Gotta Serve Somebody: Review of ‘Valar Dohaeris’

Author’s note: I didn’t intend for both of my reviews this week to be Bob Dylan quotes, it just sort of worked out that way. Funny how that happens. Beware of spoilers (and dragons). Just as a disclaimer, I have currently read through book 3 (A Storm of Swords) on which season 3 and the forthcoming season 4 of Game of Thrones are based.

“Valar Dohaeris,” meaning “all men must serve,” is the formal Valyrian response to “valar morghulis” (“all men must die”) and so stands as the logical follow-up to last season’s finale of that name. In the world of Game of Thrones, you serve or you die. Often you do both.

Like many season premiers before it, “Valar Dohaeris” is mainly an episode about blocking: Setting the stage for what’s to come. In light of the major plot events coming up, I can forgive the show for wanting to take an hour to remind us of who everyone is, where they’re all located, and what (in an actorly sense) their motivation is. With a few notable exceptions, such as Arya, all of the main characters are visited. Granted, not much happens, strictly speaking, but we’re being reminded of who and where they are. You know, before they all start killing each other off again. Ah, good old times in Westeros. It’s like nothing’s changed.

Though lacking in the action department, plenty of juicy thematic elements were explored in this first episode. As the title declares, the word of the day is “service,” and all of the characters must declare themselves to some master. Conniving Littlefinger is angling to take Sansa away for himself, and I doubt that’s the farthest his schemes will reach. Jon Snow has infiltrated the Wildlings, declaring himself to the King beyond the Wall. Dany contemplates whether or not to purchase the Unsullied as her own personal slave army in order to achieve what she believes is the greater good. Tyrion, reluctant as always to serve any master, is forced into obedience by his tyrannical father. Even the prostitutes Shae and Ros have a right little chat about the masters they serve, secretly or openly. Conspicuously absent was Varys, probably the single character whose allegiance, at this point in the story, is most tenuous.

The parts which had me most excited, however, were the little hints of magic and mystery. For all the “gritty realism” and historical feel of these books and the TV show, both are, at root, fantasy stories. It can be easy to forget, as the magic is subtle and actually quite rare, but the moments in which it peaks through are thrilling: The child-assassin jumping into the water only to appear on top of the roof; Dany’s quickly-growing dragons diving for fish; Jon’s first glimpse of a giant (I honestly wasn’t prepared for that. I had worried that they might drop the giants for budgetary reasons). These moments are not the meat and potatoes of the story: Those are the whispered threats and secret conversations between lords and ladies behind closed doors. The moments of magic are what makes the audience, or this audience member anyway, feel as though all this making and breaking of alliances are leading somewhere. Magic is not widely acknowledge in Westeros: It does not yet affect most of our characters. But I’d be surprised if one day soon it doesn’t begin to impact them all, be it in the form of dragons or White Walkers. Probably both. That day will be exciting to read and watch, and until then I’m enjoying the slow tease.

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About Katherine Sas

I graduated from Messiah College in 2009 with a B.A. in English Literature. I'm a student of all things arts and humanities, in particular Tolkien, the Inklings, and the fantastic and imaginative tradition in storytelling.
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