After months of waiting, Game of Thrones has finally returned to the small screen and thrust us once more into the conflicted world of Westeros. Season 2 ended with the Seven Kingdoms at war for the Iron Throne. Daenarys Targaryen has reclaimed her dragons, the Lannisters have beaten back Stannis Baratheon from King's Landing, Theon Greyjoy has torched Winterfell, Robb Stark broke a key alliance by marrying the woman he loves, and Jon Snow is being dragged to the King Beyond the Wall. The Season 2 finale was called Valar Morghulis, which translates to "all men must die." Season 3 began with the title Valar Dohaeris, which means, "all men must serve."
The show begins in darkness. Sounds of screams and clashing steel are all we hear, until a snow-filled landscape opens up. We pick up where we left off; Sam running from White Walkers in the midst of a blizzard. One particularly nasty zombie with an axe tries to kill him, only to be stopped by Jon Snow's direwolf and Lord Commander Mormont, who proceeds to cook the zombie with a torch.
Once finished chastising our sad, rotund, pathetic Sam for not sending out some mail while running for his life from a freaking axe-wielding zombie, Mormont turns to his men and delivers the stark message that will no doubt guide this season: Winter has come. "We have to reach the wall," declares the Lord Commander. "We have to warn then, or before winter is done, everyone you have ever known will be dead."
After that uplifting admonishment, which bore the same tone as the series premiere with its zombie-filled cold open, opening credits roll! Same theme music, same style, mostly same map — this time a few new places are added, and Winterfell looks rather torched and smoky. Then we're off to the races.
The production itself was very good. Between the lighting and music, a very somber tone was set for the episode. Most scenes were heavy in shadow and gray. The scenes with Daenarys, however, were quite bright and alive, especially with her wearing a flowing blue dress. At one point, as she approached the slave city, the camera looked up at her face, and her brilliant blue eyes were flanked by a fiery red sky with smoky clouds. Combined with her growing dragons, the contrast helped to highlight her own growing power after spending two seasons wandering around the desert.
Throughout the episode, the music was placed particularly well — especially for Tyrion. A slow, sad string version of the 'Lannister Song' offered a fine motif for the outcast savior of the city during his scenes.
The show continued to play with the question of what makes men great. North of the Wall, we see Mance Rayder and his men laugh at Jon Snow when he deigns to kneel before the king; men do not bow to any other men beyond the wall. Off across the sea, Daenarys has a difficult time stomaching the thought of slavery and owning an army of slaves (slavery is outlawed in Westeros). Ser Jorah merely says they are a means to an end, and says they'd be better off as her slaves anyways, since she is just. It is worth remembering that Ned Stark banished Ser Jorah from Westeros for allegedly participating in the slave trade.
At King's Landing, this great discussion flared up twice. In one scene, Joffrey's new bride-to-be stopped her litter in the middle of a poor part of the city so that she could go spend some time with orphans. When later confronted about this by Queen Cersei, Lady Margaery states that she is happy to help the poor. "The lowest among us are no different from the highest if you give them a chance and approach them with an open heart."
This stands in deep contrast with the most important poignant scene in the episode: Tyrion confronting his father Tywin, played by the ever-regal Charles Dance. Tyrion remains upset that he is not being recognized for saving the city during the Battle of Blackwater Bay. Tywin snaps at his son, declaring the Lannisters are above the rest of the petty folk and do not need applause for their actions as jugglers and minstrels do. The proceeding argument between father and son was sad and terrible, leaving you to really feel sorry for Tyrion — the cunning dwarf who has been disowned by his father for merely being born. This will no doubt set much more in motion for later in the season.
The new main cast member introduced this episode was Ciarán Hinds, who plays Mance Rayder. A prolific actor whose film work includes Munich, There Will Be Blood, Harry Potter and the Death Hallows, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, he is also well known for playing Julius Caesar in the series Rome. His charismatic flair will be needed for the role of a king who has united the Wildlings together for the first time ever.
Overall, the show lacked the sort of momentous energy that ended the second season. It slowly dragged a bit. However, it provided a lot of back story and foundation for the future plot, including many snippets of interesting things to come — the control of Red Priestess over Stannis, Robb's easy capture of Harrenhal, the growing family strife amongst the Lannisters, Daenarys and her dragons inching closer to an army, and giants. Judging by the season previews, it looks like this small snowball is only just beginning its descent down the hill. Winter has come, and we're all looking forward to what it will bring.