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Review: Game of Thrones, Season 3 Episode 1

Posted by msunyata on Sunday, April 7, 2013

Based largely off of the first half of George R.R. Martin’s behemoth of a book, A Storm of Swords (which is longer than the entirety of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy!), the third season of HBO’s Game of Thrones brings all of the plot lines, character beats, and thematic developments from the first two years of the series to a climatic head.

And as the show’s lingering questions are answered and bombshell revelations are dropped, this column (It Is Known: An Analysis of Thrones) will help wade viewers and book-lovers both through the narrative overload that will be at hand.  What it won’t do, however, is spoil the story; the hope and intent is elucidation, not ruination.

Given the death, destruction, and – gasp – hope that await in the next 10 episodes, such illumination will be needed.

It is known.

 

Game of Thrones season 3 episode 1

 

Episode 301: “Valar Dohaeris”

So much of television is structural and, as such, repetitive.  Episodes open with a teaser and opening credits; they close with the end credits.  Act breaks end with cliffhangers to coax the audience into coming back after the commercial break.  There’s x number of episodes per season, year after year – and even the term “season” denotes just how profoundly this idea of cycles or repetition runs in the medium.

Game of Thrones has, to date, followed these mandates – such as only doing 10 installments per year, which is the whole reason why showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss opted to split the third novel into two seasons in the first place.  But “Valar Dohaeris” throws a monkey wrench in the structural consistency of the series by including a teaser – as stated before, Game of Thrones’s version of the novels’ prologues – which follows the disruption the second season opener, “The North Remembers” (episode 201), committed by omitting the cold-open material.

On the one hand, this is strong testament to showrunners Weiss and Benioff’s willingness to allow the series to act as its own living, breathing entity, beholden to its own needs and separate from the sometimes rigid demands of adaptations.  The writers had determined that the Night’s Watch ranging beyond the Wall worked better as its own separate sequence, placed before the opening credits, in 2011; in 2012, Maester Cressen’s ill-fated assassination attempt on the Lady Melissandre was deemed to operate better when distributed throughout the entirety of the ep; and, now, in 2013, we have Sam Tarly’s pursuit by the White Walkers – and the Night’s Watch’s ultimate retreat from the Fist of the First Men – appended back to the very beginning.

On the other hand, though, such flexibility comes across as fickleness, particularly among those viewers who don’t have the guiding light – or is that the blinding distraction? – of the novels to go by.  Will the following of a structural choice be willy-nilly, whether it be the placing of the prologue or the seemingly arbitrary recasting of parts, resulting in something like a modern skyscraper that adopts a Roman-Greco edifice on every third floor?  And to this effect, what of the books’ far-rarer epilogues – will they be added as a tag to the end of the finales, stripped into the episode proper, or cut altogether?

But the biggest question of them all is:  does it even matter?  So much of television’s history for the past 60 years has been the slow but steady reformatting – or, even, degradation – of structure.  Laugh tracks, that curse of the American sitcom for so many decades, has finally been largely thrown to the curbside (just as shows such as Malcolm in the Middle and Modern Family have chucked the play-like structure of its sets and, by extension, its cinematography).  And HBO, along with its cable cousins, has done much to undermine the traditional format of the TV series, usually stripping episodes of teasers and completely eschewing the act structure along with the commercial interruptions that necessitated it.  In this regard, Game of Thrones’s continuing evolution may well be just the latest step in a long trend that will ultimately be called progress.

At the end of the day, however, all such questions of structure are absolutely meaningless if there is no substance to back them up – and, in this regard, the payoff to the absolutely majestic shot of the White Walkers and their wight army’s march on the Fist that closed the last season is so paltry in comparison, so flimsy in both its screen time and in its handling of the battle that drained the 300-strong garrison to a paltry 50, that its ultimate placement in the episode is pointless; it will be anticlimactic and shortchanging no matter where it is dumped.  After the superb battle sequence that is nearly the entirety of “Blackwater” (209), “Valar Dohaeris’s” opening is, quite simply, laughable.  (And even if the battle between the black brothers and the White Walkers had to be cut due to budgetary concerns, the last such omission – Tyrion’s being knocked out before the Lannister-Stark clash in “Baelor” (109) – serves as a far superior example.)

 

Game of Thrones season 3 episode 2

 

The Differences between the Episode and the Novel

When Jon Snow is finally brought before Mance Rayder in the novel, there is a protracted back and forth between the two – as is fairly typical for any weighty scene in A Song of Ice and Fire – that includes a rather involved story that the King-beyond-the-Wall regales Jon with.  Way back at the very beginning of the first book, when King Robert Baratheon visited Winterfell and Lord Eddard Stark honored him with a grandiose banquet, Mance managed to slip around the Wall, fall in with the royal procession, and be seated in the Starks’ great hall, sharing meat and mead with those who had vowed to hunt him down and kill him.  The tale is meant to put Jon off-balance, to establish a context in which the would-be invader of Westeros knows much and more about – well, every- and anything about Jon Snow and his world and, just perhaps, his history.

When pressed to give his answer as to why he turned traitor and killed Qhorin Halfhand, Jon turns this story back around on Mance:

 

    Jon took another swallow of mead.  There is only one tale that he might believe.  “You say you were at Winterfell, the night my father feasted King Robert.”

    “I did say it, for I was.”

    “Then you saw us all.  Prince Joffrey and Prince Tommen, Princess Myrcella, my brothers Robb and Bran and Rickon, my sisters Arya and Sansa.  You saw them walk the center aisle with every eye upon them and take their seats at the table just below the dais where the king and queen were seated.”

    “I remember.”

    “And did you see where I was seated, Mance?”  He leaned forward.  “Did you see where they put the bastard?”

    Mance Rayder looked at Jon’s face for a long moment.  “I think we had best find you a new cloak,” the king said, holding out his hand.

 

 

That such a lengthy dialogue sequence would be cut isn’t surprising, given the show’s previous handlings of similar scenes across its first two years.  And, of course, there’s the simple fact that the showrunners changed the original scene in question, way back in the first season premiere (“Winter Is Coming,” 101):  rather than being seated below the salt (the royal dias), Jon isn’t even in the hall at all, taking his aggression out on a hapless quatrain in the courtyard instead; even if Weiss and Benioff had scrounged up the screen time to include Mance’s tale of daring-do and secret visitations, the payoff would still have been denied them.

A new explanation – and, by extension, a new motivation, even if just for the benefit of Jon’s wildling audience – was needed, and what is surprising is what the writers opted to put in its place:  another divergent scene, one more minor in its scope but far more major in its departure from the source material.  Jon’s witnessing Craster offering up his newborn son to the White Walkers (“The Night Lands,” 202) was believed at the time to be borne mostly from the showrunners’ passion of being as titillating as possible (why there are so many whorehouse scenes inserted into the series, for example), or, just perhaps, to keep the supernatural creatures and their ice zombie hordes front and center as much as possible, to remind viewers that, yes, indeed, they’re still hovering menacingly out there.

In addition to being a superb handling of the change, the utilization of this as Jon’s defense to Mance a whole season later adds a whole new layer of resonance to the alteration (if, indeed, the showrunners were thinking that far ahead last year – which, by all accounts, they most likely were) and finally provides a payoff to a rather major event in young Jon Snow’s life that was completely absent from last year’s run.

It makes one pause and wonder just how much extension the other myriad changes thus far will end up accruing as we enter the third – and, now, the fourth! – season.

 

Game of Thrones season 3 episode 1

 

 

Season Two Reviews:

 

Season One Reviews:

 

 

 

 

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