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.
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. Does the khaleesi need another dutiful has-been following her around?
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).
I was a bit disappointed by the episode, in part because I thought it really misplayed two of the (many, many) terrific moments in the third novel.
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.