Before we begin, a brief housekeeping note on Game of Thrones: neither Kyra nor I have read the books, so neither of us really have any frame of reference that would be useful for comparison’s sake, beyond what we’ve seen in the show.
I should mention that I personally was disappointed by the second season; after the incredibly climactic close to Season 1, I found that Season 2 suffered from a few narrative defects and mishandling of characters. With the sole exception of the penultimate episode, “Blackwater,” which focused solely on the characters in and around King’s Landing, Season 2 tried way too hard, in my estimation, to service every storyline equally. I found this to be a kind of false equivalence: some of the storylines from last season merited more attention, and some less.
For example, to jog my memory after the last 9 months, I re-watched the first two and last two episodes from last year, and it came as a surprise to me that the fiery seance that served to introduce the Dragonstone characters (Stannis, Davos, and the crazy fire lady), did not feature until at least halfway through Season 2’s opener. From my perspective, and with the benefit of hindsight, this was a miscalculation; the show would’ve been better off putting this scene at the very front of the season to indicate what would be at stake in the coming weeks. In shortchanging the Dragonstone plot, Game of Thrones failed to establish any emotional link between the one sympathetic character on the island, Davos, and the audience. If Stannis is emotionless and hardheaded rather than an unhinged brute, without a strong treatment of Davos there was no urgency attached to anything that happened as Stannis and his armies prepared to maneuver, only dullness. This is a storyline that would have benefitted from more scenes last year, especially if they involved Davos.* Unfortunately, because the show more or less botched this plotline last year, its return in Season 3 had little emotional resonance with me.
*I will give a lot of credit to Kyra here, who correctly predicted over my disbelief that Davos is still alive after Blackwater. This isn’t much of a spoiler—Liam Cunningham’s name in the credits gives it away.
Additionally, some characters grew in my estimation as Season 2 progressed, particularly Arya and Tyrion (though Tyrion already occupied a high position), Daenerys fell, mostly due to the fact that her character’s travails in Qarth received too much screen time. While Dany was one of the most popular characters from Season 1, and rightly so, last year she was annoying and whiny. It would have been a ballsy decision to refrain from spending too much time with Dany and Jorah last year, especially given her popularity, but the show could’ve handled her development in a more abbreviated fashion—say over one or two episodes. Sometimes restraint is the best option; Dany suffered from the opposite problems as Davos.
With all this out of the way, though, now’s the time for me to add that I quite enjoyed last night’s season premiere. While of course the opener probably requires the show to spend time with all the characters, the showrunners (DB Weiss and David Benioff) began this run of episodes in a way that suggests they may be able to rectify some of the problems with pacing and character development present in Season 2.
Regarding pacing, I was impressed by the way the show took its time in visiting most, but not all, characters instead of paying lip service to each concurrent story and established continuity with last season’s finale. Last night, if I remember correctly, there was only one locale that appeared more than once: That was King’s Landing, which houses the most characters and intrigue anyway, making it the proper place for a return appointment within the confines of a singular episode. Moreover, the second King’s Landing scenes showcased an extended glimpse of Margaery Tyrell, a character previously introduced (as the ambitious queen of the deceased Renly and at Season 2’s end as Joffrey’s newly betrothed) but who heretofore had only existed on the margins of the show’s universe. Additionally, the pre-credits sequence picked off beyond the wall immediately after Season 2’s end, with Sam trying to flee—this was an effective method with which to return us to the action. It was wise, also, to remain behind the wall and introduce a new character, Mance Rayder (played by career “That Guy” Ciaran Hinds—you might recognize him from Munich or There Will Be Blood), at the beginning of the season in the episodes following the credit montage; this introduction was handled more deftly (by placing Jon Snow’s interaction with his new army at the fore) and with more humor than last year, as Mance Rayder, to me, is immdiately more interesting than Stannis and Davos.
Similarly, Dany’s extended scene that closed the premiere highlighted her self-seriousness and self-assuredness without portraying her as cloying. The dialogue written for these scenes, in which Dany is contemplating the purchase of a slave army so dehumanized that they can withstand the slicing off of their nipples without flinching, served as a nice counterpoint to Dany’s easily-mocked determination and stubbornness, filtered as it was through a translator.
Finally, I most appreciated what Weiss and Benioff did with Margaery. After the war of words between Tyrion and Tywin, a scene that bothered me,* I felt the show was somewhat desperate for another likable character, especially if Arya wasn’t going to appear. Margaery’s shrewdness in attending to and comforting the heathens of King’s Landing, an act to which Cersei would never stoop, suggests that she has the guile to match her ambition and smarts to hold onto power rather than attach herself to the house of cards that Cersei has built through threats and little else. That means Margaery herself is a clear threat to Cersei if she can sustain it, and if Tyrion’s maneuvers have been relegated relative to last season, Margaery could serve has a focal point at King’s Landing and a potential vehicle for taming Joffrey (though this, of course, is wishful thinking).
*Part of my trouble with this scene stemmed from assumption that Tywin was supposed to be a sensible Lannister and my difficulty understanding both characters’ motivations. Tywin trusted Tyrion to keep his sister in check, and Cersei as referred to Tywin as someone who believes in the gods but doesn’t trust them. These details, I’ve thought, make Tywin seem rather practical even if he is embarrassed by his having a dwarf son, but he was anything but in his dismissal of Tyrion. After receiving some enlightenment through gchat with Kyra last night, I think the takeaway from this scene is that if Tywin can’t appreciate Tyrion’s contributions now, he never will; I think Kyra’s idea fits the narrative well. I’d also be interested to find out if Tyrion was testing Tywin by asking to be sent home, simply because we know how much Tyrion loves playing the game.