“Big men fall just as fast as little ones – if you put a sword through their heart.” – Jon Snow
It’s a solid if unspectacular start to the much-anticipated third season of Game of Thrones, with an episode that has to establish where its growing army of characters are and what they’re doing since we last saw them. With the ever-increasing roster of main characters and ever more complex plots within plots, this is no small task. It’s unsurprising that, while it’s full of intrigue, the season opener has to take in so many subplots that it doesn’t deal with any of them in more than cursory detail. Even then, there’s one or two important subplots that showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss, scripting this week, couldn’t actually fit in.
This is hardly surprising – George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series on which the show is based, gets ever more labyrinthine as it goes on. Recognising this, Benioff and Weiss have sensibly decided that this year’s ten episodes will cover roughly half the third book, A Storm of Swords. That equates to its book publication, in the UK at least, where the paperback was also split into two volumes.
It might, therefore, give greater room for the characters and plots to breathe. On this week’s evidence though, I wouldn’t guarantee that. Still, the script sensibly kept any new characters to a minimum, which meant that even if we didn’t see much of the ones here, we already had a handle on who they were and what they were about.
A fair chunk of this ep focused on events Beyond the Wall, where the big threat of Ancient Unstoppable Evil is. To my mind, while they’re clearly the most dangerous of the show’s antagonists, the mysterious White Walkers and their army of slavering zombies are less interesting than the political machinations elsewhere. But we’d been left with the big cliffhanger last year of an apparent army of the devils marching on the band of Nightwatch camped in the wilds, so necessarily we had to deal with that first.
Gotta say, after the buildup in the season finale, the lack of an actual big battle was a bit of a disappointment. But lavish though it may be, Game of Thrones doesn’t have the budget to stage a Battle of Blackwater every week. Besides, it played out here much as it did in the book, with Samwell Tarly finding a corpse, assuming everyone was dead, then being rescued from a (fairly unconvincing CG) zombie by the survivors of the Watch.
That being dealt with, we didn’t return to them – there wasn’t really time. It was swiftly on to the Wildling camp, where the captive Jon Snow was ushered into the presence of ‘King Beyond the Wall’ Mance Rayder, making his first appearance here. Ciaran Hinds was as impressive as ever as Mance – another good piece of casting from a show that tends to do well here.
Jon won his confidence with a sincere-sounding speech about recognising the real enemy and not being convinced the Watch had their hearts in dealing with it. It sets up an interesting scenario; Jon originally ‘joined’ Wildlings as an inside man for the Watch – will his loyalties genuinely change?
We won’t find out this week, as it was swiftly off to King’s Landing to catch up on the aftermath of the Joffrey/Lannister victory at the Blackwater. It wouldn’t be Game of Thrones without some utterly gratuitous sex though, so we were reintroduced to Jerome Flynn’s charismatic sellsword Bronn in the usual brothel, where he was most displeased at being distracted from a whore’s crotch by the unexpected arrival of Tyrion’s squire Pod.
Tyrion himself had a few interesting confrontations this week. First, it was his sister, popping by his dingy new quarters to verbally fence; Tyrion has good cause to be wary of her, as it was one of her men who tried to kill him under cover of the battle. Luckily for Peter Dinklage, the TV version has backpedalled somewhat on the extent of his injuries, leaving him with a scarred cheek where in the novel he’d lost most of his nose. Cersei even alluded to that in a nice in-joke, commenting that she’d heard he’d lost his nose, but it was plainly an exaggeration.
Their father Tywin was no more forgiving. Confronted by the irked Tyrion asking to be recognised as heir to Casterly Rock in gratitude for his action in saving the city, the frosty Tywin told him, basically, “over my dead body”. It was an excellent scene, as well-played as ever by Charles Dance and Peter Dinklage; one of the few scenes, in fact, that had room to breathe in the multitude here.
Another was a very uncomfortable dinner with Joffrey and Cersei being visited by the Tyrells. Margery, having basically been anointed future Queen at the end of last season, was living up to the role by doing a Princess Diana – visiting orphanages, feeding the poor, and genuinely trying to become as well-loved by the people of Westeros as Joffrey is well-hated. The dinner was a scene of subtextual verbal jousting; almost every word spoken was a subtle jibe, while on the surface everyone was perfectly civil, even Joffrey for a wonder.
We also caught up with the losing side, as Liam Cunningham’s Davos Seaworth was revealed to have survived the battle by dint of hanging on to a handy rock. Rescued by charismatic pirate Salladhor Saan, Davos wasted no time rushing off to Dragonstone in a doomed attempt to free Stannis from the evil Melisandre. No dice – Carice van Houten continues to rival Lena Headey’s Cersei for the crown of Most Evil Woman in the show. A decent bloke like Davos doesn’t stand a chance against her.
The very briefest of visits to the army of Robb Stark revealed that he’d reached Harrenhal, where the Mountain had slaughtered hundreds of prisoners. The main discontent in Army Stark, however, remains the freeing of Jaime Lannister by Catelyn. It looks like that’s going to lead to trouble for Robb, but he at least had the nous to have his mother clapped into a dungeon. I wouldn’t bank on that appeasing his bannermen for long though…
And lastly, a slightly more detailed visit to Essos caught us up with the doings of Dany Targaryen and her loyal (if seasick) Dothraki. Her dragons are getting bigger, and continue to be one of the show’s better effects. But they’re not big enough to win a war, so it was off to the slave markets of Astapor to buy a few thousand of ‘the Unsullied’ a Spartan-like band of slave soldiers hardened by castration, brutal training and the requirement to kill a baby to graduate.
The scene in which Dany’s disquiet with slavery is counterpointed with humorous translation gags between her, the slave dealer and cowed translator girl Missandei was faithfully transcribed from the book (“tell the old man he smells of piss”). As was, wince-makingly, the moment where slave dealer Krazis demonstrates how bloody hard the Unsullied are by chopping the nipple off one of them while he doesn’t even flinch. He may not have, but I certainly did.
Plainly, Dany has a problem with slavery. Equally plainly, the slavers have a problem with her (“tell the Westerosi whore to pay attention”). This may not end well.
First though, she had other enemies to deal with – namely the blue-mouthed warlocks of Qarth, one of whose number she unceremoniously burnt to death with her dragons last year. This has not pleased them, so an assassin was dispatched, in the shape of a creepy little girl with a blue mouth. As horror fans know, you can’t go wrong with a creepy little girl. Especially if she’s carrying a fearsome looking scorpion-style thingy.
Luckily for Dany, another long lost character reappeared to save her by impaling the beastie on a short sword. Yes, it was none other than Ser Barristan Selmy, last seen being fired from the Kingsguard by the petulant Joffrey. Repenting of his allegiance to the Baratheons and the Lannisters, he’s turned up to help the last Targaryen, who he sees as the true heir.
In the books, Barristan spent most of the length of one novel not revealing his identity, instead going by the name Whitebeard. The producers of the show have sensibly dispensed with this, as the viewers would undoubtedly recognise actor Ian McIlhenny unless he was heavily made up. Rather than going through that, they’ve clearly decided it was a plot thread they didn’t really need.
They may well have to edit out quite a few others, with this adaptation being probably the most ambitious of all. Even in such a crowded opening episode, there were several important plot threads that we didn’t catch up on. Where are Bran and Hodor? What’s become of Brienne and Jaime Lannister? How’s Arya Stark doing?
This was a solid enough season opener – for many shows, you’d think it outstanding. For this one though, it merely felt functional; a necessary catchup and scene setting for the advancement of the multifarious plots this year. Game of Thrones is never less than compelling, but it’s at its best when concentrating on just one or two of its plot threads, or a handful of its characters. For the beginning of a new season, that’s not really possible, but this was probably the best compromise we could hope for between drama and story advancement.