Thursday, April 4, 2013

Game of Thrones: "Valar Dohaeris" Review

Episode 21: "Valar Dohaeris"
Original Air Date:  March 31, 2013.
Directed by:  Daniel Minahan.
Written by:  David Benioff & D.B. Weiss.

First things first, I thought it was a nice touch to start off the episode with a little prelude before the title jump. We haven't seen this since the very first pilot episode aired back in April 2011. But me personally, I prefer a little hors d'oeuvre to whet the appetite before the main meal. Jumping straight into the credits after the HBO snow screen always seemed cheap and less cinematic to me in the past. So kudos to going back to the old format. Let's hope it's not just for this one episode.


And where do we begin chewing on our little televised bon-bon? Well, right where we left off at the end of last year's gripping season finale -- with young Samwell Tarly surrounded by wights and their commanding officers, the otherworldly White Walkers as they lay siege to the Fist of the First Men. Only this time, HBO took the easy (read: less costly) way out by choosing not to show the ensuing battle between demon hordes and the men of the Night's Watch. What we get instead is a few seconds of black screen and the sounds of swords clashing and men howling to their deaths. When light does eventually break, we find portly Sam hightailing it away from the sounds of fighting and apparently lost. But, unfortunately, not alone. He narrowly escapes being a wight's supper by the appearance of John Snow's direwolf, Ghost, and the quick thinking of Lord Jeor Mormont, Commander of the Night's Watch. Mormont berates poor Sam for not executing his one and only job, which was to send off the ravens and warn the rest of the civilized world of what's coming. Sure, dump on the fat kid!

After the subtly reworked opening credits, we return north of the Wall once more to find John Snow arriving at Mance Rayder's wildling army camp, which resembles a Native American winter village. There, the raven-clad young Watchman learns of the animosity the people of the Far North hold for "crows" from the Wall, but also encounters a wonder seldom ever seen by Westerosi eyes--a genuine giant! When John meets Mance at long last, he finds himself immediately under interrogation by the former Ranger turned barbarian king. As John stumbles through his subterfuge of why he wants to join the wildlings, Mance is keen to note the shiftiness of the young man's eyes. Instantly calling him on his BS, John is forced to scramble for a more believable "truth" before Mance's lieutenants carve him up for crow stew. Finally he states wanting to fight White Walkers as his true reason, not trusting his fellow brothers of the Watch with the fortitude to commit to the task themselves. Mance clearly doesn't buy into this explanation fully, but he agrees to let Jon stay on and prove himself nonetheless. Or does he have some other plan in mind, perhaps?

South of the Wall, the "civilized" world of the Seven Kingdoms is dealing with the aftermath of Stannis Baratheon's defeat at the siege of King's Landing. Within the royal household itself, a much cowed Tyrion Lannister engages once again with his older sister, the Queen Regent, in a battle of words. Seems the two still have some old skeletons to clean out of the family closet. Cersei is intent on finding out what Tyrion will tell their father about her, but the half-man is more afraid of what his sister is scheming for him next. After all, he hasn't forgotten who was behind the order to have him secretly murdered in the heat of battle last season. When Tyrion meets with his father--the Hand of the King, Lord Tywin Lannister--it is not to the glowing reception he had hoped to receive for having saved the city from certain conquest. Instead of accolades, the Lannister patriarch showers his ill-begotten son with ridicule, proving that Lord Tywin is indeed the cold, heartless man we always knew him to be. Tyrion seems to have no friends left in court. Even his one trusty companion, newly knighted Ser Bronn of the Blackwater, barters with his employer for higher wages if he is to continue protecting the half-man.

Elsewhere at court, it seems Margaery Tyrell has arrived at King's Landing determined to gain her Queenship via other means--by wooing boy-tyrant, Joffrey. Since her last attempt to be queen ended up a bloody disaster, literally, this may be the last chance she gets to side with the winners. Now that the Tyrells have repented their rebellious ways, Margaery and her brother, Loras, are at court to cement their clan's allegiance to the crown. And she does so through a masterly show of compassion and generosity toward the commoners of Flea Bottom, proving that she can be a Lady of the people. Cersei, instantly wise to the young hussy trying to usurp her power over her own son, barely contains her animosity during the royal supper that night. But Margaery plays it cool, adroitly avoiding the Queen Mum's more obvious barbs and playing up to Joffrey's vanity. To his credit, the boy King falls completely for her womanly charms, much to Cersei's disgust. Seems this one is in the bag for the ambitious Lady Tyrell, although one hopes Margaery enjoys foreplay with crossbows and antlered riding crops. Ouch!

Meanwhile, Littlefinger tries some ambitious chessboard positioning of his own. Seems the King's Master of Coin has set a plan in motion. One that will potentially have him whisk the young Sansa Stark away for some yet unknown power play. We can only guess at what the man has in mind to do with the young beauty, but you can bet it's something that will further his own bottom line. And with her protection at King's Landing quickly deteriorating before her eyes, Sansa dares to trust the conniving Lord Baelish in hopes of reuniting with her family in the North someday. This is either a match made in heaven . . . or a quick ticket to the Seven Hells of the new gods.

Speaking of family, Sansa's older brother and King in the North, Robb Stark, has taken the great holdfast of Harrenhal without even raising a sword. Though in ruin and rumored to be haunted, the castle was up until recently under the control of Tywin Lannister, who had to abandon it hastily in order to come to the aid of King's Landing in her most dire hour. The Stark and his bannermen find Harrenhal littered with corpses, but one of them--a maester by the name of Qyburn--is still alive. Time will only tell what role he may serve to play in this ongoing Game. Now that King Robb has encroached into the Riverlands, he is that much closer to the capital and the Iron Throne. But what of his ancestral home of Winterfell? Last he heard, the turncloak Theon Greyjoy has laid siege to the keep. Still caught between duty to come to his younger brothers' rescue and his sworn oath to take King's Landing and restore order to the usurped throne, the young wolf must make a decision--and fast!

And what of that other claimant to the throne, Stannis? The only Baratheon still alive and in direct line for the crown. Seems he's been fully turned to the light side by the Red Priestess, Melisandre. When a sun-baked and mourning Ser Davos Seaworth the Onion Knight finally turns up at Dragonstone, it is to the ire of his liege lord for having lost him a battle and the Iron Throne of Westeros all at once. Had it not been for Davos' insistence on leaving the red sorceress behind during the sack of King's Landing, Stannis would this very moment be sitting atop the seat of power. His heart turned to stone toward his former friend and trusted retainer, Stannis seems to have fully embraced his role as the the fabled Azor Ahai reborn, a legendary warrior-saint admired by the followers of the Lord of Light, R'hllor. Cast aside in favor of the Red Woman from Asshai, Davos is dragged off to some dark cell to think on his sins while Melisandre smiles wickedly by her lover's side. Nothing good can come of this union.

And across the Narrow Sea to Essos, we find exiled Targaryen scion, Daenerys Stormborn, aboard a ship headed for Slaver's Bay. Above the open ocean her three fastly maturing dragons put on a display of aerial prowess and saurian pyrotechnics to make their mama proud. Still months away from fully grown, the khaleesi is nonetheless pleased with her babies' progress from the mewling hatchlings of yester season. They will make her a force to be reckoned with soon. Which is handy seeing as she's about to enter the splendid ancient city of Astapor, where she hopes to purchase an army of fearless eunuch slave warriors known as the Unsullied. The man with whom she must negotiate speaks only the Ghiscari dialect of Valyrian, the language of Daenerys' own forbears. Through a lovely and highly intelligent translator named Missandei, Dany discovers that she has a very short window of time in which to declare her intent of purchase. And what she will get for her troubles is a force of some 8,000 soldiers who feel no pain, brook no protest, and slaughter without second-guessing their commands. Although the Mother of Dragons can't keep her disgust hidden, she knows that such a highly trained conscript army might be her only chance to someday take back the Iron Throne of Westeros.

As Dany and her trusted protector and advisor, Ser Jorah Mormont, tour the docks of Astapor, they appear to be trailed by a shadowy Obi-Wan Kenobi-like figure. Meanwhile, the duo are intrigued by a cute little street girl playing with a ball. The girl rolls the ball in Dany's direction, who playfully picks up the object only to have it knocked out of her hands by the hooded stranger. It is then that the threat is revealed: a highly venomous manticore with the ghastly visage of a tiny human face on its chitin crawls out of the abandoned toy. But before the creature can strike our fair khaleesi, it is speared through neatly with the tip of the stranger's dagger. The figure then chases the girl, who suddenly bears the purple-blue lips of one of the Warlocks of Qarth, but loses her through a bit of arcane trickery.

Dany stands to address her rescuer, and viewers are surprised to find not a Jedi master . . . but, Ser Barristan "The Bold" Selmy instead. Astute viewers may recall back to Season One when the Lord Commander was dismissed from Joffrey's Kingsguard for being "too old" to serve the Iron Throne. Well, it seems he left Westeros far behind for warmer climes. Still carrying the slight of his dismissal, Ser Barristan pledges the restoration of House Targaryen to its rightful place on the throne. Right there on the dirty, dangerous wharves of Astapor, the legendary warrior bends the knee and offers his sword to the service of Dany's yet to be formed "Queensguard." For her part, Dany is more intrigued by the old man's claim to have known her father. Likely this traveler from her land of birth will become quite useful in the months to come. Naturally Ser Jorah has his own misgivings about the man, but keeps them to himself.

For now.


I thought this season would never come! And now that it's here, I find myself too impatient to wait a whole week between episodes--waaaaaah!!! If only I could suspend myself in time and wake up in mid-June with the entire season recorded to my DVR. But, alas!

As usual for an episode penned by showrunners Benioff and Weiss themselves, this week's show was very well written and paced. Aside from Littlefinger's dockside chat with Sansa, and Margaery's untimely detour into that orphanage in Flea Bottom, there were hardly any slow or boring moments to slow down the pacing. But maybe that's only me, raving fan that I am. I've heard from others that it was a very slow chapter to start off the season with. Oh, well ... not every week can have the Battle of the Blackwater, you know?

For its part, I thought this Sunday's offering did all that a premiere episode should do. Which is: to set up the rest of the whole bloody season! Already you can see hints of much larger things to come. Mance's obvious suspicion of Jon's motives; Tyrion being brought as low as he can at the hands of an uncaring, cold and emotionally abusive father; Margaery's skilled mastery of courtly politics and table side double-speak; Robb Stark's bannerman, Lord Roose Bolton, speaking outside his King's hearing about plans he's set afoot in the North; and, last but not least, Daenerys finally starting to make real concrete moves toward her goal of retaking the Seven Kingdoms. There are a lot of threads being spooled here before a much larger, richer, and more intricate tapestry can be woven whole--and we've only addressed half the story lines still to come! Nothing on little Arya's plight, nor of Brienne and Jamie's road trip adventure, nor the fate of Bran and Rickon, or that of the traitorous worm, Theon. All these threads and more will mostly likely get taken up next week, though, so I'm not at all worried.

Which leads me to that one persistent, nagging issue with this show: too many pies in the oven! It's always been a problem with a story this intricate, and a cast of characters so vastly huge. So rather than keep us focused on one story line for too long, we are constantly jumping back and forth from plot point to plot point like an ADD kid hopped up on Skittles! However, while I can't quite put my finger on how they're doing it, I have to say this episode seemed more firmly structured than the majority of those from the previous two seasons. While we do still hop around a lot, I got the sense that the majority of the plot lines were presented wholly in only one or two scenes, max. A far cry from the 3 to 4 scenes per plot line in prior episodes. Hopefully this is not a fluke.

As for the content of this particular episode, let me break it down into the pros and cons as is my wont:

What I liked:

The map sequence in the opening credits seems better timed than in the previous two seasons. Unless I'm mistaken, each playing piece representing a location to appear in the episode takes less time to wind up and assemble than I recall. Also, how cool was that updated Winterfell graphic--smoking ruins and all? Well, not "cool" per se . . . but a nice little touch that goes a long way. And this year we get Astapor added to the map in place of Vaes Dothrak and Qarth.

This episode did a nice job dealing with the aftermath of the events which ended last season. Chief among them the Battle of the Blackwater and Dany's escape from Qarth with her khalasar largely intact. In particular, Tyrion's arc has satisfied the most, showing a huge shift from the high he rode into King's Landing on at the start of the 2nd season, to the abysmal low he finds himself in at the start of the 3rd. No one's fortunes have changed so drastically and rapidly as our favorite half-man, yet we get the sense that he won't be kept down for long. At least, I hope not.

The main cast was more brilliant than ever in this episode, with special kudos to Charles Dance, Peter Dinklage, and especially Lena Headey, who I absolutely adore! She embodies Cersei so completely and sincerely that I daresay I'll never see anyone else in my mind's eye when I re-read the novels. I don't know, but it seems the cast have somehow, some way upped their acting games from the already lofty heights they were at in the previous season. Unreal!

Speaking of the cast, I'm absolutely in love with the new members added this year. Ciarin Hinds as Mance Rayder and Nathalie Emmanuel as Missandei in particular excite me for what's to come. Such prime roles could not be in better hands than with these two.

The FX this season looks incredible! Seven Hells, Drogon looks kick-ass awesome! in the closeup where you get to admire the detail on his scales and lifelike, fiery gleam in his eyes. Ghost flew by too quickly to get a proper glimpse at just how the direwolves will look this season, but I have high hopes. Lastly, did you catch that giant? I'll be honest, I expected this part to suck. But nope, the giant was actually believable as a real entity stomping by with heavy clomp, clomps of his feet across the packed snow. Sure, anyone with eyes could see the tell-tale signs of digital manipulation at work, but for a daylight effects shot it was quite magnificent!

What I did not like:

The big bad here is the opening scene with the Night's Watch defending the Fist from the White Walkers. The very last scene of season 2 closed out to a vast horde of these otherworldly beings marching head-on upon the Fist of the First Men. And since most of us knew already that Season 3 would be kicking off right where this last episode ended, it was a bit of let down, to say the least, that we didn't even get a teeny, tiny glimpse of the battle. Darkness and the sounds of battle do not a battle actually make. To make matters worse, the remnants of Lord Mormont's band of Night's Watchmen just appear out of the blue, with a few cuts and bruises but no other outward sign of what just befell them, or how they managed to escape the seemingly insurmountable numbers. Not to mention: how in the seven hells did Samwell manage to sneak past so many wights, only to be attacked by a lone undead straggler from out of nowhere? This scene just had too many contrivances for the sake of saving money to sit well with this reviewer. Even now it irks me.

I felt the Stannis plot line was very weak this episode. Sure, it was Davos's decision to leave Meli behind, which ultimately cost Stannis the battle. But it had already been established that having the Red Priestess use the dark arts of her Order to bring about a victory for Baratheon forces would have undermined Stannis himself in the eyes of his men and subjects. Knowing this, why is Stannis being so butt hurt toward his Onion Knight? The man just lost his son, and you throw him into the dungeon? Seems a bit too extreme and not in keeping with Stannis's firm belief in loyalty and hard work.

I wonder how many people even remember Barristan Selmy from way back in the first season? Unless you saw the HBO recap before the opening scene, does anyone remember his protest over how Eddard Stark was treated, or the poor grace (pardon the pun) with which new king Joffrey treated such a respected member of his Kingsguard? These things are important to remember as you try to fathom what he is doing offering his services to a recognized rebel leader and enemy to the Iron Throne, Daenerys of House Targaryen.

Lasting impressions.

Overall, the many goods far outweigh the rather few bads. The opening scene with Sam was just poorly executed and had an awkward transition to the credits map. But as a premiere episode of the new season,  I thought this was the best one behind the 2011 pilot. Although it did jump around a bit, we pretty much have to accept this as par for the course given how varied the story lines are in this universe. And as such, director Daniel Minahan did keep a firm, steady hand on the scenes we were given, allowing just the right amount of gravitas to sink into the scene without making it too long in the tooth or boring. It's a fine balancing act, one which I sincerely hope they manage to execute as well throughout the rest of the season.

And what am I looking forward to the most next week? Why Brienne and Jaime, of course! The Maid of Tarth vs. The Kingslayer. Fight! Fight! Fight!

Grade:  B-

Favorite line:  "I will murder you, boy ... "

Season 3 reviews:
Episode 21:  "Valar Dohaeris"
Episode 22:  "Dark Wings, Dark Words"

Season 2 recaps (Episodes 11 through 20).
Season 1 recaps (Episodes 1 through 10).


  1. Okay, my favorite glimpse of the opening season...the direWOLF

    Love those wolves ;D

    And Joffrey is a real fool if he's smitten by a trickster. But then...of course he is.

    Can't wait for another episode :P hoping to see more wolves, ravens and human faced scorpion critters :D

  2. I have to say, I completely agree with you about the way the show handled the battle with the White Walkers and Samwell's unexplained survival. I'm hoping for either flashback scenes or perhaps an extended cut on the S3 blu-ray to explain.

    You're not imagining things, the individual sites are spinning up faster in the opening. I figure it's because events are moving faster now cause things are about to get real. (And yes, the burned out Wintefell, while tragic, was awesome.) Now that things are speeding up, I'm feeling the drag of not reading the series prior to this. Events aren't really up to speed yet, and I'm still not recognizing the importance of a great many people or scenes until I read these reviews of yours. (In fact, these reviews have become an essential part of my GOT experience.)

    My big question for this ep is regarding the (I believe) impending clash between Margaery Tyrell and Joffrey. While I really hate the little twerp, he has developed a fearsome rep in regards to the women he lavishes his attentions upon. Ms. Tyrell is a slick talker, and she's managing to get Joffrey all hot & bothered, but I'm not sure she's going to be able to handle what Joffrey will eventually dish out on her.

    Honestly, I didn't feel bad for Tyrion after his meeting with Daddy Lannister. After his heart to heart with Shae and revealing that he LOVES out-thinking his family and others at court, I saw that seen as Keyser Soze getting a new target. Now, I'm just waiting to see what Tyrion sets in motion next and how it's going to land on Tywin. *waits with malicious glee*

    And speaking of Shae, I'm kind of surprised that you didn't comment on the brief confab between Shae and Roz. I thought it was an interesting bit of information transfer considering how Roz is usually the go-to girl for Sexposition and not for initiating actions. However, I do question the timing of Littlefinger's offer, especially given that he was JUST talking with Sansa's momma a little while ago (series time)!

    But my favorite part of this ep was the brief display of the dragons! I'm still not sure which house I would like on the throne, but I find myself feeling a lot more for Dany than most of the others and I absolutely LOVE her for her devotion to the dragons.

    I think the pacing changed because the writing was more in depth. Now that the writers of the show are seasoned in this adapted world and how the show flows differently than the books, they are able to bring their talents fully to bear. That's why this ep seemed to be assembled much more efficiently.

    I can't WAIT for the next ep!!!

    P.S. It took me a second to remember him, but I did remember Ser Barristan. I was like, "Isn't that the guy..." for a moment.

  3. I must agree on the opening scene. I was like.. wait... that's it? After having goosebumps on my arm from the last scene of season two, it was a bit of a let down.
    Can't really fault the rest of the episode though, and look forward to the developing story lines.
    Oh yeah, the giant was awesome.

  4. Kim -- I hope you see more wolves, too. Something tells me you will. :) Actually, there's going to be quite a few pivotal scenes this season involving woodland critters. But if I told you which ones, I'd have to ...

    Rodney -- Thanks for the long and very detailed comment. Love it! Yeah, I think the writing has gotten better for that reason. As for the pacing, I think a conscious decision was made to conflate multiple scenes from the same character(s) POV into one or two longer scenes. Which is something I've been wanting since the middle of the 1st season!

    Sprite -- Wasn't it, though? I thought they would save the sighting of one for a certain big battle later on. And I still can't determine whether or not that confrontation will be in this season or next year's. My money is on the latter. So, actually, I should probably keep my big mouth shut for now. :)

  5. Wonderfulness! I enjoyed the ep. Was rather disappointed with the opening scene but I figured they bet so much on Blackwater, they pared down a bit for future things. Especially since it was the first ep. in the new season. Otherwise, Direwolves, Giants, Dragons, Oh my!!!! This is going to be a awesome season!


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