Series Breakdown Rating:
Overall Plot: 7
Spoilers: Fuck yes
Audience Assumptions: Some familiarity
Season Three – ****
Part One: Them Dragons
Many shows don’t make back their production costs until they are at least two seasons in, and given that I didn’t learn of the existence of this series until its third season was coming out, I mildly suspect Game of Thrones was among them. The ability to make money clearly doesn’t drag it down though; on the contrary, this is the season where I felt the production values were finally starting to contribute to the story. By this point, the show runners have proven their worth and not only know the material they’re working with, but also have the technical and narrative tools to deliver it to the masses. The third season is a long step from the scope of the latest seasons, but it acts as a gateway between these and the early ones, beginning to fulfill the series’ long-term potential.
As with many of the seasons, the use of the dragons is something of a litmus test for the overall quality and management – when the dragons are shrouded in intrigue or making dramatic appearances at opportune moments, even if the CGI beasts themselves don’t appear on-screen, this reflects well on the other aspects of the story. The dragons here are bigger, more impressive, and finally flying around, breathing fire. The risks the series takes, its characterization, and its plotting are similarly stepped up from the previous season.
We’re still not much beyond “R-Rated Lord of the Rings” — though whether the series ever really breaks from that boundary is debatable in my mind — but more than in the other two seasons, I found myself having fun. There are more likable characters, the characters from previous seasons aren’t always sitting around twiddling their thumbs and being miserable, and a few of the blander ones get further character development.
Part Two: Why Isn’t There More of This in the Books?
I said I wouldn’t mention the books much, but at this point it is important to mention a change in structure of the novels that also comes across in the show. By the third book, several of the established minor characters become point-of-view characters. Technically that happened earlier as well, in both the books and the show, but it’s important here because as well as focusing on old characters with greater intensity, the new point-of-view chapters offer a great deal more depth to characters who were before astoundingly bland.
This effect is copied as well as it can be for the show, evidenced most clearly in the characters of Lady Brienne and Jaime Lannister. This is far from the first time either character has graced the screen – Jaime has been around since the very first episode – but they each receive dedicated time to show more personality. At one point in Jaime’s scenes, he gets his favored hand chopped off, which means that his main identity as a swordsman is erased in an instant. Without knowing anything else about him other than that he fucks his sister, the audience should have no reason to care about the character, but he turns right around and suddenly starts confessing his inadequacies and we see him struggle with losing his hand and the emotional weight it caries with it.
I suppose you could argue that the series is trying to manipulate the audience into sympathizing with a stoic character by turning him into a tortured cinnamon roll, but I would argue manipulation or not, it still works within the confines of the narrative. Unlike the archetypal teenage heartthrob who eventually opens up to the shy protagonist in a bad young adult urban fantasy, Jaime up until this point was a flat-out antagonist, and a despicable one at that. Even in this season, he does unpleasant things, and while sympathetic, he comes across as more pitiable than admirable after he loses his hand. The series sets up the potential of Jaime’s conscience winning out over the role he’s come to occupy, and that’s what makes him suddenly relatable where he wasn’t before.
I’m noticing more and more that some of the best parts of this series are the little backstories that a character might go into once every few episodes, like when Tyrion describes meeting his wife, when Visaerys talks about the dragon skulls, or when Old Nan starts the story of the Long Night. There are plenty more in this season, and they’re largely the vessel by which certain characters are complicated. Jaime tells a story about the night King Aerys told him to burn a whole city, Catelyn Stark tells of the time Jon got sick as a baby, and even a minor character who could so easily be thrown away otherwise — Robb’s eventual wife — tells a lovely story about how she came to help the injured on the battlefield. There’s something oddly satisfying about hearing a microstory from a character’s own point of view, and stories like this with multiple protagonists and major characters are some of the best places to use them. Most of the stories are largely inconsequential to the plot and only offer little glimpses of future events, if any relevant lore at all, but they efficiently and effectively paint a detailed picture of what a character has gone through, and how it turned them into who they are. This form of characterization is delightful in small doses; more complex than a scene showing that same event, but less explicit than a character narrating their entire life’s history. I wish it were used more frequently in the later seasons.
Part Three: Run For Your Life, Tony
I should talk about the Red Wedding. The episode “The Rains of Castamere” has gone down as one of the most shocking episodes to air, not only in Game of Thrones history, but in the history of popular television in general. The episode itself is intense through and through, with other small skirmishes in the east and north taking precedence, but when the infamous wedding comes around, it doesn’t hold back. Robb’s wife and unborn child are killed first, then his bannermen, then his dire wolf, then he himself, and finally, his mother. The scene lasts perhaps two or three minutes, and left thousands of fans in stupors, crying, and even calling in to miss work the next day to recover. I don’t think “intense” is enough of an adjective for how this scene felt to most people who saw it live.
I should explain that I’d heard the name “The Red Wedding” floating around some time before I got to the third season. I wasn’t fully prepared for how it played out, but I wasn’t especially surprised or shocked when the scene rolled around – until, that is, the show marched Robb Stark’s dead corpse out in a macabre parade with his own dire wolf’s head crudely stitched on. For some reason, that image gave me more chills than the actual death scene of either body’s owner. I never much cared for Robb of Catelyn, and by that point in the story, I couldn’t anticipate any other way for them to contribute to the plot. Yes, there might have been a baby, but it wouldn’t become relevant for another several years if it had stuck around, and as anyone familiar with sitcoms that continue for a few too many seasons knows, a baby is the death knell for plot and pacing. I wasn’t surprised that these characters got killed off; I was surprised about how gruesome it was, and the image of the mutilated wolf-headed corpse stuck around in my mind for a while after. For those with a vested interest in Robb, Catelyn, or both, the Red Wedding might be more alarming than Ned’s death even.