When Game of Thrones debuted on HBO,
much of the talk surrounding it can be summed up as such: “OH LOOK! TITS, GORE AND MEDIEVAL POLITICS.”
It wasn’t dismissed – far from it, in fact – but I’d also say that it was not exactly lauded from the get-go in the same way that The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad and even Homeland were right at the beginning. But critics began to rally around it, as did audiences. As its following built up, so did its quality. What’s most remarkable is that this happened without the show compromising anything that made it different from not only the rest of HBO’s catalog, but also anything else on television.
These similar traits include its commitment to a slow pace and careful building of plot and character, with no shortcut exposition. While it has a foundation to build from (namely George R.R. Martin’s five-novels-so-far series, A Song of Ice and Fire), it’s created a world that is distinctly its own. Nevertheless, it continues to serve the books and their many fans. And yes, it does so with all of those things I named in the first sentence.
The premiere episode of its third season, “Valar Dohaeris” (High Valyrian for “All men must serve” and yes, I am an unrepentant geek for this shit), maintains that tradition of leisurely-paced world building. It begins not long after where season two ended, with Samwell Tarly fleeing an army of wights (zombies) and white walkers (creatures far more sentient and cunning but no more talkative).
They are the great, overarching force of evil in the show, and yet they are believed in by few. The majority of Westeros’s inhabitants are far more concerned with what Jorah Mormont, Daenerys’s disgraced knight turned consigliere, calls “the little games the high lords play.” Those games are of course what keep us watching, as we marvel at the greed and willful self-deception of the contests’ players. They will not see the forest for the trees until it is far too late, a truth which can easily be applied to the geopolitical nonsense that dominates the world we live in.
Our primary players – Daenerys, Jon Snow, Tyrion Lannister, Davos Seaworth, Queen Cersei, Tywin Lannister, Sansa Stark, Petyr Baelish (Littlefinger) and Margaery Tyrell – are all, to varying degrees, too wrapped up in their own games. The Lannisters (Tyrion aside) want only power and facile ideas of legacy. King Joffrey Baratheon lives only to torment and lean back in his unearned throne, a snarling psychopath protected by those who ought to know better, but of course can’t.
Daenerys (much as I love her because I’m a Targaryen at heart) wants to be sovereign in a world she barely knows. Margaery wants the same, but is at least aware of the game’s necessities. She earns the sympathy of the common people in a way her competitors won’t deign to do. Sansa only wants to go home, and is unaware of the poison-apple “savior” she has in Littlefinger. Not to mention, there is the brutal truth that her home no longer exists.
Those who seem to have any notion of a “greater good” – Tyrion, Davos, Jon – are still hamstrung by misguided loyalties, respectively to pride, a disgraced “king” (Stannis Baratheon) and a need for a place in the world. While these forces may not undo them, they certainly won’t serve them well, as we see in the episode. Tyrion is essentially on house arrest in King’s Landing. Davos is clapped in irons after an attempt to kill Melisandre, the Asshai’i sorceress who has Stannis around her little finger. Jon is walking a razor’s edge, undercover in the court of the King-Beyond-the-Wall, the charming wildling Mance Rayder.
And then there are those we didn’t see in “Valar Dohaeris.” Bran and Rickon Stark, hiding in the North. Arya Stark, lost in the riverlands searching for her family. Jaime Lannister, on his way back to King’s Landing in the charge of ultimate tomboy Brienne. Theon Greyjoy, last seen as an unconscious prisoner sold out by his own men. I won’t speak to what they want or don’t want because their stories have yet to begin this season, but they too are in one way or another not seeing the forest for the trees, to varying degrees. (Speaking of Theon in particular, I don’t even know when or if he’ll resurface – it depends on how closely the show sticks to the books.)
The main takeaway, for me at least, is more simple everything above may seem to suggest, with its talk of theme and intent. It’s just unbelievably exciting to have this show back on the air. It offers an unparalleled blend of the basic and the profound, with a depth of storytelling skill that nothing else currently on TV can match. It’s my favorite show since The Wire, a show that also told stories that dared to be more rich and fulfilling than anything else on TV, just in a different and obviously far more realism-fueled manner.
Next week, we’ll dive deep into the world of Game of Thrones, with more attention to specific plotlines. Leave ravens with your thoughts in the form of comments.
[Note: While “spoilers” regarding the events of the show thus far are certainly permissible, please refrain from discussing anything that’s only happened in the books. I’ve read them all and would love to blather about them for hours, but please be considerate of those who stick to the TV version.]
Liam Green can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.