SPOILER WARNING: Whether you’ve read all five books or only watch the series this post is for you. I have read the books (multiple times) but I will not go beyond the scope of the TV series (save a wink or a nod every now and then that only my fellow readers will catch on to). All events that have occurred in the TV show up to and including yesterday’s episode are fair game. You’ve been warned.
Note: With the biggest cast in television it can be hard to keep all the names and faces straight. Thus the first mention of each character contains a link to a picture of them which will open in a new tab.
Each of Game of Thrones‘ first two seasons followed a structural pattern, one which will be repeated in the newest season. Episode nine, of course, brings us the season’s “woah moment.” Whether it’s Ned Stark losing a head or the Battle of Blackwater Bay (not to mention the doozy they’ve got in store this year), episode nine leaves the story forever altered. The finales that follow are dedicated to picking up the pieces. Episode ten shows each character’s reaction to the “woah moment,” cramming in conclusions and cliffhangers—the beginnings of the plotlines to come. Each season’s premiere, then, is about picking up where we left off and setting the table for where we hope to go, building on the foundations laid in the previous season’s finale (yes, even season one was building on “a previous season,” the events that came before it just happen to be a hypothetical one we didn’t get to see firsthand). The call and response of the show’s finales and premieres echo the necessary warm-up phase in each subsequent installment of George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire.”
It shouldn’t come as a tremendous surprise then that the titles of last season’s finale, “Valar Morghulis,” and yesterday’s premiere, “Valar Dohaeris,” are also a call and response. In many places on the continent of Essos, Valar Morghulis is a customary saying, traditionally answered by Valar Dohaeris. The former translates to all men must die in High Valyrian, the latter to all men must serve. With so many widespread and disparate storylines, it’s often difficult to find a single recurring theme in an episode of Game of Thrones. The closest you’ll come in the premiere can be found in the translation of its title: the all encompassing nature of service in the world of the show. Or, as Bob Dylan put it, everybody’s “Gotta Serve Somebody.”
Beyond the Wall
Everyone remembers the exciting ending of the second season: Three horn blasts and Sam coming face-to-face with a White Walker on a dead horse leading a hoard of Walkers and Wights. It’s no surprise then that “Valar Dohaeris” picks up right where we left off in the series’ first cold open. Now as we all know, full-on battle scenes are expensive. Most of last season’s budget went towards “Blackwater.” Most. Towards one episode. It detracts from the episode’s potential for action, but as I’ve mentioned premieres are meant for table setting, and the producers have plenty of things to spend money on more important than this one battle. So as we’ve seen numerous times throughout the series, we get what amounts to a fade to black, the ringing of swords, and fade back in just in time for the plot to move forward. Immediately after rescuing Sam, Lord Commander Mormont asks if he sent the ravens, and berates him when he finds out he didn’t, saying, “That was your job, your only job.” Recall the theme of servitude, Sam is a man of the Watch, and in this at least he has failed in his duties. With only a fraction of the men of the Watch who left for the ranging still breathing, Mormont announces that they need to return to the Wall: “It’s a long march. We know what’s out there, but we have to make it, have to warn them, or before winter’s done, everyone you’ve ever known will be dead.” Such is the duty of the men of the Watch, they serve the kingdoms, they are “the shield that guards the realms of men.”
Meanwhile, Jon is brought before Mance Rayder, the King Beyond the Wall. At first, Jon kneels before Tormund Giantsbane, mistaking him for Mance because the large, gruff warrior is the type of man Jon is used to serving. But the Free Folk are not like the people of Westeros, they kneel for no man, king or otherwise, and choose their own rulers—the title of King Beyond the Wall is not necessarily inherited. Recall that Jon’s idol and former commander Qhorin Halfhand compelled the boy to slay him to gain the Wildlings’ trust, so he could spy on them and bring all he discovers back to The Wall. Jon tells Mance that he’s turning his cloak because he wants to “fight for the side that fights for the living,” but in his heart, Jon still believes the Night’s Watch is that side. Moving forward, the question will be whether the time Jon spends with the Free Folk reinforces this belief or places it in jeopardy. Is Jon a double agent, or a double-double agent?
The Impire Strikes Back
Tyrion fell from grace last season after a member of the Kingsguard attempted to kill him during the Battle of the Blackwater. He believes this was done on Cersei’s orders but has no way to prove it. Regardless, the knight was killed by Tyrion’s squire, Podrick Payne, before he could inflict any more damage than a nasty slash across the face. Tyrion was moved to a dank cell to recover from his wounds while his father, Tywin, claimed his former title and chambers in the Tower of the Hand. What’s more, Tyrion is given very little credit for their victory while his father is proclaimed Savior of the City.
Tyrion served king and family loyally, going above and beyond the call of duty. He did this in spite of the fact that most of his family hates (or at least resents) him. Cersei despises him to such a degree that she sent an assassin to kill him in the heat of battle. Yet far from being covered in glory like his father, Tyrion appears to have been punished more than anything else. So in the premiere, he resolves to visit Tywin and ask what the reward for all his loyal service will be. At first, he asks simply for a bit of gratitude, to which his father responds “Jugglers and singers require applause.” Although he never dreams his father will actually give it to him, what Tyrion really wants is his birthright, Casterly Rock, the seat of House Lannister. Like the Night’s Watch, the Kingsguard pledge not to hold lands or father children, so Jaime is technically ineligible (although he’s already done the latter, you know, with his sister). But while Tywin is willing to grant his son a suitable wife and a position fit for his talents, he says that “I would let myself be consumed by maggots before mocking the family name and making you heir to Casterly Rock.” This fierce rebuke brings to mind a question which runs throughout the episode: At what point does giving oneself over to a cause, to service, mean forfeiting those qualities that make one unique or even individual? I’ve mentioned that in the most ridiculously general of terms, Tyrion is the “good guy” on the “bad team,” and his service leads to that clash. Every man has his breaking point, will Tyrion remain the loyal soldier (literally and otherwise) or be forced to rebel?
Return of The Onion (Knight)
One of last season’s biggest cliffhangers was whether Davos Seaworth had survived the ruin of his ship in Blackwater Bay. Things got a little dire when he failed to pop up in the season finale, but a good rule of thumb while watching Game of Thrones (and other shows) is that unless you see someone die with your own two eyes, they may not necessarily be dead. Few men are more loyal to anything than Davos is to Stannis, who raised him up from low birth and a life of smuggling. Stannis, meanwhile, remains loyal to his cause: He believes himself the one true king, and that means two possible endings: He gains his birthright or dies trying. The toll that steadfastness (among other things, like fathering shadow demons) has taken on Stannis is apparent when Davos arrives on Dragonstone. The king has grown a beard, his hair is graying, and he refuses all visitors, save Melisandre. A commonly repeated idea for Davos is that “loyal service means telling hard truths.” He cannot stand idly by as Melisandre burns prisoners and non-believers alive, and her grip on his king grows tighter and tighter. When she whispers in his ear the same thing she told his now-deceased son, “death by fire is the purest death,” Davos loses it. He pulls out a dagger and attempts to slay the red priestess, an action he believes analogous to telling his king a hard truth. But he fails, and his king condemns him to a dungeon cell. Yet another victim of loyal service.
Daenerys’ New Hope?
Daenerys begins the episode on a ship bound for Astapor. Before she leaves the vessel we see more effects of service as her Dothraki followers (who come from a culture of people who have never set foot on a boat and fear salt water) vomit and stumble around. In the slave city of Astapor, both Dany and the viewer are treated to a glimpse of the Unsullied: eunuch warriors picked as boys for their rigorous training. They lose the ability to feel pain or fear as well as any sense of self. They know only obedience, and understand only duty. The Unsullied are an explicit display of the extremes of the above-mentioned notion that loyal service and individuality are conflicting ideals. Like Stannis, Dany serves her own cause: placing herself on the Iron Throne. She cannot do so without an army, and the Unsullied are among the world’s greatest warriors. Dany, however, is slavery’s greatest enemy. Yet another way individuality can slip away is when one’s ideals are sacrificed for the good of a cause. Is it possible for Dany to remain true to herself if she brings an army of 8,000 slave warriors, each of whom has killed an infant in front of its mother as part of their training, under her command?
As she is walking back to her ship, a little girl/Warlock assassin attacks Dany with the help of some trickery and a manticore. In a sequence that seemed to go over the top in its parallels to the introduction of Obi-Wan Kenobi in the first Star Wars movie (hence the section title references), she is rescued by a man we have not seen in a long time: Ser Barristan Selmy, who was removed from Joffrey’s Kingsguard way back in season one. When Ser Barristan asks for a place in Dany’s Queensguard, both Dany and Jorah appear skeptical, and the latter points out that Ser Barristan served King Robert Baratheon as well. Barristan claims he wants to redeem himself for failing King Aerys II, her father and the last of the Targaryen dynasty to sit the Iron Throne, and making the mistake of serving King Robert while forgetting the “true” Queen. Whether Ser Barristan is truly loyal to Dany’s cause or wishes to serve her for personal reasons (recall his speech after Joffrey fired him, “I am a knight, I will die a knight”) remains ambiguous. Either way, it speaks volumes about the theme of servitude that this man would cross two continents to serve either “the one true queen” or “a ruler who isn’t Joffrey.”
Although it may be harder to connect to the service theme, Joffrey and Cersei’s dinner scene with Margaery and Loras Tyrell was the highlight of the episode for me. It was a microcosm of the scheming and political intrigue that lie at the show’s heart. It begins when Joffrey, whose motto is “the king can do as he likes,” watches as Margaery gives toys and food to boys at an orphange, sons of men killed in the Battle of the Blackwater. I still can’t figure out whether that look on his face, one denoting a complete inability to comprehend what he’s seeing, is more funny or sad. Why would she help poor people, he wonders, why does she care? Joffrey couldn’t give two shits what the smallfolk think of him. He’s their king, they should worry what he thinks of them, or it’ll be off with their heads.
One person whose opinion does matter to Joffrey, however, is that of Margaery, his new bride to be. Cersei tells the story of the riot to warns Margaery of the dangers of walking around Flea Bottom unprotected (and no doubt put a bit of fear in her, everything Cersei says at the dinner table can be interpreted in more than one way). Joff postures and acts tough, saying their lives were never really danger. Cersei responds that Joff “is his father’s son, we can’t all have a king’s bravery.” Whether she means his father, Jaime, or his “father,” Robert, is impertinent, it works both ways and she may even have intended it as such. My favorite part of the scene came after Margaery describes all the food her family is bringing into the city to help the common people (and gain their trust over the Lannisters). Once again, Joff postures, and talks about how Margaery “has done this sort of… charitable work before.” The way he struggles to find the word “charitable,” as if he’s never used it before and doesn’t entirely understand what it means was hilarious. Cersei is quick to agree that she is sure Margaery knows what she’s doing. Once again the words have a double meaning: Cersei realizes that Margaery is helping the poor, sure, but she’s also playing the game of thrones, gaining the love and trust of the smallfolk for herself and her family. What Cersei may find even more offensive, however, is that Margaery has become her competitor for the king’s love and admiration.
A Few More Things:
-Meanwhile: Robb arrives at Harrenhal to find “two hundred Northmen slaughtered like sheep.” He places Catelyn under a medieval form of house arrest. Among the dead they find a harmless looking old man named Qyburn. Remember the name.
-Cersei remarks that she’d heard Tyrion lost his nose, a reference to the Imp’s far more brutal injury in the books. Pure fan service.
-The way the opening sequence changes based on the story continue to make it the best on TV. Winterfell as a smoldering rubble and the Harpy of Astapor were highlights.
Check out the preview for next week’s episode below and follow the writer on Twitter @NateKreichman.
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Tags: A Song of Ice and Fire, Arya Stark, Barristan Selmy, Bran Stark, Brienne of Tarth, Catelyn Stark, Cersei Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen, Davos Seaworth, Free Folk, Game of Thrones, Game of Thrones blog, Game of Thrones Season 3, George R.R. Martin, Jaime Lannister, Jeor Mormont, Joffrey Baratheon, Jon Snow, Jorah Mormont, Littlefinger, Loras Tyrell, Mance Rayder, Margaery Tyrell, Melisandre, Nate Kreichman, Ned Stark, Night's Watch, Petyr Baelish, Podrick Payne, Qhorin Halfhand, Qyburn, Robb Stark, Samwell Tarly, Sansa Stark, Stannis Baratheon, Tormund Giantsbane, Tyrion Lannister, Valar Dohaeris