Game of Thrones: “Valar Dohaeris” Review

It just wouldn’t be spring without “Game of Thrones”. I’ve come to associate beheadings, dragons and nudity with this time of the year as much as I do baseball and allergies. And given how disappointing “The Walking Dead” season finale was, the return of my favorite show on television couldn’t have come at a better time.

So how was the premier episode? I’ll be honest, it wasn’t the most intense or memorable hour I’ve spent in George R.R. Martin’s world, but it was pretty damned satisfying to get reacquainted with all of these wonderful and despicable people, and there were a couple of crowd-pleasing moments that made the book fan in me giddy as hell. Don’t worry, I won’t be a prick and spoil anything that is yet to come, but everything up to this point in the show is fair game. So yeah, spoiler alert, and if you aren’t caught up on the show, seriously, what the hell are you waiting for?

We pick up quite literally where we left off in season 2, with the Night’s Watch under attack by the White Walkers and their undead army at the Fist of the First Men. It sucks that we didn’t get to see an actual battle here, but this scene did a pretty good job of showing just how vulnerable the “Crows” have become. And poor Samwell got dressed down by a bloodied Lord Commander, though I’m not sure how he could’ve sent any ravens while he was running for his life through the blizzard. With the White Walkers on the prowl and Mance Rayder’s Wildling army on the march towards the Wall, it seems life for the Watch is definitely going to get worse before it gets better.

And without further adieu, ladies and gentlemen, the King-Beyond-the-Wall! At last, Jon Snow gets his face-to-face meeting with Mance Rayder, sees his first giant and gets mocked for his southern customs when he mistakenly kneels before Tormund Giantsbane, who looks to be Mance’s right-hand man. Jon does a good enough job of convincing Mance that his defection from the Watch is genuine, but it’s clear that the Wildings’ attitude toward him remains tepid at best. Luckily for Lord Snow, Ygritte has his back entirely, so maybe Ned Stark’s bastard will finally get to prove that he knows where to put it.

On to King’s Landing, where Tyrion is still suffering from the aftereffects of the Battle on Blackwater and the attempt on his life by his beloved sister Cersei, who stops by for a brief chat. The remarkable chemistry between these two continues to grow, and though the Lannisters may be winning the war, tension within the family remains at an all-time high. Like Jon, Tyrion has few allies and is surrounded by people who despise him, and even his bromance with Bronn is rockier than before. The sellsword threatens to bail if Tyrion doesn’t keep his pockets lined with gold, though at least he isn’t trying to kill him. The real highlight here, however, is Tyrion’s meeting with a newly returned Tywin, who berates his son more or less for existing and denies him his rightful inheritance of Casterly Rock. Though it has always been implied that the relationship between these two is not a loving one, this is the first time that Tywin has shown outright contempt and hatred for the Imp, and in my opinion Charles Dance has never owned the role as much as he does here. Great stuff.

Meanwhile, the King in the North takes the Lannister stronghold of Harrenhal, and I don’t believe he liked what he found inside. The ground was littered with dead northmen, as well as a barely alive Maester Qyburn, who doesn’t feel so lucky to not be among the deceased. Though the Starks have yet to be defeated in the field, there is potential for dissension within the ranks as Lord Karstark remains bitter that Catelyn released the Kingslayer without Robb’s consent. I doubt Robb’s mood will improve upon hearing that Winterfell is a smoldering ruin (now cleverly shown smoking in the opening sequence) and that everyone believes Bran and Rickon were murdered by Theon. The Starks are still a force to be reckoned with, though it appears they’ll have their hands full this season dealing with the Lannisters and issues amongst themselves.

We don’t know that much about Margaery Tyrell beyond the fact that she wants to be queen, but it appears she wants to help the struggling lower class, and that’s more than I can say for the Lannisters. Which brings me to King Shithead, aka King Joffrey, whose grip on the Iron Throne is as secure as ever now that the Tyrells are his allies and his grandpa is back in town to run the kingdoms for him. Sure, he was decent enough during dinner with his mom and his newly betrothed, but don’t believe for a second that Joffrey isn’t the biggest douche in Westeros any more just because he’s playing nice with Margaery. Though it was Cersei’s idea for the two to be wed, she appears none too pleased with Margaery’s charity in Flea Bottom and for the first time begins to feel her power slipping away.

Sansa is confronted by the creepy Lord Baelish, and for some reason she wants him to help her get home now even though she shot that idea down the last time they talked. And Shae still doesn’t like to play games, but she’s still looking after Sansa and is by far the toughest whore in all the kingdoms. And speaking of people who are tough, Ser Davos lives! After being rescued by his pirate buddy Salladhor Saan, he decides that he wants to drive a stake through Melisandre’s heart for leading Stannis’ fleet into the fires of hell. The problem with that is Stannis has become rather attached to his fiery red priestess, and so any threat against her is now viewed as treason. Undeterred, Davos pulls a knife on her and gets tossed into the dungeon for his trouble. Davos’ biggest flaw is his blind loyalty to Stannis, and that may cost him more than his son in the long run.

We get our first look at Astapor, home to foul-mouthed slavers and the Unsullied, an army of eunuchs who are more than willing to part with the occasional nipple. Daenerys’ dragons are still growing and are more than competent at fishing, but she knows she can’t take the Iron Throne without forces at her command. She’s taken a hard stance against slavery in the past, so purchasing the Unsullied isn’t as simple as just shelling out the gold. Whatever she decides, Dany is primed for an infinitely more satisfying story in contrast to her escapades in Qarth last season.

And Barristan the Bold is back! After being unceremoniously dismissed from the Kingsguard by Joffrey back in season 1, the old knight makes his return just in time to save Dany from a creepy little warlock girl. With the exception of Jorah, this is the first time Dany has had any interaction with someone from Westeros, and it’s a really cool moment in a show where our favorite characters are rarely seen together. Dany will most likely accept Ser Barristan’s help, but I doubt Jorah will be all that thrilled to have his status as head advisor threatened by someone even wiser and more experienced than he is.

I was disappointed that some of the chief characters were absent from the debut (where the hell is Hodor?), but with as many storylines as they’re juggling, the writers simply cannot afford to cram everyone in each episode. Hopefully no one get shortchanged as a result, but so far so good. Valar Dohaeris makes up for what it lacks in action with a slew of well-acted dramatic sequences, and though the War of the Five Kings may be on hold, it appears that the various conflicts between these factions is far from finished.

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