Nerd Bastards’ resident Game of Thrones addict Matthew Jackson got an early look at the highly-anticipated return of HBO’s fantasy epic. So, what’d he think? Read on!

When the second season premiered last year, I worried about the future of Game of Thrones. I worried that the show wouldn’t be able to pull off the massive expansion in scope that season two would require. The show quickly and effectively proved that I had nothing to worry about. Season two contained some of the most ambitious stuff ever put on television. Now season three is here, and the question is no longer whether or not the show can be as ambitious and complex as the story requires it to be. Now the question is: Can Game of Thrones sustain it?

NOTE: Because this is an advance review, I’ll only be giving the barest of plot information for season three. However, there will of course be plenty of season two spoilers below, so if you’re not caught up, look away.

In King’s Landing, everyone is still recovering from the Battle of Blackwater Bay. Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) has fallen from grace while his father Tywin (Charles Dance) flourishes as the new Hand of the King and his sister Cersei (Lena Headey) toys with him. King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) grows fascinated by his new bride-to-be, Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer). And Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) is caught between the grip of the Lannisters and the schemes of Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen). Beyond the Wall, Sam (John Bradley) and the rest of the Night’s Watch force struggle to contend with the White Walkers in their midst, while Jon (Kit Harington) finally meets The King Beyond the Wall, Mance Rayder (Ciaran Hinds). In the Westerlands, Robb (Richard Madden) continues his cold treatment of Catelyn (Michelle Fairley). At Dragonstone, Stannis (Stephen Dillane) still refuses to relinquish his allegiance to Melisandre (Carice van Houten). And in Slaver’s Bay, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) begins her search for an army with which to launch her conquest.

Here’s something you’re going to hear a lot after “Valar Dohaeris” airs on Sunday night: “That episode was so damn slow. Nothing happened. What gives?” Well, I dunno how you talk. Maybe you curse more. But yeah, a lot of people will be saying some version of that after they’ve seen it, and to be fair the episode is rather slow when you compare it to the last time we saw Game of Thrones. Think about the last two episodes of season two, which you either watched last year when they aired or just two hours ago on Blu-ray. How much crazy shit went down in those episodes? There was an entire hour devoted just to a massive battle that left lots of soldiers dead in two different armies (three if you count Tywin’s as a separate force). Tyrion almost died, then found out his sister was behind it. Dany lost her dragons, then got her dragons back, then sealed two people who betrayed her in a vault. Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) left captivity under Robb for a different kind of captivity under Brienne (Gwendoline Christie). Arya (Maisie Williams) escaped the clutches of the Lannisters with the help of a mysterious killer. Winterfell burned, and Theon (Alfie Allen) burned it, leaving Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) and company on the run. Jon became a spy for the Night’s Watch after earning the trust of some Wildlings. The Others showed up in droves. Shit. Went. Down.

So yes, I’d say “Valar Dohaeris” is considerably slower than all that, but Game of Thrones is not a sitcom. It’s not a show where something crazy and provocative and completely new has to happen every week in order to sustain the audience (though I’d say there a few things in this episode that’ll get your heart rate up). Every episode is part of a larger (much, much larger) story, and we’re always building to the next crescendo. That means some episodes will be a lot more about character than carnage, and this happens to be one of them. But even if it moves at a more leisurely pace than the last episodes we saw, “Valar Dohaeris” never stops being fascinating.

Once again, the world is broadening here. We get our first glimpses of a new city, of the Wildling camp further beyond the Wall than we’ve ever been before, of new people and customs and threats and enemies and allies and schemes. A big reason why I grew to love George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels in the first place is the sense of complete immersion they give. Martin knows what everyone’s wearing, what everyone’s eating, who everyone’s father was and what kind of armor he wore, who betrayed who and when, what wine was being drunk at the time, all of it. That permeates the books, and with “Valar Dohaeris” (as with the rest of the series so far) you again get the sense that you’re stepping into a fully realized, impeccably detailed world. It’s there in Dany’s new ship. It’s there in the wine goblets. It’s there in the way Tywin Lannister presses a wax seal onto a piece of parchment. That alone is enough to keep me hooked.

But beyond that, even if no one’s getting stabbed through the eye in this episode, even if the banners aren’t being called and the armies aren’t charging, the characters are still finding new ways to intrigue us. Last year’s Battle of Blackwater Bay was such a decisive moment, such a final stamp on much of that season’s story, that we had to step back and ask some new questions about these people. I won’t give away exactly what those questions are, but now is the time for many of these characters to reflect on the changing landscape and adjust in their own ways. That process begins here, and thanks to the continued writing excellence of series creators David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, it’s compelling even at its slowest moments.

Like I said, I’m not spoiling everyone’s schemes and plots before you’ve even had a chance to see this episode, but I will say that the cast continues to be perhaps the best ensemble on TV (sorry, Mad Men). In season one everyone was obsessed with Sean Bean. In season two everyone was obsessed with Peter Dinklage. Though season three will no doubt have its fan favorites (Dany continues to rise through the ranks with fans, as does Jon.), “Valar Dohaeris” shows that Game of Thrones is increasingly becoming a global show. Not only do we continue to see more characters, but the changing dynamics brought on by things like, say, Blackwater (and some other stuff that’s about to happen that I can’t tell you about yet) mean that we want to see more of them, or at least I do. Yes I love Tyrion more than anyone else on the show, and Dany’s sequences are increasingly excellent, but I want to follow Sam too, and Sansa, and Shae and Margaery and Bran and Arya. I want to know what’s next for them, and that’s a testament to this show’s success at fulfilling its increasingly lofty ambitions. 

All that said, “Valar Dohaeris” does not rank among my favorite Game of Thrones episodes. It doesn’t have the fire of “Blackwater” or the tragedy of “Baelor” or the gravity of “The North Remembers.” What it does have, though, is tons and tons of intrigue. Things are set up here that I can’t wait to spend the next two months following, and isn’t that what season premieres are for?

(Advance screening courtesy of HBO)

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