The return of HBO’s Game of Thrones last week – heralded by several high-falutin’ essays on the series and its literary progrenitor – asks questions of what we might call, for the sake of convenience, ‘viewing protocols’. ‘Valar Dohaeris’ picks up precisely where the last episode of Game of Thrones, screened in June of 2012, left off (‘all men must serve’ being in translation the answer to the ‘all men must die’ on which the show’s second season ended). The sympathetic Night’s Watch steward, Sam Tarly, is running – huffing, really – away, or perhaps toward, a phalanx of Walkers, supernatural beings accompanied by the reanimated corpses of their victims. Last summer, we – were we not already spoiled – were in fear for Sam’s life. Within minutes of the first episode, that rug has been resolutely – abruptly, even bathetically – pulled from under us, with nary an expensive CGI ghoul in sight.
Other cliff-hanging plot threads were also rapidly sewn back up into the rococo tapestry of the series: Jon Snow is bundled by Ygritte and the Lord of Bones into the snowbound camp of Mance Rayder, the leader of the outlaw Wildlings who has been the subject of whispers since the very first episode; Tyrion Lannister awakes in his cell-like room at the capital of King’s Landing, forever scarred by his victorious leadership at the Battle of Blackwater but not, of course, forever enobled by it (he is joined in his marginalisation by Jerome Flynn’s wonderful Bron, happily promoted to the opening credits this season); and we learn that Davos Seaworth, the plain-speaking right-hand of a defeated claimant to the Iron Throne, Stannis Baratheon, survived Tyrion’s stratagems at Blackwater and has been sitting on a rock for a while. Hail, hail – the gang’s all here!
The difficulty of all this, it seemed to me, was in its atomisation: the first episode of a season can make a statement, too, about the direction of the show – not just its disparate cast – and yet the demands of its episodic plot are routinely denying Game of Thrones of anything like that sense of unity. I wrote in my review of the first season that the absence in its second of Sean Bean’s magnetic Ned Stark might lead to a peeling-away of its many strands. Helmed doughtily by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, Game of Thrones has to some extent successfully transplanted Ned’s charisma to other characters, but increasingly they are each following their own path. The utility of Ned was that he bridged King’s Landing and the North, the Baratheons and the Greyjoys. His absence, of course, is part of the reason for the disintegration now at play in the world of Westeros, but it is also necessarily part of the structural and thematic difficulties the show itself endures.
When Snow arrives at Rayder’s camp, he undergoes a cat-and-mouse testing of his motivations for switching loyalty from the Night’s Watch, who guard the wall, to the Wildlings, who seek to breach it. It’s a wonderful little scene (we can expect most scenes in which Ciarán Hinds appears to turn out that way), and might have served as an overture for the rest of the episode: Tyrion bickering with his sister Cersei and falling foul of his father, Tywin, on the topic of Lannister family honours; Davos pleading with Stannis that the diminished pretender listen to his warnings about the malign influence of the witch Melisandre, and being thrown into the dungeons as a traitor for his trouble; and King Joffrey finding himself torn between loyalty to his mother and to his future wife. Personal and dynastic loyalty, the extent to which they are the same and also wildly divergent, might have sat as a useful frame for ‘Valar Dohaeris’, except that the episode also features exchanges – between Sansa Stark and Petyr Baelish, or Robb Stark and Roose Bolton – which feel simply part of the relentless collection of plot tokens. Theme can identify resonances and challenge readings, but Game of Thrones is constructed to progress, not ponder.
There is, in short, little room for discrete themes amidst the tyranny of Game of Thrones’s arc-to-end-all-arcs. Viewers of contemporary television may have been taught – by Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Wire, or Boardwalk Empire – to watch out for this one kind of unity, but Benioff and Weiss care primarily for cohesion of plot alone. This is why, rather than allow time to pass or refuse to present as merely the second part of ‘Valar Morghulis’, ‘Valar Dohaeris’ defaults to rejoining Sam as if we never left him. The show has little room for shaping its material when there is so much of it to get through, and the fabric is so widely spread. I’d like to be able to ask what distinct contribution this episode of that season has made to the way the show is telling its story, but all elements of the grand narrative serve only to edge us along in its wake. As a soap opera, Game of Thrones is without peer: it has mastered pace and delivers its twists with a flourish; it looks as beautiful as ever, and its actors commit entirely to their roles. It will continue to capture viewers – but we will be watching to know what happens next, and how prettily, rather than to consider what is happening now.