After an explosive end to its second season last year, Game of Thrones returned for its third season on Sunday with "Valar Dohaeris," a solid season premiere that slowed the pace back down considerably, but provided us with some pretty fantastic character moments.
I'll start negatively, though, with my one real big complaint about the episode: the resolution of season 2's cliffhanger. Apparently, that massive army of White Walkers and wights just wasn't that big of a deal, and they were all easily dispatched by the Night's Watch. The letdown of that cliffhanger was made even more prominent by the fact that we didn't see any of it -- it was all black screen and battle noises. I know that the series has a pretty small budget, but it was still disappointing not to see the chilling final moments of season 2 paid off.
But once that sequence was out of the way, the episode provided us with some fantastic moments. The relationship between Jon and Ygritte was subtly (but perfectly) developed here as romantic -- that final glance that Ygritte gave him as she left Mance Rayder's tent was perfectly telling. Oh, and Mance Rayder (Ciaran Hinds) is a fantastic addition to the cast. Despite his No Country for Old Men haircut, he seems like a perfectly decent guy -- though he quickly became threatening as he questioned Jon's motives. I can't wait to see more of him.
That scene also illustrated what's going to be one of the most interesting parts of the season: the answer Jon gave about why he abandoned the Night's Watch smacked of some truth. With his attraction to Ygritte becoming clearer and clearer, Jon might come close to just completely abandoning his mission and defecting to the Wildlings. His inner conflict will undoudbtedly make for compelling television.
Also, dude, giants are cool!
Speaking of compelling television, this episode really belonged to Tyrion Lannister, whose character was given two very important scenes. In one, he had the upper hand: even after learning about her attempt on his life, Tyrion still had the quick wit to insult her quite a bit, and he left the conversation triumphant (and the audience cheering). But his next scene, with his father Tywin, was just devastating. As Tywin listed off the ways Tyrion had disappointed him as a son, Tyrion came quite dangerously close to crying. It was undoubtedly the most vulnerable we've ever seen the character -- and it might be one of my favorite scenes of the entire series. When they submit episodes to be considered for Emmy nominations, Peter Dinklage should send in this one.
Also happening at King's Landing: Margaery Tyrell, making a splash. While she expressed some rather ruthless desire to be THE queen last season, we saw a different side of her entirely this episode, as she visited an orphanage to comfort the children who lost their fathers in Blackwater and assure them that under King Joffrey's rule, they had protected the city. The real pleasure of that scene (and Margaery's character going forward, it looks like) is the ambiguity of her actions. Was the orphanage visit actual heartfelt charity, or a cynical political move? Signs point to the latter, but the arguability of that answer makes Margaery a very interesting character to watch indeed.
Meanwhile, the Stannis/Melisandre/Davos storyline wasn't exactly the freshest. Davos, having survived Blackwater, returned to Dragonstone to attempt to kill Melisandre himself. She'd begun burning men alive, and Davos soon found himself next in line after an attempted assassination. He won't die, obviously, but his scenes in this episode felt more like pure set-up rather than anything substantial.
There was also set-up in the Daenerys storyline, with the Targaryen princess contemplating whether or not to buy an army of eunuch slave soldiers. She's expressed qualms about slavery before (back when she was with the Dothraki), but now the ethical issue is much more complex. After all, she needs those Unsulled soldiers. (Also, the Slaver's insults towards Daenerys and Mormont were a great bit of humor. In the book, she could understand him -- it's not so clear here.)
The episode ended on a strangely anticlimactic note, with the return of Barristan Selmy, the former Commander of the Kingsguard who was fired by Joffrey back in season one. Selmy now wants to serve Daenerys, and saves her from an assassin's attack. As he pledges his loyalty to her... the episode ends. The scene was a strange choice of an episode's closer, but it ultimately didn't matter: "Valar Dohaeris" was ultimately a solid season premiere -- more enjoyable, in my mind, than last season's premiere. It looks like each season of Game of Thrones will see the pieces rearranged at the beginning, with the major plot action happening in the latter half of the season. This season premiere saw the arrangement of about half of the pieces (Bran, Arya, Jaime, Brienne, and others will have to wait until next week's episode), and they're in very interesting positions indeed.
One final note: This episode made several key excisions from the plot of the original book series, mostly to save time. Ser Barristan, for instance, spent some time in disguise (and with two companions) before revealing himself to Daenerys, while a very important plot point for Sam Tarly was also cut (though that will hopefully come into play later). Some of my friends, who are much bigger fans of the books than I, were quite disappointed with these cuts. I couldn't help but think, though, that the show addressed these fans rather cutely through the interaction between Sansa and Shae. The game isn't played by just shouting out the right answer, Sansa tells her handmaiden. You have to use imagination. That's a great metaphor for the show's deviation from its source material, don't you think?