Programming Note: These reviews will be written from the perspective of someone who has not read the books. So we’re not going to mention the books, at all, and would ask that the comments don’t either. Thanks to all you literate mofos in advance. Also it means I’m going to misspell a lot of new names.
It’s good to be back in Westeros. Well, maybe not so much “good” as “harrowing and occasionally sickening,” but nonetheless, this was my most anticipated pop culture event of the year (at least until Breaking Bad returns for its home stretch), and it did not disappoint. We are welcomed back with our first pre-credits sequence since the pilot, which also featured a White Walker attack. When the credits do kick off, we are treated to about a dozen new names, a new map section in Astapor and a nifty effect of a ruined, smoking Winterfell.
After that it’s a whirlwind tour to reintroduce us to as many of the main characters as the show can fit into an hour, with easily half a dozen important folks (Arya, Theon, Varys, The Hound, Bran and Osha, Brienne and Jamie) not even making the cut. But we did get to see ice zombies, warlock children, flying, fire-breathing dragons, armored super-soldiers and FUCKING GIANTS. I love this season already.
Seriously, I outright cackled with glee at the matter-of-fact presentation of the giant in the Wildling camp. It’s hard to tell when we’ll get a pay off to that, as the show hasn’t been in any big hurry to pack episodes full of dragon/zombie action even after they introduced those creatures; heck, even the army of Walkers we ended last season on is back to being an off-screen threat. Presumably in a year or two they’ll lumber their way into the vicinity of some characters we care about.
But I’m not even griping about that, since watching those characters bounce off each other is as gripping as ever, giants or no. Staying north of the wall, Jon Snow has never been my favorite character, and the Night’s Watch storylines always felt like they were treading water until the high fantasy elements are ready to really kick into gear. This episode was immediately promising, though, with the introduction of the very-welcome Cirian Hinds as the King Beyond The Wall, and his lieutenant Toman Giantsbane, which sounds like the Westerosi version of a porn name.
Rayder seems pretty sharp, so I’m not sure how much he’s buying Snow’s act, but the bastard did make a surprisingly cogent case for why he should want to ditch the Crows and fight for the living (who will let him touch girls). I’m sure he’ll come down on the side of his oaths and duty in the end, being his father’s son, but fraternizing with his pretty new friend will surely lead to some angst about the whole deal in the weeks to come. Also, there’s giants and Cirian Hinds. This automatically makes this episode’s Jon story better than the last two years.
Also immediately more promising than last year is Dany’s plotline, which has her taking definitive steps toward taking back the Iron Throne. Last season let her languish in Qarth the entire time, which while stylishly presented, was uneventful enough to feel like the narrative shallow end compared to all the goings on around the capital. I may be alone in thinking this, but to me the least interesting thing about her is HER DRAGONS! (as she was good enough to shout for us a few dozen times last year). So I like that she’s recruiting the Unsullied to get things going, which suggests that she’s going to rely mostly on more traditional forms of medieval warfare to invade Westeros rather than just riding a dragon straight into the throne room. The Unsullied may have a slightly fantastical tint to just how thoroughly robotized their training makes them, but they are in essence a mercenary force, that can be fought and killed by the soldiers of any of the other various warlords of Westeros. Full-bore dragons seem more like bringing F-22s to Agincourt, and has the potential to tip the balance way too far in Dany’s favor, when what I most want to see is her jockeying for position on roughly equal footing with the various Lannisters, Tyrells, Starks and so forth.
Dany also gets a boost just for getting closer to her ultimate goals, and having finally found another established character to play off of with the arrival of Barristan Selmy on her side of the pond. Not that Jorah is ever less than great, but since Drogo fell from his horse her plots have been filled out by thinly-sketched members of her entourage and placeholder antagonists. But I will say, as interesting as the stuff with the Unsullied and the revelation that the warlocks of Qarth are not done with her yet was, the one mistake I think the episode made was ending on Selmy’s reveal. I gather that he’s hot shit because all the book readers immediately responded to him when he was first introduced, but as far as the show goes, he simply hasn’t been enough of a presence for this to land as a major dramatic turn. He’s been name-dropped more than he’s appeared, and I think it’s been a full year since he did that; the scene where Cersei and Joffrey take his sword from the “previously on” recap may have been from last year’s premiere, but I want to say it was actually back in season one.
A better note to end on would’ve been Stannis having Davos dragged off to the dungeons and presumably scheduled for religious BBQ-ing. That’s a character and relationship we’ve spent more time with, and it promises an immediately dire result that “hey…that guy!” can’t match as far as cliffhangers go. I’d forgotten how great Liam Cunningham is in the role, and what a shame it is that no one has cast him and Jim Beaver as brothers in some sort of blue-collar family dramedy thing.
Stannis himself is looking run down and crazier than ever, and I’m not sure whether I buy Melisandre’s claims that she could’ve turned the tide at Blackwater. But you know, once the horde of frozen zombies makes its way past the Wall, I think people might be more open to the ravings of a fire witch with a messianic warrior all ready to launch. Still wouldn’t want him for my king, but for someone who looks to be near rock bottom, I think events are percolating that could give him another shot at the title.
But for now, and as usual, the best material is centered around King’s Landing, where the highest concentration of schemers and plotters and other totally different sorts of people are based. Joffrey’s still wearing the fancy hat, but newly humbled after his pathetic showing at the Battle of Blackwater has lowered his respect level even further than when he was getting pelted with cow pies last year. Even humbled Joffrey is still immensely hatable, of course, sniping at his mother being carted around the city in his ridiculous gold box.
Luckily for him, although it’s extremely doubtful that he realizes it, his new bride-to-be seems to recognize that he needs some PR turnaround at a grassroots level. Marge Tyrell hasn’t had a lot of screentime previously, but she seems to be a match for Cersei when it comes to politickin’, and Natalie Dormer has been great so far, so I’m looking forward to her taking on greater prominence as the things move forward.
Elsewhere in the capital Bronn is, improbably, getting more awesome. He’s no longer in charge of the City Watch, but he’s an anointed knight now and that just gives him more time to wile away in Littlefinger’s brothel. He’s short on money, but that shouldn’t be an issue at least until Tyrion figures out how much he pays him anyway. And he still has the ability to trigger a deus ex reprieve from a deadly confrontation just by reaching for the knife on the back of his belt, which seems like a useful trick.
Tyrion, meanwhile, has managed the tricky feat of succeeding downward. Having saved the city and survived his sister’s assassination attempt, he’s enjoying exactly no glory to go with his nasty new scar and has been stripped of his power as the Hand of the King. Even his father, who is nothing if not pragmatic, won’t spare him any credit and certainly won’t appoint him lord of their home manor.
The scenes between Tyrion and his sister and father are upsetting, since he’s easily my favorite character and he’s mostly getting abused in them. But they’re also the best of the episode, as Dinklage, Headey and Dance are (as always) uniformly fantastic. God help me, I hope to never in my life receive a dressing down from Charles Dance. The only thing better than his crushing of Tyrion’s hopes is the little nod Dinklage gives before he can finish his threat that “the next whore I find-”
Game Of Thrones episodes are patchwork beasts made of a half dozen disparate storylines, so they have a way of just ending on you suddenly, which “Valar Dohaeris” did. That would be a serious criticism, if I wasn’t so rapt through every single scene of the episode, or rabid to see the next. And not just because there’s every chance it will have FUCKING GIANTS in it.