Well, that was fun, wasn't it?
Granted, this is kind of an odd thing to say about a television program that featured graphic onscreen nipple mutilation and a house of 200 corpses. But as Game of Thrones literally roared back into life for its third season, it came back with a breezy confidence that belied the brutality, and made its ever-broadening canvas feel as limitless, and full of wonders and terrors, as the white wasteland beyond the Wall itself.
For one thing, it was a lot less, you know, crushingly bleak and depressing than last season's premiere – you remember, the one that began with a knight plummeting to his death during a duel within about fifteen seconds, and ended with a soldier ripping a baby from his mother's arms and killing it? This time around the baby-murdering was all talk, and the people talking about it were bloody disgusted by it. Jon Snow cited his Lord Commander's look-the-other-way policy as the reason for his defection to the wildlings, while Daenerys's outrage over the way the impervious eunuch slave soldiers known as the Unsullied are forced to kill babies to earn their spears was written all over her face. For God's sake, Lady Margaery was handing out toy soldiers to war orphans. It was a happier experience all around, especially for the tots.
More than that, "Valar Dohaeris," directed by Daniel Minahan and named after a phrase I'm pretty sure we never actually hear in the show itself, was funnier too, and funny in a self-effacing way I never thought I'd see from the series. Second scene after the opening credits, and we're watching a half-naked prostitute chide Bronn for not using his imagination, then command him to remove her loincloth with his teeth? Sounds like someone (and by someone I mean writers and showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss) heard the gratuitous-nudity complaints loud and clear and decided to have a little fun at their own expense. And at the characters' expenses, too: Who else thought "That's so Jon Snow" when the undercover Brother knelt to the wrong guy? Who else cracked up at the marvelous visual of that repulsive little shit King Joffrey frantically peeking out the windows of his litter to see what the hold-up was, like a panicked Bichon Frisé on the way to the vet to get its anal glands expressed? And who else LOL'd at Cersei throughout that excruciating dinner conversation with Margaery and her brother Loras, a family meal awkward enough to put breakfast at Walter White's house to shame?
Indeed, throughout the episode, nearly every character was very, very much in character, if that makes sense. Jon glowered and Joffrey cowered. Dany acted regal and Ser Jorah gave the Khaleesi advice she didn't necessarily want. Catelyn Stark tried to keep a stiff upper lip and Robb did his heavy-lies-the-head bit. Tyrion Lannister demanded respect and Tywin Lannister pointedly refused to give it to him. Littlefinger creeped and Bronn swaggered. Queen Cersei was rude and Margaery was shrewd. Shae acted tough while her fellow prostitute-made-good Ros acted sweet but steely. Lord Commander Mormont gave Samwell Tarly an "I'm disappointed in you, son" dressing-down in front of everyone and Sam just took it. Stannis was cold and Melisandre was hot, Davos was loyal to a fault, and his pirate buddy Sallador Saan was friendly but pragmatic. And the wildling woman Ygritte continued her campaign for the World's Most Aggressive Flirting crown, in which every come-on doubled as a death threat and vice versa. The show's around-the-horn approach to juggling its countless storylines (and this isn't even all of them – no Arya, no Bran and Rickon, no Theon Greyjoy, no Brienne and Jaime) is a divisive one, but every character they showed was so quintessentially that character that it felt less like cramming and more like slipping into a dozen or so pairs of comfortable slippers.
And frankly, some of the actors have just gotten very, very good at this. For example, I liked the contrasting ways that Sophie Turner as Sansa, Emilia Clarke as Daenerys and Peter Dinklage as Tyrion all showed resolve in the face of unpleasant circumstances. Turner gave Sansa's escapism an edge of "yep, I know what I'm doing, and no, I don't care – I need the escape"; Clarke shook off the "WHERE ARE MY DRAGONS" debacle of Season Two like one of her pets flapping saltwater off its wings and gave great Royal Highness vibes the whole time; Dinklage showed Tyrion at his most vulnerable, openly terrified of his sister and her Kingsguard lackeys and choking back hurt and rage over his father's insults, yet still determined not to give them the satisfaction of breaking his resolve to remain in charge of his own life. These were all well within the previously established ranges for these characters, but that constant gave the performers free reign to dig deeper into familiar feelings.
Which also made it possible for the new, or new-ish, additions to the roster to stick. Mance Rayder, the humbly attired King-Beyond-the-Wall played by Rome and Harry Potter vet Ciarán Hinds, seems like the kind of guy who would command respect among the wildlings – a guy shrewd enough to hang back and observe a potential new turncloak's behavior, and insightful enough to cop to the complexity of his own relationship with his old Night's Watch brother Qhorin Halfhand, the guy who goaded Jon into killing him so the younger brother could infiltrate Mance's camp. More dynamic still was Tormund Giantsbane, Mance's extravagantly bearded, barely decipherable right-hand man, played with gusto by Norwegian actor Kristofer Hivju. A relatively minor character up to this point, Roose Bolton played Tormund to Robb's Mance, and actor Michael McElhatton gave him an odd intensity that made it clear this is not a guy whose "best hunter" you want after you. (Sorry, Jaime.)
And while readers of the books no doubt cheered when the survivor of The Mountain's massacre said his name was Qyburn (I'll just say "Yay!" and no more than that), the biggest audience pop of the night no doubt came when Ser Barristan Selmy, the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard last seen becoming the victim of age discrimination at the hands of the boy king Joffrey following his "father" Robert Baratheon's death at the end of Season One, showed up out of the blue to defend Dany from a creepy magic assassin child's giant green death scorpion. In all four cases, these are older men coming into contact with the new generation of leaders and warriors – Jon, Robb, Dany – and the contrasts should prove instructive about the future of the society they're fighting for.
But the biggest potential game-of-thrones-changer was, literally, the biggest: Pretty much out of nowhere, in the very first scene after the credits, we get a good long look at a straight-up motherloving giant. Not even the furry, Yeti-like creatures that are described in the source material by author George R.R. Martin, mind you – nope, this thing looked it could have climbed off a beanstalk. The way it just waltzed right past the camera like it ain't no thing was the show at its most playful and confident, I dunno, maybe ever: "Oh, right, this guy? Yeah, we have giants now. Deal with it."
The episode was similarly brazen in its opening sequence, with that "decapitated Night's Watch brother/axe-wielding zombie/rescue from a giant direwolf/lit on fire by the Lord Commander" daisy-chain of epic fantasy imagery. The "killer scorpion/evil child/noble knight swearing his allegiance" pattern of the attack on Daenerys in Astapor followed a similar bang-bang-bang pattern. And of course there was that glory shot of Drogon the dragon, soaring over the sea, diving in, toasting a fish, and landing on a boat to be pet, all in plain sight.
From characters to creatures, Benioff and Weiss are making it clear that their grasp on all this stuff is firm and sure, but that their touch can be light and deft. With all the balls (and giants, and dragons) they've got in the air, it had better be.