Game of Thrones – 21 (Season Premiere)

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“Valar Dohaeris”

The longest off-season in television – at least it feels like it – is finally over.

With the premiere of Season 3 of Game of Thrones came the interesting tidbit that GoT is the most illegally downloaded series ever.  That’s fascinating in its own right, but I especially liked the response of HBO President Michael Lombardo:

The show’s second season was recently released to record-setting DVD sales for the network. But in December, Thrones topped another chart that is far more dubious — Thrones ranked as the most illegally downloaded TV series for 2012. “I probably shouldn’t be saying this, but it is a compliment of sorts,” Lombardo said. “The demand is there. And it certainly didn’t negatively impact the DVD sales. [Piracy is] something that comes along with having a wildly successful show on a subscription network…” 


In fact, one of Lombardo’s issues with piracy is a creative one. The executive expressed concern that illegal copies can be of poor quality when the Thrones team takes pride in lavishly producing the show. “One of my worries is about the copies [downloaders are] seeing,” Lombardo said. “The production values of this show are so incredible. So I’m hoping that in the purloined different generation of cuts that the show is holding up.”

That’s a remarkably well-informed and realistic response from a man in Lombardo’s position – and, I suspect, one which he’ll take a good deal of grief for in the industry.

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As for our premiere episode, I’d rank it as a solid, workmanlike effort that gets the job done: lacking the poetry and explosive drama that the best episodes of this series display, but that’s as much a product of the material it covered as anything else.  Season-premiere episodes for 10-episode series have an awful lot of work to do, both in recalling what’s come before and setting the stage for what’s to come.

It’s my feeling that we’re at the point in the story where HBO is going to have a harder and harder time transitioning the books to the screen without making some significant changes.  One of the peculiarities of GoT is that it grows constantly – sure, characters die, but not nearly as fast as new ones (and their arcs) are added.  It starts as a huge story and just gets bigger and bigger, yet Martin mostly manages to maintain a human touch.  Whether a TV series can do that when half the main cast isn’t going to appear in any given episode is hard to say.  I’ve seen no indication that HBO and Martin are dramatically scaling things back – at this point it looks more like selective trimming – but I’m not sure they’re going to be able to keep it up.

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The most important new characters introduced this week are North of the Wall, and the most important of them is the King North of the Wall, Mance Rayder.  He’s played by Welsh actor Ciaran Hinds, who was so magnificent as Julius Caesar in my favorite HBO series to date, Rome.  The cast of GoT is truly remarkable and this just makes it that much better.  I’ll need to be convinced about the other major addition, Norwegian actor Kristofer Hivju as Tormund Giantsbane.  He’s the right nationality for certain, but he lacks the raw physicality I imagined in Tormund, one of the best characters in this part of the story.  But Tormund didn’t have a chance to show off his personality much this week, so I’ll withhold judgment for a while.  It’s hardly spoiling to say that both these men are going to be important players in events to come, and this marks Jon Snow’s true introduction to life beyond The Wall – a place where men don’t kneel to their Kings and “freedom” is the buzzword.  Considering that Jon’s life was hanging in the balance his interview with Mance was decidedly low-key, but that’s accurate to how it felt in the books.

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The best moments in the episode, as they so often do, came from Tyrion – and especially from his interactions with his father Tywin.  Watching Peter Dinklage and Charles Dance is a remarkable experience – they’re both phenomenal and perfectly cast, and while Dinklage is justifiably praised in all quarters Dance has emerged as an unheralded star of GoT.  Many of the great moments in the series are one-on-one conversations, and many involve Tywin – and here we see him unleash a torrent of vitriol on Tyrion, who’s looking for a little recognition (and a little Casterly Rock) as thanks for having saved the asses of everyone in King’s Landing.  Needless to say father and son don’t quite see eye-to-eye (pun intended) on this matter or anything else, and their conversation was heavy with significance.

Elsewhere in King’s Landing, Margaery Tyrell has drawn the attention of both King Joffrey and his mother with her charitable work, handing out bread and wooden soldiers to war orphans.  I won’t say too much about Margaery just yet, but it’s clear already that she’s no one to be taken lightly.  Our old friend Littlefinger is tightening the net around Sansa, who desperately longs to be out from under her former betrothed and reunited with her family.  And Tyrion is finding out that as usual, his only friends and only friends as long as they’re well-paid (with one possible exception).

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Of the Starks we have only the brief check-in with Sansa and a short scene featuring The King in the North (Westeros is just crawling with Kings at the moment) and his party as they witness the work of Tywin’s retreating armies.  We also meet up with Davos as he’s rescued from the lonely rock upon which he’s washed up after the Battle of the Blackwater, and (much more quickly than in the books) with Saan’s reluctant help he makes his way to Dragonstone to try and convince Stannis that Melisandre’s path is the one that leads to true darkness.

But rather than in Westeros itself, the biggest events in this episode happen on either side of it – in the North and the South, where Danerys’ dragons are growing ever-larger (and hungrier).  She’s hungry too – for the army that she needs to place her back on the throne she sees as rightfully hers.  Jorah tells her he can deliver it – but it’s a slave army, The Unsullied – whose mere existence is a mockery of everything Danerys says she stands for.  “A means to an end” Jorah calls them, another in a long string of compromises he urges on her – and this conflict of philosophy between the two of them is one of the more interesting elements in this part of the story.  There’s another important development with Dany, too, and that’s the arrival of no less than Ser Barristan Selmy himself, who arrives just in the nick of time to save Dany from an assassin wolf in sheep’s clothing and declare his loyalty to her.  His arrival could hardly be more different from the way it happened in the book, and just when it looked as if Danerys’ wildly fluctuating arc might be falling back in line with canon, it appears to be veering off again.

It’s been over a year now since I’ve picked up any of the books, and considerably more since I read the one this season is mostly based-on – a little distance I’m glad to have as I think it will help me judge the season on its own merits.  The staff of the TV series have an enormous challenge on their hands, even with Martin’s active participation, and it’s going to be fascinating to see them try and walk the gauntlet between impossible expectations and reality.  This premiere episode is a table-setter, nothing more, and at that it does its job admirably.  But the real work starts now.

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15 comments

  1. M

    Nice start. I wasn't expecting them to leave in the nipple scene, that it caught me off guard. Blech. I do wish Robb's camp was in Riverrun already, they feel a little aimless – Catelyn roaming about freely as a prisoner is hardly convincing.

  2. A

    No doubt the adaptation will be more challenging but the fact that the showrunners decided to adapt only half of The Storm of Swords means they are more prepared for the sprawling story. Had they stuck to the season per book pace you'd be right.

  3. K

    So you are still doing live action reviews? Will you still be reviewing Doctor Who by any chance?

  4. Yup, today. I was going to cover it yesterday but a cold has knocked me on my ass…

  5. B

    I've never read these books or watched the show but I like Lombardo's response to the piracy, and considering that it also had record breaking DVD sales for their network I'd have to say he definitely has the numbers on his side to back up his statements, so hopefully the industry won't draw and quarter him for it.

  6. G

    Danery is becoming more and more like her brother a little bit at a time.

    On another note I wish someone would get ahold of the Sword of Shannara rights and either make a shit load of movies or a series like this.

  7. L

    You know, at this point I don't know if Daenerys going for the throne is a good or bad thing. She certainly looks like she's more compassionate and level-headed than half the kings out there, but all these compromises might make her go crazy. And does she ever get to Westeros in later books? I'm really looking forward to that.

  8. Please, no one answer that!

    ANd let me just add, we're still 2 books short of the 7 Martin says he plans to write. I suspect HBO will catch up by Season 6 at the latest.

  9. L

    I wouldn't mind them taking things a bit slower with the following books, maybe. I'm sure they have some sort of pacing plan going on, since Martin's working with the producers and all.

  10. They may very well end up doing two seasons per book for Books 4 and 5, just to give Martin a chance to build a lead. There's more than enough material (those are the longest books so far) and the show broke its own record for ratings with the premiere.

    That said, there are some significant challenges with Books 4 and 5 that I frankly have no idea how HBO ia going to deal with in the first place. I'll say no more except that structurally, they's pose quite a dilemma.

  11. M

    The show creators have already expressed a desire not to let the series run on for 10 seasons. It's likely they will cut chunks out of AFFC and patch it to ADWD. They have the ending in broad strokes so it's fair to assume it will start to take its own path to get there sometime around season 6, wrapping up in 7 or 8.

    But I don't want to think that far ahead and just enjoy what we've got now.

  12. e

    On the non-fictional side, the actress playing Sansa is really growing fast. I had a few suspicions about her upcoming adventures, Ros' words this episode seem to confirm at least a part of those [and then there are the hints I think I detected watching School Of Thrones…]. Ouch. Poor girl.
    Talking about Stark girls I hope we can see how Arya's doing next episode.
    Tyrion and Daddy Dearest were fantastic. Some lines just cut so good. But goodness my Imp can't ever take a break.
    Margy seems to be both cunning and compassionate. Or at least very good at pretending to be the latter. Well, as long as she can bother Cersei a bit I'm perfectly happy with her playing the fairy princess :p.
    On the other hand, Melisandre could go die in a fire (ehe. ohoho.) . Poor Davos, I'm quite fond of his down-to-earth approach but he really seems to have miscalculated his moves out of loyalty and affection here.

    Ciaran Hinds! Eeeeh 8D, I remember him from his BBC days as Wentworth (love!) and as The Mayor of Casterbridge. Quite eager to see more of his character here.
    Jon fared quite well and answered quite well too *waves Snow flag*

    I wish I could elaborate more but I'm short on time. Good episode anyway.

    P.S.: Jorah, I'm worried for you my lad. Don't anger a stormborn mother of dragons…

  13. If you think Sansa is growing fast, wait till you see Bran.

  14. e

    I glimpsed a picture some months ago but it was quick enough peek that I'm ready to be suitably surprised…

  15. h

    Holy crocodile droppings, this show is raunchy. I had to hunt down the censored versions…

    Not easy to find, but I'm glad they're out there. Shows the dedication of the fanbase to ALL demographics, I suppose.

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