TV Talk: GAME OF THRONES 3.1 “Valar Dohaeris”

HBO's adaptation of George RR Martin's fantasy novels returns for a third season!

Spoiler warning: this review will reveal whether or not Jon Snow closes his mouth in the season premiere of Game of Thrones.

I had the same thing to say about the season two premiere of Game of Thrones as I have to say about last night's season three premiere: this should have been two hours.

The premiere episode, Valar Dohaeris*, is very good, but it’s all set up. And it’s all set up for only about half the characters in this ever-growing story. At the end of the first episode we still haven’t heard from Arya, from Jaime and Brienne, from the Ironmen who have sacked Winterfell. That means episode two is probably going to be largely set up for those characters and storylines.

Which isn’t so bad - anyone who has read the book A Storm of Swords knows that all of this set up pays off in big, big ways. Season three is going to be great - it’s just going to take us a couple of episodes to get there.

Still, I think the set up in this season premiere was extraordinarily well done. Peter Dinklage is bringing Tyrion into the next chapter of his life, showing the pain of being sidelined so viciously after truly, completely proving himself as a man and a Lannister. In the books Tyrion lost his nose in the Battle of Blackwater, but the show has instead opted for a scar (and a joke about him losing his nose), which I think is a bummer. I kind of wanted to see how the show would deal with the wound - my pitch was to give Tyrion an iron nose prosthetic, which would look totally badass.

Charles Dance absolutely killed it in the scene where his Tywin Lannister dresses down Tyrion; his voice is dripping with disdain, but he is in total, steely control at all times. It’s a brutal sequence. Dance has always been one of the show’s secret weapons, and I like the way he plays Tywin - not evil but just kind of an asshole. You feel like he’d get on quite well with Stannis.

This episode moved us more into the world of fantasy. The dragons are flying around, frying their own fish, while in the north beyond the Wall we’ve finally met an actual, real life giant. The introduction of the giant is well done, both in terms of the filmmaking and the effects. Instead of creating CGI giants, the show has opted to put a dude in make-up and then basically superimpose him on the scene - which is exactly the FX solution for the direwolves. The giant was a touch underplayed, but I like it that way. Now I’m jonesing to see a Wooly Mammoth.

Speaking of the dragons, the biggest improvement over season two already is the increased amount of Daenerys. Her story slowed down last year, but as the season three premiere proves, she’s going to have a lot more to do in the coming weeks. Watching Emilia Clarke bring Daenerys from a scared girl to an ambitious woman has been exciting so far, and her continued evolution this season is sure to be a highlight.

And up north of the Wall the show has begun to lay out who the Wildlings are - Mance Rayder, King Beyond the Wall, tells Jon Snow (whose mouth continues to always hang open, like a dumbfounded fish) that Wildlings kneel to no man. What the show has not done, however, is remind us exactly what kind of men are in the Night’s Watch. While our favorite crows are good guys, most of the Night’s Watch are criminals - killers and rapists - serving out their sentences in the brotherhood. George RR Martin opened A Storm of Swords with just such a reminder, showing how one of the Night’s Watch reminisced about stabbing a whore.

That distinction, I think, is vital to the story being told. I do hope the show brings back the ragtag nature of the Night’s Watch soon enough, as Jon Snow is about to learn that maybe the Wildlings aren’t what he expected.

But that’s all a ways off. I almost wish I watched this show in chunks, because the structure is so novelistic, with a long ramping up to some excellent climaxes. It works, though, and just returning to Westeros was a delight this season. I guess those who haven’t read the books might be wondering if this season will be a bust. All I can say is: have patience. 

* "Valar dohaeris" is a phrase in High Valyrian, the dead language of the destroyed civilization of Valyria (think of it as Ancient Rome). It means 'all men must serve,' and it is the response phrase to be uttered when someone says 'Valar morgulis,' which means 'all men must die.' The season two finale was called 'Valar Morgulis,' and Jaquen H'gar teaches that phrase to Arya.