Home / General / <em>Game of Thrones</em>: “Valar Dohaeris,” indeed. But who? Where? To what end?

Game of Thrones: “Valar Dohaeris,” indeed. But who? Where? To what end?


(It goes without saying that this is one those visual rhetoric posts.)

The title of the third season premier of Game of Thrones comes from the traditional Braavosi exchange: one meets the chipper greeting, “Valar Morghulis [all men must die]” with the equally cheery response, “Valar Dohaeris [all men must serve].” Given that the last episode of the second season was named “Valar Morghulis” and the first episode of the third season is “Valar Dohaeris,” it seems sensible to consider these two episodes together because they are, if only ritually, conversing with each other. What are they saying? “Valar Morghulis” would be saying “I may not be a liar, but I’m not telling the whole truth,” because the episode’s final shots demonstrate that all men must die except for the ones that don’t stay dead:


Combine that with the man who was Jaqen H’ghar becoming another man after advising Arya and it becomes clear that the certitude of the Braavosi greeting is a comforting ruse. All men must not be anything—not absolutely—if they can also be both one thing and another. What can change its face isn’t a man and what can’t stay dead can’t be trusted. Meaning I’m not sure how much I want to invest in “Valar Morghulis” as a title tied to its theme; in “Valar Dohaeris,” however, the theme that “all men must serve” manifests repeatedly, beginning with the opening sequence. This sequence ties the two episodes together almost comically, as the change in scale from the first two close-ups (from “Valar Morghulis”) to the extreme long-shot (from “Valar Dohaeris”) resembles the kind of fear-realizing and mad-scrambling often found in cartoons:


Sam Tarly’s service is twofold here: first, his general service as a man of the Night’s Watch; second, his particular service as a member of a scouting party, which was to tend to and dispatch distress-ravens. That he failed to do so during his epic flight from the White Walker only indicates that he failed to meet the terms of his service, not that he escaped the responsibility of serving altogether. The episode’s director, Daniel Minahan, could have foregrounded the humiliation written on Sam’s face when his Lord Commander upbraids him by using a close-up, which would’ve captured every mortified muscle trying not to twitch with shame; instead, Minahan decided to shoot Sam in a medium close-up with his Lord Commander in an off-center two-shot that suggests both the bonds these two share and the precariousness of their situation:


But it is not just these two, bound by service though they may be, who are in a tight spot. The reverse to the long shot—which is even more unbalanced than the one from which it reverses—heightens Sam’s humiliation by including the presence of everyone he failed to serve:


Point being, the opening sequence strongly suggests that service (and its terms) will be a thematic element of this episode in a way that death (in its finality) was not in “Valar Morghulis.” In truth, saying that service “strongly suggests” itself as a theme is an understatement so grave as to almost be a lie: from Jon Snow and Ser Barristan pledging their respective fealty to Mance Rayder and Daenerys, to Tyrion and Davos bemoaning their father and father-figure’s reluctance to recognize their commitment to the cause, and did I mention the Unsullied? The elite band of warrior-eunuchs who have been on their feet for nearly two days just waiting to someone to slice off their nipples? These are examples of the meaning of “service” to which the phrase “Valar Dohaeris” conventionally applies, so connecting the visual rhetoric to iterations of this theme would be a bore.

More interesting is the visual pun on another meaning of the word “serve” that worms its way into the episode. Consider the scene in which Cersei comes to talk to Tyrion, who is still convalescing in his new quarters. Tyrion hears her knock, pulls a stool to the door and greets his sister through the bars:


He is not a prisoner in King’s Landing any more than his sister is:


And yet Minahan chooses to shot both through the bars. The tightness of the framing on Tyrion makes him seem the more imprisoned one, because this shot is, debatably, from Cersei point-of-view. Despite having an entire door to look at, she focuses her attention (via the camera’s close-up) on the one section of the door that emphasizes the bars between her and her brother. (She could just look at the door, after all.) The reverse shot from Cersei, however, isn’t even debatable: it’s clearly a point-of-view shot from Tyrion’s perspective. He’s looking at his sister as if he is serving time, and and for what? For successfully defending King’s Landing at Blackwater? Tywin will answer those questions later, but for the moment I want to focus on Minahan’s decision to imprison, visually at the very least, members of the Lannister family. Because they aren’t serving—they’re serving time.

It’s not just Cersei and Tyrion who find themselves behind or speaking between bars. When Joffrey and his newly betrothed, Margaery Tyrell, venture into the city, here is the perspective the young king has of his subjects:


Those bars framing the shot? They’re bars:


This medium shot is almost too precious. Look at little King Joffrey peeping at his bride-to-be through the bars of his processional. He doesn’t occupy the center of the shot, nor does his tiny blue carriage, the size of which suggest that peeking out requires he kneel before his subjects. The bars quadrisect his face into a giant ear, an eyeball, another eyeball, and another giant ear.:


He’s less of a person than an assemblage of odd-looking sense-organs seemingly on display for all and sundry. He may think he looks regal as he jealously peers out the rear of his cage, but Minahan’s framing suggests that Joffrey misunderstands what’s meant by “the trappings” of royalty here. Who is free to move as they please and who is serving time in a gilded hot box?

Which brings me to my point: what do all of these characters have in common? They’re all serving time in Tywin Lannister’s royal scheme. Much as you admire Tyrion or detest Cersei and Joffrey, this episode erases all doubts about who has agency in the House Lannister: it’s Tywin and Tywin alone. His children and grandchildren are pawns imprisoned by the moves Tywin plays. Just look at the poor bastards.

But maybe it’s a coincidence that the Lannister brood is shot in a manner suggestive of imprisonment, and maybe other characters with claims to the throne are also shot in a similar fashion. It would be nice if Minahan provided some sort of direct reference for the sake of comparison. Maybe something like this?


In both shots, a claimant to the throne is surrounded by a repetitive vertical element that meets slightly to the right of frame-center. By structuring the shots the same, Minahan invites the audience to pay attention to the differences: Joffrey’s vertical elements terminate at hard wooden walls and ceiling, creating a claustrophobic effect amplified by his retracted posturing, as if he wished there were more wall for him to cower before; Dany’s vertical elements extend into open sky, and she stands with her dragon before her and her friends beside her, resulting in a shot as expansive as Joffrey’s is confining. Same structure, similarly stationed subjects, but these shots convey vastly different messages about the “service” required by the throne.

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  • merl

    Tyrion was my favorite Lannister.

    • cpinva

      so far, aside from arya, he’s the only close to sympathetic character in the entire place. yeah, he’s an asshole, but he’s an upfront and honest asshole.

      • djangermats

        He’s actually extremely dishonest about the fact that he’s not all that much of an asshole

      • joel hanes

        As the series progresses, and if they don’t stray too far from the books, you may find yourself liking some characters you now don’t.

        • Agreed; even some of the most despicable-seeming characters are redeemed via point-of-view shifts.

        • (the other) Davis

          Even by the end of this season, I expect that a couple of characters will be quite a bit more likable.

  • cpinva

    curses on you! on the one hand, this series of posts has forced me to watch these episodes with far more jaundiced and critical eye. on the other, i can’t just sit down and enjoy watching them, i find myself deconstructing them.

    • SEK

      My work here is done.

      • No it’s not.

        I can still blissfully watch in ignorance and wonder . . .

        . . . even after reading he books.


      • wwtfn

        Wow…what an insightful critique. I suddenly feel so inadequate having only watched, cringed and enjoyed the series.

  • Kind of jumping the gun, aren’t we?

    I’ll save most of my goodies for the podcast, but just a few things to start off with:

    * The episode titles vary in terms of significance. Valar Morghulis makes sense, given that Arya gets the coin in S2E10, but Valar Dohaeris has less resonance than it will when Chevok’s Coin will eventually be used. (That’s not a spoiler, that’s just common sense) Likewise, from Season 2 – The North Remembers comes out of Book 5, where it will have enormous resonance that it doesn’t have in Season or Book 2; the Prince of Winterfell has some resonance here in Episode 8, but has an entirely different meaning in Book 5 where it comes from.

    * Some book readers were annoyed/afraid/angry that a big part of Sam’s storyline from Book 3 had gotten butchered in this episode. If you pay close attention to the text, Sam’s mistake with the birds is only slightly changed (in the books, he gets the ravens off but forgets to attach the messages), and his big moment re the dead things that people were upset about not happening doesn’t happen at this point in the story (effectively the Prologue), but rather 18 chapters later. Don’t worry, it’s still happening.

    • Oh, and there’s an interesting parallel between the arrival of one old man (Ser Barristan Selmy) and another (Qyburn). I’m sure the latter is just as trustworthy, honorable, and noble as the former. Quite sure.

    • SEK

      Kind of jumping the gun, aren’t we?

      I call it “prepping.” But don’t worry, I have plenty more to discuss, I just was trying to wrap my head around this particular dynamic before we spoke. (And I can’t do that thing I did to Sam in a podcast without “doing the police in different voices,” and I’d rather not do that.)

      • Gotcha.

      • max

        But don’t worry, I have plenty more to discuss, I just was trying to wrap my head around this particular dynamic before we spoke.

        Good post, but given the subject, I’m not sure why you left Stannis out of the comparison, because what I recall when watching that part was at least one somewhat attention-getting off-axis long shot.

        [‘Stannis has the best claim aside from Daenerys, but I am thinking he is has gone even further off his nut than Joffrey has.’]

        • We may push the Stannis discussion into next week, just because we only got one scene to work with.

    • MacGyver

      I’m still holding out hope they introduced Strong Belwas. I need to see him eat copious amounts of liver, onions, and honey locusts.

  • rickhavoc

    Re GoT eppy 301: has a hanky ever said more ever?

    • Especially when immediately followed by Margaery trailing her dress through the muck, unheeding.

  • Church

    the traditional Braavosi exchange

    I guess it could be called traditional, in that the Braavosi all seem to know it, but it’s not like it’s the sort of exchange they would have at a café. It’s a call sign, or whatever term d’art you probably have for it.

    • It’s a shibboleth. Quite literally.

      • Church

        It’s an ear of corn?

        • Lifebound

          For anyone curious, ancient Hebrews used the word as a guarantee that someone was a genuine citizen. At the time, Gilead had defeated a neighboring tribe, and that tribe’s members became refugees, and tried to run back to their homelands. To cull them from the population, anytime someone wanted to cross the Jordan river, guards commanded that they speak the word “shibboleth”. The defeated tribe’s dialect had no phenome for “sh”, so it came out “sibboleth”. These people were then barred from crossing and killed instead.

          The analogy to “VM/VD” is quite accurate.

  • Leeds man

    OT, but I just found out that A Song of Ice and Fire has surpassed the word count of In Search of Lost Time, and looks to end up beating Mahabharata handily.

    • Anonymous

      Martin will never finish the damn series. Mark my words. How he managed to end Dance of Dragons without advancing the Dany plot one inch is a marvel of narrative failure, all the more amazing from a man whose one great skill (he’s not hugely creative, his characterization is nothing special) is his talent for plot. The series will end up being finished by some 2d-stringer. Valar morghulis indeed.

      • Jameson Quinn

        Not one inch? (spoilers)

        I admit that the status of Mereen itself is barely changed. But the status and position of the characters around it is totally different, leaving a very different set of possibilities going forward.

      • Rhino

        Might be just as well. As a fan of pulp fiction, I have read Robert Jordan’s ‘wheel-o-time’ from the beginning. Jordan’s death is the best thing to happen to the series, since the understudy is doing a much better job…

        • joel hanes

          GRRM is a much, much better writer than Jordan. I tried, I really tried, but gave up on Wheel of Time after six volumes when I realized that I didn’t give one toss about any of the characters.

          By contrast, after reading all the extant Westeros Martin, I care a great deal about most of the characters you would expect, and also about some that you might not.

          I agree that it’s going to be very difficult for GRRM to bring all these threads together in a few more volumes; the plotlines are still branching and diverging.

          I’m very much looking forward to Diana Rigg as the Queen of Thorns — there’s some fine sharp dialogue there.

          I hope we get a ridiculous rendition of “The Bear and The Maiden Fair” — I was pleasantly surprised that we got most of a verse of “The Rains of Castamere” before the battle of the Blackwater.

          • I disagree that they’re diverging, and would argue the opposite.

            Bran, Rickon, Osha, Asha, Hodor, Meere, Jojen, Jon, Melisandre, Stannis, Mance, and Davos are all beginning to cluster up North, and are beginning to converge (dramatically if not physically) around Winterfell and the forthcoming battle of ice. Sansa and Littlefinger are right behind them.

            Dany, Tyrion, Jorah, Barristan, Victarion, and all of the Essos characters are beginning to converge around Meereen and the conclusive battle of fire there.

            The only plotline left in the Riverlands is Jaime, Brienne, Lady Stoneheart, the Brotherhood Without banners (which includes Gendry), and the Freys. That’s going to be easy to tie up and it’s probably going to converge at Riverrun where the Lannister-Frey wedding is going to take place.

            Arianne, Jon Connington, Aegon, Cersei, Tommen, Qyburn, Robert Strong, Lancel and/or Sandor, the Tyrells are all coalescing around a conflict in King’s Landing.

            The only real outliers are Sam in Oldtown (although my guess is that Jaqen H’gar will draw him back into the main plot), and Arya in Braavos.

            • joel hanes

              Interesting. I hope you’re right that there will be some sort of resolution of many of these threads.

              Have you read the Hedge Knight tales of Ser Duncan the Tall and his squire ?

              • StevenAttewell


          • MacGyver

            same here. i read the first two books, but then just gave up because i didn’t care about the characters either. i also didn’t like the way jordan wrote his female characters. i don’t know how exactly to explain it, but jordan almost seemed sexist the way he would write them.

            • dfinc

              He is. They are almost always wrong for acting with reason instead of guts, forcing the male characters to bail them out by being unreasonbly gutsy. The female characters are less interesting because they exist to tick off the end-times check list rather than play a role that ‘decides’ outcomes.

      • Medrawt

        Earlier today I attempted to determine where we are in terms of GRRM’s original three (!) book intended plotline, and as far as I could figure from the available information my guess is that book five brings us somewhere to the earlyish middle of book two. The original outline, per Wikipedia, was for there to be three volumes, the second of which was tentatively named A Dance with Dragons, and apparently it was going to be about things that did not yet happen in that book.

        • Jameson Quinn

          Where are you getting that DWD doesn’t finish the second book of outline? I see http://www.thelifestylereport.ca/2012/03/13/george-r-r-martin-talks-to-fans-about-the-making-of-game-of-thrones-and-what-inspired-his-best-selling-book-series/ but it just gives the three originally-planned names, nothing about the plots.

          • Medrawt

            I was trying to be a little elliptical in case some spoiler fanatic was reading, but my information comes from Wikipedia (the entry for the whole series, “A Song of Ice and Fire”:

            I’m making a guess based on two different pieces of information. One is that the original books were going to be titled A Game of Thrones, A Dance With Dragons, and The Winds of Winter.

            I also find that when he started what was at that point the fourth book it was “tentatively titled A Dance With Dragons, [which] was to focus on Daenerys Targaryen’s return to Westeros and the associated conflicts.”

            Since he has continued to preserve the titles of the original first and second books, and since the expansion of the series began when he realized the first volume was running too long and he had to stop, my presumption is that MOST of the War of 5 Kings was supposed to happen in the first book. He later apparently decided the series would be six books, at which time he intended there to be a five year jump from the third volume to the fourth. (It was scrapping this plan for the jump that led to the bifurcation of the fourth and fifth books and the expansion from a planned six to a planned seven volumes.)

            So my guess overall, which is mostly a guess, is that GRRM’s second plan (six books, five year jump in the middle) was for the first three books to establish and cover all the ground he might have additionally wanted to cover in the first volume, at the time he was a few hundred pages in and submitting an outline to publishers. And then the actual fourth and fifth volumes do the work of covering the ground he was originally going to paper over with his time jump. I could be wrong. All of the above is from a wikipedia article I read today. But there’s an implication that in the early 2000s he was intending to get to stuff in ADWD that he did not get to.

            Of course, he could have altered trajectory on the actual plot as well as the pacing of its unfurling.

        • njorl

          I like to joke that Martin will die before finishing the eleventh book of his seven book trilogy.

      • Wow, you’re really wrong. Let’s recap:

        Meereen starts out with Dany fully in charge and intending to stay, isolated from everyone else.

        Meereen ends with Dany toppled from her throne, deciding she needs to leave, and Tyrion/Jorah/Victarion/Barristan all converging for the Battle of Fire. Oh yah, and she’s basically fulfilling both Mirri Maz Dur and Quaithe’s prophecies – and is about to ride into the battle with a true khalasar behind her.

        • njorl

          But Mereen ends the previous book as a city to be taken and abandoned. It took the whole book to do what was assumed to be a foregone conclusion in the previous book.

          • StevenAttewell

            Mereen was never to be abandoned – it’s the place where Dany learns how not to rule.

            • Anonymous

              it’s the place where Dany learns how not to rule

              That did not have to take an entire 1000-page book, IMHO.

              … Went to Amazon to look up the page count, and I note that the last two books’ customer ratings are markedly lower than those of the earlier ones. I liked Crows well enough (sad tho that Cersei wiggled out so easily in Dance … or did she?), but I can see the objections to it.

              Prayer to the Seven: NO MORE NEW VIEWPOINTS for the rest of the series.

              • Anonymous

                Oh, and this review of Dance is priceless.

                I’m Daenarys Targaryen. I’m only a young girl, and I know little in the ways of war, governance, what have you. I used to think I said these things to misdirect people, but as of DoD it seems to be true. I spend my time taking baths, fretting, being wishy-washy, and mooning over this hot mercenary dude. In the end I learn that “you have to go back to go forward.” I would have thought that going backwards would be the last thing that this book needs, but I am only a young girl and know little of the ways of story advancement.

      • William Berry

        I’m not a fan of sword and sorcery type fantasy, really, so haven’t read any of “A Song of Ice and Fire”. But to say that GRRM lacks creativeness (same as saying he has no talent, really, when you are talking about a fiction writer) is going too far. Check out his story, “The Way of Cross and Dragon”, which is one of the best SF short stories ever (IMNSHO).

        (Off topic, somewhat, but I generally prefer the well- crafted SF short story to the longer works. I think the literary quality of the best stories wins out over almost any of the novels: Borges’ “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”, Kono Tensei’s “Triceratops”, Haldemann’s “Hero”, best of Ballard, Aldiss, and many others. Love that stuff.)

        • Anonymous

          Fair enough; *this* series isn’t hugely creative. I confess to not having read anything else by the man.

          • William Berry

            As for the HBO series, I am with the fems: it is a little (well, a lot, actually) too rapey and macho for my taste.

  • zombie gert frobe

    I find the Walking Dead moral dynamics far more interesting and engaging than those posed by Game of Thrones (admittedly have only seen the 1st season…which bored the ass off me. I have no ass)

    IMO, GoT is little more than Shield redux.

    Or even worse

    • It’s difficult to be (something) redux when the story is older than the thing you’re comparing it to.

    • MCH

      Considering, by your own admission, you have only SEEN the first season of the show, and by logical deduction probably never read any of the books, I can’t take anything you say seriously or even give weight to your criticisms of the only season you decided to compare to another show that strays drastically from it’s source material to be more broadly appealing i.e. not killing off characters, limbs, etc. that were done-for in the graphic novels. BUT, if I were to grant you any bit of validity, I sill wouldn’t think you a solid source of any legitimate opinion after stating that the “moral dynamics” of TWD are more “engaging” than that of GoT. Seriously??

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