This review may contain spoilers.
HBO’s “Game of Thrones” is shaping up to be a true marvel.
Now entering its third season, the series continues to deftly craft a dense narrative highlighted by epic imagery, captivating plot twists and involving character arcs executed by an army of gifted actors.
How such a show could come together as effectively as it has brings us into a fascinating time for cable. We’ve witnessed television’s growing knack for upping the ante with quality series for a while, but it’s worth noting again.
It’s particularly provoking to contrast such an achievement with feature films and find that you are anticipating a series more than the next summer blockbuster. Add in the generous running time a series enjoys over a film and it becomes easier to ditch the theater and its stale popcorn for your couch and an ice-cold bottle of that Iron Throne Blonde Ale.
The Season 3 premiere, “Valar Dohaeris,” picks up immediately following the Season 2 finale with Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) fleeing the White Walkers. Samwell survives, but the Sworn Brotherhood of the Night’s Watch is forced to retreat for The Wall.
However, that’s a questionable move, especially with an army of the undead on the move; perhaps Lord Commander Jeor Mormont (James Cosmo) should consider an alliance with the Wildlings and move to jointly crush their common enemy?
Jon Snow (Kit Harington) sees such an alliance as a necessity, but for a different reason — he just wants to keep his head. Captured at the close of Season 2, he is taken to the Wildling camp and meets their leader, Mance Rayder (Ciarán Hinds), the King-Beyond-the-Wall, who exhibits a stern yet charismatic disposition. Rayder will be no push-over. Jon is lucky enough to keep his head and receives tentative acceptance into the Wildling ranks.
Far south of The Wall, Jon’s half-brother, Robb Stark (Richard Madden), has just moved the Stark army to the ancient remains of Harrenhal, which is currently abandoned. Only the tortured bodies of Stark prisoners remain.
Unknown to Robb, Arya (Maisie Williams), his sister, had just left there. Poor Arya, so close …
Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance), who recently abandoned Harrenhal to intervene in the Blackwater battle at King’s Landing, remains in the capital, serving as the Hand of the King. He rebuffs Tyrion’s (Peter Dinklage) moving attempt to gain any significant reward – such as becoming the heir to Casterly Rock — for helping to save King’s Landing from Stannis Baratheon’s (Sephen Dillane) naval assault.
And speaking of Stannis, he isn’t doing too well. He’s become a recluse at Dragonstone, only seeing Melisandre (Carice van Houten), who has been burning non-believers among his men in her spare time. Ser Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham), who is rescued from Blackwater Bay by a passing ship, attempts to sway Stannis from clinging to Melisandre’s influence, but that effort only earns him a swift trip to a dungeon cell.
Melisandre seems to radiate an increasing degree of menace and confidence; when she says she could have saved the fleet from the Wildfire attack at King’s Landing, you believe her.
Meanwhile, back at King’s Landing, the Tyrell family of Highgarden are moving in. I love these guys. Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer) is settling into her soon-to-be-queen role, leaving King Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson) and his mother, Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), to look on in bafflement as she demonstrates a razor tongue and a generous outreach effort to the city’s disgruntled poor.
I just hope Loras Tyrell (Finn Jones), Margaery’s brother and one of the kingdom’s greatest knights, gets more to do soon.
As Margaery perplexes the Lannisters, Sansa thankfully finds time away from Joffrey’s abuses. But that also allows Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish (Aidan Gillen) to slip in and offer her a secret way out of the city. For someone with so many women under his arm, Baelish seems far more interested in Sansa, who is the daughter of his first love, Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley). If Baelish can’t have Catelyn, maybe he can have Sansa?
Finally, across the Narrow Sea, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) arrives at the slave city of Astapor, where she hope to purchase thousands of Unsullied, which according to Ser Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) are the most feared soldiers in the world. With her three dragons still too young to do much good fighting, she sees this army to be her best bet for reclaiming the Iron Throne anytime soon.
Unsullied are also a good way to improve Daenerys’ security, which seems precarious in Astapor during an assassination attempt by the warlocks of the House of the Undying. But the intervention of a hooded man who reveals himself as Barristan Selmy (Ian McElhinney) — the legendary leader of the Kingsguard that Cersei dismissed like a bonehead during Season 1 -– adds another weapon to her arsenal. Selmy crossed the Narrow Sea to pledge his service to Daenerys.
POINTS OF INTEREST
1. We get another look at one of Westeros’ fabled creatures — the Giants of the far north. In a show that doesn’t flaunt its fantasy elements too often, it made for an eye-popping moment as Jon looks on in bewilderment.
2. The warlocks at Quarth’s House of the Undying seem to be determined to piss off Daenerys by attempting to assassinate her, let alone foolishly trying to control her dragons last season. Regardless, I would love to see their nasty, blue-mouthed tyke face off against the creepy White Walker girl from the Season 1 premiere!
3. After Tywin’s rant against Tyrion and whores, Shae’s (Sibel Kekilli) life at King’s Landing seems destined for tragedy! Tyrion needs to send her packing.
4. Winterfell is now a smoldering wreck in the opening credits. Robb’s battlefield successes seem to be the only good news to come out of the north since the show began.
As I mentioned above, the imagery on display in “Game of Thrones” is truly epic for a series. From the ice wastes of the north — shot in Iceland — to the warmer environments of King’s Landing and Astaphor, the series enjoys a surprisingly generous use of location work. That really pays off. This feels like a real world, with real history.
When the series does use CGI, such as the three dragons and the giant, it looks fantastic, as does a shot of the Stark army snaking its way toward Harrenhal.
All this is wrapped with finely detailed production design and a complementary score by Ramin Djawadi (“Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl”).
But really, the best moments come from the characters. The acting between Dance and Dinklage, for example, was once again mesmerizing as Tyrion’s attempt to connect with his father failed. The dialogue really sizzles here.
Scenes with Margaery also sparkle, especially during a dinner with Joffery and Cersei. It’s at this moment Cersei seems to loose points in the game of thrones.
And with all these separate story threads to juggle, the series somehow manages to tell a coherent and compelling narrative.
Lastly, it was a stirring moment to witness Selmy pledge his sword to Daenerys; this should add an interesting dynamic to her quest for the Iron Throne. But how will this impact Jorah’s role with her?
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
I can’t say too much negative. Granted, some scenes from the book pass by far too quickly, but that is unavoidable in an adaption from such a large page count.
GIVING CREDIT WHERE CREDIT IS DUE
“Game of Thrones” stars Peter Dinklage, Lena Headey, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Emilia Clarke, Michelle Fairley, Maisie Williams, Sophie Turner, Kit Harington, Harry Lloyd. “Valar Dohaeris” was written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, and it was directed by Daniel Minahan.
Season 3 is based on the first half of George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” novel “A Storm of Swords.”
“Game of Thrones” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.
See our Season 2 episode reviews of “The North Remembers,” “The Night Lands,” “What Is Dead May Never Die,” “Garden of Bones,” “The Ghost Of Harrenhal,” “The Old Gods and the New,” “Blackwater” and “Valar Morghulis.”
See our Season 1 episode reviews of “Winter is Coming,” “The Kingsroad,” “Lord Snow,” “Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things,” “The Wolf and the Lion,” “A Golden Crown,” “You Win or You Die,” “The Pointy End,” “Baelor” and “Fire and Blood.”