Review: ‘Game of Thrones’ Rises To Greatness In Its Third Season

This review discusses minor plot points of the third season of Game of Thrones.

“The truth is always either terrible or boring,” Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) says in Game of Thrones‘ third season as she watches ships sail into and out of the port of King’s Landing. For two seasons now, Game of Thrones has laid out the terrible truths of Westeros, the fictional nation torn by war after the assassination of its king by his queen and initially created on the page by George R.R. Martin, and Essos, the continent across the sea where the woman who believes herself to be the exiled queen of Westeros is raising dragons and gathering supporters. While HBO’s fantasy series has always been an ambitious act of world-building and special effects work, Game of Thrones returns for its third season on Sunday as a more emotionally, intellectually, and visually audacious show than it was in the preceding two years. Whether Game of Thrones is expanding the roles of minor characters who previously were mostly on-screen as sex objects, articulating the growing threat posed by the White Walkers, long-lost zombie-like creatures who threaten Westeros’ human population, or staging a sword fight on a bridge that’s simultaneously playful and deadly, Game of Thrones is living up to the promise of its name, and staging a three-dimensional, and increasingly humane, chess match.

Three of Game of Thrones‘ preoccupations remain the same as they ever have: sex, violence, and sexual violence. But this season, they have a greater range, and an awareness of some of the show’s past failings, among them, the use of female nudity during scenes when characters are explaining ideas to each other. It’s a practice that’s handled with a healthy wink in the first episode of this season: when a sex workers asks Bronn (Jerome Flynn) “Don’t you want to leave something to the imagination?” he tells her “Trouble is, I’ve never had much imagination.”

Much of the first four episodes of the season, though, are concerned with longing and repressed desire, rather than consummated and displayed. While on the run through the Westeros countryside, Jamie Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) tries to bait his captor, the female knight Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) with rumors that she harbored desires for Renly Baratheon (Gethin Anthony), the aspirant to the throne of Westeros, who was assassinated last season. “I did not fancy him,” Brienne insists stiffly. “Gods, you did. Did you ever tell him?” Jamie nudges her, before becoming sympathetic, remembering his own incestuous relationship with his sister Cersei (Lena Heady), far away from him in King’s Landing. ” I don’t blame you, either. We don’t get to choose who we love.” In King’s Landing, Jamie’s son with Cersei, Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), is sitting on Westeros’ throne and preparing to marry Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer), the daughter of a wealthy family, who was previously married to Renly. Knowing that he has a violent streak, and suspecting a sexually violent one as well, Margaery tries to tease out her future husband’s sexual interests as a means of channeling them. “I imagine it must be so exciting to squeeze your finger here and watch something die over there,” Margaery tells Joffrey, examining his new crossbow. “Do you think you could? Kill something?” Joffrey asks her excitedly, hunting a proxy for sex. “I don’t know, Your Grace. Do you think I could?” Margaery asks him. “Would you like to watch me?”

The show’s exploration of violence has also moved beyond depiction to discussions of what it means to experience torture, who’s capable of exacting violence with excellence and skill, and what it means to employ violence in the name of a just cause—or the whim of a prince. The emotional ugliness of torture matters more than the details of the torture itself. “Tell us the truth,” an interrogator asks during a torture sequence that could have been transplanted, with a few alterations, to Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty “About what? I don’t know what you want!” the person being tortured begs him. If the brutality of torture is a predictable point for the show to make, Game of Thrones is also staging a fascinating discussion of what it means for women to be capable of both inflicting and withstanding violence, and how much it surprises men when they are. Jamie tries to escape Brienne at one point, but wants the satisfaction of beating her first. “If you were willing to hurt me, you might have had me there,” he tells her towards the beginning of their match, only to find himself startled by her skill. Later, when he shuts down after a defeat, her contempt for him shocks Jamie back to life. “You have a taste, one taste of the real world, where people have important things taken from them, and you whine, and cry, and quit,” Brienne tells him, proving both emotionally and physically stronger than the man considered the greatest fighter in Westeros. “You sound like a bloody woman.”

And there’s a larger consideration of violence as a tactic, rather than simply something to be avoided out of fear or courted as an opportunity to demonstrate skill—and of the idea that the people who are good at violence or have access to the tools to do violence should use them responsibly. “Some people will always need help. That doesn’t mean they’re not worth helping,” says Meera Reed (Ellie Kendrick), a new character, explains to a questioner who finds her facility with weapons unwomanly. When Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) has an opportunity to confront Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann), the soldier who killed her friend Micah in the ifrst season of the show on the orders of Joffrey, Clegane spits at her “Not my place to question princes,” a socially acceptable idea, but one that shows an abdication from individual morality. And as Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) finds as she pursues an army that can help her reconquer Westeros, violence can be used to assert dominance—or to break an unjust system. Game of Thrones has always been particularly concerned with sexual violence, and this season, the show moves away from depicting it, focusing instead on painful and effective discussions about whether it’s better to be fight and be maimed or killed resisting rape, or simply to give in, and the use of rape as a weapon of war and humiliation.

These machinations, of course, are in service of a larger conflict, and Game of Thrones does a sharp job of reminding viewers this season that all the negotiations between Lannisters, Tyrells, Starks, and Freys are nothing compared to the ice advancing from the north and the dragons growing into their firepower in the East. “We need to get back to the Wall,” warns Jeor Mormont (James Cosmo), the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, the military force that maintains Westeros’ borders, after he and his men have a deadly encounter with the undead forces gathering strength beyond civilization. “It’s a long march. We know what’s out there. But we have to make it. Have to warn them. Or before winter’s done, everyone you’ve ever known will be dead.” Ice zombies have always been a tricky proposition for television, which has a more limited special effects budget than a big blockbuster, but Game of Thrones finds plenty of ways this season to demonstrate the threat they pose without having to put the White Walkers themselves on screen much. And Dany’s dragons, which play a much more essential on-screen role, look dandy whether the woman who raised them is delighting in watching them streak through the water to catch fish, or they’re hovering over a desert city.

And though the world of the show continues to add players who are participating in its core conflicts—Game of Thrones is truly impossible to enter mid-stream without a willingness to keep Wikipedia at the ready for annotation—Game of Thrones is managing to introduce new characters and to expand our understanding of existing ones by tying them closely to a few core themes. Among the most effective of these is the way people shut out of formal power acquire it anyway. Ros (Esmé Bianco) and Shae (Sibel Kekilli), both of whom began the series as sex workers, are newly established in important roles this season, Ros as an adviser to court treasurer Littlefinger (Aiden Gillen), and Shae as the companion to Sansa Stark. “We’ve both done rather well, you and I,” Ros muses as the two women watch their charges from afar. “Given where we started.” “And where is that?” Shae asks her. But Ros won’t be caught in naming Shae a prostitute. “It’s not easy for girls like us to dig our way out,” she muses. Later, when talking Lord Varys (Conleth Hill), Ros is careful to insist that Varys knows that prostitution is her “former profession,” and that her ability to read was an early sign that she was destined for better things. Varys himself, telling Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) to be patient in seeking his revenge against the members of court who tried to have him killed during a battle last season, explains his own rise after, as a child, he was sold to a sorcerer who castrated him. “I resolved to live to spite him,” Varys explains. “I begged. I sold what parts of my body remained to me. I became an excellent thief and soon learned that the contents of a man’s letters are more valuable than the contents of his purse. Step by step, one distasteful task after another, I made my way from the slums of Myr to the Small Council chamber. Influence grows like a weed.”

Varys later seeks out Lady Olenna Tyrell (Dianna Rigg), Margaery Tyrell’s grandmother, who has a similar philosophy of the influence denied her because she’s a woman. “We shower them with good sense and it slides right off, like rain on a wing,” Lady Olenna tells Cersei Lannister, who’s perpetually enraged that her father marginalizes her because she’s a woman. “And yet the world belongs to them,” Cersei reminds her. “A ridiculous arrangement, in my opinion,” Lady Olenna informs her. Lady Olenna may be more publicly outspoken about what she perceives to be the silliness of men, but she’s content to have influence on her own terms, surrounding herself with younger women to seem innocuous, but in reality, creating an alternate court from which she can gather information and set plans in motion. It’s a lesson her granddaughter’s absorbed deeply. Joffrey may tell his mother that “That’s what intelligent women do. What they’re told,” and to like Margaery because she seems to be compliant, but in reality, his future wife is building a power base all her own. Cersei, raised in one of the greatest houses in the country, lacks the patience of the Tyrells, or even of more disenfranchised men like Varys. Rather than accumulating influence on her own, Cersei demands to be recognized on the same terms as a man, throwing herself against the bars of her cage rather than chipping away at them, and earning bruises for her pains.

But as much as Game of Thrones continues to be absorbed with meditations on pain, war, leadership, slavery, and the potential lost when people are marginalized in royal council chambers and roadside inns alike, there’s much more humanity in this season of the show. We see the delight on Arya’s face as she tells her traveling companion Hot Pie how delicious she finds the loaf of bread he baked for her in the shape of a wolf; watch Tyrion, Bronn, and Tyrion’s squire Podrick Payne (Daniel Portman) circle up over a flagon of wine to discuss Pod’s unusually happy loss of his virginity; and smile with Talisa Maegyr (Oona Chaplin) as she tells the young boys captured by her husband Robb Stark’s (Richard Madden) army werewolf stories, teasing them that “My husband doesn’t eat children. Unless it’s a full moon. It’s not a full moon tonight, is it? See? Nothing to fear.” It’s one thing to watch a clash of kings, to pick a side based on the snap of sigil banners and the majesty of dragons. It’s quite another to see what they’re fighting for, to fully invest in the lands and lives that are worth preserving. Sansa Stark may be right that the truth is often ugly. But the third season of Game of Thrones is full of melancholy reminders that the ordinariness she dismisses as boring can be beautiful, joyful, and funny, that the storms of swords that rage across her country are in pursuit of a precious prize that’s all too easy to forget, trampled into the blood and mud.