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'Game of Thrones' Season 3: Rating The Bear, The Maiden Fair, The Tyrells And The Rest

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game of thrones season 3

"Game of Thrones" is taking the week off -- Steven Soderbergh's excellent Liberace movie "Behind the Candelabra" airs instead -- but our love for the show doesn't take vacations, am I right?

So here's a very small attempt to fill that gap with an assessment of Season 3. I've rated 13 different aspects of this season thus far in the slideshow below, but I've also got a few general ideas about how the third year of the drama has unfolded.

The biggest difference between this season and the previous one is that each episode is longer, and the extra minutes have helped tremendously. There isn't time to delve into every single notable character's journey in depth, but the lives of most major players feel deeper and richer thanks to the extra screen time, and many of the minor figures have gotten a showcase scene or two. Everything from locations to characterizations to relationships feels more textured and dense this year, but that doesn't mean it's heavier. If anything, it's been able to incorporate a wider variety of tones, from drawing-room comedy to hushed mysticism to spectacular adventure. "Game of Thrones" has had a chance to stretch out and breathe this year, and it is much better for it.

Amongst the Lannisters and the Tyrells, we've gotten long conversations, brief but illustrative vignettes and perceptive character moments that made it possible to feel these people's anguish, curiosity, amusement and frustration. We saw Daenerys grow into her power, possibly growing reckless in the process, but what a thrill it has been to see her take the condescension of her enemies and use it to her advantage. The show's gotten its share of knocks in the past for sexposition, but that's pretty much a thing of the past, and at this stage, it should start getting credit for the feminist subtext of the stories of Arya, Dany, Brienne and even Shae. These flawed, complicated women refuse to be pawns in the great games played by the powerful clans of Westeros, and woe to anyone who underestimates their tenacity, strength and intelligence.

Some storylines are more cramped -- many events north of the Wall feel a bit rushed, Bran scenes are barely more than placeholders, and Theon's storyline is disastrously repetitive -- but in the main, the show's writers, directors and cast have done an excellent job of distilling and exploring themes about power, status, love and conflicting loyalty. As others have noted, the most recent episode, "Second Sons," benefited from remaining, for the most part, in three locations; this is a show that gathers power as it heads into the home stretch of every season and winnows the number of places it goes. "Second Sons" may not have had the sheer firepower of the single-location "Blackwater," but a sense of mournful inevitability united the entire hour. And that may be Season 3's finest accomplishment: The show has consistently found visual and thematic strategies that make some hours -- or long stretches of individual episodes -- feel unified and focused.

This could have been the season that broke the show -- as I pointed out in my review of the first four episodes, the Season 3 press release from HBO had more than 50 actors' names on it. The multiplying and intersecting storylines could have made for mass confusion, but the show has, for the most part, elegantly refined its vision and honed its portrayals of key characters. Executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have had to cut and rearrange some material, and I feel for fans whose favorite themes or characters have been dialed down or eliminated. But "Game of Thrones" was always going to have to condense the dozens of ideas and themes in author George R.R. Martin's books. HBO has Lannister-like wealth, but the series can't do everything the books did, or Maisie Williams would be 30 before the TV show arrived at Book 5.

This version of the tale has lush visuals, terrific acting, great set pieces (the bear!) and sly wit. It clearly takes an army of dedicated people on several continents to make a show this good, but "Game of Thrones'" directors should be singled out for creating a world that is both expansive in visuals and intimate in mood. When a show can make Wall-climbing, a middle-aged man learning to read, a bear fight, a painful confession, a farcical wedding and the slaughter of a city of slavers all hang together, visually and tonally, it's doing something right.

Making all these characters and places come alive is a Herculean task, but "Game of Thrones" has always needed even more than aesthetic virtuosity and a graceful ability to make the heavy lifting of servicing a dozen stories not feel so heavy. For it to work, what it always needed was hard-won wisdom about the surprising nooks and crannies of human nature, and a deep well of compassion for the outsiders, rebels, misfits and other outliers who populate this tale. Season 3 hasn't been perfect, but "Game of Thrones" has excelled in those arenas, and even though this year's run isn't over, I'm already looking forward to Season 4.

Before we get to the slideshow, here's an explanation of the rating system for "Game of Thrones'" Season 3 storylines:

  • Four dragons: Reserved for my favorite Season 3 storyline.
  • Three dragons: The actors are getting meaty material and making the most of it; these are the storylines with the most depth, heft and emotionally involving consequences.
  • Two dragons: There are good moments and scenes, and not much to take issue with, but I'm not overly engrossed -- just normally engrossed.
  • One dragon: It's holding my interest, just about, but the storyline is something of a placeholder.
  • Zero dragons: Reserved for one storyline. I wonder if you can guess which one it is.
"Game Of Thrones" Season 3 Rankings
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"Game Of Thrones" returns with Season 3, Episode 9, titled "The Rains of Castamere," on Sunday, June 2 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.

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