Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Game of Thrones 3.01: Valar Dohaeris

Hello everyone, and welcome back to the third season of Chris & Nikki’s Game of Thrones co-blog adventure! Just to recap for those who might be new to this annual project, the “Nikki” here in question is Nikki Stafford of Nik at Nite fame and author of, oh, about a bazillion books on Buffy, Angel, and Lost, just to name a few. I am your humble host with no books to his name (yet). But I have read George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, having started some sixteen years ago when A Game of Thrones was still in hardcover. It’s been a long, geeky road … Nikki has not as yet read any of the books, but that looks to change soon.

And we’re back with the first episode of season three of GoT, “Valar Dohaeris” … which for those of you who don’t speak High Valyrian, means “All men must serve,” and is the traditional response to the greeting “Valar Morghulis” (“all men must die”—cheerful lot, the Valyrians). The latter expression, of course, was the title of last season’s finale. If you need to catch up, you can read our recap here.

I’ll wait.

All right then. Are you seated comfortably? Then we’ll begin …

He wears the black for the poor and beaten down, livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town.

Nikki: I have seen the first four episodes of this season, and I can tell you there are gasps, shocks, triumphs… and Diana Rigg’s FABULOUS cheekbones.

This week’s episode, which is that episode that has to bridge us from one season to the next (and because of the sheer number of clans covered in this series, they don’t even get around to everyone by the end of the episode!) begins pretty much immediately after “Valar Morghulis,” the season 2 finale, ends (“Valar Morghulis” means “all men must die,” and the title of this episode, “Valar Dohaeris,” means “all men must serve”). Of course, as you’ll see next week, Arya’s a foot taller and Bran’s voice has deepened, but let’s just overlook that (when fans made too much of that on Lost, they just got rid of the kid, and no one wants THAT to happen here!)

As usual, I will start with Tyrion. The first time we see his face, it’s not actually the imp’s visage, but a mirror image of it. He stares in the mirror for a long time, and it’s clearly significant: Tyrion’s life has completely changed. He’s no longer on top; he’s no longer outwitting anyone (he might be smarter than every other Lannister there is, but sheer might won out on this one, and he knows it); he has to hide his lover from everyone; he’s not the Hand of the King, but more the armpit of the family; Cersei mocks him, and Tywin puts him in his place. Most noticeably, his confidence is gone; where Tyrion used to roll his eyes and lord over King’s Landing with his sarcasm, every word he says is now tinged with fear of recrimination. That giant Omar scar on his face reminds him daily that his big sister fights back.

Early in the episode Cersei comes to Tyrion’s chambers to laugh at him and gloat. She’s taken his verbal knocks for months while he was Hand of the King, and now she’s taking a moment to give back. He frantically looks at her through the peephole in his door, worried about letting her in. He orders her guards stand back, and when he opens the door, it’s with much trepidation. “I’m not afraid of you, little brother,” she says to him slyly. But you can tell from his body language that he’s certainly afraid of her. Until now he clearly didn’t think she had it in her. But in their conversation we find out her vengeance isn’t necessarily from the barbs he’s doled out over the past few months, but going way back to when they were children, and he tattled on her about having a servant girl beaten. She tells him how she still holds her hatred and anger inside her for him slandering her like that. We discover that she had done something and blamed it on a servant girl, who was beaten and bloodied to within an inch of her life. When Tyrion tells her that it’s not slander if it’s true, Cersei just smiles, knowing that he can’t hurt her now.

But even with her definitely having the upper hand now, Tyrion still can’t resist lobbing an insult back at her when she dishes one at him: “You’re a clever man,” she says. “But you’re not half as clever as you think.”

“Still makes me smarter than you,” he says, before slamming the door and locking it behind her.

When Tyrion makes his way to his father’s room and demands to be treated like the actual heir he is, and to be given Casterly Rock, there seems to be a new air of confidence about him. But it’s all bluster. Tywin puts up with Tyrion’s presence for the first bit, and listens to his son tell him everything he did the night of the battle of Blackwater. But it’s not enough; like Cersei, he’s holding old grudges and not letting them go. He reminds Tyrion that he’s an “ill-made, spiteful little creature” who killed his mother by being born, and that there is no way in hell he’s giving Tyrion Casterly Rock, since he assumes his youngest son will simply turn it into a brothel. But because “they can’t prove you’re not mine,” Tywin will throw him a small bone. But it’s a giant kick in the ass, much like Tyrion’s new quarters and facial scar. He’s been beaten… for now. But we fans know Tyrion doesn’t stay down for long. I just hope he gets back up again soon; he’s far more fun when he’s on top.

So Chris, what were your thoughts about this week’s return to Westeros? There were some new lands in the opening; are they all consistent with the third book? (Will this third season be in line with the third book, as far as you can tell?) And more importantly, by the time they get to the end, will the theme song be about 10 minutes long?

And how excited were you to see Julius Caesar again? ;)

Et tu, Jon Snow?

Christopher: So very, very excited. There was a brief period when the buzz was that Dominic West had been offered the role of Mance Rayder, which made my Wire fanboyism go off the charts. But the disappointment that that did not work out was well salved by the casting of Ciarán Hinds. Where McNulty would have highlighted the brash, tricksterish qualities of Mance, Hinds brings the authority and gravitas he displayed as Caesar.

(Not to digress so early, but the question of how to act gravitas is, to me, a very interesting one, perhaps because I love political dramas—and am frequently disappointed when the figure who is supposed to be someone people will follow to hell and back displays none of the qualities that inspire that devotion. Martin Sheen, for example, nails it in The West Wing; conversely, George Clooney was bafflingly bland in The Ides of March. A question for the hive mind: who, in your opinion, exemplifies gravitas in film or TV? Who completely fails at it?)

Seeing as how I seem to have started north of the Wall, I might as well stay there for the moment. I like that this episode literally picks up where last season left off, and emphasizes that by starting with a (pardon the pun) cold open. The novel A Storm of Swords opens with the three horn blasts we heard at the end of last season; and we get, a few chapters in, the attack on the Night Watch’s encampment by the white walkers and their ice zombies (er, I mean wights) filtered through Sam’s jagged memory. Poor Sam … in the novel he succeeds in sending off his ravens.

"OK, that was pretty humiliating. On the other hand, this is the warmest I've been in weeks."

We stay in the north after the credits for our first up-close look at the wildlings’ encampment, where Jon Snow is gobsmacked by his first glimpse of a giant, pelted by angry and mocking stones, and introduced to Mance Rayder’s inner circle. I won’t say much about Tormund Giantsbane for the moment, aside from that the actor they’ve cast (Kristofer Hivju) looks perfect. And of course we meet Mance himself, Julius Caesar resurrected from the bloody floor of the Senate. He looks a little rougher around the edges, but then I suppose life north of the wall does that to you. His exchange with Jon—questioning his motives and his sincerity—is quite well done, though different than in the novel. In the novel, Mance tells about how he was present at Winterfell when the Lannisters were there, having snuck south disguised as a musician and joined the king’s retinue. (Again, I’ll be interested to see how the Ciarán Hinds Mance plays out—in the novel Mance has a somewhat roguish and romantic nature, exemplified by the audacity of hiding in plain sight in his enemy’s feasting hall). When asked why he wants to desert the watch, Jon Snow asks if Mance had seen where his brothers and sisters sat—at the head table with Ned Stark and the King and Queen? And whether he also saw how the bastard sat with the commons, unacknowledged.

The change they made in the show was not a bad substitution, all things being equal—and it certainly played well, with Mance’s subtle change of expression at the mention of the white walkers. It’s a reminder of who the real enemy is.

Speaking of actors who convey gravitas, the scene between Tyrion and Tywin was pitch-perfect—and was pretty much verbatim from the book. Peter Dinklage just gets better and better. Tyrion has never been imperturbable, precisely, but he is deft at only showing the world what he wants the world to see. So it is a little heartbreaking to watch the cracks show in the façade—first, when he almost doesn’t let Cersei into his room out of fear, and then only when he has armed himself with an axe. Once she is inside, he returns to his cool, snarky self; but we’ve seen that he is afraid of her, and she isn’t going to miss that detail. That he sends her packing with that brilliant little insult doesn’t quite make up for seeing him that shaken.

And then with Tywin … both of them lose their composure, if only slightly, Tyrion to his bottled-up resentment and Tywin to his long-simmering rage over his wife’s death in childbirth. As smooth and shrewd as Tyrion is, and as justified as his claim to Casterly Rock is, it is obvious that he is still in awe of his father, and more than a little intimidated by him. Again, this is heartbreaking: one senses that even the merest of compliments or the smallest word of gratitude from Tywin would be enough, but he isn’t about to give even that much. “Jugglers and singers demand applause,” he says dismissively, and a few moments later goes on to clarify precisely what he thinks of Tyrion.

The little speech he gives—again, more or less verbatim from the novel—is devastating. We’ve always known intuitively what Tywin thinks of his younger son. To hear it spoken aloud in such bald terms … well, I know I couldn’t have kept Tyrion’s composure. Nor could most. Which, ironically, shows him to be as much of a Lannister as his father.

And speaking of Lannisters … what did you think of Joffrey’s bits in this episode?

Dick in a box!

Nikki: I’d love to see someone cut off Joffrey’s bits and feed them to the poor. But as for his scenes in this episode, just brilliant, as usual. I’m so caught up in talking about my utter hatred of Joffrey (and that hating him is one of my favourite things about the show, so I hope he makes it until the final moments of the final episode and then dies in a spectacular fashion) but it’s not mentioned enough just how remarkable Jack Gleeson is in the role. He is just SO vile, SO hateful, and as he’s being carried through the Fleabottom slums, looking as put-out and bored as ever, I was just struck by what a fine actor Gleeson is. He plays him so well, yet it never feels over the top. This isn’t Tom Cruise doing Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder; this is a fine actor doing a brilliant job of making me want to see Joffrey drawn and quartered in every episode.

Lady Margaery has turned out to be the Princess Di that the Lannister family so desperately needs. Just as Queen Elizabeth and her clan were finding their numbers down when the young, perky kindergarten teacher showed up and changed the way we saw the Windsors forever, here is Lady Margaery slumming it with orphans of the Blackwater battle, bringing love and sympathy to the dregs of society and telling them that aid and love is coming their way… care of their passionate and loving King Joffrey. Of course, Cersei is green with envy, as usual, because Joffrey never looks at Margaery with the same sneering hatred that he did Sansa; he doesn’t seem to want to hurt her… he’s still trying to figure her out. She’s the best PR that family’s had since Robert Baratheon died. But it’s clear from the look on Margaery’s face all the time (again, Natalie Dormer does a wonderful job in the role) makes us think there are always other motives. She’s playing a very, very long game, and good god I hope the consequences are vast and painful for the Lannisters.

Slumming with the 99%.

Brilliant summary of the north! I always look to you, to be honest, to help bring more clarity to the new characters, because I do find on the show they’re introduced rather hastily and I didn’t gauge half of what you were just saying by seeing Mance Rayder on screen. Obviously the novels are going to offer so much more depth and understanding, and 10 hours of television can’t possibly do it justice, but I was awed by Ciaran Hinds (as always) and couldn’t wait to see more.

And now let’s move to Daenerys. I went to see the Game of Thrones exhibit in Toronto a couple of weeks and got my photo taken on the Iron Throne (it’s my cover photo on my Facebook page) and a representative from HBO was there and asked me to pledge allegiance to a clan. Without hesitation, I said, “Targaryen.” Yes, I love Arya Stark and deep down I want to see her conquer absolutely everyone, but Daenerys has DRAGONS. I just don’t see how she can lose.

And what about those dragons? The CGI on them is truly amazing, and watching one of them dive into the water for a fish, catch it, fly it back up into the air, throw it up into the sky and cook it with its own fiery breath before gulping it down is one of the most awesome things I’ve ever seen on the show.

After her boat ride (now that I’m watching Downton Abbey it was weird seeing Ser Jorah and not seeing him as Carlyle!) she arrives in Astapor, home of the Unsullied army. And the Unsullied aren’t just normal soldiers: these are the most unbelievably badass men you have EVER seen. Trained in such hopeless circumstances that only a quarter of the survive, they will do whatever they are told, and don’t even flinch. (When Kraznys, who might actually be even more vile than Joffrey, cuts off one of the soldier’s nipples, I just… blergh.) And then just as Daenerys is trying to wrap her head around whatever the hell that just was, a creepier little girl lures her away with a ball containing a horrific scorpion. Daenerys, who, despite the abusive upbringing she’s had, has a big, generous heart, shows her vulnerability by following the little girl, grinning and playing the whole time. But never fear, she’s saved by… Obi Wan Kenobi!!!

Oh wait, no, it’s another guy who had worked as a soldier for her father. I’m sure you can fill us in more on who that man is and his backstory, Chris. But in the meantime, can I just say how much I hope Daenerys can understand even a little of what Kraznys is saying. Pig.

"Want to see my impersonation of Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast? No? How about Gandhi?"

Christopher: For all those wondering, Obi Wan is Ser Barristan Selmy, formerly lord commander of the Kingsguard. Remember back to season one, when Robert Baratheon had that conversation with Jaime Lannister and an old knight about the first men they’d killed? The old knight was Barristan. He was dismissed ignominiously by Joffrey so that the Hound could be elevated to the Kingsguard (that worked out well for the little shit, didn’t it?), and we saw nothing of him all season two. He appears at the end of A Clash of Kings more or less precisely as he did in this episode, except that they’re still in Qarth when the assassination attempt occurs, and he does not actually reveal who he is. He spends the better part of A Storm of Swords going by the alias Arstan Whitebeard until Jorah finally winkles out his true identity.

Kids, this is why in Astapor you always shake out your shoes before putting them on.

So it’s interesting that they’ve made the reveal right away—probably on the shrewd assumption that many people would recognize the actor. I’ll hold off on saying more about Barristan, as I have to imagine he’ll have some exposition in a future episode.

One bit of trivia I should mention: the creepy scorpion-like thing that comes out of the wooden ball is a manticore, which might come as a surprise for devotees of mythology (or Robertson Davies) who think of manticores as a monstrous beast with the head of a human with shark’s teeth, the body of a lion, and the tail of a scorpion. In GRRM’s world, apparently they’re icky little jewel-like insects.

Returning to King’s Landing—yes, I think we should probably make a note at least once a post about the awesome job Jack Gleeson has been doing, and continues to do. The last play I directed, many moons ago, was Macbeth, and I turned one of the lesser lords—Menteith—into Macbeth’s go-to hit man. I wanted to cast against type and so gave the role to one of the sweetest people I’ve met, a slight bespectacled fellow who also happened to be a terribly good actor (he played Richmond in the Richard III I did), and he played the character with such slimy, creepy, sociopathic glee that people who had been to see the play had difficulty talking to him afterwards. I sometimes wonder if Jack Gleeson has the same problem. In every interview I’ve seen him do, he seems like a charming, somewhat bashful kid. I’d hate to think he gets hated in the streets for playing such a shit.

This episode was pretty even-keeled—no great revelations, no great climaxes. If there was a standout for me, it was the way they’re building the character of Margaery Tyrell. As I’ve mentioned before, in the novel she’s depicted as a gentle soul, lovely, innocent, only a year or two older than Joffrey. With Natalie Dormer, they’ve given us a Margaery who is substantially older and obviously more experienced (in every way) than Joffrey, and they’ve made her ambitions as naked as her cleavage. Hence, everything she does seems far more calculated than her literary opposite … and I must say, of all the departures from the novel, this one is among my favourites. It makes her far more interesting, for one thing. It also gives me added respect for the writers that, having cast the lovely and talented Natalie Dormer, they mean to make full use of her talents and not waste her as a wallflower. Her excursion into Flea Bottom, aka the ghettos of King’s Landing, was an inspired bit of drama not to be found in the novel. And her jousting with Cersei at dinner? Let me say that in an episode with some extraordinary face acting (Mance Rayder, Tywin and Tyrion, Daenerys), my favourite moment was the look on Cersei’s face when Margaery, in ostensible innocence, says that the low are no different from the high. It was a brilliant and subtle little insight into Cersei and the prejudices that rule her. I wrote a subtitle in my notes: “Ah. I hadn’t realized she was a retard” (apologies for that offensive term, but we all know Cersei wouldn’t be PC about it).

Such a lovely moment. I think I can say without fear of spoilers that she does indeed prove to be a thorn in Cersei’s side.

But back across the narrow sea: The entire translation farce played out pretty much as it did in the novel, and I love how they’ve dramatized it. Daenerys’ reluctance to purchase slaves versus Jorah’s pragmatism is well laid out here—we’ll have an ethical debate on this front for at least another episode or two to come, I’m guessing. This is one of those moments when I envy those who haven’t read the novels … I know what’s coming, and how Daenerys threads that particular needle, and I CANNOT WAIT to see the expression on the faces of those who’ll be experiencing it for the first time. Remind me to say that again when the moment comes: I’m literally bouncing up and down in my chair at the thought of what the hive mind will have to say. Heh.

Returning to King’s Landing, what did you think of that sedate little scene with Sansa and Shae? It’s almost as if Sansa has reverted to her old tendencies, refusing to see the ships for what they are and instead wishing to invent romantic stories for them. But then Littlefinger arrives and dangles the prospect of escape. What was most interesting for me in this scene was less their interaction than the murmured conversation between Roz and Shae—I had forgotten Varys’ visit to Roz in the aftermath of Joffrey’s scepter-rape (and I really cannot believe I just used that expression) recruiting her to his side. Is this her first attempt to expand the Spider’s network?

"Is he looking at us? No, no, don't look!"

Nikki: I had forgotten Varys’s excursion as well, and was reminded in this episode (and then again when I rewatched “Valar Morghulis” after seeing this one). I think Shae is 100% backing Sansa, and is genuine in her feelings for her and wanting to protect her. But we know Roz is playing a different game now. And Littlefinger? When will anyone learn that he is not to be trusted at all? Aside from Joffrey, he’s probably the most dangerous character on the show. Actually, he might be even MORE dangerous than Joffrey because at least the little shit puts his true heart on his sleeve, whereas Baelish just plays everyone all the time. The moment he went to Sansa and offered an escape plan, I thought, “Wait. What will he get out of this? He has no interest in saving anyone… is it just to piss off Joffrey? Is he planning to enter the game of thrones himself and see if he can battle his way to the top somehow?” Margaery shows her ulterior motives on her face and with tiny nuances in speech; Littlefinger, on the other hand, has his hidden so far beneath his cloak he’s impenetrable. He scares me, that guy.

And Roz is an interesting character for me: for my husband, who watches the episodes once and hasn’t read the books, he had no idea who she was. Just another woman, as far as he was concerned. But she’s actually quite important to the series, and him not recognizing her surprised me. She’s at Winterfell when the series begins, and Theon was a regular customer (there was also something with Jon Snow, but if I remember correctly, he’s sent there to have sex with her and changes his mind because he’s worried about impregnating her with a bastard like himself). Tyrion is with her when he comes to Winterfell as well, and then she heads to King’s Landing, where she basically becomes Baelish’s head whore, and then is involved in that horrible scene with the two prostitutes in Joffrey’s chambers (Tyrion’s present to his vile nephew) and then is approached by Varys to become his spy. Roz is pretty key, and she’s one to keep our eye on.

Is she as key a character in the books? More so perhaps?

"Who is she?" "I dunno. Must be a queen." "Why do you say that?" "Because she isn't covered in shit."

Christopher: Not at all. She’s entirely original to the series. My original sense was that she was an ancillary character at first, but that they liked her enough to keep her on and make her more important … but that didn’t take into account the fact that HBO series don’t evolve like normal network series—they write and film and entire season before showing anything. So I guess she was there from the start.

I like Roz as a character, and I’m glad they’re using her for more than just gratuitous T&A and sexposition. She has come to be a representation of the various exploited and abused women of Westeros, I think—the servant/sex trade underground that otherwise functions as backdrop. Having Varys turn her to his side was an intriguing move, and I’m happy they seem to be following through with that—it doesn’t really bode well for Roz, I fear, as it’s a little too easy to imagine her slipping up and suffering the fate of the powerless when they cross the powerful. I’m hoping we see more of Varys in the next few episodes. He was one of the conspicuously absent characters, along with Bran and Osha, Theon, Jaime and Brienne, and of course Arya. The series is starting to suffer the same problem GRRM did in expanding his numerous narratives—it’s too hard to fit them into a contained space. I guess we’re going to have to get used to having entire episodes go by that elide entirely one storyline or another (not that that hasn’t happened already.

Any last thoughts, Nikki?

Sansa wondering if she can trust the man who tricked Tony Gray into running for mayor so he could split Baltimore's black vote. 

Nikki: Never fear; all those people will feature in next week’s episode. But I agree; after seeing the first I was surprised to be missing Arya especially, but also Brienne and Jaime, which is one of my favourite duos of last season. There is a lot of ground to cover now, and as each book in the series balloons bigger than the previous, and the number of clans warring for the throne increases, and the theme song gets longer and longer as they have to accommodate more places on the map, one begins to wonder if 10 episodes is really enough to deal with it. Fingers crossed HBO finally increased to 12 come season 4. But for now, I’m just thrilled that once again they’ve delivered a superb show with effects and sets that are unparalleled on television.

Thanks so much for being here, Chris! It’s fun getting back to Westeros with you.


Question Mark said...

Morgan Freeman is head of House Gravitas.

Chris in NF said...

True, that.

Ramona said...