(This Game Of Thrones post is for people who have read at least the first three books in the book series. It is written from the point-of-view of someone who has read those books and for the benefit of fans of the books. All discussion points are valid, up to and including the events of the fifth book. However, we would ask that you clearly mark spoilers from the fourth and fifth books. The review itself will be non-spoilery, and talk of how events here portend future events will be clearly marked with a spoiler warning in the section following Stray Observations. If you would still like to read the review but haven’t read the book, thus, you can, but you should proceed with caution after the spoiler warning and in comments. Those of you who haven’t read the books can also check out our reviews for newbies.)
I’ve been reading some of the advance reviews of Game Of Thrones’ third season, and time and again, the topic that comes up in them—even in the ones that are ragingly positive—is the idea that the show’s sheer scope, the fact that it’s telling one massive story spread across dozens of locations, encompassing dozens of major characters, separated sometimes by thousands of miles, ultimately makes it hard to get too deep into the story, because it by necessity keeps hopping among all of these locations. In a chat with one of these critics the other day, he suggested to me that it might be possible to dispatch with certain story points in character-centric episodes, like there might be a Dany episode or a Jon Snow episode, and that’s all we’d get from that character for a season or so. (I suppose there could be a halfway point here, too, where we might get something like Lost. Jon Snow takes the lead in an episode, then retreats to the far background for the rest of the season.) Would that be satisfying? I don’t know. We’ve been so trained to watch TV in a certain way that I don’t know if it would work to see Dany once per year or something similar.
Yet I can sort of see these fellow critics’ point, and I particularly feel it after “Valar Dohaeris,” an episode that’s solid TV but also feels a bit too breathless in its attempt to catch viewers up with a good two-thirds of the cast. (Arya, Bran, Jaime, Brienne, and several others sit the action out.) The second season première was similarly spread out, as if to try to get viewers used to the new reality of the show without Ned Stark as a unifying figure, but it also had everybody reacting to that comet in the sky, a visual link to remind us that all of these people occupy the same planet, no matter how big it might be. Game Of Thrones has, for better or worse, decided to go all in with a scene-by-scene approach. This often means that whatever overarching story there is retreats to the background, with the series hoping to link these scenes thematically. But when it can’t come up with a strong theme, as it can’t in “Valar Dohaeris,” it can all feel a little strained.
In High Valyrian, “Valar Dohaeris” means “all men must serve,” and it traditionally follows “Valar Morghulis,” meaning “all men must die.” (That’s the title of the second season finale, so naming this première as it is offers a kind of sly joke for fans.) Anyway, I spent far too long trying to find the thematic linkage in the idea of serving. It’s there in places, as both Tyrion and Davos realize they’ve tied themselves to people who either have never had respect for them (in Tyrion’s case) or have lost the respect they once had thanks to new, outside influences (in Davos’ case). That’s an interesting idea, and there are places where you can tease out similar themes in the story of, say, Sansa, waiting for the call from Littlefinger that will mean her deliverance, or Jon Snow, pretending to renounce the Black in order to join the side of Mance Rayder (played by the great Ciarán Hinds). When a man chooses to pledge his allegiance to any leader or larger body, how much of himself can he hang onto? Those are the questions the best scenes of this episode ask.
But then there are also scenes that are clearly just there to remind us that, hey, Robb Stark exists, or let us check in with Sam again, just in case we’d forgotten about him! When the episode goes and takes its time in any given location, it tends to be as involving as the show can be, but there are also bits and pieces here and there that just don’t offer as rich of an experience, like Margaery playing Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in Fleabottom. The second season’s finest episodes—excluding “Blackwater,” which was a decided departure for the series in a lot of ways—took the idea of fealty or what makes a fit king, then found ways those ideas resonated across the whole of Westeros and lands abroad. But its weaker episodes felt like a collection of things happening, with no unifying material. It rarely matters how interesting the things happening are—because, hey, some damned interesting things happen in every episode of this show—when it can feel like there’s little rhyme or reason to the why and where of the scenes and storylines.
To be sure, this is a season adapting my personal favorite of the book series so far, and it’s part of a series (both book and television) that can take a little while to get going in each individual volume. I’m not worried in the slightest, nor am I fearing that this episode marks a new reality for the show, because the series’ weakest outings have always lacked thematic coherence. What’s more, I’m encouraged by the fact that the show has immediately given Daenerys far more of interest to do. Sure, a lot of this is due to the third book offering Dany a much stronger storyline than the second did, but the whole thing is subtly pitched toward Dany acting, rather than Dany reacting, and when she does react, it’s to truly horrifying things, like one of the Unsullied having his nipple cut off.
As I reread the third book alongside the third season—a task that becomes all the more difficult simply because of how thoroughly the show’s writers have mixed and matched story points to give everybody a little something to do in every episode—I’m consistently impressed by just how much adaptation has gone into the last two seasons of this show. Not every change has necessarily led to the better. (For instance, while enjoying the opportunity to have Arya and Tywin sharing scenes last season, I still don’t know if the alterations to Arya’s storyline worked as elegantly as the book’s version did.) But the series’ willingness to mess around with motives, or move speeches and dialogue around wholesale, can be a lot of fun. Take, for instance, the way the show expands the role of characters like Margaery to take us into places in King’s Landing that we couldn’t see otherwise, or how it knows exactly when to pull in scenes and pieces from the book, as when Tyrion tries to get his father to give him Casterly Rock… and fails miserably (not that he doesn’t have a point).
In talking with those who have concerns that the show is simply too scattered to be effective television, both book fans and people who haven’t read said books, the idea arises over and over that the series needs to be an adaptation that works on its own terms, not just a sort of visual companion to the book series that offers up an illustrated version of several scenes. Yet it’s often hard to not point out all of the ways the show has adapted itself to this format from what it was. The fact of the matter is that, ultimately, there’s probably no way to adapt this particular property to make it less scattered without removing much of what made people love the book series in the first place. I can appreciate the need to adapt, and I can appreciate how weird and all-over-the-place this series can feel when it doesn’t have that thematic underpinning knitting everything together. And, to be honest, I sometimes worry that one of the reasons I can hold the show a bit at arm’s length is because its need to cram everything into every single hour it produces.
Yet at the same time I do think this is the best possible adaptation of this material we could have possibly hoped for, warts and all. It’s taken on a massive challenge and handily landed almost every aspect of that challenge, and in its best moments, which occur frequently, it has a sort of full-blooded, earthy appeal. I, too, wonder what the version of the show that had slightly more focus might look like, but it would also be so functionally different from the material it’s adapting that it would lose whatever made the source material work in the first place. For better or worse and as mentioned, Game Of Thrones is the best possible adaptation of those books we’re going to get; the question is whether you consider the approach of those books worth adapting in the first place.
- As always, a reminder that the “Experts” threads are for people who’ve read at least through A Storm Of Swords. Feel free to spoil events past that book in comments, but be considerate. Put a spoiler warning up before you do. And here’s the annual reminder that the main difference between David and I is simply that I have read all five of the books and I’m constantly doublechecking myself on the Wiki of Ice And Fire. I don’t consider myself an expert on the series, just someone who knows roughly what’s coming, outside of adaptation choices. But for those of you who haven’t read the books or are planning on reading later, these reviews are safe to read up until the big, bold spoiler warning.
- This series is so well cast that it feels a bit pointless to talk about it week after week, but I’m always amazed by how even the smallest part seems to be filled with an actor that embodies that role indelibly.
- I loved Cersei’s expression at listening to Margaery talk about how the low- and high-born weren’t so different when you thought about it. It was hilariously condescending.
- A book change I didn’t really like: In the meeting between Mance and Jon, Mance doesn’t mention some interesting things from his backstory, while Jon’s fake motivation is changed to wanting to fight the White Walkers, rather than stemming from his role as Ned Stark’s bastard. I haven’t watched the other three episodes HBO sent out, so maybe all of this gets shoved into those, but that strikes me as an odd choice.
- A book change I did like: Having Davos directly confront Stannis and Melisandre apparently immediately after arriving at Dragonstone was a better choice than what happens in the book, which pretty much just has him arrive and get arrested. (Okay, he talks with Stannis’ daughter and some other guys, but he doesn’t implicitly threaten Melisandre with death to her face.)
- I feel like the series’ visual effects have gotten better with each season. That dragon swooping in on Dany’s ship was damned impressive.
- For those of you who may have forgotten him—and weren’t reminded by Jorah and/or him saying his name—that’s Barristan Selmy who pledges to fight on Dany’s side at the end of the episode. He was the guy dismissed from the Kingsguard back in season one, who served on the Small Council under Robert. Yeah, remember that guy?
- Seeing the whole scene between Littlefinger and Sansa is a nice little forerunner to how weird and creepy their storyline will get. However, I do wonder if they’ll feel as weird as they do in the book, because Sophie Turner will likely be in her early 20s by the time we get around to those seasons.
- I have never been a huge fan of the Others/White Walkers as a plot device within the books and series, and this episode just crystallizes for me why that is. They just seem like the generic fantasy threat that ultimately detracts from the more complicated interpersonal dynamics for me. Then again, George R.R. Martin could pull out something fairly unexpected and surprise me.
- A nice little nod to the book fans, when Tyrion’s told that the rumor’s going around he lost his nose, but it’s not that bad.