Review: Game of Thrones Season Three
March 25th, 2013
At the conclusion of watching the third season premiere of HBO’s Game of Thrones, I realized something: despite the fact that I had enjoyed the premiere a great deal, it hadn’t featured a single scene with one of my favorite characters.
Of course, this is not a new problem for the series, what with its intense narrative fragmentation: Jason Mittell’s analysis of the series’ “scenic rhythms” spoke to this at the end of last season, wondering whether this helped explain his different responses to the first season (which he binged on) and the second season (which he watched weekly).
I’ll leave it to Jason to actually break down the number of scenes/foci in the second season premiere, but it’s safe to say the show remains committed to telling a sprawling collection of stories in season three. What’s different, though, is that there is no longer—or rather not yet—a central conflict that anchors the narrative in the way that Ned Stark’s plight in King’s Landing or the War of the Five Kings offered in previous seasons (even though the latter is still ongoing, albeit with fewer kings). While the kingdom ostensibly remains at war, the events that open the season place everyone in a sort of holding pattern, leaving each story to create its own purpose and momentum.
These two challenges—an increasingly fragmented narrative and a lack of a clear overarching story arc—are not insurmountable; in fact, I found neither to be particularly concerning, and found the first four episodes of the season to be a most welcome return to Westeros. However, the circumstances under which I viewed these episodes mitigated these factors in ways that not all viewers will have access to. As someone who has read the books, I know where these narratives are heading, and can therefore read purpose and momentum in ways that those ignorant to those futures may not. And as someone who is lucky enough to receive advance screeners for the series, I had the luxury of popping in the second episode when I discovered one of my favorite characters doesn’t appear in the first one, something that those watching weekly won’t have.
What I’m suggesting, I suppose, is that Game of Thrones has evolved in such a way that I’m unsure if my experience with the show’s third season can be successfully mapped into a more generalized “review.” I thought every storyline was well executed, I enjoyed every episode, and I was left wanting more, but I also left wondering how much those responses were shaped by the context in which the episodes were viewed, and if we’re reaching the point where reaction to the series will be divided more starkly among devoted viewers and more casual audiences.
One of the most interesting characters in the third season, for me, is Theon Greyjoy. This is because the series is largely creating its own material, adapting parts of the books that were never told in any detail (since Theon wasn’t a “point of view” character at this point in the books). The show has been expanding beyond George R.R. Martin’s narrative at numerous points throughout the first three seasons, but this is a case where the writers made a clearly articulated change: in the series’ world, Theon’s story is important enough that we need to see what happened after his takeover of Winterfell, despite the fact that not showing his storyline during this season would have been consistent with the source material. It’s an interesting exercise in adaptation, as I know where the story theoretically ends up but am curious how Benioff and Weiss intend to connect the dots. Through four episodes, I’m enjoying their take on the storyline, doing some nice work in both introducing new characters and continuing to explore Theon’s identity as a boy of the Iron Islands whose claims to adulthood are tied to the Stark family, Winterfell, and the atrocities he committed there.
However, I’m not convinced that people who haven’t read the books will find the storyline interesting. As much as I would hope Alfie Allen’s solid work in season two would have captured people’s attention, the fact is the first season’s narrative framing around the Stark family has privileged certain narratives over others. “Do we really need to see Theon when we could be seeing more with Arya, or with Jon, or with Bran,” people could say. I’m sure the writers have an answer to this question, and so do I for that matter, but the answer doesn’t come within four episodes. In fact, there are very few answers in four episodes, and those who haven’t read the books might be waiting a long time for answers in some cases.
This is obviously predicated on some speculation regarding where viewers might stand on certain storylines: it’s very possible many viewers who haven’t read the books will still enjoy seeing what’s up with Theon. However, it speaks to a larger distinction between satisfaction and satiation that will be put to the test during the show’s third season. At any given moment, Game of Thrones is a very satisfying series dramatically, with lots of rich, well-drawn scenes featuring characters we’ve become attached to and new characters that continue to demonstrate the skill of the show’s casting department. There are big, exciting moments in these opening episodes, and the fourth hour ends on what is one of the most satisfying sequences in the show’s three seasons. However, that big climax comes at the cost of intriguing but ultimately thin glimpses of that story in the previous three episodes, slivers of narrative that are enjoyable but lacking in the substance necessary to leave an episode feeling like you’ve seen something, well, substantial. You might leave an episode having enjoyed every storyline, but still feel as though you haven’t been sated.
This is also not new, of course: as I discussed in my analysis of the “Influencer Box” campaign promoting the third season, one of the reasons “Blackwater” stood out last season was the way it narrowed focus, excising most of the storylines to focus exclusively on the Battle of the Blackwater. Perhaps it’s that episode’s shadow that makes the beginning of the third season feel more fragmented: now that we know what the show can do when it tells a contained story within the context of an episode, the piecemeal storytelling becomes less effective. Or, perhaps the problem is that the story is at a point where there isn’t a clear driving force behind the current crop of storylines. Numerous characters are journeying to nowhere in particular, in search of vague and often cryptic destinations; other characters are basically taking a pit stop, assessing their situation before eventually making a move…two or three episodes from now.
What’s frustrating about making this critique is that I actually like a lot of what this accomplishes. The King’s Landing storyline has basically reverted back to “everyday politics” following last season’s chaos, but that means more time to flesh out Natalie Dormer’s Margaery and her betrothal to Joffrey, and the introduction of Diane Rigg’s Lady Oleanna (who steals every scene she’s in). It allows Tyrion’s relationship with his family in the wake of his near-death experience on the Blackwater to simmer rather than boil, which allows him to also enjoy some less severe scenes with Bronn and Podrick. King’s Landing remains the show’s most fleshed out location, and the epicenter for the largest collection of characters, and like in past seasons I’m enjoying seeing the interpersonal dimensions of politics play out on screen.
However, I say this as someone who knows how those interpersonal dimensions play out. As much as I couldn’t point to a single storyline from the third season and suggest that it is poorly executed, pointing to a single storyline doesn’t ultimately point to very much, content-wise. I like where all the storylines are going, but given that I know the ultimate destination it’s hard to know how much that’s coloring my satisfaction. I also don’t know how differently this will play out if I was only watching an episode a week. On the one hand, I think it will make some reveals more satisfying, the post-air conversation taking the conclusions to the third and fourth episodes and turning them into watercooler moments. On the other hand, however, it could also make the slivers of storytelling we get for other characters that much more unsatisfying, and raise further questions about whether the show’s narrative has become fragmented to the point of stretching the bounds of weekly, episodic, serial television.
Ultimately, Game of Thrones remains a highly compelling drama series, as its cast and crew continue to do strong work in bringing George R.R. Martin’s world to life. There are some stunning location shots in the first four episodes, reminding us that the world of Westeros plays an important role in simultaneously grounding the show in its various locales and giving it the epic scale of fantasy. And as someone who has read the books, I continue to be impressed with the way the writers are reimagining the story in confident yet careful ways, their changes evident without necessarily seeming out of place. This is still very much the same show it was last season, and for that matter the season before, when it comes to general execution.
The problem is simply that there’s more of it, as there was last year. The more stories the show has, the more the adaptation bends under the stress of juggling a dozen storylines, something the show will face with each subsequent season even if we factor in the fact that multiple characters could be killed off by season’s end. While I would personally argue the storylines that open the third season are more compelling on average than those that began the second season, featuring combinations of characters—like Jaime and Brienne, an early season highlight—that offer more dynamism on average, I don’t know if someone who is invested in the “narrative” of the series more than in the process of its adaptation will find as much to enjoy within these opening episodes.
I realize this is somewhat strange criticism—“Someone else might not like it as much as I did”—but I think it speaks to the tension inherent within the adaptation as a whole. The fact is that George R.R. Martin did not write a linear narrative, and it only becomes more sprawling as the books progress. Benioff and Weiss are telling their own story, breaking off of the “Book per Season” adaptation and often crafting storylines that are similar to yet different from Martin’s original, but the third season already shows that there’s only so much streamlining you can do while maintaining the sense of scale Martin put on the page. It is a compliment to the show that I was left wanting more from nearly every storyline following the first four episodes, as it suggests that I enjoyed what was there, but there’s a limit to how long that will function as a compliment. The catharsis I felt upon the conclusion of the fourth episode reminded me of how strong the show can be, but it also threw into stark relief how much that climax had been withheld while spending time laying building blocks elsewhere, and how differently I might have felt if three weeks had elapsed instead of three days.
As a book reader, and as someone who has enjoyed the show to this point, everything I’ve seen of Game of Thrones’ third season suggests it will continue to be one of the strongest dramas on television. But I would feel uncomfortable taking this evaluation outside of the context of my specific experience; with each passing season Game of Thrones becomes a more complicated text to take in as a viewer, and from this point forward I can’t help but feel that each season will be a test of patience and commitment, albeit an exciting and attractive one.
- My goal is to do weekly reviews for as long as I have screeners, and time permitting afterwards—I don’t know how realistic that will be, if I’m being honest, but we’re going to try. I’ll have my review of the premiere up on Sunday.