Every week for the third season of HBO's acclaimed fantasy series Game of Thrones, our roundtable of Ross Douthat (columnist, The New York Times), Spencer Kornhaber (entertainment editor, TheAtlantic.com), and Christopher Orr (senior editor and film critic, The Atlantic) will discuss the latest happenings in Westeros.
Kornhaber: Sex and death get the headlines, but anyone who's binge-watched the first two seasons of Game of Thrones in a few-weeks span—guilty here—knows that the show spends most of its time with chitchat. So it's a good sign that last night's Season Three premiere had some of the show's best all-talk scenes yet.
Chris, you've marveled at how Game of Thrones adds locale after locale, storyline after storyline, character after character, without collapsing on itself. One way it manages the clutter, I'd argue, is by forcing the characters to grapple with new elements at the same time as the viewers—in other words, by staging meet-and-greets that happen to be as entertaining, tense, and plot-advancing as most of the show's other moments.
So in this map-expanding return, we were treated to some sorta-hilarious kabuki diplomacy between members of newly conjoined tribes. Jon Snow kneeling to the wrong guy—and kneeling at all—when brought to Mance Rayder's tent. Margaery Tyrell (introduced but inscrutable last season) performing a doe-eyed flatterer routine at the dinner table in the face of Cersei Lannister's condescension. The Astaporian translator softening her master's barbs towards that "ignorant whore of a Westerner" Daenerys Targaryen and her apparently piss-redolent companion Jorah Mormont.
But the most engrossing convo was between two people who know each other quite well: Tywin and Tyrion Lannister. The first time we met Tywin, he was skinning a deer and lecturing his eldest son, Jamie, on filial duty. Here, his preoccupation was letter writing. That's a less gory but more chilling distraction, given the uncharacteristically plaintive, vulnerable way his youngest addressed him. When Tywin's disinterest turned to hot contempt—"You are an ill-made, spiteful little creature, full of envy, lust, and low cunning"—you could see Tyrion taking a deeper wound than he received at the Battle of the Blackwater. Peter Dinklage may have sewn up another Emmy in the instant he looked back, nodded, and then walked out of the room as Tywin threatened to hang "the next whore I catch in your bed."
So yeah, a nice hour of television. A few things left me cold, though. I find it impossible to care about the Stannis Baretheon storyline: The series has only ever told, not shown, why anyone would follow this morally confused lunk into war, much less risk death and invite imprisonment to redeem him after a loss, as Davos Seaworth did in Dragonstone. And the reveal of Barristan Selmy in Astapor didn't live up to the high drama suggested by the music and the scene's placement at the end of the episode. I barely remember him being in previous seasons. Moreover, does the khaleesi need another dutiful has-been following her around?
I suspect, though, that these two moments, and a few others, would resonate more deeply had I devoured George R.R. Martin's books. Chris and Ross, you're the learned Maesters here and I'm as unread as Bronn. Without spoiling what looks to be a pretty fun season, what am I not picking up on?
Orr: Ah, Spencer. You have wisdom beyond your education, my scarcely housebroken sellsword.
It's apt that you should mention the show's expository dialogue, which—for obvious reasons—tends to be particularly prominent in the early episodes of each season. Specifically: Here are two characters, interacting in such a way that you learn important details about a) each one as an individual, and b) the relationships between them, public and private (the two rarely being the same).
It's a narrative mechanism that seems particularly well attuned to viewers who haven't read the books. I was in your shoes less than two years ago: I hadn't read any of the novels, but I was persuaded to give the show a try (despite my decades-long fantasy disappointment post-Tolkien) by a couple of friends, among them our co-recapper Ross—who, for his sins, I have corralled into participating into this conversation despite his having a brand-new baby. (Those readers who believe in fate can take her name as an omen: Eleanor Snow Douthat.) When Ross, who'd read the books, described the first season to me, he said it started slowly, but gathered pace to become transfixing by the end. I certainly agreed with the latter half of that assessment, but I found the first few episodes fascinating as well: meeting the Starks and Lannisters, visiting the Wall and exiled Daenerys among the Dothraki, slowly absorbing this almost indigestibly rich world...
But having consumed the novels after Season One, I've found the subsequent season openers a little slow. Not only do they have to re-immerse those only partially steeped in the saga, they have to do their best to introduce the story to those misguided souls (to anyone reading this, don't be one of them!) who are trying to pick up the series in the middle. Which is all a long way of saying that I was a bit disappointed by the first episode of Season Three—in part, perhaps, due to this reflexive I-know-these-characters-already response; in part, too, because I had nearly a year in which to let my expectations build; and in part because I thought the episode really misplayed two of the (many, many) terrific moments in the third novel. (More on this in a minute.)
Before going on, I should say that, like any fan of the books, I've had my frustrations and disappointments with their adaptation to the screen by novelists-turned-showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. But, as noted, I was a fan of the show before I was a fan of the books. And what a feat of compression Benioff and Weiss have pulled off! Martin's novels are so dense and wide-ranging that you'd think them unfilmable. This week I took a brief toe-dip back into the third book, A Storm of Swords, and I was amazed at how much Benioff and Weiss have cut, while seeming to cut so little. As a magazine editor for more years than I like to remember, I am suitably awed.
Which brings me to a few particulars regarding the first episode itself. I agree that it has some particularly good "talky" scenes, and I think they demonstrate Benioff and Weiss's talents neatly. Take the meeting between Jon Snow and Mance Rayder: The Mance of the show already differs clearly from the Mance of the novels, who is a bit of a jokester/troubadour. But the more somber take on the character offered by Ciaran Hinds (whom I've loved since Rome and Munich) seems entirely suitable. And Benioff and Weiss did a nice bit of rewriting when it comes to Jon Snow's stated motivation for betraying his Night's Watch brothers and joining the wildlings. In the book, he says he's doing so because he was always treated as a bastard by the Starks in Winterfell. The show's take—that he's doing so because he feels the wildlings are more serious about fighting the White Walkers—is not only clever, but it underlines one of the powerful themes of the series, i.e., that everyone in the Seven Kingdoms is too busy killing one another to recognize the existential threat gathering north of the Wall.
By contrast, the Daenerys/slave-trader and Tyrion/Tywin scenes play almost exactly as they do in the book, with the latter in particular lifted virtually verbatim. I agree it's a great scene, one of several that Tywin—whom Benioff and Weiss have actually made more prominent than he is in the books—should have this season. As an aside, I'll mention that I've been a big Charles Dance fan going all the way back to White Mischief, Alien 3, and, yes, Schwarzenegger's The Last Action Hero, in which Dance played the villain. I can still hear the bottomless contempt he managed to pour into his delivery of the word "cretin" (pronounced with a short "e").
Regarding your disappointment with Stannis: I wasn't particularly happy with the casting of Stephen Dillane (I think Stannis should be a larger and more formidable figure), but the character is meant to be utterly unlovable, and a leader whom men are disinclined to follow. Ser Davos (for reasons of backstory that have been cut to the bone on the show) is a singular exception, which makes his arc with Stannis all the more tragic. But I agree that this relationship is less compelling than it ought to be.
As for the Barristan Selmy reveal, this was one of my two big disappointments with the episode. In the novels, Ser Barristan joins Daenerys's retinue by posing as the squire of another character who's evidently been cut from the show, and he doesn't reveal his true identity until much later. It's a nice little mystery—as Ser Jorah repeatedly points out to Daenerys, he's way too old to be a squire—and, ultimately, a very satisfying revelation. I can see how Benioff and Weiss might feel that his character was peripheral enough during Season One that viewers would be underwhelmed by his eventual reveal. But they seem to have split the difference in a somewhat clumsy manner: If Ser Barristan doesn't merit having his identity kept secret for a while, then he probably doesn't merit being the closing scene of the season premiere either.
My other disappointment was perhaps inevitable. One of the great scenes of the novel (told in flashback through Samwell Tarly) is the battle on the Fist of the First Men between the Night's Watch and the White Walkers with their wights. It's a truly harrowing bit: at night, in heavy snowfall, the zombies encroaching relentlessly. (There's even an undead bear!) In the show, by contrast, it all takes place off-screen, while Sam and his mates are out collecting dung. I'd say this was a terrible mistake, but I assume it was a decision that was largely if not entirely mandated by the show's budget. Instead, we got that weird and frustrating scene to close Season Two, in which the White Walkers march past Sam like a Halloween parade and, inexplicably, don't kill him.
But I've gone on too long already. Ross, I remember you hated that Season Two closing scene, too. What did you think of the opening episode of Season Three?
Douthat: First, a hearty Dothraki thank you (you don't want to know what that involves) to you both for having me along for a season's worth of obsessive Thronesing. Second, you remember correctly, Chris: I thought that the first season got better as it went along, and the second season (mostly) got worse. Coming to the show having read all of the books (or all of the books then extant, since A Dance With Dragons wasn't out yet), I spent the first half of Season One wondering how anyone who hadn't read the novels could possibly understand what was going on in the present, let alone figure out the (incredibly important) backstory that explained the motivations of Targaryens, Baratheons, Lannisters, and Starks. I'm pretty sure that most viewers couldn't actually figure it all out, but then the drive to Eddard Stark's execution was well-executed enough that it didn't really matter: By the last few episodes, you didn't need to keep up to be hooked.
In Season Two, on the other hand, I thought the earliest episodes were the strongest, and then a combination of weaknesses inherent to Book Two and mistakes by the showrunners made the finish much less potent than I had hoped. "Blackwater," the penultimate episode, was a tour de force, but in the stories that didn't converge on King's Landing and were wrapped up in the finale instead, I thought the show went out with a whimper: Theon Greyjoy's disastrous capture of Winterfell was better in the novel, mostly because of the presence of a crucial character whom I gather we'll finally meet this season; Daenerys's sojourn in Qarth, tedious in the books, was reshaped by Benioff and Weiss to be ... just as tedious; Jon Snow just slogged around the glaciers for far too many episodes; and I absolutely hated the season-ending scene, both for the reason you cite, Chris, and because I thought it was dumb to show one of the Others/White Walkers, and even dumber to make him look a none-too-menacing CGI critter you'd expect meet in the back of the Star Wars cantina. I know they were going for the equivalent of the successful supernatural shock that ended Season One, but this time it fell flat.
So that's the baggage I'm bringing to this season—well, that and the feeling of long-term dread, instilled in me by the disappointments of A Dance With Dragons, about Martin's ability to wind up his story. But here I'll end the carping, because I thought the premiere was excellent: The Tywin/Tyrion and Daenerys/slave trader scenes were both flawless adaptations of great moments from the books, and all the business with Margaery and the orphans—in which we see how the Tyrells intend to take advantage of the Lannisters' great weakness, which is their inability to see that there's more to politics than the raw exercise of power—was an example of Benioff and Weiss's ability to expand on what's implicit in the story they're adapting. The Stannis storyline is dull at this point, I agree, but I don't mind it in small doses, and while the Selmy reveal was inevitably somewhat anticlimactic given that most viewers probably don't remember him from Season One, I don't think a scene-setting season premiere needs a "holy sh-t" moment to send us off. Nor did I miss the battle you're pining for, Chris: After seeing the Other and his undead minions at the end of Season Two, I didn't need to see them again so soon, and in general I'm always happy to spend less time rather than more north of the Wall.
If there's anything I'm hoping for from this season, it's that this will change—that Ciaran Hinds's Mance and Rose Leslie's Ygritte between them will make up for the fact that Kit Harrington is one of the least interesting members of the cast, dragging down material that's already not as juicy as the intrigues to the south. So here's to that possibility, and here's looking forward to next week.