Learned Fangirls Reflect on Game of Thrones: “Valar Dohaeris” (season 3, episode 1)

TLF is very excited to announce our first recap series! Few shows bring out the fangirls (and fanboys) like HBO’s Game of Thrones, so we thought this would be the perfect show to debut as a recap series. Taking us along on our journey are three Game of Thrones fans from very different perspectives: Cheryl Collins, a new fan of TV show that’s never read the A Song of Ice and Fire book series, Laura Fletcher, a casual fan of the TV and book series, and Corrin Bennett-Kill, a hardcore fan of the book and TV series. We’re excited about the the discussion and debate that this series inspires and we hope you’ll join in! – KDC

Episode Recap:

After the season two finale brought a fist down on the chess pieces, the season three premiere spends most of its screen time righting the pawns and kings (see what I did there?) and showing a few of the next moves. It’s a bit plodding, but necessary, and even if viewers aren’t familiar with the third book, A Storm of Swords, the title hints that the next ten hours of television will be none too slow.

Although not as thematically tied together as some Game of Thrones episodes, the title “Valar Dohaeris” roughly translates as “all men must serve,” and service to various masters and causes carries through the premiere.

The menace of the White Walkers is front and center, taking up where the last season left off. What is service to the hapless Samwell Tarly, who was only holding on to hope by his friendship with Jon Snow (and good thing since his direwolf Ghost saved Sam from an icy zombie)? Jon, meanwhile, has taken his brooding act and split loyalties to Mance Rayder, who rightly suspects that he just wants “to be a hero.”

We cut to King’s Landing where Bronn is about to be, well, serviced in a sexposition scene when Tyrion calls him back, desperate for protection from his conniving father and sister, the latter of whom is knocking, knocking at his chamber door. As the two circle each other not unlike lions and discuss whether Tyrion will spill the incest beans to their dad, we almost feel bad for Cersei as Tyrion subtly calls her stupid.

Cersei: You’re a clever man, but you’re not half as clever as you think you are.
Tyrion: Still makes me more clever than you.

Maybe it’s all talk, but Tyrion underestimates his sister at his and everyone’s peril.

Then Bronn and Meryn Trant of the Kingsguard disagree on whether it’s worse to be an upjumped sellsword or a thug who beats girls. Are their actions more dependent on their own morals or their masters’? After all, last season, when Tyrion asked Bronn hypothetically if he’d kill a baby, he didn’t say no, only, “I’d ask how much.” On the service theme, it was fun to watch Tyrion like a mother duck walk ahead of Bronn and then Podrick, in a march of decreasing servile importance (and wit).

Davos Seaworth wakes up on a lonely rock, a bit worse for wear but lucky to be rescued by a fellow Stannis supporter—of sorts. The pirate Salladhor Saan feels no loyalty to Stannis now that he has lost and is unable to pay him, but the pirate offers to return Davos to Dragonstone just the same.

Robb Stark and his half-hearted bannermen, notably Roose Bolton and Rickard Karstark, mope around hundreds of dead bodies at Harrenhal in a scene merely meant to reintroduce these characters and Lady Talisa—and save one Northman, a Maester named Qyburn.

Tywin and Tyrion meet in a heartbreaking scene that belittles Tyrion’s harrowing war heroics and melancholy romantic history. After watching Tywin banter rather movingly with Arya last season, Tywin’s naked disdain for his son is disturbing, and we’re reminded of the futility of service when your ambition isn’t suited to your station by dint of gender, ability, or last name.
Shae and Sansa are attempting to relax and watch the ships and exchange some telling banter about the ugly world Sansa has already seen (remember, she’s supposed to be a young teenager), when Lord Baelish a.k.a. Littlefinger offers to spring Sansa from King’s Landing. Shae and Ros, a prostitute from Winterfell, extend a tenuous trust to one another, cemented more strongly when Ros lets down her witty guard to warn Shae about Littlefinger’s machinations.

Finally, we get to Daenerys Targaryen and her dragons onboard a ship with Dothrakis, Dothraki upchuck, and Jorah Mormont en route to Astapor to recruit an army of the Unsullied, famous slave soldiers.
Davos arrives on Dragonstone and, predictably, the red woman Melisandre is at Stannis’s side and has no patience for Davos’s accusations and heresy. Stannis doesn’t say much except to throw Davos in jail to face execution after he draws a knife on Melisandre, clearly still the power behind the would-be throne.

Next up we see Margaery Tyrell flex her impressive political muscles. She visits impoverished war orphans and matches Cersei barb-for-barb over dinner with her brother Loras and her fiancé Joffrey, who at age thirteen is clearly falling for Margaery’s plot to make him feel in charge and grown-up while she makes herself “the Queen,” not a queen, as she promised after Renly’s death.
The show ends with a long Daenerys scene as she discusses the purchase of Unsullied warriors with a crass, sexist slaver. She speaks through a translator slave who adds and subtracts details as needed to close the deal, but she can’t gloss over the gruesome nipplectomy or the baby-murdering story. Dany then narrowly avoids a scorpion trap from a warlock disguised as a girl, thanks to intervention by Barristan Selmy, clearly a hero to Jorah (and whose firing from Joffrey’s Kingsguard was dutifully brought up in this episode’s intro).

Laura’s reflections:

“Valar Dohaeris,” in Game of Thrones’ semi-dead language High Valyrian, gave us a loose theme of serving—but service to who or what? Your family, your lord, your king, the abstract “realm”—or yourself? And as I am reminded by the episode’s refreshing focus on more of the slaves, prostitutes, and “smallfolk,” of both Westeros and Essos, that service isn’t always noble or fulfilling, let alone safe. After all, if all men must serve, it doesn’t mean they want to—just that they must.

Any scene with Cersei and Tyrion bantering is going to produce one-liners and remind us all that both of these actors deserve Emmys (Peter Dinklage has a supporting actor Emmy from season 1; no women in the cast have been nominated … yet. I’m watching you, Emmy people). Moreover, with Cersei as the first major female character to appear this episode, the service theme has me thinking about women’s service and, more broadly, gender in this show. Even with Brienne and Arya being bumped to episode two, this season opener was heavy on the women—a welcome portent for the season, if we can take it as one.

In another twist to the gender theme, we meet the Unsullied, who are both hyper-masculinized through inhumane warrior training and emasculated by castration; as Jorah said succinctly, “They aren’t men” (ring a bell, Varys fans?). It seems no coincidence that the throne-seeker who might buy the Unsullied is a woman. Unlike Dany’s now long-dead brother Viserys, she wants power and control but is unwilling to sacrifice her humanity to gain it, and she has her own experience as a pawn in the titular game to inform her choices.

In short, or TL;DR: This is shaping up to be a good season to be a feminist fangirl of Game of Thrones. I give it three dragons up.

Corrin’s Reflections

I have read A Song of Ice and Fire, the series upon which HBO’s Game of Thrones is based, several times. With the release of each new volume I go back and reread the series. Some would say that is four times too many. I say a story of this complexity deserves multiple readings. However, I’m a big science fiction/fantasy nerd, so I might simply be justifying my own compulsive behavior … but I digress. With each new season of Game of Thrones I find myself watching more for what isn’t included or what has been changed to suit the television format. I pontificate to my husband about how little I like a particular casting choice (That unremarkable actress as Melisandre? Really? Really, people?), or about some of the more arcane points of Westerosi history, or where some major plot points have gone (um, hullo? The freakin’ Brotherhood?). And although I receive almost as much pleasure from witnessing my husband’s and friends’ shock as each marvelous twist is revealed as I do from the show itself, with this season I will endeavor to look at each episode as a work unto itself. Look at me expanding my horizons and junk.

I would like to commend the casting of Ciaran Hinds as Mance Rayder, the King Beyond the Wall. Hinds brings gravitas to a character that could easily be made foolish in the wrong actor’s hands. Mance Rayder is a personality around which the wildlings, notoriously ungovernable people, have rallied. Playing the former crow who left the Night’s Watch in search of a life of freedom, Hinds captures the humor, suspicion, and air of command that imbues Mance, and the performance, though brief, is a standout moment of the episode. Additionally, the interaction between Tywin and Tyrion Lannister, in which Tyrion demands his birthright of Casterly Rock, could have been pulled directly out of my imagination. From Tywin’s condescending tone and visible disgust to the look of soul-crushing shame turning inexorably to anger on Tyrion’s freshly scarred face, one can almost see the moment when Tyrion gives up the notion of winning his father’s approval. Yet another terrific performance by Peter Dinklage in his embodiment of one of my favorite characters ever.

All that being said, I was neither dismayed nor thrilled by episode one of season three. The episode was classic set up. It refreshed our collective memory as to where our favorite characters are in their respective journeys. It hinted at possibilities to come. With the exception of the member of the Night’s Watch literally holding his head in his hands (gulp!) and our first glimpse of the dragons, the first episode held few surprises. I expect we will spend at least one more episode with the slow pacing issue as the essential conflict of the third season is set up. It did precisely what Martin intended: trigger the inertia of the season.

Cheryl’s Reflections

By the old gods and the new gods, etc. etc. …

Am I the only one who feels a bit empty after this season opener? We knew the chips were still falling where they may after the Battle of Blackwater Bay, but there just was so much yammering in this episode. And no brothel scenes!

OK, there was a hint of some down-and-dirty as Bronn begins to pull away the thong of a no-named harlot with his teeth — until he is summoned by Tyrion about a “matter of life or death.” That seeming wink from the writers was the correct metaphor—a frustrating tease interrupted as we are forced to attend to the matter at hand: deadly exposition.

So we get lots of conversation: between Tyrion and Cersei, Tyrion with his father Tywin, Geoffrey and Cersei, Sansa and Lord Baelish, Daenerys and Jorah Mormont, and on and on. Yawn. Much can be forgiven as we know this will help new viewers and remind casual ones of the who, what, when, where, and why of this sprawling behemoth.

The name of this episode is “Valar Dohaeris,” which Corrin reminds us means “all men must serve.” Yes, whom to serve and why were the big themes in this episode – and perhaps this season.

All allegiances show signs of fraying. Bonds of family, tribe, duty, and honor are questioned and will no doubt now be tested. And we were reminded again of how many noble ideals are wed to base intentions and even viler methods. The slave army – and the severed nipple – bring that notion home.

There was Tyrion, filled with fury at his father and family as they refuse to respect or even acknowledge his skills and accomplishments; Jon Snow, who will be tested by the wily and fully female Ygritte; Robb Stark, receiving the fisheye from his troops for his perceived weakness toward his mother, and who then imprisons her. Misplaced loyalty landed the loyal smuggler Davos in Stannis Baratheon’s dungeon after he tried to pull him from the sway of Melisandre. The honorable Selmy declared his loyalty to Daenerys after having been kicked to the curb by Joffrey and Cersei last season. Margaery Tyrell is trying to gain the support of the people of King’s Landing by performing charitable work.

As Bob Dylan sings, “you gotta serve somebody” and “he may be the devil, or he may be the Lord.” (I think we know where Stannis fits in that model.) There was also lots of talk about “rights” – such as Tyrion’s right to Casterly Rock, or the Northeners’ right to take revenge after the massacre at Harrenhal, or Dany’s right to the Iron Throne. So many unspeakable acts have taken place in the name of what people feel is their “right.”

Quick notes: Melisandre just doesn’t feel truly evil to me. I am very ambivalent about that character and actress. Margaery, with her too-wide forced smile, seems quite wily. And I suspect that Mance Rayder knows very well who Jon Snow’s mother is.

OK, ladies, looking forward to our journey together. My biggest concern is spelling all these crazy-assed names correctly.

And is anyone else reminded of the classic Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man”

By the way, I’m the only one of us three who has not read the books. Thus the speculation: I have no idea what to expect.

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