Note: Do not read on if you have not yet seen Season 3, Episode 1 of HBO's "Game of Thrones," titled "Valar Dohaeris."
How fitting for a season premiere that tonight's "Game of Thrones" was all about new beginnings -- and one ending, for the nipple of a certain unfortunate warrior-for-hire.
The episode itself begins with a rare cold open -- and boy, was it cold! (Sorry, this will get better, I promise.) After a few ominous
dragon White Walker shrieks over a black screen, we see Samwell Tarly fleeing through the driving snow -- presumably on the run from the gigantic army of Others we saw in the closing moments of last season. He comes upon a comrade, only to discover that the poor sucker is holding his own head in his arms. Then another comrade attacks Samwell, his eyes a telltale zombie blue. Just before Samwell meets the same fate, a direwolf attacks the wight -- then the monster spontaneously combusts.
The writers are really making the most of the low-visibility conditions, because next thing you know, the entire expeditionary force of the Night's Watch is standing there, just about all of them nursing painful head wounds. After scolding Samwell for fumbling his "only job" -- he didn't send a raven! -- Lord Commander Jeor Mormont announces that they must return to the wall and announce that the Others are back in action. Otherwise, he says, "before wintertime, everyone you've ever known will be dead."
As the Night's Watch begin their march south to sound the alarm, Jon Snow begins his new chapter as a double agent infiltrating the inner circle of Mance Rayder, the self-declared King Beyond the Wall. There's a heavy "Apocalypse Now" vibe to Snow's arc, and it's finally time for him to meet his Kurtz. But first he has to walk through the Wildlings' tent city, where he receives something less than a hero's welcome. As the local boys pelt him with stones, he complains to Ygritte that their King used to dress like him too. Somehow, no one gives a damn. Inside the King's tent, Jon gets confused and kneels before the wrong guy, which the King finds mighty amusing. (Hey, we'll take humor in this show wherever we can get it.) Rayder steps forward and tells Jon that, on this side of the Wall, nobody kneels to anybody.
Oh, and incidentally, there are no rules to prevent a hearty lad like Snow from having his way with a willing lass like Ygritte. Is that why Snow betrayed his brothers? No, Snow says -- he wanted to be free. Baloney, says Rayder, challenging Snow to come up with a more persuasive explanation for his decision to kill Qhorin Halfhand and switch sides. So Snow tells the story of how his Lord Commander stood by and did nothing as Captain Incest sacrificed a baby boy to the Others. "I want to fight for the side that fights for the living," he says. "Did I come to the right place?" There's truth to that, and we've already seen one resentful almost-heir of the Starks, Theon Greyjoy, channel his resentment into a full-fledged betrayal. But I'm pretty sure Snow isn't going total Stockholm Syndrome on us yet.
Meanwhile, back in King's Landing, Tyrion is adjusting to his diminished circumstances. The wound on his face has healed, so now it's time to see if he can regain some of the influence he so enjoys wielding. His first step is to call on Bronn, who is so busy enjoying this season's first instance of gratuitous nudity that he almost blows off the summons. Bronn eventually arrives to find Tyrion's door barred by two of Cersei's knights. She and Tyrion are inside, having one of their heartwarming sibling consultations.
Cersei leaves just before the three swordsmen reduce one another to Mario Batali pasta specials, and Tyrion explains to Bronn that he needs him back. They negotiate a new fee (double the old one, since Bronn is a knight now), and Tyrion makes what we can assume is his first post-injury sojourn through King's Landing, to see dear old Dad. Unfortunately, the vicious old prig has no intention of giving Tyrion the gratitude he craves for saving the city from Stannis Baratheon's invading army.
Peter Dinklage is always great, but it's worth noting how masterfully he plays this scene. We see that Tyrion genuinely wants his father's approval, and feels truly hurt -- and enraged -- when it's so unfairly withheld. But we also see his mental gears turning. If he can't win his father over, he'll win the war of wits, at least, by demanding the one thing he must know his father will never give him: Casterly Rock, the seat of House Lannister.
We know from last season that Tyrion wants to be in King's Landing, not some fortress in the Westerlands, so my theory is that he made the demand to extract concessions from Tywin -- which he gets, sort of. Tywin promises him better accommodations, a position worthy of his name and a suitable wife, if he behaves himself. But the old man also gets off some Grade A insults ("You are an ill-made, spiteful little creature ... To teach me humility, the gods have condemned me to watch you waddle about") and threatens to kill any whore he finds in Tyrion's bed. Tyrion looks furious -- but not scared.
Like you, perhaps, I had assumed Ser Davos Seaworth had bought the farm in Blackwater Bay, but no -- here he is, waking up on a rock in the middle of the sea, his hair long and his face covered in blisters. He waves down a ship, then persuades his old pirate buddy to transport him to Dragonstone so he can confront Melisandre. Actually, I believe his exact words are that he wants to "carve out her heart." His son, who bought into her mumbo jumbo about the Lord of Light, is dead, and Davos blames the Red Priestess.
Unfortunately, when he gets to Dragonstone, it becomes clear that she's convinced Stannis that the whole defeat was Davos' fault -- for preventing her from accompanying the attacking forces. "I could have saved them," she declares. It's the kind of impossible-to-prove claim that office sociopaths are always making to the higher-ups, and Davos' resulting rage lands him in a dungeon. Oops.
I admit I'm not exactly clear on what happened in Harrenhal. When Robb Stark and his troops arrive, it's corpse central, but I don't understand why. (Now's probably a good time to admit that I haven't read the books, though I am making liberal use of A Wiki of Ice and Fire.) Last we saw of Harrenhal, to my knowledge, Arya, Gendry and Hot Pie were beating a retreat past a bunch of dead guards -- but surely her creepy shape-shifter friend Jaqen didn't kill everybody in the city, did he? And I'm assuming Tywin and his troops didn't just slaughter everyone on their way out of town to save King's Landing, right? Maybe someone smarter than me can explain this (without spoilers) in the comments.
The most interesting thing that happens in Harrenhal -- apart from Robb's stubborn but understandable persistence in treating his mother like a prisoner -- is the writers' decision not to have the one miraculously living survivor tell us what the hell happened. Instead, sidestepping that particular time-honored cliché, they just have him reply incredulously when Talisa tells him he's lucky to be alive. "Lucky?" he says, meaningfully. Oh, these are dark times, kiddies. You might even be better off dead.
But back to the episode's themes: new beginnings! Sansa is ready to have one, now that she's no longer betrothed to the most powerful little shit in the Seven Kingdoms. You can tell she has escape on her mind because she's forcing Shae to play a game where they fantasize about where various ships are headed -- and Sansa's fantasy involves leaving King's Landing and never coming back. She's retreating into her imagination because "the truth is always either terrible or boring." (For the record, I would wear that on a T-shirt.)
Just then, Littlefinger shows up and asks to speak to Sansa alone. She asks him to make good on his offer to help her get the hell out of Dodge, and he says there might be a way. Meanwhile, Ros gives Shae a friendly warning about Littlefinger: "Watch out for her with him," she says. It's true -- the guy has no scruples whatsoever. Then again, he's in love with Catelyn. Maybe he really wants to help Sansa -- or maybe he thinks delivering her to Catelyn will score him some major points? Whatever the answer, he's risking a lot by plotting to deprive the Lannisters of their last human bargaining chip for Jaime's pretty little head.
The little shit, for his part, is still trying to figure out his new wife, Margaery. (Can anyone spell a name the normal way in this damned series?) We know she's ambitious, and she seems to be modeling her nascent queenship on Princess Diana, stopping the royal convoy in Flea Bottom for some impromptu orphan relief. That night, Cersei, who probably embroidered her beautiful gown with the arteries of starving children, warns Margaery to stay the hell off the streets of Flea Bottom, but Joffrey is more philosophical. "I'm sure she knows what she's doing," he opines during dinner, not mentioning that he watched her activities from the safety of his covered carriage, too afraid to step outside and reel her in.
There is exactly zero chance that Joffrey believes in helping the poor, so I assume he's (a) watching to see if such activities can help him win back some much-needed support for the people, or (b) waiting for a chance to punish Margaery in some virtuosic way that the rest of us can't even imagine. Actually, it's probably both.
And now for the ultimate new beginning: Daenerys Targaryen, her dragons, Ser Jorah Mormont and a shipload of puking Dothraki warriors are on the move! The three dragons are growing up fast, though not fast enough for Dany, whose eyes tell you all you need to know about her insatiable zeal to set half the world on fire if that's what it takes to win the Iron Throne. This motley assemblage drops anchor at Astorpor, where Jorah thinks they might pick up some mercenary warriors.
There is some National Lampoon-style translation humor as the slaver, Kraznys, repeatedly insults the newcomers without their knowledge. But things turn serious when he slices off a warrior's nipple to show how impervious they are to all human considerations. Then Khaleesi learns that each of these 8,000 warriors -- eunuchs known as The Unsullied -- has murdered a slave baby in front of his mother as a rite of initiation. We're left to interpret the steely look in her eyes, but I don't think it's admiration or even greed for their unwavering loyalty. I think she's envisioning the fiery revenge she's going to exact on these savages.
She's still humoring Jorah as they walk through the marketplace, but she's also playing a game of hide and seek with a small girl. The girl throws her a ball and signals that she should open it. Just then, a man in a cloak comes at Khaleesi with a knife. Jorah grabs him, the ball falls to the ground, and a sinister scorpion-looking thing climbs out of it. The knife again -- it stabs the scorpion, saving Daenerys' life. The man in the cloak chases the little girl, who reveals herself to be a warlock before diving into the water and reappearing on the other side. The man introduces himself as Barristan Selmy, the proud warrior whom Joffrey fired from the
Knightsguard Kingsguard. He swears his allegiance to Daenerys, giving her yet another noble champion -- and giving Jorah a rival for Khaleesi's loyalty.
If it were up to me (it's not), I'd hand the Iron Throne to Daenerys in the end. Sure, she's completely mental, but isn't that what you want in a sovereign? Nobody wants to look at the throne and think, "Man, what does he or she have that I don't? That should be me up there." You want to think, "Holy Christ, that person was born to lead -- and better her than me!" Daenyrus has that possessed quality -- she looks and acts as if she were placed in the world for one reason only: to vanquish her enemies and lay claim to the Seven Kingdoms. Telling her she can't rule the Seven Kingdoms would be like telling Anna Wintour she can't edit Vogue magazine.
Plus, Daenerys has character. You just know she's going to make that smug slavedriver pay. Her motto should be: "Has dragons, will use 'em."
What did you think of this week's episode? Did I miss anything important? Did I screw up any of the names? (I'm absolutely positive I did.) Is Season 3 living up to the hype so far? Let us know in the comments!
"Game of Thrones" airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.