The biggest strength of "Game of Thrones" is, ironically, it's greatest weakness: its characters. Which isn't a slight to dragon-yielding Daenerys or Wildling infiltrator Jon Snow or fast-mouthed Tyrion. People love this show because they love these people. But as the show grows, so do the faces. Three seasons in, and we're drowning in them. Does that make "Game of Thrones" any less enjoyable? Well, no, not really. But it does tamper with certain execrations, like seeing all of our favorite people in every episode (a rarity post season one) or swift resolutions to constantly burgeoning dilemmas. Already, season three of "Game of Thrones" is epically complicated, and we haven't even seen Arya, Bran or Jaime yet. Will the show ever find a more satisfying balance of faces and story? I doubt it. And really, they're doing their best. But the sheer number of places to check in on make it hard to remember everything that happened even minutes after an episode ends. Sunday's season three premiere, "Valar Dohaeris," is a great piece of television, but it takes a while to settle.
The episode picks up right where season two left off, with poor Samwell Tarly trudging through the snow, running from the herd of white walkers he encountered in the finale's closing moments. Luckily, Jon Snow's direwolf Ghost is there to intervene when it looks like Sam might be doomed, and his Nights Watch brothers show up just in time, too. Mormont gives them all a little speech about how the presence of these ugly dead snow zombies means it's time to take quick action. "We have to make it, have to warn them," he says of the Westeros inhabitants they've sworn to protect, "or before winter's done, everyone you've ever known will be dead."
It's a good intro to the season, and gives that storyline a sense of urgency, so that it's not just a bunch of young men in black coats tromping through a barren, snowy wasteland. But their group is noticeably short one familiar face: Jon Snow, who continues to usurp his new Wildling friends as an undercover reporter of sorts. At a base camp, he finally meets Mance Rayder, the King of the North (played by the marvelous Ciaran Hinds), who's less of the fearsome presence you might expect, and more a cool uncle type. The two bond over their dislike of the Night's Watch grim duty and just like that, Jon's a Wildling. He even gets to see his first giant! But the presence of his pretty redhead gal pal Ygritte means that Jon's sure to have some conflicting feelings ahead. He may be playing at this Wildling role for now, but will he get comfy in their shoes? How much is duty and how much is a genuine respect for this rule-free lifestyle?
Back in King's Landing, we check in with a few other important players. Tyrion is reeling from the aftermath of the Blackwater battle, including coming to terms with his newly slashed face. He's also starting to realize that his efforts in that battle were all for naught. His father, Tywin, isn't impressed and all but disowns him when he asks to be made heir of their family home, Casterly Rock. Cersei takes delight at his new disposition. Even his trusty sidekicks, Bronn and Podrick, don't seem to take him as seriously anymore.
But where the battle failed Tyrion, it propelled the Tyrells, who have slipped into King's Landing like resilient defenders. We see just how committed to her queenly role Margaery is: she steps away from her royal procession to visit an orphanage and play with children. Her dearly betrothed, Joffrey, looks on with fascination. Later, at a dinner scene with Joffrey, Margaery, her brother Loras and queen regent Cersei, we're witness to the unthinkable: Joffrey seems positively smitten with his queen-to-be, favoring her good will over his mother's sharpness. Could Margaery be softening her sadistic fiance? It looks that way.