From the very first moments of "Valar Dohaeris," we can probably guess what kind of season it's going to be. The first shot of the episode is of a barren landscape with a winter storm rolling in: we hear a howling wind, and we see everything obliterated by white. Winter is no longer coming: winter is here. But before that—before the first shot, before the first words, and even before the opening credits—what we hear is the screaming. We hear screaming, and fighting, and dying, and the high-pitched shriek of something unnatural and unimaginable announcing itself from the darkness.
Welcome back to Game of Thrones, and brace yourself. Yes, the show features kings and queens, princes and princesses, witches and warlocks, dragons and giants and magic—but don't let any of that fool you. This is no fairy tale, and the odds of anyone living happily ever after are getting slimmer by the season.
As usual, I'll be reviewing each episode of Season Three as an hour of television; I try not to constantly compare the show to the novels, and I go out of my way to avoid any spoilers from the books. However, some minor references to the books are unavoidable, particularly if the show is going to call upon them, as it has done in the last couple of episode titles. We ended last season with an episode entitled "Valar Morghulis," which—though the show has not explained this yet—means "all men must die" in the language of Valyria. We begin this season, appropriately enough, with the traditional Valyrian response, "Valar Dohaeris," which translates to "all men must serve."
Fair enough: all men must die, and, until they do, all men must serve. It's a common enough philosophy in Game of Thrones, which is concerned to the point of obsession with loyalty, allegiance, and responsibility. Characters are constantly bending the knee to one another, swearing their fealty, and expounding on the duties their honor and oaths demand of them. As we've discussed many times before—here, for example—virtually no one in this society is really free: nearly everyone is effectively owned by someone else, and even the most powerful rulers are in service to their gods, their oaths, or their family names.
"Valar Dohaeris" is a relatively quiet episode of Game of Thrones, and largely concerned with just getting most of the pieces back on the board. (I say most: many of the major characters—Arya, Theon, Jaime and Brienne, Bran and Rickon and Osha—do not appear this week.) As such, it's not as thematically tight an episode as the show usually delivers, but running throughout most of the scenes this week is this question of what it means to serve.
"Stand up, boy. We don't kneel for anyone beyond the Wall."
The men of the Night's Watch exist only to serve: they are allowed no wives, no children, no property or titles, no ambition except to live and die in the service of the realm. They are supposed to prioritize duty over all other concerns, including their own safety, but it's a lesson Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) forgets this week: he had one duty—to send the ravens, and warn the Kingdom about the White Walkers—and, in his fear for his own life, he didn't do it.
The person with the most complicated relationship to duty and servitude, however, may be Jon Snow (Kit Harrington). All true-born sons of Westeros owe service and allegiance and obedience to their fathers, to their families, and to their liege-lords—but Snow was born a bastard, with a bastard's surname. He was, in a very real sense, born a free man. (As we discussed way back in the fourth episode of Game of Thrones, there is a special liberty that comes with being one of the "cripples, bastards, and broken things," forced out of the rigid social order.)
However, rather than enjoy the freedom his ostracism granted him—as, for example, Tyrion did—Jon Snow longed all his life to belong somewhere, and made himself more responsible and disciplined than his father's true-born sons. As soon as he was old enough he voluntarily surrendered his freedom, joined the strictest order he could find, and swore his life to service. And now, through a strange twist of fate, it is that very obligation that forces him into freedom: to fulfill his service to the Night's Watch, he must join the Wildings, who—as Ygritte told him last season—do not believe in silly rules and vows. Whereas most of the men of the Night's Watch are debauchers and criminals forced to be disciplined soldiers, Jon is a disciplined soldier being forced into a life of crime and debauchery. For him, at this time, being in service means being free.
Now we meet for the first time Mance Rayder (Ciaran Hinds), who—though called "The King Beyond the Wall"—informs Jon Snow that ruling, like serving, means something different different here. "Stand up, boy," he says, when Jon kneels before him (as he has been taught to kneel before all kings). "We don't kneel for anyone beyond the wall."
Interestingly, not even Mance—who just met him—can believe Jon really longs to be a libertine: it just doesn't sit right on the tight-assed little bastard. "I want to be free," Jon says, and Mance instantly knows that's a lie. "No, I don't think so. I think what you want, most of all, is to be a hero." And—though it is part of his cover—we suspect there is truth in what Jon says next, as he explains that he lost faith with the Night's Watch when he saw Lord Mormont turn a blind eye to the fact that Craster was giving his infant sons to the White Walkers. "I want to fight for the side that fights for the living," Jon says, unconsciously evoking the lesson he learned from his father: that sometimes doing what is right trumps duty, loyalty, and honor.
"Jugglers and singers require applause: you are a Lannister."
Meanwhile, in King's Landing, we catch up with Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), who in many ways is Jon's opposite. Jon was a bastard, but raised by his family in warmth and respect; Tyrion is a true-born son who has been treated like a bastard all his life. (In this respect, Tyrion and Samwell Tarly have a lot in common.) Driven from any position of respect within his family, Tyrion did become a libertine, seemingly content to pass his days drinking and whoring (as his father never tires of reminding him).
But perhaps Tyrion, secretly, always longed to serve? Last season he was handed some authority and responsibility for the first time in his life, and the results were universally surprising: he surprised everyone else by being good at his job, and he surprised himself by enjoying it. It was not the privilege he enjoyed, or even the power, but the fact that he was, for the first time in his life, of use.
Now, however, having completed his first tour of service at great personal cost, Tyrion is finding out that serving faithfully can mean serving thanklessly. "Jugglers and singers require applause," his father (Charles Dance) chastises him, when Tyrion asks for a small show of gratitude. "You are a Lannister." Tywin's logic, of course, is not just faulty, it's disingenuous: for one thing, he himself accepted plenty of applause at the end of last season, being hailed as "Savior of the City" with a great deal of pomp and circumstance. More importantly, applause is not the point: respect is the point. Tywin now accepts that Tyrion can serve the family as all other Lannisters are expected to do, but Tywin has no intention of granting Tyrion the rights and privileges and respect that every other Lannister earns by simply existing:
"We'll find you accommodations more suited to your name, and as a reward for your accomplishments during the Battle of Blackwater Bay. And, when the time is right, you will be given a position fit for your talents, so that you can serve your family and protect our legacy. And if you serve faithfully, you will be rewarded with a suitable wife. And I would let myself be consumed by maggots before mocking the family name and making you heir to Casterly Rock."
In Westeros, the Lannisters are—appropriately, given their sigil—the very top of the food chain: they got the money, and they got the power. Yet it's a curious truth that they also seem to be among the least happy people in the Seven Kingdoms: they are all, in different ways, imprisoned by their positions, enslaved in service to the family. Tyrion was probably the happiest Lannister, because he had his freedom—the freedom of the outcast—but now he's come inside and tried to play by the family rules. And what he's discovered is what Cersei (Lena Headey) has known all along: there's really no joy to be found in serving the Lannister name.
Director Daniel Minahan has a couple of nice visual motifs this episode to reinforce this point. Notice the way he frames Tyrion as caged in behind his door:
And how, later in the episode, the same imagery shows King Joffrey a prisoner of his own privilege.
Similarly, Cersei goes everywhere with armored guards at each elbow, and wearing—as Margaery (Natalie Dormer) points out—armor herself. It is Margaery who tries to show both Cersei and Joffrey that there is a different way to rule: unlike Cersei, she wears no armor, and she refuses to travel with guards, even in the bowels of the city. Unlike Joffrey, she doesn't cower in her carriage, terrified of the people; instead, as they pass through Fleabottom, the slum of King's Landing, Margaery pays a charitable visit to the orphans of the Battle of Blackwater. It may be nothing more than a public relations stunt—it remains to be seen how sincere Margaery is—but it is a smarter way to rule, and something that would never have occurred to any Lannister to do. "I want to be the Queen," Margaery told Baelish last season, but it's clear that Margaery's has some radical notions of what that means: she means to be beloved, and to be a queen who is—or at least perceived to be—a servant of the people.
"I'm a pirate, you're a smuggler: servants of darkness. I'm thinking Dragonstone is a good place for us to avoid."
Meanwhile, one of the most loyal men in Westeros is—not for the first time—paying a high price for his loyalty.
Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham)—last seen flying ass over teakettle in the Battle of Blackwater Bay—turns up blistered and burnt on a crag of rock. The first question he is asked by his rescuers is the first question asked of all men in Westeros: Who do you serve?
Davos hesitates: which answer will get him rescued? But he has dedicated his life to serving one man, Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane), and he's not about to change now—even if he should. His old friend Salladhor Saan (Lucian Msamati) informs him that Stannis is a broken man, sequestered at Dragonstone with Melisandre (Carice Van Houten). Melisandre, as we discussed last season, is that most terrifying of individuals: one who is absolutely sure of the rightness of her own actions. Everyone who doesn't serve her is a servant of darkness, and she is burning those misguided souls alive. "I'm a pirate, you're a smuggler: servants of darkness," Salladhor Saan says. "I'm thinking Dragonstone is a good place for us to avoid."
But Davos's loyalty is absolute—he has sworn his allegiance, remember, to the guy who cut off his fingers—and he considers it part of his duty to tell Stannis hard truths and, when necessary, to save the king from himself. He was speaking hard truths last season, when he persuaded Stannis not to bring Melisandre to Blackwater Bay; now he finds himself blamed for Stannis's defeat, and—like another Hand of the King who spoke hard truths—finds himself thrown in the dungeon for his service.
"Once I own an army of slaves, what will I be?"
As we see all through "Valar Doehaeris," the question of service goes hand-in-hand with the question of leadership: Joffrey and Margaery model two different ways of ruling over those who serve them, and we see other examples throughout the episode. (We hear a story of 9-year-old Cersei, for example, beating her 9-year-old servant girl, which is cited as one of the original disputes between her and Tyrion.)
With Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), this has been the central question of her entire storyline in Game of Thrones: she has a naturally kind heart, but she also has a taste for conquest and the blood of the mad Targaryans running through her veins. What kind of queen/khaleesi will she turn out to be? She faces a major test of that now.
In Season One, the slaving ways of the Dothraki troubled her, and in fact she set free the enslaved women of the Lamb Tribe—a decision that turned out to have dire consequences. Now, she contemplates becoming a slave-lord herself, as she goes shopping for an army. The Unsullied are the ultimate servants: Davos sacrificed a few fingers to Stannis, but the Unsullied surrender their entire lives, their balls, and the occasional nipple. ("This one is pleased to have served you," one of the soldiers says, after being so tortured as part of the sales presentation.) Dany is horrified, and horrified even further when the owner brags that each Unsullied warrior must kill a newborn baby to prove his obedience. "Once I own an army of slaves," Dany asks Ser Jorah (Iain Glen), "What will I be?"
It's a clever way to end this episode, because it puts the entire question of servitude in a larger thematic context. "The Unsullied are not men," their owner says. "Death means nothing to them." The implication is that blind obedience, taken far enough, doesn't just mean a surrendering of identity: it's dehumanizing, for servant and served alike. We admire honor and discipline to a point—in men like Davos, for example—but loyal service to the wrong cause—or the wrong person—is a mistake.
This is apparently the decision Ser Barristan Selmy (Ian McElhinney) has made. Though it's not developed in this episode, Selmy is a perfect personification of the notion of service: he loyally served the Targaryans for most of his life, serving in the Mad King's kingsguard and fighting against Robert Baratheon's rebellion. However, receiving a pardon after the Targaryans fell, he became Lord Commander of King Robert's kingsguard as well—serving loyally many years, until being cruelly fired by Cersei and Joffrey (back in Season One). Selmy came to regret his service to the Baratheons, and to regret even more the loyalty he showed the Lannisters, which they did not show him in return. Now, he seeks the woman he has decided is the rightful ruler of Westeros, and one he hopes is worthy of his service.
The Seven Kingdoms are at war, and the social order is in upheaval: in such an environment, servants can turn against their masters, old allegiances can shift and reallign, and the best way to ensure loyalty is to be the kind of ruler who deserves it.
It's going to be a great season.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits:
- Running late and long (as usual), I skipped over a few scenes this week, but they're all thematically relevant. We have a nice scene between Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Baelish (Aidan Gillen), echoed by a scene between their respective servants, Shae (Sibel Kekilli) and Ros (Esmé Bianco). Ros's loyalty we know is in question: she's been miserable in Baelish's employ, and last year she was approached by Varys (Conleth Hill) to work for him. Here she warns Shae about Baelish's intentions towards Sansa. ("Watch out for her," she tells Shae, who responds, "I always do.")
- And it took me a couple of viewings to realize how the scene with Robb (Richard Madden) at Harrenhal relates to this week's overall theme, but of course it does. Though a natural at it, Robb has never been comfortable with leadership, and even less with leading those who serve him to their deaths: here, hundreds of northmen have been slaughtered just to send him a message. Talisa (Oona Chaplin) tells one survivor he is lucky to be alive, and the man says "Lucky," ironically, looking at the horror around him. It's a deliberate echo back to the first scene between Robb and Talisa, when she chastised him for leaving so much death and pain in his wake. ("The boy was lucky you were here," Robb said then, of a wounded soldier. "He was unlucky you were," she responded.) Robb is that rarest of individuals in Westeros: a ruler who genuinely cares about those who serve him.
- I also skipped—regretfully—over the scenes with Bronn (Jerome Flynn) this week. Bronn, however, is chafing a bit in his service to Tyrion: he's understandably resentful when he has to drop a whore's thong from his teeth to rush to Tyrion's side, and his upward mobility—from sellsword to city watch to knight—has given him both a taste for finer things and a sense of entitlement that does not bode well. It's also worth noting the distinction between service and friendship that both he and Salladhor Saan make. "I sell my sword, I don't loan it out to friends as a favor," he tells Tyrion, while Salladhor makes the same point to Davos: "You drank with me at four of my weddings, but I don't ask you for favors."
- It's probably futile and pedantic to try and make sense of the passage of time on this show, but sometimes the inconsistencies bother me. Tyrion is completely healed, and Dany's dragons are much larger, which implies months and months have passed. But was Davos really on that barren rock for months and months? And have Jon and Ygritte been marching for months and months? How can all of these things happen simultaneously?
- I enjoyed the scene with the slave-trader Kraznys mo Nakloz (Dan Hildebrand) and his translator Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel): it was a bit of welcome comic relief, but also a nice illustration of the difference between true servitude and the illusion of same. ("He begs you to attend us carefully, your grace," is the kind of thing Dany and Jorah hear, while the trader is actually saying things like, "Tell the old man he smells of piss.")
- As I suspect many of you did, I rewatched the first two seasons before this premiere, and one of the things that struck me was just how much better Peter Dinklage has gotten (And considering that he began fabulously, that's saying something.) His performance has grown so much more complex, and subtle, and grounded—and his accent has improved considerably. The writers are taking full advantage of the subtlety of Dinklage's performance as well: rewatch the scene between he and Tywin, and notice how little Tyrion says out loud, and how much he says with his eyes and body language.
- My schedule this spring is going to be tight: ideally, each week, I'll be posting reviews of Doctor Who on Sunday, Game of Thrones on Monday, and Mad Men on Tuesday. However, experience proves that Ideal Me is way more prompt and efficient than Actual Me, so please bear with me: I'm blogging as fast as I can.