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(Spoilers below for the first episode of Game of Thrones season three).
The first episode of Game of Thrones season three is appropriately titled “Valar Dohaeris.” It’s a title that represents this episode’s function as a bridge to the final episode of the previous season, “Valar Morghulis.” It’s also a title that states the primary thematic concept explored throughout the entire episode, which is what it means to serve.
For the uninitiated Game of Thrones fan, Valar Morghulis translates to, “all men must die,” while Valar Dohaeris translates to, “all men must serve.” According to Martin’s books, when someone says “Valar Morghulis,” the appropriate response is usually, “Valar Dohaeris.” The two phrases are connected just like the final episode of season two is immediately connected with the first episode of season three, which literally continues a few minutes after the conclusion of the second season with Samwell Tarly running away from the advancing army of wight walkers.
Game of Thrones has largely been a successful series because it takes the time to explore all of the complex issues and forces that are driving the story’s characters. Most episodes take a look at one concept or theme in particular, and subtly focus on it, while weaving it into the advancing plot. The episode Valar Dohaeris is no exception to this rule, as the idea of “serving,” is explored in almost every scene.
Serving Positions and Reasons for Serving
While there are many different serving positions explored in Game of Thrones, they can be largely separated into two categories of being a servant. There are servants of the masses and being a personal servant. Specifically, we see personal servants for the nobility like Shae’s role as a servant for Sansa, and Ros’s role as a whore for Littlefinger. Other types of personal servants include Bronn who serves Tyrion as a protector, and Barristan Selmy who offers to serve on Daenerys Targaryen’s Queensguard. There are higher ranking personal servants too. For example Jon Snow swearing to serve Mance Rayder and the Wildlings, Tyrion being forced to serve his father Tywin, and Davos’s serving of King Stannis.
Servants of the masses shown in the episode with broader strokes, and usually as a specific occupation. When Margaery visits the orphanage after stopping Joffrey’s litter, we see her bonding and comforting orphaned children. Many of these children are without parents because of their father’s sacrifices in the Blackwater Battle in the previous season. Margaery acknowledges the service and sacrifices provided by these children’s fathers fighting in the battle and promises to aid them any way she can. Without the soldier’s sacrifice, Kings Landing would have been sacked.
Another group of servants are the Unsullied (who are actually slaves). These slaves are known for being some of the fiercest fighting soldiers in the world. Being described as fiercely loyal and having no fear, they will do what ever is asked of them, they serve without question.
Despite a lot of similarities between all of these serving positions, the reasons for their serving vary greatly. It’s the reasons for serving that helps to further develop and distinguish the large and ever growing cast of Game of Thrones characters, cultures, and groups.
In the case of differentiating between serving groups, the Unsullied, are serving because they are forced to serve, which is a part of their enslavement. They are distinguished from the soldiers defending Kings Landing who are choosing to serve in order to save their families who were trapped inside the besieged city.
Similar professions occupied by individual characters help distinguished them from one another by differentiating how they chose to serve in a similar professional occupation. A personal protector like Bronn chooses to serve Tyrion because of Tyrion’s wealth, so it can be said Bronn serves for money. By contrast Barristan Selmy, also a personal protector, offers to serve Daenerys Targaryen because he believes he has dishonored the Targaryen name by serving in Robert Baratheon’s Kingsguard. Selmy is looking to save his honor, and he is looking for redemption, which are his reasons for serving Daenerys. These differences strongly differentiate Barristan from a character like Bronn.
Pragmatism and loyalty in serving are also explored by Salladhor Saan and Davos Seaworth. In the previous season both characters agreed to serve Stannis. Saan is backing out of his servitude with Stannis because he realistically believes Stannis cannot be king after suffering the defeat he did at Blackwater. Davos knows the situation is dire, especially after the defeat. Even after learning that Melisandre is burning people alive who don’t worship her God, Davos still declares his loyalty for Stannis anyways. The results of each character’s decision to serve Stannis have drastically different results: Saan presumably continues to be a pirate, while Davos is eventually arrested and thrown into a dungeon.
Service Leads to Death
Service can often lead to conflict and it can even lead to a life and death type of situation. On the surface this is obvious, a king or a lord can order soldiers into battle and subsequently to their deaths if they want to… and that is something has happened a great many times during the series. However, there are two scenes from this episode that emphasize the idea that service can lead to death in a more intriguing and subtle manner.
This first service can lead to death conflict begins between Bronn and two members of the Kingsguard outside Tyrion’s chambers. The Kingsguard, sworn to protect the Queen, and Bronn sworn to protect Tyrion nearly engage in a deadly struggle due to their respective serving roles. They have no personal conflict with one another, yet they are willing to kill one another as a part of their agreeing to serve Tyrion and Cersei, respectively.
The second service can lead to death situation involves Davos Seaworth. Davos who miraculously survived the Battle of Blackwater is stranded on an island when he calls attention to a ship he sees in the distance. The ship sends a lifeboat to Davos, and he is prompted with two questions: What is name is, and which king he serves? Davos pauses at the second question, where the implication is clear… the fate of his life depends on answering the question of, who does he serve, correctly? Fortunately for Davos, he gives the right answer.
Service and Conflicts of Identity
Service can also lead to an individual crisis of identity. In this episode this is especially true for Jon, Daenarys, and Tyrion.
Jon Snow’s identity begins to enter a state of crisis when he first meets Ygritte towards the end of the second season. Jon’s decision to spare Ygritte’s life means he disobeys a direct order from the Night’s Watch. In the the third season, Jon Snow must deal with the conflict of his previous oath which binds him to serve the Night’s Watch vs. now agreeing to serve the Wildlings and Mance Rayder. It would appear Mance has accepted Jon Snow’s service, but that’s a far cry from trusting him. The Wildlings won’t accept Jon Snow just yet either, which was indicated by the scenes where they began to pelt him with rocks and mock him for being a Crow.
Daenerys, who despises the concept of slavery ever since her brother sold her to Khal Drogo for an army, now has to decide whether or not she should buy 8,000 Unsullied slave soldiers from a slave owner in Astapor. Morally the choice is even more difficult for her because of all the babies each Unsullied had to kill as part of their training. By buying 8,000 Unsullied, Daenerys would be supporting the killing of 8,000 babies, and she would also technically become a slave master. The question becomes what price is Daenerys willing to pay in order to get her army so she can go back to Westeros and claim her birth right? Regardless, the personal and moral implications of buying this powerful army of slaves is the beginning of an identity crisis for Daenerys.
No one seems to go through a greater personal crisis in this episode than Tyrion. Tyrion has lost all of the power he accumulated as a Hand of the King in the previous season, and is now floating around in a sort of no-man’s land. What his role is going to be, and what he is going to do now that he is no longer Hand, is all up in the air. His attempt to seize Casterly Rock is easily thwarted by his father Tywin, and it appears any position or service he will be providing to the Lannisters will be determined by his father at a later date.
The show draws interesting parallels and similarities between Sansa and Tyrion’s characters in this episode. This is done by having Sansa echo a previous Tyrion scene and vice versa from previous episodes. Sansa’s scene in the first episode of the third season depicts her playing a game she invented with Shae. In this game Sansa and Shae are guessing at the cargo of the ships sitting in Blackwater Bay, and where these ships are going and why. Sansa plays the game eagerly, while Shae plays halfheartedly. This scene echoes a scene from the first season where Tyrion forces Shae and Bronn to play a game with him, where each person has to guess about each others pasts. This draws an interesting parallel between the personalities of Sansa and Tyrion, both like creating and playing games.
The other parallel between Sansa and Tyrion that is shown, and is echoed in this episode, comes from Tyrion’s first scene. When we first see Tyrion in Season Three he is in a dark room. He steps in the small amount of light being brought in by an open window, this scene no doubt symbolizing Tyrion being the small ray of light, or small hope of goodness, that is left for Kings Landing, a light that appears to only be getting smaller. Tyrion picks up a mirror and looks at his reflection which is blurry and distorted. This symbolizes his distorting identity. It also echoes a scene in season two where Sansa, after a dinner discussion with Cersei, Tommen, and Myrcella also picks up a mirror and stares at her image in a mirror which is also blurred, again her identity is distorted.
The parallels between Sansa and Tyrion are shown through their similarities in personality via their like for games, and their declining status in the game of thrones. Sansa held all the respect the Stark name commanded until her father was arrested and executed. Since then it has been a downward spiral for her character. Tywin’s arrival in Kings Landing has begun a downward spiral for Tyrion’s character. Either way, both are falling from prominence, and both are quickly being turned into pawns rather than players in the game. Their falling status has forced each of them to alter their identities. In regards to service it means each character is especially susceptible to being drawn into the service of someone that will not take their personal interests to heart.