It’s been hard to miss the buzz that preceded the premiere of season three of HBO’s Game of Thrones. HBO has practically plastered the town with cryptic advertisements first featuring just the date 03.31.13, followed by images of the dirty faces of various characters looking squarely at the camera.
With all the hype, did the season premiere, “Valar Dohaeris,” live up to the standard set by the previous season? Yes it did — and it’s those dirty faces, or rather the actors and the writers behind them, who delivered.
Despite the fact that Game of Thrones falls under the literary category of epic fantasy, it is first and foremost a story following the lives of extremely complex and dynamic characters as they fight for power and survival in the mythical land of Westeros.
Game of Thrones features intricate and fascinating plot twists, but “Valar Dohaeris” devotes its time to the characters. This episode ties up the cliff hangers left at the end of season two, such as Tyrion Lannister’s role at court, Daenarys Targaryen’s path towards Westeros and the state of her dragons. It also re-establishes relationships that had been neglected in the plot-heavy season two, though some characters’ story arcs were merely delayed until later episodes.
Though this particular episode is fairly light on plot development, it more than makes up for it using character development, with excellent performances from all the actors. Peter Dinklage and Charles Dance steal the episode as the stormy relationship between Tyrion and his father Tywin is laid bare for the audience.
Other actors make the hour-long show engaging as well. Carice van Houten gives yet another chilling performance as the red priestess Melisandre, setting the stage for a series of scenes featuring her character that is enchanting and enraging. Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell, an important but relatively unaddressed character introduced last season, exudes warmth while delivering well-scripted lines. Her scene with Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister sets up a tense dynamic that everyone will want to watch in the coming episodes.
The episode adds two newcomers to its already large cast. Both Mance Rayder (Ciarán Hinds) and Tormund Giantsbane (Kristofer Hivju) perform admirably. Their scene with Kit Harington is one of the best blocked and performed scenes in the episode, and their short performances introduce their characters.
The balancing of these plots and characters reveals the true talent of the show’s writers. The episode does not feel rushed or too full, despite the regular shifts in setting and character.
Still, the minutes don’t always fly by with purpose. A scene that explains the qualities of a race of slave warriors — details that are potentially important — drags on. Additionally, a great deal of time is spent on a relatively minor character, named Bronn, for no apparent purpose.
Visually, the episode is stunning, as one might expect from a television show that’s shot on location in Iceland, Ireland and Croatia. The opening of the episode is particularly dramatic, with the noise of a battle blazing while the screen remains black. It then fades to a blizzard swirling across the snowy North as the sounds of the battle fade away — a very effective method of setting the tone and cinematography.
The framing in this episode is carefully considered and used to great effect, particularly in the reintroductions of characters after the break between seasons. It is also effective in re-establishing relationships between characters: The exchange between Dinklage and Headey on either side of a barred window highlights their division in the aftermath of the last season. This kind of attention to visual detail is one of the reasons that this episode is so compelling.
On quibble: though the episode uses CGI well, particularly in the design and execution of the now-significantly larger dragons, there is one moment that ends the illusion and looks more fake. When Danaerys is off the coast of Astapor, the city’s walls and the sky appear a bit too unrealistic, which jars with her next appearance within the city walls.
Still, the season premiere of Game of Thrones lives up to the acclaim previous episodes received. It sets a very high standard for continued character development for the rest of the season, wraps up loose ends from season two and sets up various paths for interesting plot progression.
Season two, despite its drama and its whirlwind nature, was only the beginning of the war in which the characters now find themselves. And thankfully, the best of the series is yet to come: After all, “winter is coming,” and “the night is dark and full of terrors.”