Valar Dohaeris: Game of Thrones S03E01 (Review)

Let us grieve, for winter has indeed come on the day this blog has anything bad to say about Game of Thrones. Regrettably, in comparison with the consummate artistry of last season’s finale Valar Morghulis, this season’s premier, Valar Dohaeris is no response at all. Much like the books, the show is beginning to suffer under the weight of so many characters and plotlines; but while GRRM has always demonstrated consummate skill in keeping the quality of his prose high despite this, the show appears to have been left gasping for breath on the shores of Pyke, like a drowned man left half alive by his initiation. A great tabula rasa seems to have taken place, the usual high caliber acting and writing swept away by a tsunami way of boredom, mediocrity and childishness. It is not even clear if this is due to the story becoming too big to handle. Whatever we may put it down to, it’s a tragedy.

The principal goal of this season’s premier is to bring us up to speed with what’s been going on since last season’s finale. Some audience favourites are absent from the proceedings to save on time, notably Arya, last seen interrogating Jaqen H’ghar about the perks of being a Faceless Man; and Jaime and Brienne, last seen bickering somewhere in the Riverlands. The rest of Westeros is trying to accustom themselves to their world post-Blackwater: Tyrion is mourning the loss of his power as Hand of the King, Cersei is mourning the fact that the attempt on his life during the battle failed, Littlefinger is obscenely thrilled that Sansa no longer wants to live in King’s Landing, Margaery is embarrassing Joffrey by helping the poor, Jon is adjusting to life beyond the Wall, the Night’s Watch are trying to get back to the Wall, Robb is making a show of locking up Cat for releasing the Kingslayer, Stannis and Davos are still boring everybody to death and Daenerys is in Astapor seeking to purchase an army of Unsullied in order to finally take her first steps in once again making Westeros the home of House Targaryen. It’s a lot to pack into one hour, and the signs of this overcrowding are everywhere.

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For the first twenty minutes or so, one is seized by the unsettling feeling that one is watching a lot of people dressed up like Jon, Ygritte, Cersei, Tyrion and Sansa, but who are impostors of some sort. None of the actors really seem to act like their characters anymore. Whether it’s Cersei rather sweetly assuring Tyrion that ‘if I wanted to kill you, would I let a wooden door stop me?’ or indeed Tyrion cowering behind said door with an axe and bickering with her like a spoilt American teenager with an ‘enter at your own risk’ sign on his door; whether it’s Joffrey placidly asking his litter bearers why they’ve stopped instead of threatening to execute them, or watching Margaery enter an orphanage without threatening to execute her, all the personal idiosyncrasies and psychologies of the characters appear to have dropped away so that they all resemble the same boring and utterly uninteresting person.

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That’s not to say there aren’t exceptions. The two seconds’ screen time accorded to Ciaràn Hinds’ Mance Rayder resonate with the same charisma he demonstrated as Caesar in Rome, and leaves the viewer with a tantalising expectation of more awesomeness to come. On the down side, his towering presence utterly steamrolls poor Kit Harington, who is going to have to up his game considerably if he doesn’t want to completely disappear into oblivion. Daenerys’ scenes are also unusually un-annoying; and the agonising teething pains in the Khaleesi’s relationship with slave societies show us her steadfastness and sense of justice in more concrete ways than we have seen before. Emilia Clarke just really needs to find a way to respond to a child that doesn’t include a stupid, mildly-creepy grin: it makes her look like the assassin rather than the person about to be assassinated. The army of Unsullied presented to Daenerys was also thoroughly unimpressive and not particularly intimidating, and one can’t help feeling that showing the Unsullied’s lack of genitalia as well as the gratuitous cutting-off of nipples might have slightly enhanced their street cred. Some attempt to salvage this street cred has been made in making a change from the books so that the Unsullied are required to purchase and kill a baby as opposed to raising a puppy for a year and strangling it, though this grisly changement only achieves the opposite effect. We’ve seen in this show that any savage can murder a child they’ve never seen before: it takes genuine cold blood to raise an animal for a year and create a bond with it before being required to murder it. So hanging onto the puppies might have been a better idea. On the plus side, it’s a delight to see that the Valyrian of the free cities has now been created as well as Dothraki, which shows that at least some things in this show have not declined. The scene between Tywin and Tyrion is also a happy respite from the general devastation. Loaded with emotion and powerful acting, particularly from Charles Dance, who is harrowingly brilliant at making Tywin even more casually cruel to his son that he had ever been before, it’s a devastatingly hurtful step in the tragic, irretrievable decline of the relationship between Tywin and Tyrion that also demonstrates great acting from Peter Dinklage, his performance moving and tragic. Tyrion has endured far too much of a downward spiral since Blackwater to be able to face up to such cruelty with his usual biting sarcasm, and Dinklage is masterful at portraying both Tyrion’s exposed vulnerability and how hard he tries to hide it from the one person he should be able to share it with. This scene is a line of gold in a lot of murky shoddiness – but then we should consider that almost all of it is paraphrased from GRRM.

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This brings us to the point that this meteoric decline in acting is most probably due to the meteoric decline in the writing. Whatever changes the show has made to the story in the past and whatever controversy they have caused, the writing has always been high art. Each scene has a place and a purpose in each episode; each episode has a place in the whole. The dialogue has been so psychological and has made so many references to so many different things; has meant so many different things to the characters; the very combinations of the words have sung with beauty and made them wonderful to listen to. In this premier episode, all of these values appear to have been unceremoniously chucked out of the window. What the hell was all that nonsense between Bronn and the Kingsguard outside Tyrion’s chambers, and what purpose did it serve? And what the hell was the point of that ridiculous conversation between Ros and Shae, and what purpose did it serve? In a premier episode when you’re pressed for time, can’t you leave that kind of pointless embellishment out and stick it in later on when you need a link? And why was so much time given to Davos and Stannis, when it’s the one part of both books and series that is so irredeemably BORING??? And the ending. How does Barristan Selmy revealing himself to Daenerys constitute a climax, when most audience members won’t remember who he is and those that do won’t be dancing on their chairs when they recognise him? When did the great writing on this show become such a shallow, disjointed, superfluous, mess?

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Season 1 and 2 of Game of Thrones make you swear each time viewing is interrupted by an ad break and growl in indignation at the end of each episode. Valar Dohaeris leaves you cold and utterly indifferent as to what’s going to happen next. The production is still gorgeous and the locations sweeping. But this show had better pull up its fucking socks by next week or it’ll be the biggest disaster in TV history before too long.

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