Game of Thrones Season 3: Better Than Ever [Advance Review]

Welcome, my friends, to the show that never mends. Game of Thrones is back!

Axey here, making like Punxsutawney Phil and poking my head up out of the TV Equals hill for my annual sojourn into Westeros. Sadly, my plate is extremely full this season, and I will not be the regular reviewer for Game of Thrones here at the burgeoning and wonderful TV Equals (though you can, of course, catch my usual reviews, interviews, and Twitter reaction posts over at Winter-is-Coming.net). This year the “task” (Har!) of reviewing ‘Thrones will fall to the worthy hands of TV Czar Adam Newland, he of Fringe, Breaking Bad, and Homeland review fame—

Wait, wait. This guy gets all the good shows. What gives?

Oh. He also has to do The Following?

Well then, that’s called karmic balance.

(Seriously though, read his stuff. This is a man who once famously began a television review with a multiple-paragraph dissertation on the quality of Dunkin’ Donuts lesser-known foods.)

(And yes, people, that is awesome.)

Back to what’s important here: Me. Or rather, the fact that I briefly possessed, for a time and in my hot little hands, the first four episodes of Game of Thrones‘ third season.

For the uninitiated, Game of Thrones is based on the still-in-progress fantasy epic book series called A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R.R. Martin. It’s no small thing to say the books have made Martin a very wealthy man—and this outstanding HBO television series has made him even wealthier. And why not? This may be the definitive dark fantasy epic of our time. (That is until I can convince a publisher to pay me quality dollars to publish my Daggers series–currently in progress and available for free at JukePopSerials!)

Ahem.

If you’re reading this advance review, it’s assumed you have watched the first two seasons of Game of Thrones. If you haven’t, well—go do that. Most of the fans who’ve read the books agree: A Storm of Swords, the third novel in Martin’s ASoIaF series, is the lynchpin novel of the series thus far. It’s the best, the boldest, the most soaring, the darkest. The show runners, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have often said, “If we can get to A Storm of Swords, we’ll know we’ve accomplished something.” Well they’re here. It’s time to put up or shut up.

And uh…

Wow. The boys have come with their A game.

This really does look to be the best season thus far—and maybe by a mile. And being that this is already a freaking excellent show…

Here’s the thing though: If you only watch the first episode of the season, there’s a possibility you may come away unimpressed. I was certainly a little underwhelmed. Certain details didn’t jump out at me as I wished they might have; I was hoping for great and comical things from Tormund Giantsbane (Kristofer Hivju), but all I’ve seen thus far is a very large, grumpy biker in furs. And I was hoping for something akin to large-scale battle that brought us into the White Walkers’ assault against the bedraggled remnants of the Night’s Watch on the Fist of the First Men, but only saw the trickled-down aftermath.

And the first episode had a lot of catching up to do, so there was more than a little “let’s explain where we are and what we’re doing” in the dialogue, which of course I understand; by its very nature, the first episode of any season going to be a bit rough-hewn. Some people didn’t like the fact that we got no Arya (the amazing Maisie Williams), no Jaime (the brilliant Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Brienne (the revelatory Gwendoline Christie), or even any Bran (the blossoming Isaac Hempstead-Wright). And personally I was not bothered by their lack, knowing we’d get much more of them in episodes to come. I’m actually a fan of not cramming every character into one episode.

But there’s still plenty of good in that first episode. Dany’s dragons are so well done they look real—not to mention basically becoming scary as shit. (At one point during my viewing I shouted at the television, “Khaleesi, those things are NOT pets!”) Those dragons, once cute, are now freaking… hound-sized velociraptors with wings and needles for teeth. I would not be petting that, bro. And they’re symbolic of Dany’s story this season, which is almost flawless. Sure there is no mention of “Arstan Whitebeard” (book readers will know who I’m talking about), but having that name in the story serves nothing, as we the audience can spot the particular actor who plays him under that beard almost immediately. And I loved his intro—loved everything, in fact, about Dany’s story. Daenerys (Emilia Clarke, growing gracefully out of her petulant season two foot-stomping stage) is one of the stars of ASoS, and she fulfills every bit of her season one promise in just four episodes.

The end of episode four had me flailing wildly in my chair and throwing fist-pumps in the air, put it that way. They nailed it.

As for other intros… as a part of Bran’s storyline, the Reed siblings are cool. Jojen (Thomas Brodie Sangster) is better here than in the books, while Meera (Ellie Kendrick) is quietly confident, if a bit standoffish. (And I’m calling it here: Soon the internet will launch the “Branjen” ship. I’m not necessarily approving—I’m just saying.) Other intros include two Tullys: Edmure (Rome’s Tobias Menzies), the younger brother of Catelyn (Michelle Fairley), and Brynden “Blackfish” (Clive Russell), both now serving King Robb Stark (Richard madden) loyally, if not semi-ably. Both newcomers seem to fit like gloves.

We get the usual awesomeness in King’s Landing, which I swear looks more lush every year. Tyrion (Emmy-winner Peter Dinklage) does his verbal sparring thing with sister Cersei (a sublime Lena Headey) and father Tywin (the imposing Charles Dance), as well as with jumped-up mercenary Bronn (Jerome Flynn getting all the good lines again), and smooth as spider-silk Varys (the unstoppable Conleth Hill).

The dynamic between Sansa (Sophie Turner, already great and better with each year) and Shae (Sibel Kekilli, still playing her much better than ever depicted in the books) continues to be a very interesting deviation, and it feels like they’re setting up something even more visceral for the next season (which will largely encompass the second half of A Storm of Swords). Sansa feels like she’s already starting to get a hang of the game, though at times it gets away from her, especially when in the presence of a true player like the Queen of Thorns, Olenna Tyrell (Dame Diana Rigg). But for the most part, thus far, Sansa keeps her head down and stays wisely quiet.

To quote Joffrey, “That’s what intelligent women do. What they’re told.”

Things I’m not yet sold on: The Theon (Alfie Allen) stuff, which is a shame, being that his arc was so brilliant last year. It’s not BAD per se, I just thought it could be better. And I was a little distracted by the bad hair coloring they gave “Boy” (Iwan Rheon of Misfits fame). Who knows though, it could turn around and finish fantastically. Stannis (Stephen Dillane) is in the first few episodes, but barely, and he doesn’t have the classic Stannis dialogue he had last year. And though we don’t get much out of Jon Snow (Kit Harington) in the early episodes, I think we’ll get much and more in episodes to come, so I’m quite hopeful.

But it really feels like this season they are giving book-readers a few more knowing winks. We get severed nipples, Tully arrows missing Tully death barges, Tyrell farts smelling like roses, severed hands hanging from necks, a rather succinct description of the Iron Bank of Braavos, and Dolorous Edd never knowing Bannon could smell so good.

And yes, we get Dracarys!

Of course as a book reader I mourn the loss of things like Butterbumps, and “thapphireth,” and Val and Dalla, as well as the existence of any sort of godswood at Kings Landing (o’ Dontos where art thou?), but not as much as I thought, once things got rolling. They seem almost afterthoughts, really. Because we get so much.

And of course we get things we expected, like severed heads, and naked prostitutes, and Aiden Gillen’s smirk, and a glimpse of Alfie Allen’s naked ass.

Some things occur that I wasn’t expecting at all, like the Hound channeling his inner Alan Rickman, a potential rapist cuddling Brienne of Tarth, Podrick Payne as a “gifted” young man, a severed horse head scene that puts The Godfather to shame, and a sorcerer packed into a crate. (Really!) But hey, expect the unexpected—this is Game of Thrones!

But this season is all about momentum. If you find yourself squirming in your seat during episode one, wait it out. Episode two is better. And then episode three (directed by David Benioff of all people) is stronger than the second, and it ends with an OMG moment that you kind of expect but still—

—BAM.

Cut to black. Play credits over a rollicking punk-rock version of “The Bear And The Maiden Fair.” (The whole thing screams Benioff. I freaking loved that.)

Oh, but that’s not enough? Go watch episode four. Because that’s even better than the third—and could easily be one of the greatest GoT episodes of all time.

Oh, and yes, Ramin Djawadi—you are not forgotten. Dude’s music is better than ever.

Most of this season appears to be just that: Better than ever.

I can’t wait for the rest of this ride.

Dracarys!