Let’s start with a plug. I mentioned it last time, but I highly recommend the Ringer’s new podcast Binge Mode: Game of Thrones. They have deep-dived into every episode of the show, with each installment featuring thematic analysis, ASOIAF lore, an ongoing scoreboard of champions, and frequent hilariously exaggerated impressions. Despite being incredibly wrong about Theon, it is in all other ways one of the great resources for Thrones fans I’ve come across.
Now let’s get into some of my highlights and impressions of my rewatch of season three. As noted in the last blog this was the season I attempted to write reviews of at the time, so in some ways I probably know it a little better than some others, and yet not having seen it since it aired (4+ years ago now) I was definitely due for a revisit in order to catch all those little ironies, foreshadowings, and nuances that I inevitably missed on the first watch.
- One thing I definitely did not remember but was increasingly struck by was the proliferation of notable tertiary characters that crop up starting in season 3, particularly early on, as well as the recognizable character actors playing them which tells you something about the show’s attractiveness in the industry. Up in the North Jon hooks up with Mance Rayder (Ciaran Hinds slummin’ it for a couple of episodes), Tormund Giantsbane, Wun Wun the Giant, and warg Orell played by the always enjoyable Mackenzie Crook. You’ve got the never not shady Burn Gorman leading a mutiny at Craster’s Keep. Qyburn cauterizes Jaime’s wound while talking about his ambiguous Chekhovian experiments. Shireen teaches Daavos to read using her beloved fantasy epics (I get it, girl). Noah Taylor and Iwan Rheon carry the flayed-man flag for House Bolton. And by the end of the season Team Dany is pretty much in place (minus their later Westerosi allies): Barristan Selmy, Missandei, Grey Worm, and Daario (Mark I) are all present and accounted for. Eventually as the story starts to contract moving towards its ending the influx of new characters will necessarily decrease, but here both the story and the show’s near midpoint is as the height of its expansion.
- Season 3 obviously culminates in the show’s most important and famous use of diagetic music, but there several songs featured besides “The Rains of Castamere.” Following up The National’s haunting and minimalist rendition of “Rains” over the end credits of “Blackwater,” The Hold Steady interrupts Jaime’s mutilation with an inappropriately exuberant Irish punk version of “The Bear and the Maiden Fair.” Both are featured in-world as well, sung by various armies in the show. I know some objected to the taste level of using “Bear” this way, but I have to admit I love it. It smacks of the way Scorsese or Tarantino use pop music to underscore moments of shock or violence in their films, highlighting those surprising moments when, as Tarantino once put it, the unexpected intrusion of reality “fucks up the genre moment” and creates a sense of unpredictability, which is of course exactly what George R.R. Martin excels at, as well. Besides those two biggies, we also get Shireen, Sam, and Sansa (in season two) singing hymns or folk songs that give a greater sense of Westerosi culture. After “Rains” is over the show unfortunately neglects this aspect of their world building, although the score continues to be exceptional.
- Another unfying thread of the season only becomes apparent after much reflected: that of the worst family in Westeros (which is saying quite a lot), House Bolton. They turn out to be the secret villains of the season. Though not the most powerful players (they are ultimately the bannermen of either the Starks or the Lannisters, if ultimately self-serving) they nonetheless have a hand in every pot and manage to subtly end or ruin the lives of a large number of main characters. In just these ten episodes, they manage to cut off Jaime’s sword hand, castrate and brainwash Theon (using his manhood as leverage against the Greyjoys), sack Winterfell and take over as Wardens of the North, lay claim to Harrenhall with the blessing of both Starks and Lannisters, and finally betray Robb and assist the Freys in the Red Wedding. That’s a lot for a minor house in one season, guys. The build-up is extremely subtle. We see Robb and Roose clash over wartime tactics but don’t necessarily expect Roose to turn traitor (he keeps his insubordination quietly hidden, unlike the more honest Lord Karstark). The cruel Locke and his men carry the flayed-man banners of Bolton. The clues of “the boy’s” identity are carefully laid: the X-shaped cross which Theon is strapped to echoes the Bolton banners; Theon’s little finger is flayed; back in season 2 Bolton offered his bastard to go bring Robb Theon’s head; and of course Ramsay still utilizes the most annoying horn in Westeros to keep Theon awake and crazed. But only a very attentive show-watcher would put all of these together until it’s spelled out by Roose the end. For all the brutality of the other houses most of them have glimmers of redemption, such as Tyrion for the Lannisters. The Boltons are really the only ones presented to us as wholly and completely irredeemable, psychotically evil, sadistic, and ambitious in equal measure: the ones you are encouraged to hate without reservation. This is one of the times when being an adaption is really used to the show’s best advantage. Knowing in advance the part that the Boltons will play Benioff & Weiss orchestrate one of the more effective subplots that ends up tying disparate strands of the story together, giving season 3 and unexpected harmony in the end.
- While we’re on the subject of the Boltons, we have to address that “little bastard” Ramsay Snow. His torture of Theon is by nature gratuitous, which Ramsay freely admits. While he does gain some intelligence and uses Theon as a bargaining chip, it’s never denied that his main motive is his own sadistic pleasure. It is dark, difficult to watch, and by design cruel, circuitous, and pointless for the audience as well as for Theon. It’s hard to blame anyone who writes the entire subplot off as unwatchable torture-porn. There’s definitely a reason Martin kept it “off-screen” in the books. At the time I certainly remember feeling ready for Ramsay to get offed pretty much as soon as he showed up. I could never enjoy him the way I enjoyed other villains like Joffrey. Joffrey’s childish excess is unconscious and therefore reveals a vulnerability in his character. You’re encouraged to laugh at him even if he’s capable of monstrous acts. For all Ramsay’s dark humor he is never funny. Unlike Joffrey, he is totally in control all the time. Indeed, in that respect he’s the opposite of Joffrey. His domination of Theon, his own men, every single thing that happens at the Dreadfort, and even himself (signified by what a good actor he is) is absolute. However, several years removed and (spoiler alert) post-death for the character, it actually improved for me on rewatch. Alfie Allen is really good at finding different ways to convey panic and suffering, and it’s interesting to see how Ramsay’s breaking of Theon is as much psychological as it is physical. He plays tricks and mind-games, dangles carrots and snatches them away. During the whole fake rescue attempt episode, saving Theon from near-rape by the Bolton men with a whispered “winter is coming” is one of the sickest and most subtle moments. (Theon eats it right up which only shows how desperate he is for rescue given his current status with the Starks. Ramsay must know this which betrays his impressive insight into Theon’s character after a short time.) Less subtle is the castration, although that is as much symbolic as anything else. Like Jaime and Bran before him, Theon is robbed of (sad as it is to admit) the part of himself that embodied his identity and authority. Robbed of this, the season naturally ends with his transformation into the submissive Reek (it rhymes with weak).
- On a more pleasant but also painful note, I was struck by the parallel moments with Sansa and Arya this season. Neither has really found their independent direction or mission yet: They’re still largely being carted around by various forces. After largely being in pure survival mode in season 2, each of them try to find glimmers of hope only to have those hopes crushingly dashed, like Arya’s rage when the Hound bests Beric in combat or Sansa’s despair when she realizes she gave up her chance at escape by turning down Littlefinger’s offer. The looks on each of their faces after the events of the Red Wedding are shattering and require no words, which is quite and accomplishment for two actors as young as they are. The most bittersweet come from their attempts to find a surrogate family. Margaery asks Sansa if they can be best friends and sisters and Sansa’s smile mingled with tears she can’t hold back is absolutely devastating. Likewise Arya’s plaintive plea for Gendry to stay with her is a rare moment of emotional openness: “I’ve never had a family,” he says. “I could be your family,” she replies, for once sounding her age. The differences in their experience will be emphasized when they reunite, but in season 3 it’s remarkable how similar they are in their attempts to navigate the brutality of their world.
- Speaking of Margaery, how about those Tyrells, amirite? Natalie Dormer made quite an impression in season 2 but it’s great to pair her up with the legend that is Olenna Tyrell played by the amazing Diana Rigg, and to show that Margaery’s admirable qualities are something of a tradition for the matriarchal House Tyrell. The scene in which they pump Sansa for information about Margaery is particularly interesting. They’re so charming and lovable that you want Sansa to trust them even as all your instincts tell you not to. “What a pity,” the Queen of Thorns mutters after Sansa confirms their worst suspicions while Margaery sighs and eats a grape. Olenna’s refreshing bluntness is tempered by Margaery’s politic sweetness but both enter this testosterone and violence-dominated political game and win their advantages with intelligence, compassion, and cunning which is quite an attractive and unique mixture in the world of Westerns.
- As for their new Lannister allies, the evolving dynamics of that family is continually interesting. Tywin’s severe tyranny just dominates everything around him, including the scenes he’s in and in fact the whole season (via the Red Wedding). It’s actually interesting to see how he affects Cersei and Tyrion, bringing them closer together in some ways. Though always competitive where their father is concerns, there’s also an unspoken understanding between them. Neither is appreciated to the extent they want or deserve. Both are forced into roles and marriages they do not want, forcing Tyrion to wonder who is getting the rawest deal: “Probably Sansa, although Loras will come to know a deep and singular misery.” Tyrion’s shortened fuse makes for some great Dinklage moments, like his drunken threat to Joff at his wedding reception or the way he turns his back mid-sentence when Tywin threatens Shae (which has to take some guts). Watching Jack Gleeson navigate Joffrey’s seemingly genuine crush on Margaery is fascinating. He manages to tempt you into thinking that she might have a tempering affect on him until that their crossbow date is followed up with the murder-by-crossbow of Ros. He is steadily losing what little ground he had as a spoiled brat and growing from a cruel child into a cruel man. The dangerous question of whether Margaery can actually manipulate him as well as she thinks she can hangs over those dual crossbow scenes.
- The one Lannister showing some moral improvement from his circumstances is Jaime of all people, although before he can be built back up he must necessarily be torn down. His road trip with Brienne makes for one of the great double-acts of the series, with her straightforward moral steadfastness proving the only possible shield against his self-consciously ostentatious corruption. In size and strength and skill they are evenly matched, making it anyone’s guess as to who will win the fight or the argument in any given scene. It is a lovely and tragic touch that his maiming should come as a direct consequence of the first selfless action we see him make in the show (trying to save Brienne from rape by the Boltons) which prefigures the revelation of his decades-long bitterness over the corporate failure to recognize his heroism as Kingslayer. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s choice to lead with surprise rather than anger or pain when his hand is shockingly chopped off is inspired, and conveys the way in which the de-handing of the most renowned fighter in the entire show is as daring a twist as the beheading of Ned. He can’t recognize that this is the start of his slow redemption, that he can’t regain his sense of identity and self-respect until he loses the things he finds most essential (followed up by his increasing estrangement with Cersei next season) but it starts almost immediately with Brienne berating his whining and virtually bullying him into a better way of being. The bath scene leaves no doubts as to why so many book-readers begrudgingly admit to starting to like Jaime at this point in the story. It doesn’t erase his many sins but it introduces the possibility that he actually does care what others think after all, as his father clearly saw, and therefore might (someday) seek forgiveness.
- I’m sorry to say I think this is where Bran starts to get a little boring for me. The Bran chapters of the books are some of my favorites, but unfortunately philosophical conversations about warging and mystical ravens make for more interesting reading than viewing unless delivered by extremely skilled actors, which is just a bit above the ability of Isaac Hempstead Wright and Thomas Brodie-Sangster. Perhaps non-coincidentally, this also coincides with Bran’s first act of coldness –the beginning of his distancing from mortal human existence — in sending Rickon away. They never put much effort into developing Rickon, although the parting scene is quite moving, but I feel the loss of Osha quite strongly. Natalia Tena was one of the show’s unexpected gifts and it’s a shame to waste a strong character and actor for the sake of book-fidelity.
- I didn’t say much about Jon last time but the Jon/Ygritte relationship is rightly beloved. There’s a faint echo of Jaime and Brienne in their dynamic with Jon playing the stolid and virginal hero to Ygritte’s ambiguous and teasing corrupting influence with the obvious addition of explicit sex and romance. It’s an interesting dynamic where each continually teaches the other things about which they “know nothing.” Much is made of Jon’s innocence, but Ygritte is sheltered in her own way. “You and your roads,” she says mockingly of these fancy southerners and their well-trod paths, which makes me laugh harder each time I think of it.
- On a critical note, Game of Thrones’ occasional problems with representation start to make themselves known here. Renly was fairly nuanced but there’s a troubling tendency to present gay characters as scheming and ineffective that becomes an unfortunate theme (Olivar and Loras spring to mind). And we can’t neglect that unfortunate final shot, one of the worst offenses the show ever allowed as the blonde and fair Dany is lifted up on the shoulders of her newly-freed slaves as they all shout “Mhysa!” in fawning adoration. It’s not just that every single one of them is non-white, but that her most prominent freed-slave advisors (Missandei and Grey Worm) are also brown while almost every other prominent character who we know to have come from Essos (Varys, Shae, Melisandre, Daario, Talisa) is light skinned. It sends an bizarre message for a show which is clearly not concerned about casting POC for all foreign characters consistently. One wishes they had either cast with consistency and thoughtfulness or had simply embraced color-blind casting. The halfway pointed they landed on unfortunately just reinforces stereotypes.
- Finally, we come to the capstone of the third book/season and one of the defining moments of the series if not all of TV history: the Red Wedding. The story thus far has been an aggressive stripping away, knocking the audience off of their center of gravity. The loss of Ned (the ostensible protagonist) allowed room for Tyrion, the next obvious Everyman hero, to step into prominence, but he too was knocked off his pedestal quickly. There is no single character arc in season three with the screen time of Ned or Tyrion in the first two seasons. Instead there’s a sense of the weight being distributed among the increasingly sprawling supporting cast. This might be a cause for criticism. Other than subplot threads like that of the Boltons mentioned above, there’s less of a sense of focus and unity. But the loss of that cohesion is largely the point, and whatever stability remained is shattered by the Red Wedding. Robb, the romantic hero, the symbolic head of the Northern cause and the most sympathetic family in the story, is murdered in cold blood along with his mother, wife, unborn child, and most prominent banner men. Jon and Dany are increasingly prominent but still linger on the fringes of the story. The central driving plot of the War of the Five Kings is effectively ended in one stroke. It is made ruthlessly clear that this story isn’t about heroes but about the weirdos, the marginalized, the forgotten and forsaken, the little guys, “cripples, bastards, and broken things.” Like Theon’s torture, it sounds trite to say that the brutality is “the point,” but is there any other way to make this point so effectively? With the narrative still in expansion-mode, the story is largely still telling us what it is about before it switches to its inevitable resolutions and conclusions. And what is this story about? In the end of the season the details matter. The wail of a mother who couldn’t protect her family. A dirty old man who gloats in the ends of his victory even as his means doom his house. A girl who arrives too late to save or die with her family, as she somehow knew she would. A sister who defies everything she’s ever known for the sake of a brother she barely knows or even likes. A young woman who vows to break the chains of others so they can know the freedom that has empowered her. A young man who professes his love even as he walks away for the sake of his duty. For all that this story proclaims itself to be about the games played by the powerful – the warriors, politicians, kings, and lords – it’s not really about them. It’s about the children.