The master of whispers owes me a favor: The season premiere of Game of Thrones is nearly perfect
Warning: this review assumes you've already seen the entirety of the episode, and the first two seasons of the show.
Stratego is a great game to use when introducing your children to tactical board games, but the actual mechanic at play is both simple and brilliant. You lay out your army, and hide your flag where your opponent is unlikely to look.
You don’t know the strength of any of your opponents pieces until you decide to attack. Only then do you learn the number on the target, and whether you'll remove it from the board or lose your own piece. You can’t half-ass your way through combat in Stratego, you have to commit to either attacking or dying to find out the strength of each piece.
Game of Thrones' season three premiere episode mostly consists of men and women trying to figure out the number on their respective pieces. Do they still have power after the events of the first two seasons? Is it safe to make a move? They can guess at their own power, but they won’t truly know until they make a move. By then it could be too late.
Fight for the living
Let’s take a quick tour through what’s happened: Joffrey seems lost and alone, his arrogance little more than a thin shell, but there are no surprises there. Jon Snow embarrasses himself by bowing to the wrong man, he sees a giant, and he seems to be willing to change his allegiance to deal with his new set of circumstances. The rest of the Night’s Watch is hoping to survive their march back to the wall in order to warn the others of the White Walkers. Everyone is trying to pick up the pieces after the Battle of the Blackwater, and some are doing a better job than others.
Tyrion, for instance, is fresh off his victory in the face of Joffrey’s desertion and his tactical win in that very battle, but his father is having none of it. Tyrion wants respect for his bravery and wits, but that is seen as little more than vulnerability by Tywin. “Jugglers and singers require applause. You are a Lannister,” Tywin spits at his son.
It only gets worse from there. Watching Tyrion get verbally cut down by his father, and denied the land he so desperately craves, is one of the harder scenes to watch in this episode. And this episode includes a moment where a man gets a nipple cut off to prove his fearlessness.
On that note, it’s interesting that Daenerys is stymied by the slower than expected growth of her dragons, although the scene of one catching, cooking, and then eating a fish while flying around the ship was brilliant. So what does one do when one needs an army?
You buy one, of course, and the army Daenerys seeks to purchase fears no pain, no death, and they were forced to kill a newborn child before they proved their worth. Daenerys may wonder about the morals of this purchase, but she has little choice. The rationalization that she is giving them a better life than they’ve likely had before rings hollow; it may be true on some level, but most of them will die on her command, and they’ve been made into something that seems less than human. You can't profit from a system without buying into it, and she's proving the market for voiceless, faceless, neutered killing machines.
The translated conversation is also funny, showcasing the slaver’s complete lack of respect and care for anyone involved. He’s just out to make a few dollars, and he's found a buyer. The rest is simple negotiation.
Cersei and Littlefinger are both in holding patterns, trying to figure out their next move. Cersei goes to Tyrion to make sure she won’t be sold out, and Littlefinger seems to offer Sansa a way out of her current predicament. She’s more vulnerable than ever without the favor of Joffrey, and Littlefinger has to be aware of the power that Ned Stark’s oldest daughter could give him politically.
My favorite scene of the episode, by far, is Margaery Tyrell taking the time to feed, comfort, and aid the children. She presents a version of the recent battle that is much more comforting than reality, praises one boy’s father as a hero before presenting him with a toy soldier, and does something that is rare in this world: She acts with kindness.
It’s kindness that comes from a strong streak of self-preservation, but her actions and seemingly sincere offer to help the children with food and shelter will do more to help Joffrey’s reputation than anything that little asshole could possibly think up. He wants respect due to his station, and to have his brutal appetites filled. Margaery is much shrewder. Joffrey watches these moves intently, scared to leave his carriage, and one can only hope he's taking notes.
It’s disappointing not to hear from Arya during this hour, as her conversations with Tywin were some of the best parts of Season 2, and Maisie Williams plays the character with a sense of wit and charisma that rivals Tyrion himself.
The amount of maneuvering going on in this hour of television is intense, but the Season 2 finale already shook everything up. Now it’s time for the pieces to settle back on the board for a moment before the next big play. Watching everyone trying to figure out the new political landscape, and how best to move within it, is a joy. The show doesn’t slow down and wait for you to understand, it demands you keep up. For an episode with so little action the sense of pacing was handled very well. “At what point does it become treason to waste the King's time?” Joffrey asks. Indeed.
It’s hard to ask for much more from the beginning of the next chapter. All the pieces are moving again, and the major players are looking for the best possible position on the board. For now we’re stuck looking at the pieces, wondering what number we’ll see when they’re turned.
A few notes: I haven’t read the books, so please mark any spoilers from the books appropriately. I’m not going to police the comments though, so read them at your own risk. Also, a combination of my recent hospitalization and Sophie’s travels kept us from finishing up our series on King of the Nerds, but we’re going to fix that soon. Is there any interest in ongoing Game of Thrones reviews, or no? I’ll let you decide in the comments.