Sometimes you have to be a little nerdy to fully understand HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” Or at least understand it more deeply than the average viewer. If Season 2 ended with the well-titled episode “Valar Morghulis" meaning, “all men must die,” in Season 3 we begin with the less ominous and more appropriate "Valar Dohaeris" -- “all men must serve.” As fans of Westeros should know, Season 3 falls roughly within the first half of “A Storm of Swords,” the third of the “A Song of Ice and Fire” novels by George R. R. Martin.
When we last left off in the Seven Kingdoms, several narratives had come to a close. But of course the War of the Five Kings -- the Starks, the Baratheons, the Greyjoys and the Tyrells all vying for King Joffrey’s (illegitimate) claim to the Iron Throne -- still rages on. Scarred and bloodied but victorious, Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) and his forces fought back the siege of Kings Landing by the power-obsessed (and magic-blinded) Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) and his army. But of course the spoils of the victory went to his father Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) and the newly allied Tyrell family. This climactic battle may be over, but now there’s plenty of opportunity for the ruling class to turn on each other, and turn they do. And so on to the major storylines of "Valar Dohaeris."
In The North: Beyond The Wall
As season two came to a close the conflicts beyond the wall were rising, with an army of White Walkers and wights (reanimated corpses) amassing far too close to the landmark position of the Fist of the First Men. Understanding the severity of the encroaching Walkers and what it could mean to the larger realm, the survivors of Night's Watch (many of them killed in season 2) led by Lord Commander Jeor Mormont (James Cosmo) retreat to the South to warn civilization about this undead army on the rise. Samwell Tarly (John Bradley-West), the pudgy, most unlikely of the Night’s Watchmen, proves to be incompetent once more and it seems only a matter of time before the remaining men can no longer tolerate him.
Meanwhile, also beyond the wall is Night’s Watchman Jon Snow (Kit Harrington), taken prisoner by the Wildlings, who is now playing the role of traitor. His fellow brother Qhorin Halfhand convinced Snow to kill him at the end of last season, so one of them would at least survive their capture. Snow is brought before Mance Rayder (a newly added Ciaran Hinds), the King Beyond the Wall, and has to convince him why he left the Night’s Watch and why he wants to become part of the Free Folk. "I am going to fight for the side that fights for the living," Snow says through gritted teeth. “Have I come to the right place?” Rayder was a former Night’s Watchman himself and will obviously become a major character this season. Ygritte (Rose Leslie), Snow’s captor and would-be paramore, isn’t far behind either, willing to vouch for his transition to fellow Wildling. We also see more touches of special effects in this section, with more White Walkers and even a giant living among the Free Folk.
Elsewhere, the King of the North Robb Stark (Richard Madden), his army and his mother Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) are barely seen. On their journey to Harrenhall, the castle that had kept Arya Stark captive, they discover Ser Gregor (Ian Whyte), the castellan, and his men have abandoned the fortress and massacred all the prisoners. Disgusted and angered, Stark continues to treat his mother as a prisoner for letting their most prized prisoner possession, the kingslayer Jamie Lannister, be taken away.
In The East: The Lands Across the Narrow Sea
When we last saw Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), the Khaleesi had reclaimed her stolen dragons in Qarth. Having vanquished the warlocks and salvaged enough valuables to buy a ship from amongst the possessions of the treacherous Qarthean dignitary Xaro Xhoan Daxos (Nonso Anozie) Khaleesi and Ser. Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) set sail for to Astapor, one of the great slave cities of Slaver's Bay, to purchase Unsullied -- an unquestioning and powerful eunuch slave army, trained from a young age to be nothing but obedient and possess unrivaled martial prowess. While Khaleesi debates the value and price of buying an army (rather than earning one) from the arrogant slave trader Kraznys mo Nakloz (Dan Hildebrand), a warlock tries an assassination attempt, but it is thwarted by Barristan Selmy (Ian McElhinney), a famous knight of her father's Kingsguard who once served Robert Baratheon after the end of the Rebellion. He claims to have once served her father as well, and sees her as the rightful heir to the throne. While Targaryen’s storyline felt like an afterthought in Season 2, she seems to be up front in center in the third.
Having healed and licked his wounds, but still smarting from the humiliation of seeing no respect or reward from defending King’s Landing during the Battle of the Blackwater, Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) is in a foul mood. Varys (Conleth Hill), the manipulative Master of Whisperers, told him in Season 2 there would be no victory for the Dwarf, but that he and the inner circle of the king's small council are aware of his deeds and have assured him they shall not be forgotten. More importantly, Varys gave Tyrion a key piece of information (one he’ll no doubt use later this season): his sister Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) was the one who tried to have him killed. So when Cersei comes to visit her still-convalescing brother, he is distrustful and sends for his lieutenant Bronn (Jerome Flynn) to come and watch over this meeting. What Cersei is trying to glean is what Tyrion wants from an upcoming meeting with their father Tywin. When the dwarf and father finally meet, the Tyrion complains that he was unrewarded and demands the House of Lannister ancestral stronghold Casterly Rock in return. But Tywin isn’t impressed by Tyrion’s deeds or what he sees as his pathetic request for applause for duties on the battlefield. He admonishes his son and also threatens to hang any whore he is found with. The meeting completely backfires, and Tyrion is back to where he started at season two: stripped of his title and stripped of his importance. Returning to any kind of significance will be an uphill road for the diminutive schemer.
Elsewhere in King’s Landing, other schemes are being hatched. Lord Baelish, aka Little Finger (Aidan Gillen) is offering Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) a way out of King’s Landing, but why and for what cost down the road is unknown. Yes, Baelish often espouses his love for Sansa’s mother Catelyn, but he is obviously never to be trusted. Whatever his plans are, the are closely being watched by the whore and Lord Baelish aide Ros (Esme Bianco) and Shae (Sibel Kekilli), Sansa's handmaiden and secret lover of Tyrion.
Now betrothed to king Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson), Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer) is playing the part of Queen, a much more empathic and compassionate one then Cersei Lannister is used to. Cersei rules by fear, but Margaery clearly has another approach, and her playing with poor children in King’s Landing irks Cersei so much it’s surely going to come to a head later in the season.
Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) may have watched his entire fleet burn by magic wildfire in the Battle of Blackwater Bay last season (including his son), but he himself survived. After flagging down a ship and consulting with the pirate admiral Salladhor Saan, (Lucian Msamati), who he recruited to join Stannis Baratheon’s army, Seaworth is convinced that the witch priestess Melisandre (Carice van Houten) has poisoned Baratheon’s mind. Saan doesn’t care either way and says this war is no longer his concern, while Seaworth is headed for a collision with Melisandre that he may not survive.
Written by series creators David Benioff and D. B. Weiss., “Valar Morghulis" isn’t the most dynamic “Game Of Thrones” episode ever, but the morning after a fierce battle is more about picking up the pieces, regrouping and recalibrating than it is rushing headfirst into another battles. While the episode slowly wakes up into this new era, lines are being drawn and chess pieces that will no doubt come into play later are being moved on the board.
- Last we saw Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), his betrayal of The Starks begat little loyalty, leading his own men to turn on him and burn down Winterfell, but we do not see him in this episode.
- Also missing in action is the fearsome female warrior Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) who is taking the prisoner Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) back to King’s Landing in an attempt to exchange him for Catelyn Stark's two daughters she believes are held hostage there.
- Speaking of the Stark children, Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) escaped the clutches of Harrenhal, the base for Tywin Lannister's army in the Riverlands during his campaign against the Starks last season. And though her long and potentially perilous road back to her family had just begun with three new companions, she is also not seen in this episode. The same is true for Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), his brother Rickon (Art Parkinson) and their protectors Osha (Natalia Tena) and the servant Hodor (Kristian Nairn).