Each time Game of Thrones returns, it's worth noting how the ever-expanding animated map of Westeros illustrates the series' excursive story – a tale that shows no sign of restricting the number of borders it is willing to cross, or the seas it will traverse in order to regale viewers with the most unrestrained yarn possible.
As season 3 begins, the intro's eye-in-the-sky zooms in on King's Landing; does a flyby on the scorched stones of Harrenhal; buzzes a smoking Winterfell; and bounds effortlessly over the sea (offering a glimpse of Astapor, the home of the Unsullied). Through this journey one thing becomes clear: No matter how many Starks wind up with their head on a pike, no matter how many countless warriors become engulfed in wildfire and spend the rest of eternity in the depths of Blackwater, Westeros, the most vital element in Game of Thrones, will carry on.
But that satellite – watching as the world seemingly builds itself up from nothing – is more than a celestial voyeur; it is the omniscient eye of showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff. Thanks to the work of George R.R. Martin, its vision hints at a course along a pre-established storyline, alluding to the fates of characters too small to be seen from its lofty vantage point, but exceedingly integral to this world's future. The landscape that is shown before every episode reminds the viewer that across the myriad plotlines, this is the tale of Westeros; it is detailing where the story has been, but along with having the best seat in the house, it is blessed with the knowledge of what's to come.
Perhaps that's what affords Weiss and Benioff the opportunity to tell this tale so patiently and, as we've seen over the course of two full seasons, in single-serving portions that the audience gobbles up with all the enthusiasm of a direwolf chomping fingers off burly men with a penchant for furry footwear and winter swordplay.
In 10 hours, season 2 broadened a world where men like Ned Stark lost their lives to the whims of sneering boy-kings into a place where Daenerys Targaryen's dragon-aided aspiration of laying claim to the Iron Throne was nearly derailed by blue-lipped warlocks, and Tyrion Lannister nearly lost his life in a battle so epic its account was granted full-use of the season's penultimate episode.
The build-up to 'Blackwater' paid off in more ways than one. It brought several of the season's key storylines together and it showed how increasing the scale of the series could be feasibly and convincingly done. And now, season 3 is following that large-scale effort by making things even bigger and grander (if the sight of a giant driving wooden stakes into the frozen ground with his fists is any indication). In fact, season 3 is so big it will reportedly only constitute one-half of the book from which its storyline is derived.
And as the games commence, the effects of that mighty battle are still being felt. Blackwater has left two men on opposite sides of the conflict broken. In defeat, Stephen Dillane's Stannis Baratheon appears to have given himself over wholly to the instructions of Melisandre, who imprisons a sun-baked, but still devoted Davos. In King's Landing, however, victory proves to be just as empty for Tyrion, who receives a one-two punch from sister Cersei and father Tywin, knocking him back to the lowest rung on the Lannister family ladder.
Elsewhere, Robb looks for a suitable cell for his mother amongst the ruins of Harrenhal, while Jon Snow is still trudging along beyond the wall, waiting to make the acquaintance of Ciarán Hinds' Mance Rayder, while his fellow (former?) men of the Night's Watch prepare to do battle with the elements, White Walkers and Samwell's inability to do the one job he had to do.
But despite the addition of even more effects-driven magic, e.g., dragons, giants and beautiful, sprawling vistas, it doesn't feel like a jarring leap from season 2 to season 3. In their staging of the series' progress, Weiss and Benioff have ushered in a more gradual and therefore seamless transition between seasons that belies the excruciating wait between them and hints at the grand, long-term plans HBO has for Game of Thrones.
And so, even when presented with an exceptional episode like 'Valar Dohaeris' (that is, for all intents and purposes, an hour of table-setting), what transpires feels like something more along the lines of true episodic carry-over, rather than the brusque beginning of a new season; a notion that (with the possible exception of diva-in-training Daenerys) thankfully leaves little time for characters to constantly remind one another of their situation. Instead, they are tasked with keeping the story moving forward.
After all, this isn't just the start of another thrilling season of HBO's preeminent series; it's the continuation of an epic television saga that shows no signs of slowing down.
Game of Thrones continues next Sunday with 'Dark Wings, Dark Words' @9pm on HBO. Check out a preview of the episode below: