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Game of Thrones Watch: Freedom’s Just Another Word

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Spoilers for the season three premiere of Game of Thrones below:

The first time I watched my review copy of “Valar Dohaeris” through, I was struck by the lengths it went to update us on what seemed like every storyline and setting in Game of Thrones. There was, if I’m not missing anything: the Night’s Watch beyond the Wall, Jon Snow at Mance Rayder’s camp, Tyrion (and Bronn) in King’s Landing, Davos coming to after the Blackwater, Stannis licking his wounds in Dragonstone with Melisandre, Robb planning to beseige Harrenhal, Tywin taking office as Hand of the King, Joffrey with his new fiancee Margaery, Cersei adjusting to her future daughter-in-law, Sansa plotting an escape with Littlefinger and Dany at sea and seeking an army in Astapor.

It was only after I finished watching that I realized how many plot threads and characters the episode had not gotten to: No Arya; no Bran, Rickon, Osha and Hodor; no Theon; no Winterfell; no Jaime and Brienne.

After two seasons, in other words, there’s Seven Hells of a lot of story to deal with in Game of Thrones. Which means, first, that–the very focused “Blackwater” episode notwithstanding–we’re not likely to get very many traditional TV “episodes” from Game of Thrones, but rather hourlong chunks that incrementally advance up to a dozen plotlines a week.

And, second, we can therefore expect slow going the first couple of episodes. The Lannisters are victorious in King’s Landing, the Starks are unhoused in Winterfell, but the war is not over. So the series is resetting in many ways, introducing new conflicts and next moves. “Valar Dohaeris” is like the first jet-lagged hours of a return trip, but–with its flying dragons, family turmoil and, holy crap, giants!–it promises an impressive journey to come.

Finally, it means I need to set a ground rule in these weekly reviews: I’m not going to write about every character, storyline and cool scene in every episode, because life’s too short. This is a review, not a list. Instead, I’m going to focus what was most interesting to me in a particular episode.

This week, that thing is what I hope will be a big theme of season three: freedom, as an absolute, as a relative term, as an ideal and as a liability.

Dany, when we meet her, is a queen in search of an army, and the way to get one in the part of the world where she comes from is to buy one–literally, in the form of slaves. She’s not keen on the idea, in part, maybe, from the memory of herself being offered up like chattel by her brother Viserys in service of his own royal ambitions. When they get to Astapor, the reailty is even more chilling: the Unsullied are trained efficiently and brutally, proving their detachment and loyalty by killing slave infants.

Dany is repulsed, but I don’t think this is only about morality. It’s also about duty, and her own quest. Dany wants to rule Westeros, which means more than getting an army; it means learning to lead. As her aide Jorah puts it, “You’ll have a true khalesar when you prove yourself strong.” Can you take a shortcut to leadership by buying strength? (A.k.a. the Lannister Way to Make Friends and Influence People.) Does she have any choice? Jorah thinks not; she needs numbers, and soldiers are soldiers, free or slave. (The episode’s title, for what it’s worth, means “All men must serve” in High Valyrian.) “The distinction means something to some people,” she tells him.

It’s a pointed comment if you remember that Jorah was exiled from Westeros for slave-trading. Because Westeros is a free land, right? Well, insofar as a successful soldier can negotiate better terms, maybe. (As Bronn helpfully reminds Tyrion: “I’m a sellsword. I sell my sword.”) But as the episode quickly reminds us, the Kingdoms are full of prostitutes, hostages, and masses of the poor who are little better off than slaves.

(Game of Thrones: A Graphic Refresher)

Westeros is a free land, in other words, where the extent of your freedom is generally determined at birth. And this combination or freedom (in theory, you can achieve and improve your lot) and privilege (in practice, you won’t), makes relationships transactional, even within families. (Tywin to Tyrion: “Jugglers and singers require applause. You are a Lannister.”)

It also seems to have created a lot of resentment among the have-nots, which we’ve gotten glimpses of as the royal family has ventured outside the Red Keep among their hostile subjects. That Margaery has a different way of dealing with the unwashed makes her not just sympathetic but potentially powerful; when she mingles with the poor and orphans and lives to tell the tale, you’d think she had just performed magic. The episode title notwithstanding, “All must serve” is not exactly a slogan the Lannisters live by.

Meanwhile, Jon Snow—speaking of someone whose lot is determined by birth—has managed to get into Mance Rayder’s wildling camp on his deep-cover mission, and discovers that the “savages” have a much different idea of what constitutes a free society. For starters, the idea of kneeling to anyone—even a king or someone you mistakenly believe a king—gets you laughed at. “Stand, boy,” are Rayder’s first words we hear. “We don’t kneel for anyone beyond the Wall.”

One of the things I’m most looking forward to in season three is how well it explores exactly what that means. We’ve already seen, through Osha and Ygritte, that the barbarism that southerners attribute to wildlings also comes with an extreme philosophy of independence: no man (or woman) is the property of another, not just in literal title but in practice.

That may not make a perfect society–and it raises the question of how, in Rayder’s case, one raises and leads an army of free agents. But it offers an interesting vantage on the rest of the series, whose every action is driven by the lust to sit in a pointy chair, so that others may kneel before it.

Trying to earn Rayder’s trust, Jon first says that he fled the Night’s Watch because “I want to be free.” Says Mance, “I don’t think so. I think you want to be a hero.” Implicit in his dismissal is that Jon Snow doesn’t really know what freedom is. This season could be a great opportunity to learn.

Now for the hail of bullets:

* Said it last season, will say it again: I’ve read the books, a few years ago, but these posts are written with the assumption that viewers haven’t. If you’re read the books, please be considerate and don’t discuss any future events that have not transpired in the series. (That said, season three might diverge from the books even more than season two did, so don’t assume anything even if you have read the source material.)

* New city in the credits sequence: Astapor! Eventually we’ll get to the point where there are so many locations, the credits will have to leave some out (or the theme song will need to be extended).

* Much prefer Ciaran Hinds’ far-northern rebel brogue to his deep-southern Foghorn Leghorn drawl in Political Animals.

* I loved the little pause Davos gives while deciding whether admitting which king he really serves will save or cost his life.

* I don’t remember whether the scene of Margaery walking among the poor was presented as in the book (I’m making a point of not going back and comparing as I watch, so as to judge the TV series as a thing in itself). But it did a great job of establishing her as a potentially powerful, destabilizing force while giving us a glimpse of the commoners’ lives. The one off note: Loras’ saying, “Margaery does a great deal of work with the poor back in Highgarden,” which sounds like a modern phrasing.

* “You’re not half as clever as you think you are.” “That still makes me more clever than you.” Oh, Tyrion, I missed you!