When it launched in 2011, HBO’s fantasy drama Game of Thrones quickly became part of the global collective consciousness, an often brutally violent and staggeringly beautiful series that offered viewers an immersive television experience.
Based on the gargantuan bestselling novel series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin, Game of Thrones depicts the bloody and vicious battle for control of the Iron Throne in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, a fictional world that bears a resemblance to medieval Europe … if Europe had once been the home of magic, dragons, and a long-slumbering ancient evil. However, unlike most fantasy stories, Game of Thrones presents a complex morality that is far more nuanced than simply the forces of good vs. evil. Here, good men are killed while the wicked are rewarded; innocence suffers in the face of depravity; and everyone has a personal agenda to advance, a knife hidden behind the most beatific of smiles.
Season 3 of Game of Thrones kicks off on HBO on March 31 with 10 episodes that are based on Martin’s perhaps most beloved novel, A Storm of Swords, a hefty 1,000-page tome that is by far the most complicated and intricate of the five books in the series to date. It is a sweeping saga that flits between dozens of narrators and across continents—from the sultry heat of Slaver’s Bay to the raw iciness beyond the Wall—as alliances are formed and broken, lives taken, and conspiracies hatched.
Translating such a monumental work of fiction to the screen is no easy feat, and executive producers David Benioff and D. B. Weiss have done an incredible job thus far in balancing the needs of diehard fans, the demands of the story, and a sense of accessibility to those viewers who don’t detect the nuances between the Dothraki and High Valyrian tongues. Adaptation, particularly of an ongoing series, is a fluid, mercurial thing, and the show’s executive producers have proven largely capable of shifting content, paring it down, and inventing new material in order to make the narrative fit within the confines of a weekly TV series.
Season 3, which will depict roughly the first half of Martin’s A Storm of Swords, will present Benioff and Weiss with their greatest challenge yet, as both sides attempt to pick up the pieces after the last season’s climactic Battle of the Blackwater. The first four episodes of the new season, provided to critics ahead of its premiere, demonstrate a canny ability to fuse the literary with the visual, resulting in an exhilarating and magnificent thing of beauty, particularly in those scenes that make full use of locations as diverse as Iceland, Croatia, and Morocco.
While Season 3, like the novel on which it is based, takes a little while to get going, when it does pick up speed, it soars—particularly in the sensational third and fourth installments (“Walk of Punishment” and “And Now His Watch Is Ended”), both written by Benioff and Weiss. The first episode back lacks energy and intensity, but provides a necessary foundation off of which to build dozens of separate plots for the scattered characters.
And scattered they are: some of our characters are broken and defeated, while other factions are still locked in a savage civil war as the Lannister clan retains control of King’s Landing, the seat of power for the Seven Kingdoms. But while the lions and wolves continue to fight their never-ending war, winter is coming to Westeros, and with it a true threat, for the white walkers are stirring once more.
Far across the sea, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) looks for an army to return her to her rightful place atop the throne. Her storyline, involving the slave trade, is particularly solid, as it allows the headstrong princess the ability to tap into her fortitude and determination, resulting in a return to a stronger and fiercer Daenerys than we’ve seen in a while (particularly after the relative weakness of last season’s “house of the undying” plot). Likewise, the upcoming nuptials between malicious brat King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) and manipulative bride-to-be Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer) prove to be a rich source for conflict and drama. As the queen regent, Cersei (Lena Headey), frets about her loss of stature and feuds with her brother, Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), Margaery’s grandmother, Lady Olenna—played to perfection by Dame Diana Rigg—proves herself a worthy conspirator behind the scenes, her easy nature concealing a sharp wit and cunning ruthlessness. (They don’t call her the Queen of Thorns for nothing.)
Elsewhere, there is intriguing forward momentum surrounding young Lord Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), as he encounters two youngsters who may hold knowledge about his strange abilities and his rapport with his dire wolf. Bran’s sister Arya (Maisie Williams) continues her own journey of survival, crossing paths with mercenaries, villains, and a band of outsiders. Their struggles—along with those of Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) and her prisoner, Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau)—through the cold and rough landscape are at odds with the luxury at play at King’s Landing, a capital city where treachery and scheming are the currency of the land.
With this many storylines whizzing by like arrows, some are bound to thud to earth rather than hit their mark. A second episode monologue by Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley), about her relationship with her late husband’s bastard Jon Snow (Kit Harington), is particularly head-scratching, almost tantamount to outright character assassination. And diehard fans of the books may be perturbed by a change to a subplot involving hapless Night’s Watch knight Samwell Tarly (John Bradley). In fact, several shocking revelations within the novels are seemingly spelled out for the viewer rather than left until later to unfurl as major plot twists.
But there are still plenty of mysteries and surprises in store in an otherwise stellar start to the season. Season 3 of Game of Thrones promises to be its best yet, a triumphant and commanding addition to the series, one that asks tough questions about glory and defeat, oaths and bonds, and about the nature of power, an issue that lies at the heart of Martin’s work. What is its true cost? And what are we each willing to do in order to attain even a rare sliver of influence? In the midst of war, is there any semblance of humanity left?
These are questions that are typically found in the weightiest of literature, rather than in a drama about a fractured kingdom, where dormant magic—embodied by three dragons—is slowly returning to the world. But that is part of the beauty and wonder of Game of Thrones: it poses existential questions as it engages in the sort of sex and violence you would expect from a premium cable program.
The sense of jeopardy here is palpable, creating an atmosphere where no character is ever truly safe. All men must die, as Martin reminds us several times over in the novels, and the same holds true within the transcendent Game of Thrones: the pleasures of life are seen as fleeting and ephemeral, but death conquers all in the end.
From our April 5, 2013, issue; Here Be Dragons.