In “Valar Dohaeris,” we look ahead to another season of lies, betrayal, mutilation, and misery among the crowd in Westeros and Slaver’s Bay.
It’s back. Game of Thrones has returned for its third season with the show’s highest ratings yet. In a wink to fans of the book series, the episode was titled with the popular Braavosi saying “Valar Dohaeris.” This phrase may sound familiar, as it is the customary response to the one used for the title of last season’s finale, “Valar Morghulis.” This felt right, since the first episode did more to reply to the events from last season than it did to break new ground.
“Valar Dohaeris” is High Valyrian for “all men must serve.” It is hard to find a man or woman in Westeros who does not serve someone else. Try as he might, even King Joffery is not fully his own master, but is acting in service to his mother, his grandfather, or the Lannister red and gold.
Beyond the Wall, Jon Snow’s new mission is initiated in service to his brothers in black and the safety of the realm. Last season, Jon was instructed to kill the ranger Qhorin Halfhand in order to convince his wildling captors of his supposed defection. This way, he could infiltrate the wildling camps. After killing Qhorin in a duel, he is brought to the camp by Ygritte, the snarky wildling ginger who loves nothing more than to troll Jon every chance she gets. There, Jon meets his newest master, Mance Rayder (also known as the King Beyond the Wall). Mance, a former brother of the Night’s Watch, is easily persuaded by Jon Snow’s ruse of defection.
Back in King’s Landing, Tyrion Lannister is suffering from mental and physical scars after the Battle of Blackwater Bay, which left him with a nasty cut across the face and a sinking suspicion of his own dear sister. In another clever nod to book readers, Cersei remarks that she had heard Tyrion had lost a nose in the battle, which is what actually happened in the novel. Given the amount of makeup that this type of wound would require for Peter Dinklage, this detail was wisely left out.
The Lannisters in King’s Landing all act in service to either themselves or their family name. In some of the best scenes of the episode, the various family members interact with their typical, cutting remarks. In one scene, Tywin Lannister makes it all too clear that Tyrion should not expect to inherit the family’s fortunes. In another, Cersei and Tyrion initiate a verbal duel that just barely avoids the major elephant in the room (Cersei likely orchestrated the Kingsguard’s attack on Tyrion during the battle), while both of their personal guards are preparing to draw actual swords outside the door.
With Margaery Tyrell, we see her serving the people in a way that few have done before. It is clear that this season’s power index is going to include more Tyrells. Last season, Margaery made it very clear that, in no uncertain terms, she wanted to become queen. Like a medieval Princess Diana, Margaery goes to visit the poor orphans of the men and women who perished in the recent battle. She is not afraid to hold them, give them toys and food, and promise to come back with more. This kind of compassionate leadership in Westeros is hitherto unseen. Joffrey is just as surprised as we are to see this scene on the wretched streets of Flea Bottom, staring in awe from his heavily-fortified litter.
We do not yet know Margaery well, but it is clear that, unlike Cersei, she inspires others to serve her by making them love her, rather than fear her. This pair is already poised for an All About Eve-like rivalry, with the aging queen opposing the young upstart ready to overtake her. After what we’ve seen in the first episode, I am most excited for the development of this relationship.
Two of the television show’s inventions, Ros and Shae, have a great scene together on the docks of King’s Landing. Though Shae is in the books, her role is very different from what she has become on the show—namely, in her assignment as handmaid to Sansa and their subsequent relationship. While I, like all fans of the books, was skeptical of these two, they have already grown far beyond plot devices. Along with the potential feud between Cersei and Margaery, I am most excited to see how these two women add to the story throughout the season.
Shae is a fantastic companion to Sansa. As Sansa’s self-declared protector, she highlights the precariousness of Sansa’s position at King’s Landing. Shae has served Sansa beyond what is called for from a handmaiden, and in return, Sansa has opened up to Shae in a way she has been unable to with anyone remaining in King’s Landing.
Ros, meanwhile, has insinuated herself into one of the biggest power circles of Westeros. She has come a long way from Theon’s bed to Petyr Baelish’s entourage. On the docks, she asks Shae to look out for Sansa, especially in regards to Littlefinger. Given his penchant for her mother, this is a potentially sleazy foreshadowing. It is interesting that Shae and Ros, both prostitutes, spend the scene contemplating the cruelties that could be done to a girl of noble blood; they know that nobility is insufficient armor to the evils that women face in their world. One of the greatest strengths of the Game of Thrones series has always been its strong female characters, all of whom emerge from within an extremely violent and patriarchal world. Ros and Shae, as they are in the television series, have become two of the greatest examples of this.
Times are (still) hard for the Starks. Robb and his forces arrive in Harrenhal, clearly too late to stop the Lannister forces from massacring everyone within. This appears to be a new battle strategy for the lions, who have come to realize that facing Robb is far too costly; the young wolf doesn’t lose. Robb bemoans the fact that “the Lannisters have been running from us since Oxcross” (which occurred in the fourth episode of Season 2, when Robb met his wife Talisa). Since then, instead of facing Robb, the Lannisters have been executing a Fabian strategy (a Roman tactic favoring attrition over frontal assaults). Though Robb was hoping to meet Tywin and his forces at Harrenhal, he arrives after the Lannisters have left to bolster the forces at King’s Landing. All that is left are the bodies of two hundred of Stark bannermen.
Davos Seaworth is somehow still alive and manages to hail a ship loyal to Stannis Baratheon, despite losing his lucky pouch of fingertips in the Battle of Blackwater. His luck soon runs up when he arrives at Dragonstone and, ever loyal in his service to the would-be Baratheon king, decides to confront Stannis about his misguided faith in the Red Priestess, Melisandre. Inevitably, he is sent to the dungeons after Melisandre provokes him by invoking the memory of his son, who died at Blackwater last season.
Meanwhile, far across the sea, Daenerys Targaryen’s ships land at the city of Astapor in Slaver’s Bay. There, she inspects a force of men called the Unsullied. These eunuch warriors are trained to serve without hesitation or fear. As a ruthless band of mercenary drones, they serve only the highest bidder. As Ser Jorah Mormont tries to convince Dany to purchase the troops, she starts to play ball with a poor young girl in the streets. Unbeknownst to her, a cloaked figure resembling Obi-Wan Kenobi trails behind her in this moment and draws a knife. Out of the ball appears a manticore: an extremely poisonous, scorpion-like insect from Essos. This is a message from Qarth, the land of Pyat Pree and Xaro Xhoan Daxos—the two men who sharpened Dany’s teeth (and lit the dragon’s fire) at the end of last season. The hooded figure saves her by killing the manticore with his drawn blade.
The big reveal at the end of the episode is the man under the hood: Ser Barristan Selmy, the former Lord Commander of Robert Baratheon’s Kingsguard, who was dismissed by Joffrey in order to bring Jaime Lannister up into command. He kneels and offers his service to Dany to make up for the loyalty he lacked for her family during Robert’s Rebellion. This was not the most climactic choice they could have made to wrap up the first chapter of the third season, but it is an important event nonetheless. Finally, Dany has everything she needs to begin acting on her dream of taking back her kingdom. Finally, the scenes beyond the sea will show more than Dany simply reacting to events that unfold around her, as she has in much of the series up until now.
Overall, this was a very strong start to the season. Though the theme was not as coherent as it has shown to be in the past, and though some of the fans’ favorite characters were left out entirely (Brienne, Arya, Jaime), the episode foretells an entertaining season. This season and the next will be covering my favorite book in the series. I am thrilled to see how the showrunners adapt the story to their medium; I, unlike many other fans of the original material, don’t mind the vast majority of the edits. Knowing what is on the horizon, I can promise you that we are in for an exciting and fantastical adventure– which is great, “Because the truth is either terrible or boring.”
Other thoughts on “Valar Dohaeris”:
- Tywin is awfully condescending to Tyrion about not wanting to be rewarded for his victories on the battlefield for a man who had himself heralded as the “Savior of the City” following the Battle of the Blackwater.
- Remember the maester, Qyburn, who is the sole survivor at Harrenhal and whose wounds are tended to by Robb’s wife, Talisa.
- Sansa’s reaction to hearing that her sister Arya is alive was intentionally muted, given her distrust of everyone around her (save Shae). However, I couldn’t help but be touched by it. As someone with three sisters, I understand Arya and Sansa’s relationship all too well. We can only hope that the two will be reunited someday.