"Game of Thrones" (9 p.m. ET Sunday, HBO) is a feast, especially for the eyes.
The show didn't start off too badly in the visuals department (remember our first glimpse of the Wall?), but this year, its directors, costumers, production designers and location scouts have improved on the density and harsh beauty of Season 2. Every nook and cranny glimpsed in Season 3 -- a primeval forest, a dank basement, lush palace gardens, even a humble country inn -- look so real that you want to reach out and swipe a piece of crusty bread or grab a bit of brocade to feel its silky heft.
But Westeros is far from a pristine paradise; three seasons in, "Game of Thrones" has settled into a richly detailed, lived-in aesthetic. Tunics are speckled with dirt, beards are caked with snow, and characters wear the same clothes repeatedly because that's all they have. One glance at a dusty chamber, beat-up sword or new clothes often tells us all we need to know about a character's status, trajectory or even his or her mental state. In its specificity and richness, "Game of Thrones" is without question the most gorgeous show on television, a poetic, muddy, glorious epic made to be enjoyed in greedy HD marathons.
Yet the saga also unfolds in the smallest gestures and most subtle expressions; what makes the story sing are the moments when you sink into the characters' emotional states. There's the stoic look on the face of Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) as he silently realizes his relentless father has found more ways to wound him. There's the confusion that dawns on the steely visage of Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) as she begins to see that Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), the cynical Kingslayer and her captive on the road trip from hell, is not exactly who he first appeared to be. There are the expressions that flicker across the face of Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer) as the whipsmart young widow begins to understand what she'll be getting into if she marries King Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson), Westeros's most prominent sociopath. "The subtleties of politics are lost on me," Margaery says brightly at one point, and only Joffrey is dumb enough to believe her.
As for Daenerys, well, Emilia Clarke's eyes are a special effect in a class all by themselves. There's a Khaleesi moment in the fourth episode that's as thrilling as anything the show has ever done.
But there are just so many buffets to sample here. The cast seems to have doubled between seasons (a recent HBO press release contained the names of 55 actors), and there are at least a dozen plots and subplots that range over the seven kingdoms of Westeros and beyond. Just when you've started to savor one dish, "Game of Thrones" hands you another.
Is it churlish or is it simply human to want to sit a long while at the tea table of the delicious Varys (Conleth Hill) and the waspish Lady Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rigg) before we're ushered off to see what's happening north of the Wall? Isn't it understandable that we'd want to learn everything we can about the King Beyond the Wall, Mance Rayder (Ciaran Hinds), and the powerful river lord, Brynden "The Blackfish" Tully (Clive Russell), before hitting another stop on Daenerys's world tour?
Do questions like those make me sound like a spoiled kid in a candy store, or is there a serious point to be made here about the series' round-robin storytelling style? That debate will never end (certainly not on "Game of Thrones" websites), but I think there's something to be said for the latter point of view.
Let me be clear: I love "Game of Thrones" and I want it to continue to grow in confidence, complexity and aesthetic richness until the sun burns out (or the kids all look like they're in their late 30s). Few shows attempt moral and physical world-building on this scale, and its successes far outnumber its failures. But scale itself can be an issue at times. To cite just one example of a different kind of richness, the classic "Mad Men" episode "The Suitcase" was so effective in part because it deployed a potent series of Don-Peggy scenes in a single episode. What if those moments had been spread out over four hours? The effect would have been blunted.
Jaime and Brienne -- an odd couple if there ever was one -- have a similarly fascinating dynamic, but its impact isn't quite the same because their Season 3 interactions are sprinkled across several different episodes. The actors and writers on this show are very skilled, and they're clearly doing all they can to make every moment count, but the on-screen storytelling that pierces our hearts most deeply often has that effect because it accumulates power over one or two hours. Over three seasons, I've certainly become interested in any number of relationships and intrigued by a number of individuals (and it's good to recall that four seasons of "Mad Men" served as prelude to "The Suitcase"). But there are so many people in "Game of Thrones" that the impact of any one strand of the tale can relatively easily be diffused or diluted. We saw how effective the show was when it focused on one location and a subset of characters in Season 2's "Blackwater," but it's fairly clear by now that such an episode is the exception, not the rule.
I do understand that if "Game of Thrones" has any hope of hewing to the narrative laid out in George R.R. Martin's book series, it will eventually have to employ every working actor in the United Kingdom, and that's fine. I've also grown used to the fact that most episodes don't really have beginnings, middles or endings -- and that style of storytelling is likely to become even more common in the post-"House of Cards" era. I just want my favorite shows to be able to break my heart, and the more broadly "Game of Thrones" ranges and the longer its cast list grows, the tougher it will be for the drama to do that.
It's impossible not to be drawn into the saga, however (aside from one or two strands that are filler and/or confusingly laid out). The thing is, despite the dragons, the magic, the white walkers and the arrival of wargs (look it up), "Game of Thrones" is one of the most relatable shows on television. Really. The epic fantasy elements make for gorgeous tableaux, but these characters also struggle with with emotions and dilemmas that are familiar to all of us. We know what it's like to contend with forces and impulses we only half understand, and we've all had to reassess people who turned out to be crueler or more compassionate than we expected. We think we'll be kind and thoughtful when we acquire influence, but sometimes we're weaker and meaner than we intended to be.
The version of "Game of Thrones" that executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have created is a meditation on power and its slippery attractions, and perhaps power itself is the lead character in their take on the story -- it's often the entity receiving the most in-depth characterization. In this tale, power and loyalty are locked in a hypnotic dance of betrayal, compassion and confusion. Martin created -- and the HBO show has brought to vivid life -- a set of memorable outsiders who are doing their utmost to storm various bastions of power and privilege, and even their losses are fascinating. I can't look away.
Ryan McGee and I have non-spoilery discussions of the returns of "Game of Thrones" and "Doctor Who" on the latest Talking TV podcast, which is here, on iTunes and below. Also, my colleague Mike Hogan will be writing weekly reviews of "Game of Thrones," but I may weigh in here and there as Season 3 progresses.