Up until now, Game of Thrones has been marginally rewarding as a big, ambitious entertainment, but the series has never been as satisfying as its massive popularity and outpouring of critical praise would suggest. Unless one found solace in the show's marginal surface pleasures (lively production and set design, rampant nudity, bloodshed as far as the eye can see, tortures fit for the Crusades), the series has been defined by one thing: struggle of the most slow-burning sort. Dragons hatched, heroes literally lost their heads, kings and warriors died, betrayals boiled over, but every moment of catharsis seemed to breed a slew of new harrowing ordeals, each of which moved forward at its own lumbering pace.
So, it comes as a thrilling surprise that, within the first few episodes of season three, the series seems lighter on its feet than ever before. The dense interplay of storylines, hemmed down from the endless sprawl of George R.R. Martin's venerable fantasy novels, plays more decisively, each exterior and interior conflict having finally come out the other end of its gestation period and allowed to begin to bloom. This begins with Jon Snow (Kit Harington), who now finds himself at the behest of Mance Rayder (Ciáran Hinds), the King Beyond the Wall, who takes Snow as a lead recruit for his army of giants, maniacs, and outcasts.
Snow's half-brother, Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright), also finds himself in a new community of outcasts and coming into new knowledge of his true self, thanks largely to the introduction of a mysterious young man. Many of the show's conflicts, however, have been compounded by its revitalized interest in the women of Westeros. Yes, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) continues her march toward the throne with her trio of dragons circling overhead and breathing fire, but equally remarkable is the budding relationship between Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) and Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer), her usurper. (Spoiler alert.) And Brienne of Tarth's (Gwendoline Christie) journey with Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) grows far more emotionally complicated when they're captured and, while attempting to prevent Briennes's rape, the "Kingslayer" has his favored sword-wielding hand chopped off. It's a fine bit of castration symbolism, suggesting a shedding of Jaime's skin as a perverse and calculating sadist and a turn toward a more substantial and conflicted character.
Other than Jaime, the adult Lannisters take a backseat throughout the season's first four episodes, and the same can be said of the backbone of the Stark clan, namely Queen Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) and her eldest son, King Robb Stark (Richard Madden). The brief, formative steps toward a bond between Catelyn and Robb's queen, Talisa (Oona Chaplin), however, further highlights the show creators' continuing fascination with what it takes to both tame a ruler and raise those born to lead, while keeping one's own femininity and persona intact. The series has aligned itself nicely with a growing trend of television shows built on complex relationships between strong, stunningly mercurial women.
The show's drama feels smartly refocused on its chief thematic concern with roleplaying and how allegiances, lies, and familial betrayals can reshape accepted roles. Snow's time beyond the wall allows him to reassess his place as the bastard of the Stark family and by extension helps him locate his true, singular identity. In contrast, Margaery quickly assumes a new fabricated role in hopes of getting closer to Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) by appealing to his interest in weapons and pain. The uniformly excellent cast bolsters the show's talky, myth-ridden stretches, but the action hardly suffers. Though nothing in the first few episodes rivals the Battle of the Blackwater in terms of big, busy, and chaotically violent set pieces, swordplay dominates the sequences involving the Night's Watch, as well as Arya Stark's (Maisie Williams) sojourn through the woods as an anonymous exile.
If Game of Thrones still feels like it's just a bit weighed down by the sheer heft of its narrative strands, to say nothing of the seemingly endless backstories and mythologies, the series at least now feels like it has some firm footing and a newfound sense of certain direction that was lacking intermittently in the second season. In nearly every frame, there's the feeling of gathering, impending force, as if the whole of Westeros is about to erupt into violent, ceaseless madness and death. The sense of interweaving communities, formed by legacy, prophecy, love, and alienation, feels full and alive, but as the dragons start showing off some new talents, it becomes clearly inevitable that earth is going to get scorched.