Game of Thrones Season 3 begins with a chase through the snow, an attack by an ax-wielding zombie, and a promise of dark things to come. “If we don’t make it back,” the Commander of the Night’s Watch proclaims to his bloody, weary, and uneasy men, “everyone you’ve ever known will be dead.”
Woah. And that’s all in the first two minutes.
Game of Thrones’ first season opened slow, with a lot of exposition and character development, but little in terms of plot progression. Season 2 was a whirlwind of events that ultimately came to feel slightly rushed, with too many flat, undeveloped characters battling each other. It’s still too early to tell, but it looks as though Season 3 might have found the right balance. The decision to split the third book into two seasons may well be Game of Thrones’ saving grace, giving the characters time to breathe without sacrificing crucial plot developments.
It’s hard to argue that nothing of note happens in the Season 3 premiere. Without giving anything away, it’s safe to say that certain characters get tantalizingly closer to fulfilling their goals, while others suffer striking setbacks. At the same time, this episode boasts some chilling scenes that give us insight into some of the major players in this sprawling civil war. The CGI dragons are all very nice, but it’s a conversation between Tyrion and Tywin Lannister that marks the high point of this episode–a brief scene that is filled with emotion and tension. It’s also a scene that was lifted almost word for word from the book, which should be a message to the show’s creators–often, sticking closer to the source material is the way to go.
Some characters and story-lines were done better than others. Every scene involving Stannis Baratheon and his allies felt spot-on. Melisandre, the demon-birthing religious fanatic who now sits at Stannis’ side, has gone from odd and creepy to downright terrifying. STill more terrifying is Stannis himself. Whatever humanity was in him seems to have been stripped away, leaving a cold, heartless shell of a man. Danaery’s scenes are also excellent for the most part–we get to see her travel to a slave city in a sequence that manages to be humorous, horrifying, exciting, and depressing all in a matter of minutes. We are introduced to an army of elite, spear-wielding slave soldiers that will inevitably invite comparisons to the Spartans from 300.
Unfortunately, Robb Stark’s lone scene feels out of place in this episode. Robb has little to do here but lead soldiers and look dour, and the many characters accompanying him have even less to do. The whole northern army feels rather confusing and ragtag–whatever happened to the Greatjon, the giant bannerman who accompanied Robb in the first film? He’s been replaced by Roose Bolton and Rickard Karstark, two characters whose sole purpose appears to be to spout expository dialogue and then help move the plot along whenever the show-writers need to get things moving. It doesn’t help that Game of Thrones highlights the fact that although we’ve been told numerous times that Robb Stark is winning a lot of battles, we have yet to see a single one. “I’d like a battle,” Robb Stark tells his lieutenant, Roose Bolton. “The men would like a battle. But the Lannisters have been running from us since Oxcross. I don’t think we’re going to get one.” The show’s many viewers would no doubt like a battle, too, but it seems Game of Thrones’ budget just can’t support one, and this scene only serves to call attention to that.
Where exactly is this Oxcross? We know there’s a war going on, but as to who’s winning, and where the armies are, or how many troops each king has at his disposal, we really can’t say. It’s enough to make me long for a scene like the one in the Lord of the Rings where Faramir pulls out a map and points to where everyone is and describes how many troops they have.
Jon Snow’s story is the only one that actually left me genuinely frustrated this episode. While we get to finally meet the King Beyond the Wall, Mance Rayder (played with a sort of commanding, quiet confidence by Ciaran Hinds), his interaction with Jon Snow leaves much to be desired, especially when compared with the book. In the book, we learn about Mance Rayder’s motivations for betraying the Night’s Watch, and we get a compelling explanation for Jon as to why he has turned his back on his brothers. Now while I understand the need to change Jon’s explanation in the show, Jon’s reasoning falls pretty flat. Why exactly does Jon want to join the Wildlings, if the only Wildling he knows, Craster, is the very man who was sacrificing his children to the White Walkers? Here, Jon tells Mance simply that he “wants to fight for the side that fights for the living.” He asks “did I come to the right place?” This, after being told by his commander in the second season that “the wildlings serve crueler gods (ie the white walkers) than you or I.” No, Jon Snow, based on what we’ve seen so far, I’d say you definitely came to the wrong place. Unless this show cares to draw a distinction between Mance Rayder’s wildlings and Craster the wildling, viewers are going to be left really nonplussed. Luckily for Jon, a few dramatic words are all it takes to convince Mance Rayder you’re on his side. If this was real life, he’d have more moles in his army than all the seasons of 24 combined.
On the whole, Game of Thrones Season 3 is off to a good start. It’s weakness is that despite its 10-hour running time each season ,there are now just too many characters and too many subplots to handle. We didn’t get to see Jaime Lannister, or Arya, or Bran Stark this episode, and while we will get to see them next time, that will mean that some other character will get the shaft. There’s just not enough screen time to go around. There’s not really anything the shows’ creators can do about that, because of the nature of the book Game of Thrones is based on. Here’s hoping we see less of the Tyrells or Littlefinger’s brothel over the coming weeks, and more of the characters we’ve come to know and care about–especially the Starks.