Watching Game of Thrones is like attending a college ice cream social or large corporate meet-and-greet. You begin with enthusiasm, shaking hands, asking questions, and committing names to memory. Have I met you before? Where did I see you last? Nine conversations later, the names start to blur in your mind (was it Trista? Tristan?). By the hour-mark, you're repeating the same questions twice, reintroducing yourself to the people you greeted first, and intentionally avoiding the overly gregarious letterman jacket guy whom you pretended to remember from a summer BBQ. You grab a last scoop of mint chip, circle back to Trista(n), bid goodnight, and leave.
By the end of Game of Throne's third season—an often thrilling, sometimes bloated television extravaganza—I'd chosen nine characters to remember and approximately 35 others to disregard. Remarkably, this viewing strategy works, and it ends up being both Thrones' biggest strength and greatest weakness.
Note: this review contains general commentary on characters arcs, though there are no major spoilers. I attempt to write reviews I wouldn't mind reading if I hadn't seen the show, but for the extremely spoiler-sensitive, read on at your own risk.
Based on the expansive, winding, intricate series of books by George R. R. Martin, Thrones on HBO is something of a medieval miracle. In a standard 55-minute episode, Thrones whisks viewers from squabbling sentries to tense family dinners to ghostly woodland predators to armies on the march. What's more, nearly every scene features a character with motivation, back-history, and moral perspective equal to that of today's greatest television protagonists. There's Jaime Lannister, the proud swordsmen whose outwardly despicable acts mask a fierce inner-humanity. There's Arya Stark, the 10-year-old tomboy forced to leave her family after witnessing impossible cruelty. There's Daenerys Targaryen, the sex-slave-turned-queen, fearless military commander. It hardly seems possible that these and dozens of others could develop this much, this deeply, through three short seasons, but such is the wizardry of Thrones.
Still, Thrones often feels fragmented. Throughout the series, and particularly in season 3, the central characters rarely cross paths, let alone swords. Sure, they cover consistent themes in conversation—the Iron Throne, the war, the North, the White Walkers—but most remain within their own camp, troop, or castle walls for several episodes at a time. It might seem odd to complain about this after years of too-perfect-to-be-happenstance television. (You're telling me every key character planned a trip to Vegas the same weekend?! Impossible!). But Thrones starts to lose some of its magical cohesion as a result. At times, season 1 was notably better, mixing private plotting with public confrontations, as the primary families freely dined, debated, and beheaded together. This (more) consistent interaction gave the show a reassuring flow, paying off even the most obscure conversations with critical consequences just an episode later. In contrast, season 3 doubles the story lines and halves the number of path-crossings. While I tend to trust both Martin and HBO to bring it all back over the next couple seasons, I sometimes worry that too much narrative bark has splintered from the tree.
Even so, Thrones creates such a novel experience that you'll likely forgive the bloated cast of characters. Flying from bustling town to mountain top to raucous military encampment has a unique charm that transcends Thrones' intricate plotting and deep history. Like your favorite song or poem, the series creates a sense of wonder just by the way it feels, even if you don't understand everything about what it says. I wouldn't always want to watch television this way. But for Game of Thrones? Absolutely.
Likes: wine, virtue
Dislikes: Joffrey, forced marriages
How to remember: shortest, funniest character on the show
Season 3 Grade: A
While nothing can match Tyrion's commanding, calculating second season, Dinklage continues to charm, even as his character wallows in wine and misery.
Likes: belittling others, matchmaking
Dislikes: talking to people, smiling
How to remember: the old guy who's always writing letters
Season 3 Grade: A+
The standout performance for season 3, Dance plays smartest Lannister in the room, as Tywin verbally dismantles his already-brilliant family. A delightfully smug villain.
Likes: liberating slaves, making loud declarations
Dislikes: interacting with any of the other key characters on the show
How to remember: that blonde woman with the dragons
Season 3 Grade: B
Her journey through the first two seasons was arguably the series' most fascinating (sold for sex, gained power, became queen). In season 3, Emilia Clarke's stable, if predictable, performance slows the character's momentum, though not fatally.
Carice van Houten
Likes: making creepy spiritual predictions, birthing shadow babies
Dislikes: being normal, thinking logically
How to remember: that creepy woman who sounds like Norah Jones
Season 3 Grade: B+ Although Carice van Houten has less screen time to impress, it's hard to think of a better fit for the role: simultaneously sultry and unsettling.
Likes: freeing prisoners, giving advice
Dislikes: being ignored
How to remember: the woman who appears to have just arrived on set from a funeral service
Season 3 Grade: B-
A late season revelation partially saves an otherwise dull performance from Michelle Fairley, who suffers from the same ills as her son Robb.
Likes: swordplay, incest
Dislikes: dumb people, brunettes
How to remember: guy that looks like Sawyer from Lost
Season 3 Grade: A-
Once only a pompous bully, Coster-Waldua's Jaime almost wins us back with a much more vulnerable, tortured performance. A striking reversal.
Likes: moping, looking scandalized
Dislikes: everything else
How to remember: that character who seems to have wandered over from Desperate Housewives
Season 3 Grade: B+
Cersei's stiff demeanor and constant sarcasm barely conceal an entrapped, depressed queen. I'd grade her higher, but Headey's third season performance lacked the emotional range of earlier seasons.
Likes: making faux-profound statements, trying to grow a beard
Dislikes: ever changing his expression, acting
How to remember: the guy who, appropriately, spends all of his time in, around, or near snow
Season 3 Grade: D+
The Ron Weasley (Harry Potter) of the series, Jon Snow seems like a reasonably intriguing character done in by an emotionless, underwhelming performance. Kit Harington's vaguely open-mouthed countenance might be intentional, but it just doesn't work. An oddly boring character.
Likes: being pouty and psychotic
Dislikes: Tywin, smart decisions
How to remember: the boy who looks like Draco Malfoy from Harry Potter
Season 3 Grade: B
A tough performance to grade. He's by far the most hated character, something Gleeson deserves credit for perpetuating. Then again, he's so thoroughly evil, he lacks complexity. He gets a B.