Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Game Of Thrones (newbies): “Valar Dohaeris” (for newbies)

Illustration for article titled Game Of Thrones (newbies): “Valar Dohaeris” (for newbies)

(This Game Of Thrones post is written from the point of view of someone who has not read the books the series is based on. As such, spoilers are strictly forbidden. Any spoilers in comments will be deleted on sight. If you see spoilers, please mark them as best you can and email toddvdw at gmail dot com or contact Todd on Twitter at tvoti, and hell take care of them as soon as possible. Remember: Discussions of things that were different in the books or confirmations of things that won’t happen count as spoilers, too. Have you read the books and want to discuss whats coming? Thats what our experts reviews are for.)

Two things immediately occurred to me after watching the first episode of Game Of Thrones’ third season. (I don’t watch ahead of my reviews to keep myself truly unspoiled.) The first, which other reviewers have noted, is that this is truly unlike any other TV show, to the extent that it can be considered the pioneer of some new form of epic serialization, not bothering to wrap up any arc or theme within an hour but just point the viewer forward, leaving us salivating for more, more, more. There’s a nominal cliffhanger moment to the episode, but it’s not the kind of shocking twist you might imagine, just another intriguing wrinkle to a colossal story full of them.

At the same time, one can’t help but watch “Valar Dohaeris” and, for very similar reasons, be reminded of many a serialized show (like Lost or what have you) that succeeded at both ensnaring its viewers and frustrating them with a bit of delayed gratification. The final image of the season two finale, a giant snow zombie standing over the cowering Sam, left me slobbering with anticipation for the next nine months. Sure, we’d seen glimpses of these nightmare creatures over the last two years, but now we were face-to-face with one and his army of monsters.

Like any TV show would, the first scene of “Valar Dohaeris” pretty much hits the reset button. Sam runs away from the Walker and gets saved first by Jon’s wolf Ghost, and then by Mormont, who sets the damn thing ablaze (not easy in a blizzard), yells at Sam for not sending out ravens (again, not easy in a blizzard!), and commands his troops back to the Wall. As opening scenes go, it’s not bad, but it’s basically a bunch of dudes deciding that shit is fucked up beyond the Wall, and it’s best to turn tail and run. It doesn’t quite have the hook of the zombies’ first appearance in the pilot, or Stannis standing over his dying advisor in the first episode of season two.

Game Of Thrones is dense with plot, and I’m sure there are many twists and turns to come this year, but it also knows it has to parcel these things out, especially since the third season is apparently only covering half of the colossal third book of the series. So the monsters are gone for now, and this episode is more about table-setting, not even checking in with a lot of our favorite characters (Arya, Bran, and Jaime come immediately to mind). That’s fine. Every year this show takes a couple weeks to spool up, then it’s always humming along nicely. And “Valar Dohaeris” may not be action-packed, but it’s still an incredibly fun watch, not just because it’s wonderful to be back in this world again.

Hell, this show is so cool it’s exciting just to see the opening credits again. Not much has changed, but Winterfell is now a smoky ruin, and Daenerys has left the dull if pretty Qarth for the seaport of Astapor, where she’s chartered a boat filled with vomity Dothraki patrolled by her growing dragons. After a whole season that really went nowhere and was best represented by Xaro Xhoan Daxos’ ornate safe door guarding an empty room, I’m immediately much more intrigued by her adventures here where she’s confronted by a serious moral quandary rather than a bunch of political doublespeak by a council of fat ponce idiots. (God, Qarth really sucked when you think about it.)


Daenerys wants to be Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, and so far, she’s got dragons, an alluring mix of charismatic leaderly steel and empathy for the common man, and her mighty Targaryen name to back her up. But she needs an army, and with most of the Dothraki very far away and uninterested after the death of Drogo, she goes to a one-stop army shop where an extremely distasteful slaver offers her the Unsullied, a group of 8,000 warriors trained in the most brutal, horrifying ways imaginable to utterly strip them of their humanity and seemingly any kind of free will.

They’ve been castrated, they fear neither pain nor death, they can stand without food and water for at least a day and a night, and to win a shield, they have to drown a (slave) mother’s baby in front of her, just in case they were ever thinking about having a happy thought again. At one point, the slaver cuts a nipple off an unreactive soldier in case we didn’t get it. Daenerys is understandably horrified, but as Jorah tells her, she needs an army, and hey, these guys have already been put through unimaginable horrors, so one would reject them only because of moral compunction. Daenerys has fiercely disapproved of slavery throughout the series, but there’s no way we’re being shown these guys without a reason, so I can’t wait to see how she gets her head around this.


We don’t get much action up north, but beyond the Wall, Jon is led into the camp of Mance Rayder (Ciaran Hinds), a fine bit of casting if I say so myself. Hinds is the perfect mix of rugged and charming; since every Wildling lord and fighter we’ve met so far is more your garden-variety guerrilla thug wearing coats of bones, there has to be something distinctive about Rayder, and we immediately pick up on it in this scene. Jon thinks some chicken-eating meathead is the boss, but Mance is lurking in the background, not needing to posture when he already has everyone’s utter respect. It’s hard to tell how much Jon wins him over; as a former member of the Night’s Watch himself, Rayder clearly isn’t stupid, but he’s also talking about getting him a new cloak, so everyone’s favorite bastard can probably breathe easy for another week at least.

We also get our first look at Davos in the aftermath of the battle of Blackwater; he’s still alive, to my utter joy, although he’s definitely worse for wear and still making stupid decisions like convincing his fun pirate friend to drop him off at Dragonstone AFTER being told that Stannis and Melisandre have become very fond of setting heretics on fire. But hey, that’s Davos—loyal to the point of insanity. His return to Stannis goes about as well as you could imagine, since Stannis never had the greatest temperament and he now holds Davos responsible for not letting Melisandre go to war with them (there’s nary a mention of “sorry about your dead son”), so Davos understandably loses his shit and tries to stab Melisandre. Guys, guys. Let’s not fight. Let’s get Stannis on the iron throne. It’s all David Sims wants.


Most of this episode’s action takes place at King’s Landing where a new power structure is settling into place post-Blackwater. Two Lannisters are going to have their power severely checked—first, poor Tyrion, who is taken down several pegs in a brutal monologue by his father who confirms that he shouldn’t look forward to any Lannister land, titles, or responsibilities anytime soon, let alone love or trust. Charles Dance is the master of long, nasty, but expertly-worded diatribes and makes this scene epically painful to watch, even though it’s good for Tyrion to know where he stands.

The other Lannister (although he’s technically a Baratheon) undergoing a reality check is Joffrey, whose name is mud after his pathetic performance in battle and who doesn’t dare leave his royal carriage while being led around King’s Landing. In this episode he gets quite the lesson in public relations from his new betrothed Margery, who is politically smart enough to know that she won’t be respected as a Queen simply because she’s marrying the little blonde shit. More importantly, with Tywin in control, Kings Landing and the kingdom will likely be ruled with a much more brutal fist and less given over to his pathetic whims.


What’s hardest to guess is how Cersei fits into all this. She’s obviously worried about her status, posturing before Tyrion about her network of spies and worrying that he’s going to tell Tywin a whole tissue of lies (i.e.: the truth) in an attempt to discredit her. But she’s also not entirely without brains, or power, and with Tyrion diminished and Jaime on the lam, she’ll be the real wild card this year. God know what she makes of Margery Tyrell. She’s not usually someone who responds well to pretty, popular noblewomen.

There’s a lot to digest here, but it’s all fun. I can only assume episode two is just as dense and features a whole plethora of unseen characters. Along with Arya, Bran, and Jaime/Brienne, we’re also missing Theon and the Hound and probably others I’m forgetting right now. The important thing is that Game Of Thrones is back, and it’s hit the ground without missing a beat.


Stray observations:

  • Cersei mocks Tyrion’s new digs. “Grand Maester Pycelle made the same joke. You should be proud to be as funny as someone whose balls brush his ankles.”
  • Bronn is now a knight and quite fond of the finer things in life. More Bronn, please.
  • Important to note Loras Tyrell with Margery in King’s Landing; I forget if he popped up at the end of last season but he’s back again, likely continuing to nurse a grudge against Joffrey (but he must hate Stannis more).
  • The interplay between the evil slaver and his conflicted translator was quite something to watch. “Tell the old man he smells of piss.”