March 31st, 2013
“You’ve got to invent a story about where the ship is going and why.”
As Sansa and Shae look out on Blackwater Bay imagining where the ships are going, it’s hard not to think about the last time we as an audience watched the ships on Blackwater Bay. “Blackwater” brought a striking amount of clarity to the show, its tight focus clearly defining where the ships were going: Stannis Baratheon intended to take King’s Landing, because he believes himself to be the one true king of Westeros.
As Game of Thrones returns for its third season, such clarity seems long gone. As Robb notes, his men haven’t had a real battle in weeks, their “war” more of a glacial march in search of Lannister men more likely to “raze and run” than fight in the open battlefield. Stannis has retreated to Dragonstone to burn men alive in sacrifice to Melisandre’s lord of light, in hopes they will provide a path forward. Westeros is still at war, that much is certain, but the terms of that warfare are as muddled as they’ve ever been: much as the Narrow Sea separates Daenerys from her place on the Iron Throne, the other would-be Kings are equally unable to directly and openly lay claim to the title.
And yet they keep moving. Indeed, outside of those who remain at King’s Landing, nearly every character or group of characters are on the move, although it’s not always clear where they’re moving to precisely. “Valar Dohaeris” might reintroduce us to a collection of the show’s characters, but it’s an introduction that mostly finds characters exactly where they were before. The result is a premiere that lacks excitement not because things don’t happen, but rather because there’s little new information to hint toward what will happen next, relying on more general anticipation—often, to Sansa’s game above, of the viewer’s invention—as the narrative moves at its own pace.
When the first season ended, it ended on Dany and her dragons. They were the promise of her future, the promise of the strength she would need to lead a khalasar, and the promise of the power she would need to retake the Iron Throne. And yet when the second season returned we were reminded that the dragons weren’t big enough to serve any of these roles, still needing time to grow.
The dismantling of last season’s white walker invasion cliffhanger functions similarly, although without the same logic behind it. In both cases, the marginalization of the major events has as much to do with narrative purpose and budgetary restrictions; we couldn’t open on an extended battle between the White Walkers and the Night’s Watch because there isn’t the money for such a battle to be put to film. Although the use of the snow to build suspense on a smaller scale is effective, and Sam’s battle with the Wight provides a nice glimpse of Ghost, the fact remains that the cliffhanger promised a war and what we get is a single altercation followed by a promise of a journey from one place to another to follow in the episodes to come.
In both cases, the cliffhanger is transformed from a game-changing event to a new idea designed to build anticipation. We know there are dragons, and so we get excited when we cut back to Dany for the first time this season and discover Drogon flying out over the ocean, fiercer than we last saw him. Similarly, we know there are white walkers, so any scene north of the wall becomes more likely to be threatened by a sudden invasion. It’s the idea that something is out there, that at some point in the future the White Walkers that attacked the Fist of the First Men could move South and take over the entirety of Westeros. And because Sam doesn’t do his one job and send word using the ravens, for the time being we’re the only ones who know the extent of the threat other than the Night’s Watch themselves, who are about to start the long walk back to the Wall.
The length of the walk is where Game of Thrones runs into problems; heck, technically the conclusion to season two was just a reminder of what they foreshadowed back in the prologue, our first glimpse of the horrors beyond the Wall. The show will continue to parcel out these moments, if the books are any indication, but the toughest part of this strategy is bundling the parcel back up immediately afterward. It’s as though the viewer snuck into a closet in November and found their Christmas presents unwrapped, but then had to wait weeks before they were allowed to open them, only to discover that some of what they saw were actually birthday gifts for three months—or seasons—later.
Writing this as someone who has read the books takes on a different inflection, of course: I know what are in most of the parcels already, so my anticipation becomes both less suspenseful (I know what’s going to happen) and more impatient (because I often really want to see what I know happens next). It’s why I often find that, even without the sense of confusion that non-viewers might feel about certain storylines, I still feel like I get too little of many storylines to really latch onto within a given episode. Rewatching “Valar Dohaeris,” I was struck by how many events from subsequent episodes I had presumed had taken place in the premiere did not; I had remembered remarking upon Arya’s absence from the first hour given it forced me to watch the second immediately to see how her storyline evolves, but I had forgotten that Jaime and Brienne’s road trip or Bran and Theon’s diverging paths from Winterfell were equally unrepresented.
Where “Valar Dohaeris” finds its most satisfying material is in the one space where movement has ceased, at least temporarily. While restarting various journeys serves a procedural purpose, returning to King’s Landing shows a more traditional network of characters whose interactions offer a dynamic range of scene pairings. Whereas Robb’s fractured relationship with Catelyn is left to fester as he finds her a new prison in each new location without confronting the root of their conflict, Tyrion can’t avoid Cersei despite the fact she likely tried to have him killed, just as he can’t ignore that Tywin is now Hand of the King and the sole hero of the Blackwater. While the larger narrative arc of Game of Thrones is of a fantasy epic, King’s Landing has settled into a hotbed of soap operatic intrigue, one that I’m enjoying a lot. It’s the one space where storylines get to evolve in the span of the premiere: we get to see Tyrion’s conversations with both Cersei and his father (the latter of which was particularly great), fleshing out their respective relationships (which the show will continue to explore as they co-exist in the city in weeks to come). Margaery’s trip to the orphanage is reinforced by her time at the dinner table, offering a glimpse of the new “family” dynamic of the Lannisters and Tyrells that the season will be putting to the test and reinforcing that Natalie Dormer is worth expanding the novel’s characterization. It was the space where I felt I was getting more than just a reminder of who people were and what was going on, and the space where the show felt like it was moving forward instead of just moving around.
Sansa is perhaps the one King’s Landing character who has reason to want to flee the city, a goal shared by Littlefinger (who is always moving in his quest for title and purpose to prove his worth to Catelyn). And yet the interesting detail in this dynamic was less their plans to escape the city and more the conversation between their most trusted advisors. Despite my reservations with how Ros’ character has been handled in the series to this point, her scene with Shae discussing their shared fortune in finding a legitimate place for themselves in King’s Landing is an interesting one. It makes the argument that Ros is actually one of the characters who has gone through the greatest transformation in the series, beginning as a lowly prostitute in the North before eventually running Littlefinger’s brothel by the time the third season begins.
It presents her story as one of movement, of her choice to make a better life for herself by moving to the big city and abandoning the life she left behind. The scene is one of the first to make this narrative explicit, allowing Ros to speak for herself regarding her connection to the North, her relationship with Littlefinger, and her sense of self-identity. While I’m not sure the focus on Littlefinger would allow the scene to pass the Bechdel Test, there’s still something meaningful about two of the series’ prostitutes being allowed to have a conversation with each other in which they demonstrate clear agency.
It made me realize that the problem with Ros’ character to this point is that she hasn’t had agency. I never felt like Ros’ journey to King’s Landing was actually her own, but rather the writers seeking to create continuity. Her departure from King’s Landing was a piece of Theon’s story and her arrival was a piece of Littlefinger’s, and she was never truly given a story of her own as to why she took that journey, or how that journey went, or what her life was really like before or after. The retroactive characterization here seeks to highlight agency the show itself wasn’t willing to highlight, a progressive move that does nothing to change what was a regressive characterization in earlier seasons. As much as Ros’ elevation out of the position of random titillation—she appears fully clothed in all of her appearances in the first four episodes—is progressive, it lacks the meaning it would have had if they had actually committed to telling Ros’ story and not just using Ros to tell someone else’s.
It’s a similar problem that the show has with the episode’s big climax, the reveal of Ser Barristan Selmy across the Narrow Sea rescuing Dany from an attack in Astapor. Admittedly, the series is inheriting a very literary reveal: Arstan Whitebeard is a character introduced in the books who exists in the story for an extended period before being revealed as a transformed Barristan Selmy, something the show couldn’t do given that we as an audience would recognize him long before either Dany or Jorah (who in the books was not so quick to identify him). Perhaps knowing this could never be pulled off, they instead craft a simpler reveal in which it’s intended to be shocking that the man we last saw being dismissed from Joffrey’s Kingsguard for the Hound has turned up in a different storyline entirely.
But why? We haven’t been following Selmy’s story, and his characterization was never exactly complex when he was in King’s Landing, and so the moment lacks any real impact. And while one could argue that they’re leaving room for the “Why” of it all, I’ll warn you now that there’s no real explanation next week, at least not to the degree that I had expected. Perhaps it’s to the show’s credit that they’re treating Selmy not unlike they treated Ros (albeit without the resulting problematic gender dynamics), but in both cases it’s created a character that feels writerly in its function within the series’ broader narrative.
This is perhaps unavoidable when you have this many characters. I just found it interesting that the climax was pitched as something thrilling and exciting when I don’t feel I’ve been given a real reason to consider Selmy’s reappearance particularly exciting. It’s a reminder, though, that the somewhat unsatisfying teases we get of Jon’s arrival to Mance Rayder’s camp or Robb’s campaign South are about avoiding that kind of deflating climax. By checking in with those storylines, the series builds the seriality necessary for major conclusions to land with their full effectiveness, for moments like “Blackwater” to resonate. It means that individual glimpses in episodes like “Valar Dohaeris” may prove unsatisfying, but there’s always the sense that it’s a means to an end (or, rather, a means to another parceled out climax to be bundled back up, but we’ll confront that as the season moves forward).
- I enjoyed seeing Bronn and Salladhor Saan put up as two similar characters beholden to no power but coin in their pockets. Whereas other characters are in search of a home (Sansa wanting to go North, Tyrion wanting what is rightfully is, Davos wanting to return to Dragonstone), they both emphasize that they are nomads.
- As far as changes from the books go, I’m interested in how Tyrion’s frustration with Tywin getting the credit for the Blackwater victory shifts when Tyrion wasn’t responsible for the chain (which, for non-book readers, trapped Stannis’ fleet in the Blackwater in the book, further ensuring victory).
- I loved a number of stylistic choices here, especially shooting from Tyrion’s point-of-view through the peephole as Cersei waited outside, and the highlighting of Davos’ shortened fingers as he stared into the sun; some evocative work from director Dan Minahan (who returns after sitting out the second season) all around.
- Ciarán Hinds is well-cast as Mance Rayder: while I’m actually with those who imagined the character as younger, it’s more about presence than appearance, and I thought this was a solid introduction (albeit a brief one).
- The real star of Jon’s scene was the first appearance of a Giant, which was nicely imagined—a nice introduction to the particular brand of “fantasy” operating among the Wildlings.
- Lena Headey is often asked to do a lot of nuanced work sketching out Cersei’s character within political situations, but her brief reaction to Joffrey calling her old was particularly effective.
- Without actively delivering any spoilers, there was a line here that really felt as though it was meant as a direct reference to the final chapter of the most recent book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, A Dance With Dragons. I’ll let readers make of that what they will and non-readers live in speculation, but I’ll be curious if the former think I’m nuts for reading it that way.