Jon is brought before Mance Rayder, the King Beyond the Wall, while the Night’s Watch survivors retreat south. In King’s Landing, Tyrion asks for his reward. Littlefinger offers Sansa a way out. Cersei hosts a dinner for the royal family. Daenerys sails into Slaver’s Bay.
In many ways, our early impressions managed to say most everything we’ve felt to say about this episode. In the course of writing the recap and the book-to-screen comparison, the main thing that leaps out is how conversational and expository this episode really is. There’s not a great deal to say about its scope, when it deliberately avoids trying to sustain the momentum of last season’s finale and starts on a smaller scale. In general, the cold open feels rather weak compared to what might have been… but even if budgetary restrictions prevented us from seeing even fleeting glimpses of the slaughter at the Fist of the First Men, the show runners probably miscalculated a bit by breaking this away from following scenes by putting it before the title. With its strangely subdued presence, it seems to just hang there and do nothing particularly useful in setting a tone, while its pacing does to some degree contribute to the sense that the episode as a whole is rather languidly paced.
In our impressions we remarked on the fact that part of the reason for this feeling of slowness has to do with the fact that there are no big surprises (Barristan Selmy at the end of the episode is a nice nod to book readers, but we suspect it won’t have that much impact on TV show viewers), unlike the start of A Storm of Swords which is packed with some initial shocks and surprises to help carry readers throught he scene-setting that largely occupies the first few chapters. This is largely due to the deliberate choice of moving those surprises to the end of the last season, leaving too much time for it to sink in and simply become part of the status quo. It seems, in retrospect, a bit of a miscalculation… but then, we argued that last season they spent too much time in the finale catching up with every story and should have left some hanging to be picked up this season. It might have given this early part of the season a bit more of a sense of propulsion, of things happening and teetering on the edge.
Given the slower pace, what this episode is really about is the characters and re-establishing them and their relationships, both old and new. And so we have Tyrion and Tywin meeting once again, after not having interacted at all last season. This scene is a highlight of the episode, as Dance and Dinklage get across the bitter reality of their family life. It’s a scene almost word for word from the novels, and Tywin’s sentiments come across plain as day: Tyrion dishonors the family simply by breathing, and Tywin will never forgive him that fact. The scene with Cersei before that is invented on the other hand… but it continues the trend of examining the family dynamic, and the actors do a fair job getting it across. Tyrion’s wariness around his sister is well-deserved, especially when we consider the fact that on the show it’s been suggested to Tyrion that Cersei herself was behind the attempt on his life (in the novels, the person who commanded it remains a mystery). Also, Heady rather perfectly delivers her remark on his not having lost a nose despite the rumors; humorous, and a fine nod to the books where Tyrion did, in fact, lose half his nose rather than just gaining a scar.
Relationships are everywhere in this episode, but perhaps the key ones revolve around the concept embodied in the title of the episode: “Valar Dohaeris”. It means “All men must serve,” in Valyrian, and service seems to be a key point in the episode. Samwell fails the Watch by failing to send the ravens; Tywin expects Tyrion to serve his house; Tyrion expects Bronn to serve him; the Unsullied are slaves and serve their masters; Davos will serve Stannis to his dying breath; Margaery thinks the nobles should serve the greater interests of the less advantaged; Barristan wishes to serve Daenerys to his utmost. Strangely, the writers seemed to disavow themes as anything of interest to them (dismissing them as the stuff 8th grade essays are made of), and yet the show itself never seems to be themeless. Last season was overbearingly dominated by the “power” theme that they kept approaching from different directions, sometimes to the detriment of the show and characters. Here, the relation between master and servant, lord and vassal, father and son, philanthropist and beneficiary feels like it plays out at a lower register; it could be easily missed, just watching scene from scene. But does the theme go anywhere beyond this episode? That’s a question we can’t answer.
We’ve already mentioned our disappointments with the rather lower-key versions of the new characters—Mance Rayder and Tormund Giantsbane are nothing like the vividly-depicted, larger-than-life characters of the books—but we should also mention our uncertainty over the Margaery Tyrell storyline. We can’t pretend any particular fondness for Natalie Dormer as an actress—though we respect the rights of others to feel quite otherwise, and we know many of them are out there—but the way the role is written feels a bit problematic for us. Making her an orphan-hugging philanthropist feels like a very modern, 21st century insertion into the story. Did nobles provide alms for the poor in our own history? Surely, as they do in Westeros. But visiting orphans, ignoring the muck as she enters the sept, giving out toys personally—it feels distinctly unsubtle, taking a lazy approach to trying to make her more appealing to the audience. That there may be a political purpose behind this—to win the hearts of the people—is certainly something to be appreciated, as politics are never far from the surface in King’s Landing, but one could have wished for something that felt authentic to the setting. As it is, Margaery’s scene in Flea Bottom was an annoying reminder that the expansion of characters who get attention doesn’t always work out.
To go back to Margaery, however, the dinner scene between the Tyrell siblings and Joffrey and his mother afterward was a more pleasant surprise, carried largely by the interplay between Cersei and Joffrey. It feels likely enough that had the Joffrey of the novels been older, his relationship with his mother would not be far away from what we see here. Jack Gleason’s manner and tone as he dismisses his mother as old and prone to exaggeration was pitch-perfect. We can guess more trouble will mark this relationship, especially if Margaery begins to worm her way into a place of influence, if not affection, with King Joffrey.
We’ve yet to mention Bronn’s brief scene at the start, a scene which really adds nothing except yet another naked prostitute to the long list of naked prostitutes, as if HBO has mandated a yearly quota (as some suspect). If anything, looking at a later episode, it feels like the showrunners have not only ignored criticisms about “Executive Producers for Breasts”, but they’ve doubled-down on it and are making it even more in your face. Rather literally in Bronn’s case, as his face hovers over the woman’s barely-covered crotch for much of the scene. It’s all rather odd, but we’ll get into it rather more with a later episode.
It seems appropriate to end as the show end, with Astapor. We were quite pleased with the various new things that came together. While Astapor recieves no real explanation, perhaps it’s enough to know that they make slave-soldiers there, that they have their own language, and that their society features a callous disregard for those who are property. Dan Hildebrand as Kraznys is terrific, especially when you consider his expressiveness as he spoke the entirely invented Valyrian language as created by David Peterson. His dialog is much as in the novels, as is Missandei’s artfully diplomatic rendering of his rude remarks. All quite well done, and we’ll just say it gets even better. Visually, Astapor looks quite good, though we would have preferred if Kraznys wore a proper tokar (which is basically a Roman toga, with an added fringe and more color). And the effects work from Pixomondo has been stellar when you consider how well-done Drogon was at the start of Dany’s scene. There’s more of that to come, as well.
All in all, despite the quibbles, despite the disappointment in the introductions of the new characters whom book readers had anticipated so much, this was a solid start. Individually, most of the scenes hang well together, with the actors all in top form, and there’s a good level of coherence. They avoided the pitfall of last year’s opener, which was trying to catch up with every single character (plus giving significant time to a brand new region and characters in it), and so were able to give the scenes they did have just a bit more room to breath. It’s only a shame that they loaded so much of last season’s finale with the surprises and twists that could have opened this show, and given these scenes a sense of borrowed urgency simply by their juxtaposition wih the surprises that they could have had.
HBO has released a look behind the scenes at filming Daenerys’s scene, filmed in Morocco:
Inside the Episode:
The episode covers the following chapters of A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords: Samwell I, Jon I, Davos I, Davos II, Tyrion I, Daenerys I, Davos III, Daenerys II, Daenerys IV (ACoK)
Changes of note, chapter-by-chapter:
Bronn at the brothel: As Bronn is not a POV, this scene does not appear in the novel. That said, he is indeed Ser Bronn of the Blackwater now, and Tyrion does send Podrick to bring him to him.
Cersei and Tyrion: A scene not from the novels, though some of it does seem to capture the dynamics between the two quite well. The bickering over her having had a servant beaten when she was nine years old would certainly fit the characters in the novel.
Bronn outside the chamber: Although not from the novel, that Bronn would pick a fight with two knights of the Kingsguard is not unknown behavior: he’s ready to do the same in Tyrion’s first chapter in A Clash of Kings.
Bronn and Tyrion walking: In the novel, Bronn expects to be paid by Tyrion for his continuing services… but he doesn’t actually seem to ask for more money than what he’s already recieving.
Robb at Harrenhal: The castle of Harrenhal is actually taken by Roose Bolton late in A Clash of Kings, in part thanks to the (inadvertent) actions of Arya Stark. The treatment of prisoners was not great, but a slaughter of prisoners does not take place. In fact, in the novel it’s Amory Lorch who holds the castle for Lord Tywin, rather than the Mountain that Rides. Ser Jeremy Mallister is a made-up character (though from a genuine riverlands house, the lords of Seagard on the western coast). It seems likely this scene is here to establish Roose Bolton’s presence, as in the novel he holds the seat for Robb after taking it. The other notable detail here is that the character of Qyburn is introduced as the sole apparent survivor of the Mountain’s massacre of prisoners. In the novels, Qyburn is in fact a member of the Bloody Mummers, a company of duplicitous sellswords.
Sansa and Littlefinger converse: Largely made up, though some of Sansa’s insistence that he take her away from King’s Landing matches her demand of Dontos Hollard (a character who seems to be excised from the series this season, after an abortive attempt to make use of him last year). Shae, of course, remains substantially different from the character in the novels.
Margaery at the orphanage: An invented scene, though one that tries to build on the idea that Margaery will become popular in the city, which is the case in the novels… though there it’s more clearly due to her family feeding the starved population than to her doing anything in particular in relation to charitable acts. She’s loved because of her family and because she’ll be queen more than for any merit of her own.
Dinner with Joffrey: Another invented scene, but one that probably captures what the relationship between Joffrey and Cersei would be like, to some degree, had he been older in the novels. The way the Tyrell siblings watch the proceedings—noting the tensions—is interesting, and does probably reflect their concern for the political situation when it comes to Joffrey and his mother.
Our video discussing our views on the episode:
Linda and I make an appearance in the pre-season 3 Thronecast special:
And here’s the first season 3 episode of Thronecast: