly a useful weapon, of course the true ace in Dany’s sleeve is her trio of dragons, who have certainly outgrown their cute and cuddly stage. Again, the special effects remain impressive and it’s always exciting to get a glimpse of the dragons, particularly Drogon’s mid-air barbeque.
Elsewhere, Davos (Liam Cunningham) is rescued from his Castaway-like exile and then promptly thrown into a Dragonstone dungeon for threatening Melisandre (Carice van Houten), Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) offers Sansa (Sophie Turner) an escape route, and Robb Stark (Richard Madden) shows up to remind us he still exists. While the episode certainly covered a lot of ground, we didn’t check in with all of the characters, as Arya, Bran, Jaime, and Brianne were completely absent this week. All in all, “Valor Dohaeris” was a satisfying premiere, serving the necessary purpose of bringing us up to date, but more importantly, leaving us wanting more.