Season premiere review: 'Game of Thrones' - 'Valar Dohaeris': Return to burning man
"Game of Thrones" is back. I offered a general review of the start of the season on Thursday, and I have specific thoughts on the season premiere, "Valar Dohaeris," coming up just as soon as I drink with the harlots...
"I want to be free." -Jon Snow
Though the tour guide approach "Game of Thrones" takes to storytelling can at times be frustrating, it's necessary at the start of a new season, to remind us where everyone was, where they are now, and what they're going to be up to over the course of these 10 episodes. With even more characters and more locales than before, "Valar Dohaeris" is particularly full, so much so that Benioff and Weiss said earlier this week that they had to move several characters (Arya and Bran, notably) out of the premiere entirely just to let it breathe.
Appropriately enough for a season premiere, "Valar Dohaeris" features characters trying to regroup and re-establish themselves after notable setbacks last season. Jon Snow has to impress Mance Rayder so he can become a soldier and not an executee. A scarred and bitter Tyrion petitions his father for what should be his by right of succession. Davos (who did, in fact, survive "Blackwater") returns to Dragonstone in hopes of separating Stannis from Melisandre. Sansa's looking for another way out of King's Landing, courtesy of Littlefinger. Mags makes a strong first impression on the poor people of King's Landing, and on her cowardly monster of a fiance. And Dany's new ship drops anchor in the city of Astapor, where the best soldiers available to her are the Unsullied, eight thousand slaves with all individuality tortured out of them by their cruel masters.
For the most part, these were very strong re-entry points to the series. Even Jon Snow, who was a drag for most of season 2, made a strong early impression in his meeting with Mance(*), framing his argument so forcefully that I'm almost questioning his loyalty at this point. Jon is a big believer in oaths and honor and whatnot, but he's had misgivings about the Night's Watch for a while, and the things he's seen beyond the Wall could be enough to make him a genuine traitor and not a double agent.
(*) A king hanging back and letting a more bombastic underling greet a newcomer is a familiar trope (even "The Wire" used it with the way we met The Greek), but since I knew Ciaran Hinds had been cast as Mance, I could enjoy watching him appear to be a humble observer to Jon's arrival in the tent.
On the other hand, Stannis and Davos were among the more disappointing parts of season 2, and they remained so here. The way Stannis has been presented to us so far — we don't meet him until after he's long been under Melisandre's spell — he's a very one-note character, and Davos' unblinking devotion to him just makes Davos seem naive.
But Tyrion's encounters with his sister and then his father were, unsurprisingly, fantastic. Though I miss seeing Tyrion in a position of power, much to the consternation of those around him, the contempt the rest of the Lannisters feel for him is so visceral, and played so well by all the actors involved, that both those sequences crackled. In offering him better lodgings and other rewards for his work in the battle of Blackwater — and in not attempting to murder him — Tywin ultimately does better by Tyrion than Cersei did, but the absolute best Tyrion can hope for from his old man is the most grudging of respect. At this point, it seems almost a chicken-and-egg thing in the family: Tywin hates his imp son so much that Tyrion practically has no choice but to drink and whore around, which only makes Tywin hate him more — to the point where Shae's presence in King's Landing blinds him to the other good things Tyrion accomplished (including keeping Joffrey in check at times) during his time as Hand.
And this is a much more promising beginning for Dany than what we got last year. Of course, she's in a much stronger position now, with a ship, some of Xaro's treasure and dragons that are starting to grow and fly. But last year seemed mainly about getting her from Point A to Point B on the map, where here she's already beginning to learn about the cost of her attempt to reclaim her family's throne. The origin of the Unsullied, as described by their slave master, is horrifying, but they also seem like very impressive warriors, and as Jorah notes, Dany will treat them better than any other buyer might. And no matter how she comes by her army, she's going to be sending many, many of them to die on her behalf. Dany tends to be high-minded, but she's preparing for a battle that will make that difficult.
The premiere closed on a bit of an underwhelming note, with the return of Barristan Selmy, who was the captain of Robert's guard — of the scenes remaining in this episode (as opposed to anything with the Stark kids that might have been relocated elsewhere), I might have gone with Davos being sent to the dungeon or Tywin threatening Tyrion — but on the whole, this was a satisfying return to Westeros (and its neighbors).
Some other thoughts:
* The fabulous main title sequence is back, now with a new location in Astapor, and a modified one in Winterfell, which is a charred, smoking ruin.
* Loved the casual shot of the giant at work in Mance's camp. These days, I imagine that's a pretty simple VFX shot, but it said so much about just how different things are on this side of the Wall — and, as always, how little Jon Snow knows of it.
* Hands up, all those who were disappointed Cersei's timely exit prevented a throwdown between Bronn and her guards.
* I quite liked the exchange between Ros and Shae over how far each has come since they were introduced (both as Tyrion's companion for the night, in fact). As much as the show tends to use the whores of Westeros for sexposition scenes, these two have turned into actual characters with positions of some influence (Ros as Littlefinger's right hand, Shae as Tyrion's lover and Sansa's protector), and it felt good to have them cross paths.
* Over the course of writing various pre-season pieces, I realize I had finally learned by osmosis how to spell Daenerys, but will stick with "Dany" for simplicity's sake. And I'm still waiting for a better nickname suggestion than "Mags" (which invokes Margo Martindale and poisoned moonshine glasses) for Margaery, which I suspect I'll need at least another year to master. But until then, Mags it unfortunately is.
As always, I'd like to keep the book/spoiler issue as simple as possible, however difficult that may be for some to understand. We are here to discuss "Game of Thrones" AS A TV SHOW, NOT AS AN ENDLESS SERIES OF COMPARISONS TO THE BOOKS. Therefore, here's the only rule you should remember: if your comment contains the phrase "the books" without it being immediately preceded by "I haven't read," then you should probably delete what you've written and start over. Anything even vaguely questionable will be deleted, and if you see something that I haven't already removed, please feel free to email me. You may think you're being clever and not giving too much away; in almost every case, you are wrong.
As usual, I've set up a message board discussion thread where you can do as much TV vs. books discussion as you want. And if you don't want to go to the message boards, by all means go to one of the dozens upon dozens of sites (whether "Thrones"-specific or not) that provide a venue to discuss the books to your heart's content. In these comments, everything book-related that has yet to come up on the TV show (plot, characters we haven't met, motivation, etc.) is verboten.
Based on the comments to that initial review, a lot of people are having a hard time understanding this, so I will put it very simply: If people cannot stop themselves from discussing the books in the comments, then there will no longer be comment sections for these reviews. Life's too short.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com