The Geekiest ‘Game of Thrones’ Season 3 Recap: “Valar Dohaeris”

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This season, Flavorwire is recapping Game of Thrones with its geekiest fans in mind — those who have already read George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books. Everyone else, be warned: you may find some spoilers below.

After sitting in rapt silence for an hour as we watched the first episode of Game of Thrones Season 3, my friend pointed out the basic problem with “Valar Dohaeris”: “It didn’t feel like a premiere.” The show’s narrative structure is a double-edged sword; season finales and premieres function as anticlimactic setup episodes instead of predictably spectacular payoffs, and in return, viewers get genuinely surprising midseason game changers like Ned Stark’s execution or Renly’s brutal death by demon shadow. All of which is to say that I wasn’t expecting much from last night’s third season premiere, and in terms of plot, I didn’t get much. What the audience did get was a status check on each of our antiheroes, helped along by a bit of smart dialogue and a lot of character work.

Exhibit A is the King’s Landing arc, which featured both the episode’s best lifted-from-the-book scene and its most impressive original writing. Tyrion argues with Cersei and lands a few easy insults, then gives Bronn a raise. All of which is lighthearted enough, until we arrive at the most visceral parent-child scene since Cersei nearly killed her own son during Season 2’s exceptional “Blackwater.” The dialogue between Tywin and Tyrion, which puts the father’s ice-cold anger and the son’s still-raw sense of rejection on full display, is taken almost word for word out of A Storm of Swords. Still, Charles Dance and Peter Dinklage bring their own masterful acting chops to the material; Dinklage in particular manages to convey a world of emotional pain with facial expressions alone.

Then there are the Sansa and Margaery scenes, which do nothing more than flesh out the personalities of everyone involved. And they don’t have to: I’ve loved watching Shae develop into a three-dimensional character, since the show actually gives her more dialogue than just pillow talk with Tyrion. Sansa, meanwhile, continues to walk the thin line between naïveté and cynicism, dropping gems like “The truth is always either terrible or boring” along the way. And then there’s Margaery, who proves she’s a much better player at the show’s namesake game than her predecessor. The Tyrell queen-to-be uses her own considerable charm and her family’s resources to score her fiancé some good PR. Of course, she’s ultimately concerned more with her own position of power than the welfare of Flea Bottom orphans, making the contrast with Cersei (who’s still putting her insanity on full display by wearing armor over her gown) all the more striking: the Tyrells are just as power hungry as the Lannisters, but they seem to know that free food is better than brute force when it comes to keeping subjects in line.

Unfortunately, the writers — in this case, co-showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss — weren’t always as successful with new material. The episode’s first scenes take us beyond the Wall to Jon Snow, coat freshly turned. He’s taken to wildling king Mance Rayder (side note: I always envisioned Mance much younger and pretty boyish), who asks Jon why he wants to join up. Jon gives a speech about how the Night’s Watch isn’t really on “the side of the living,” which is the least convincing piece of dialogue this episode, next to Cersei’s “surprise” that Tyrion was actually slashed by a member of the Kingsguard. In the books, Jon gives a vindictive speech about his lifelong second-class status as a bastard that’s both moving and effective: it’s a lie both based on Jon’s actual feelings and appealing to the wildlings, who find the idea of inherited titles absurd. The White Walkers excuse makes no sense: first of all, no one believes that the Watch is about to side with a race of homicidal humanoids over their own species; second, it’s made clear that the Night’s Watch puts up with Craster because he’s the only wildling who gives them shelter, allowing them to fight the White Walkers. Logical gaps are not a good look on a show this darkly realistic.

With the exception of a few brief interludes with Davos (he’s alive!) and Robb (he’s still pissed at his mom!), the only major character left is Daenerys. Using Xaro’s money, she’s hitched a ride to Astapor, a city on Slaver’s Bay that specializes in breeding terrifyingly effective soldiers who murder babies and don’t mind having their nipples sliced off. The ethical dilemma she faces here is fascinating: does she conquer Westeros using slavery, an institution the otherwise amoral Seven Kingdoms find abhorrent, or go it alone with her pack of seasick Dothraki? Presumably she’ll find a moral compass in Barristan Selmy, who, in a welcome change from the books, won’t be spending half the season pretending to be a traveling warrior named “Arstan Whitebeard.” No one said George R.R. Martin’s perfect.

Still in the wings are Theon, who we last saw getting whacked over the head by a fellow Ironman; Bran, who we last saw hiding from Theon; and Arya, who we last saw bidding adieu to Jaqen. Other than that, “Valar Dohaeris” did its job nicely: checking in on the series’ main players and giving a few hints of what Season 3 has in store for them. It wasn’t the most eventful episode in the show’s history, but if Game of Thrones promises us anything, it’s plenty of action down the road.