|Jesus, Lannisters. Just have a cold shower or something.|
Directed by Daniel Minahan.
Written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss.
Thank the Seven Game of Thrones was preceded by a five-minute catch-up montage of the major story lines thus far. Missing dragons, burnt kids, shadow assassins. A lot of stuff had gone on.
Season two's final episode, Valar Moghulis (High Valyrian for "all men must die"), speaks directly to this year's opener, Valar Dohaeris ("all men must serve"). It's what Jaqen H'ghar (Tom Wlaschiha) told Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) to say if she ever finds herself in the Free City of Braavos. It's their way of saying 'alright, mate?' Only much more face-changy.
Valar Dohaeris opens just where Valar Moghulis closed. The dead have risen, the Others are venturing South. Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) pants through an icy storm to come upon another of the Nightswatch. Only his brother hadn't kept his head nearly as well as Sam had his. The disembodier emerges from the snowy mist, wielding an axe and coming for Sam. His skin is black with decay and deader than the crow's corpse at Sam's feet. It lurches for him, but the surviving Nightswatch rescues him. He never sent the ravens to warn The Wall. Dammit, Sam. That was your only job.
The Starks can quit all their foreboding frowns now. Winter is here.
Cersei (Lena Headey) was going a tad potty near the end of season two. Her lover-brother, Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), had been kidnapped, and her shorter-brother, Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), was achieving the upper-hand in their Game. But Tywin Lannister's (Charles Dance) return to King's Landing was a significant one. Not only has it usurped Tyrion from being Hand of the King; it's also gifted Cersei a safety net. Having father back has restored her confidence. She really does love her family.
Well, apart from the aforementioned Tyrion. He's as ruined as the ship wreckage that lies on the Blackwater's shores. His scar might not be as gruesome as the book would have you believe, but it's probably for the best. It would be a shame for an actor of Dinklage's caliber to have a face encumbered with prosthetics. The two have a sit-down in his cell/home. "You're a clever man," she tells the Imp. "But you're not half as clever as you think you are." "Hmm," he ponders in reply. "Still makes me more clever than you." ZING!
Still, Cersei's in control. Daddy's running the castle, her son sits on the iron throne. Yet a paranoia lurks behind her occasional glares. Most of which are reserved for Lady Margaery (Natalie Dormer), Sansa Stark's (Sophie Turner) replacement as King Joffrey's (Jack Gleeson) wife-to-be.
Gleeson's Joffrey is again a delight. He makes the character far more detestable than anything you can imagine from the books, an incredible feat seeing how often imagination wins out over interpretation. There's a wonderful moment when he enters late for dinner with Cersei, Margaery and Loras Tyrell (Finn Jones). Gleeson perfectly balances leering at Margaey with the awkwardness of a boy who has little experience with women (besides making whores hurt each other). Joffrey has never had to be shy in front of anyone, he's always been either a prince or a king. But here he is, for a flicker, betraying some kind of, what is it... bashful love?
Cersei - threatened, jealous, kind of insane - throws a few veiled insults at Margaery over dinner. Back in the day, Joffrey would've joined in. Possibly even got a guard or two to strip her naked (romance, eh?). But here he calls his mother "old". It's a subtly breakout moment for the young king, as hideous a person as he might be. In wrestling, they call it a 'face turn' - a glimmer of humanity behind what has so far been a cartoon villain. It's what makes both the books and series so great, that even the most unlikeable characters are exposed as people with hates and flaws and vices and loves.
There's a new playset in the opening credits! Astapor is its name, and slaving is its morally-reprehensible game. Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) is looking to buy an army of Unsullied. They're specially-conditioned soldier slaves who're raised to be as obedient as a lovesick Jorah. In a demonstration of their unquestioning nature, the lead slaver slices off one of their nipples. The image will be familiar to readers of the books. George R. R. Martin has his favourite phrases that seem to reoccur. One is, 'about as useless as nipples on a breastplate'; another being where he uses the image of nipples 'weeping blood' to describe wounds.
Although having sailed far from Quarth, the warlocks Daenerys betrayed there still pursue. An attempt is made on her life as she walks through the streets, all the more unsettling because the would-be-killer fools Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen), too. The bear is always so alert, but here his perceptiveness slips for some reason. Thankfully, Barristan Selmy (Ian McElhinney) is there to save the day.
What?! Barristan Selmy?! The Kingsguard dude who refused to serve under Joffrey after Eddard Stark's be-Ned-ing? The very, noble same. He has hunted down Daenerys to pledge his sword to her Queensguard. Not, it should be noted, to keep tabs on everything she does to eventually betray her *cough* Jorah Mormont *cough*.
Selmy's revelation is a majestically plotted moment in the book. Initially he pretends to be someone else to see if Daenerys would make a good Queen (those Targaryens can be a hit-or-miss bunch on the 'sanity' scale). The unveiling of his true identity is kept secret just long enough for you to buy into his rouse, and not for so long as to forget Selmy's importance in the first place.
Television meant Selmy's face would've been instantly recognisable, so exposing him immediately is understandable. The dragons' continued presentation, however, is not. The CGI is impressive, but never once is it believable. In just a few years, they'll be as hokey as the monsters in Xena: Warrior Princess or Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. It's not that Game of Thrones can't use special effects well. The Battle of Blackwater Bay was a spectacle, and the giant walking across frame at this episode's beginning truly was a little bit magical. The key is to hide them, show the dragons in half-shots, quick-edits or low-light. Not doing a song and dance routine around a boat.
But this is nitpicking. The opening episode of season three was much stronger than last year's.
And, ultimately, it's just nice to have the old gang back together again.