Back in Westeros, and boy, does it feel good. After “The Walking Dead” finale, which aired at the same time as Throne’s opening, was such a downer, it is past time to be in Westeros once again. And what an entrance the show makes! “Game of Payoffs” would have been the appropriate title. It is astonishing how Benioff and Weiss, the show’s creators, manage to keep all the balls in the air they threw there in these past two seasons. Master jugglers, indeed. And really, this week’s episode, “Valar Dohaeris”, shows two prevailing themes, one in terms of story, the other as one of how the writers create the show.
The prevailing story theme of the episode was the question of the atrocities of war. In an interesting recourse to the first episode of season 2, “The North remembers” (seriously, the titles don’t have much connection to the content), we have three story arcs that concern the murder of babies. But where in “The North remembers” Joffrey ordered all of Robert’s bastards slain in a really gruesome montage, this episode, everyone involved is appalled by the fate of the children in war. Danaerys Targaryen, arriving in the slaver city of Astapor, learns that the slave soldiers she wants to buy are trained under horrible conditions: only one boy in four survives the training, and he has to kill a babe in arms to prove he’s no humanity left. Margaery Tyrell visits an orphanage in a sept for children who lost their fathers in the Battle of the Blackwater (see episode 209, “Blackwater”), and hands out toy soldiers to them so they may be “proud of their fathers”. And Jon Snow cites Craster’s killing of his sons as offerings to the White Walkers and Lord Commander Mormont’s “look the other way”-policy as his main reason to defect the Night’s Watch.
The latter is a great example of the
aforementioned payoffs. The show received many criticisms for the scene where
Jon witnesses Carster’s offering to the White Walkers and even spies one (see
episode 202, “The Nightlands”), since it was so at odds with the books, but
Benioff and Weiss really pulled it off. Instead of giving a lengthy (albeit
good) dialogue about Mance Rayder’s reason for defection and spinning a very
personal tale around it, we get firmly reminded of the threat posed by the
Others (as in the very opening scene with the survivors from the Night’s Watch)
and the hypocrisy of Mormont’s stance on the matter is addressed. That’s really
well done and defines the wildlings as the force that fights for the living, as
opposed to the Night’s Watch, who fights for…what, exactly? Duty, oaths? That’s
a very interesting direction to take, and I’m excited to see whether this theme
will get more expanded, especially when the time comes where Jon has to choose
whether he carries out Qorin Halfhand’s final order or whether he stays with
the wildlings. Expect some of them to really grow on you in the coming
episodes, as to make the decision extra hard. The casting is very promising;
Hinds as Mance Rayder does a superb job in the little screen time he has, and Kristofer
Hivju as Tormund Giantsbane is also very, very promising. And don’t forget Rose
Leslie as Ygritte, who continues her aggressive flirting with Jon. Also,
giants! After the letdown of the whole plot beyond the Wall in season 2, it
gets off a strong start this season.
But there really aren’t that many letdowns in
this episode, except for the very opening scene, in which the surviving Night’s
Watch stands around and talks about how they need to get back to the Wall. Hey,
what happened at the Fist of the First Men? We left you with an army of White
Walkers on your door, and Samwell Tarly stared to death by Mr. Other himself,
and now you’re just standing in the snow? I hope we’ll get some words at least
about what happened.
|Let's hope they walk away from their mistakes.|
After Jon, we get to King’s Landing. Tyrion still sits in his room, but he’s up and waddling again at least. When Cersei comes to visit him, he’s in genuine fear. Wow, that’s some impressive play by Peter Dinklage here, all the emotions on his face! Cersei is reveling in her victory, trying to insult Tyrion, who still gets the better of her. It’s nice to see how he fears and mistrusts the kingsguard after Meryn Trant tried to kill him on the shores of Blackwater. The dialogue also brings us up to speed on what happened; Tywin Lannister is hand, Tyrion is disposed of everything, Cersei believes herself on top of things.
That’s the same mindset that Joffrey must entertain, but he is firmly put into place by his new betrothed Margaery Tyrell. In yet another great payoff of a deviation from the books, Natalie Dormer’s Margaery has much more agency than her counterpart in the books and is the better for it. While Joffrey peeks out his litter in panic when they stop, remembering too well the riot (see episode 206, “The Old Gods and the New”), Margaery simply goes out, mingling with the smallfolk and entertaining the little orphans. Her strategy becomes perfectly clear when she tells the septa that she will receive all the need she needs and shall “come directly to me”. Not “to the Red Keep” or “to the king”, “directly to me”. Margaery makes herself beloved by the people, counting on another riot should the Lannisters turn against her. Clever girl, and a really more interesting version than in the books, where the Tyrell charme offensive was limited to bribing the people with food and money. The arc finds its first climax in a four-way-dinner with Joffrey, Margaery, Loras and Cersei, where they are all superficially courteous but fire poison arrows on one another all the time. Joffrey quickly graps the situation, however, and being the devious little shit that he is (great acting by Gleeson here, again), he joins forces with Margaery against his mother, trying to take away his piece of the cake. Knowing his mentality and predisposition to violence, however, this might pose serious trouble along the road, especially if Margaery gets the lion’s share (no pun intended) of the common’s love.
Back to Tyrion, he reinforces his bromance with Bronn the sellsword, who wants double the money he got before since he is a knight now. The dynamic between the two is still great, however, and Bronn’s verbal attack on the kingsguard made me cheer. The heart of Tyrion’s arc in this season, however, is his short yet intense dialogue with Tywin Lannister. Man, that was evil. Tywin telling Tyrion just how worthless he is in his eyes, and Tyrion taking it all, having no agency of his own. The emotions on his face were such great acting, you could see all his thoughts plainly there. This will be interesting in the future, too.
We also get a quick look at Dragonstone. Davos survived the battle of the Blackwater and was washed on a heap of stone in the Blackwater Bay and rescued by a ship from Stannis (great acting by Cunningham: you can see the decision process whether to name Stannis or not on his face). When the pirate Salladhor Saan, who gets a more impressive scene than when he turned up first in season 2, tries to tell him to leave Stannis, he declines and states his intent to murder Melisandre. Fat chance, Davos. She sees the future in the flames. I’m not so sure as to why she provokes Davos into attacking her, it seems a bit beneath her, but I’m willing to see where that will lead the character, as opposed to the books. The scene offers yet another of the payoffs I mentioned earlier: in the books, it’s his bannermen that convince Stannis to leave Melisandre behind. In the show, it’s Davos, a more direct path that allows Stannis to disavow his most loyal supporter much more easily than in the books, where Stannis was more of an enigmatic figure at that point. Well played, D&D!
Sansa gets but a short scene at the King’s Landing harbor, playing a game with her handmaiden, Shae (who is also secretly Tyrion’s lover). In a recourse to season 1, Shae does not want to play games. Her past obviously isn’t pretty, or else she wouldn’t be so bitter about it, but for Sansa, games are the only way to escape the dreadful reality. When Petyr Baelish starts to go on again on how he will get her out of King’s Landing, I finally understand why they decided to omit Dontos from the books as a mediator and cut right to the case: it works because Sansa is older. In the books, she’s 13, and Littlefinger would have been mad to trust her with that plan. In the show, she is older and more mature and can be expected to play along. The same trick was used in season 2 for Robb and Talisa, which worked on the same principles.
But yet another big payoff in this scene is the meeting between Ros and Shae. Ros is a character universally despised in fandom, but I like her, and it’s clear what function she will have this season. The ground was prepared just nicely. Since Littlefinger and Sanda will meet again for sure, Ros and Shae will too, and their first confrontation was very, very promising. Ros’ warning about not to trust Littlefinger is a bit old for viewers (after all, he basically killed Eddard Stark), but Sansa still doesn’t know that. Really excited for what will happen here.
Robb and Catelyn only get the smallest of scenes, but again the atrocities of war as a prevailing theme are reinforced. Conquering Harrenhal (a move that may surprise book readers, but makes sense – don’t want to go the scenery to waste, after all), he finds a massacre on captured northmen. Also dead: Jeremy Mallister, a riverlord, preparing the stage for the riverlords to play a more prominent role in this season (they were omitted from season 2). Yet again, the show is expanding its scope, expecting much and more from its viewers. Robb also fully acts the king, looking all stern and confining his traitorous mother to a cell. We also see Bolton and Karstark again, who clearly are more ruthless than Robb. Nice reminder here. They also find a guy named Qyburn, donned in maester’s robes, but without the chain. Book readers of course know who he is, but he certainly doesn’t join Robb Stark there, so it’ll be interesting to see what the show makes of Qyburn. An associate of Roose Bolton perhaps? Would be a fit.
And now, finally, let’s get to Essos, where
Dany arrived in Astapor. Book readers will have noticed that only Yunkai is
depicted in Slaver’s Bay in the credit opening scene, so we get a little hint
as to where this season’s arc for Dany will lead. She also poses very regal
throughout the scenes, learning how the Unsullied are formed, kind of the
Spartans of Essos. She clearly needs an army, but before she can continue the
ideals vs. pragmatism discussion with Ser Jorah, a little child tries to murder
her. The little child is a warlock, in truth, which is also a nice payoff from
previous scenes. In the books, the warlocks didn’t take such a prominent role
as her enemies, but they work pretty well, and I don’t miss the Sorrowful Men
at all. In another move perhaps surprising to book readers, Barristan Selmy is
revealed instantly to Dany. It’s clear why they do it – while Dany doesn’t know
him, the viewers do, and so the whole “I’m Arstan the squire”-thing doesn’t
really work. It changes the dynamic rather a lot, though – will Barristan hold
back on Jorah’s past, or will he find a constructed reason not to? That could
be a game breaker, and I’m excited to see how they work it out. They omitted
Strong Belwas, in any case. Call me cautiously optimistic. Just as a sidenote:
was there a hint of Targaryen madness in Dany’s impatience?
And so, we leave the first episode of season 3. So much to talk about, and we haven’t even touched Arya, Brienne, Jaime, Bran, Rickon, Osha and Theon. Guess we’ll see them next week. Until then!