It feels less like an impossibly long time since Game Of Thrones first durrr-durrr-DUR-DUR-DUR-DURred onto our screens in a cloud of Yorkshire and incest, but not so much that we perhaps realise just how far we’ve all come, both audience and show.
Icy zombies lurch out of the snow in pursuit of Samwell Tarly (James Bradley), a giant turns to regard Jon Snow (Kit Harington) with feral disdain, and Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke)’s pet dragons, now the size of foxes, their spines darker and more murderous, dive for fish and toast them in mid-air.
Imagine getting all of that in between Bran Stark climbing a wall and Ned sharing a tender moment with his missus. Though we came for the promised spectacle – that brief glimpse of White Walkers – we stayed for the Borgian intrigue and dynastic squabbles, and it’s the human drama that’s defined the show despite the promise of the inhuman often just out of sight.
That balance has never been so evenly weighted as Game Of Thrones Season 3 opens on three main plot strands, Jon Snow‘s meeting with newcomer Mance Rayder (Ciaran Hinds), the King Beyond The Wall, Dany’s sea journey to Slaver’s Bay and the raising of her Arabesque mercenary army, and the courtly cat fights between Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer) and Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), and Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) and Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage).
Dany’s subplot wins for visuals and pace, moving briskly from her boatful of hurling Dothraki to the shore as if to apologise for three episodes standing in the desert in Season 2. We get the aforementioned dragons, an incredibly weird mystical run in, and the recruitment of her fearless eunuch army from a sadistic merchant (who calls her a “Westerosi whore” in the subtitles while his translator flatters and fawns), dwarfed by the emotionally satisfying final twist – much earlier than it occurs in the third book – A Storm Of Swords – perhaps because some secrets are easier to keep when you can’t physically see what’s happening.
North of the Wall, our brief return to poor old Sam and Lord Commander Jeor Mormont (James Cosmo), is quickly replaced by Jon Snow and the aggressively flirtatious Ygritte’s (Rose Leslie). Snow’s induction into the Wildling camp has all the trappings of a traditional heroic arc – the first meeting with Mance Rayder being half Apocalypse Now‘s Colonel Kurtz and half Batman Begins‘ Ra’s al Ghul – but with less of the emotional resonance.
Elsewhere in subplot-land, Ser Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) wakes up a comedy shipwreck from a newspaper sketch, before heading back to Dragonstone for a heated renion with the serpentine quasi-Lady MacBeth Melisandre (Carice van Houten) and the increasingly aloof and batshit Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane); Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) and Petyr Baelish (Aidan Gillen) plot her escape from King’s Landing; and Robb Stark (Richard Madden) leads his troops into the blood soaked slaughterhouse that is Harrenhal, his relationship with Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) still frostier than their homeland.
Despite the sword and sorcery lightshow love the Narrow Sea and North Of The Wall, it’s the power play that remains the most compelling, as Tyrion has a face off with the sneering Cersei, and then a humbling exchange with his coldly vicious father.
Perfectly poised golddigger Margaery Tyrell, with Ser Loras Tyrell (Finn Jones) at her side, both seemingly over Renly (Gethin Anthony) – the first horse they backed (and rode) in the race for the Iron Throne – quickly establishes herself as the sort of saintly fairytale princess that Joffrey‘s (Jack Gleeson) fantasies demand with a visit to the children orphaned at Blackwater and an excrutiating family dinner where spiteful matriarch Cersei is further marginalised. Her hatred for her son’s seemingly unsullied wannabe queens, whose pristine optimism invites both barrels from her damaged cynicism, finds that Margaery isn’t as easily cowed as poor Sansa.
While Seasons 1 and 2 opened with an all-caps BANG!, and – Season 2 especially – lulled severely in a middle, as narratives dragged their heels and took in the (desert) scenary so that slower stories could catch up and all charge into the finale together like lads on a night out, ‘Valar Dohaeris’ has Season 3 opening with a more measured metier, and with it the promise of storylines that can hold this pace.
That some of these storylines boast more fire and dragons and magic than ever before really doesn’t matter all that much when you think about it, because it’s the sparring and the drama and the tense games of political brinkmanship that keep us coming back, just as they always have.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Welcome back, Game Of Thrones.