In the middle of "Valar Dohaeris," tonight's season three premiere of HBO's Game of Thrones, Tywin Lannister tells his son Tyrion that only "jugglers and singers require applause." The characters on Game of Thrones may not require praise, but based on tonight's stellar premiere, the applause for Game of Thrones will only get louder.
In budget, content, and scope, Game of Thrones is a series that couldn't have existed a decade ago, and its success was far from guaranteed when it premiered on HBO in April 2011. But Game of Thrones enters its third season with all the confidence and swagger — not to mention the gold — of a Lannister.
The show isn't afraid to limit the time we spend with some characters (like fan-favorite Arya Stark, who doesn't appear in the premiere at all). It's not afraid to tease the die-hard fans of the series. ("They said you lost your nose," Cersei says to Tyrion, describing the injury he received in last season's Battle of Blackwater — an injury that results in the loss of his nose in George R.R. Martin's original novel, but not the TV series.) It's not afraid that it will alienate viewers by upping the fantasy quotient beyond Daenerys' much-discussed dragons and the occasional shadow baby. (When Ygritte introduces Jon Snow to giants, which exist beyond the Wall in the far north, she does it with all the fanfare of someone remarking that it's snowing.) And the show makes absolutely no effort to make itself comprehensible to new viewers; this is for fans only, and you're either all in or not in at all.
Season three also brings new characters to Game of Thrones, adding terrific new faces to the dozens already introduced in the first two seasons (and who have, thus far, been spared the grim fates of dearly departed characters like Viserys Targaryen, Robert Baratheon, and Ned Stark). According to The Atlantic, HBO has revealed that this season will feature no less than 257 named characters, including newcomers like Mance Rayder (Ciarin Hinds), the much-discussed "King Beyond the Wall," and Lady Olenna Redwyne (Dianna Rigg), better known as the "Queen of Thorns."
It's not for nothing that the characters on Game of Thrones throw around titles like "king" and "queen" like they're going out of style. Season three picks up right where season two left off, with the War of the Five Kings narrowed down to four: Joffrey Baratheon, the sadistic, illegitimate heir who sits on the Iron Throne; Stannis Baratheon, the stoic man with the best claim to the throne by bloodline; Robb Stark, the self-styled "King in the North"; and Balon Greyjoy, the cruel father of Robb's ally-turned-traitor Theon.
But for a show that claims to center on a war between kings, Game of Thrones continues to have more strong female characters than virtually any other show on television. Daenerys Targaryen is playing a longer game than any of the would-be kings, attempting to purchase an army of 8,000 highly trained eunuchs to help her retake the iron throne. Stannis Baratheon obsessively clings to the sorceress Melisandre — the only person to successfully kill a king (Stannis' brother, Renley) since the war began. Margaery Tyrell, the Kate Middleton of King's Landing, has already proven that she's an infinitely shrewder and more capable leader than her would-be husband Joffrey.
Fans and showrunners predict the third season will be the show's best yet, based on the strength of series creator George R.R. Martin's fan-favorite third novel, A Storm of Swords. And critics continue to applaud because it's one of the densest, richest, and most rewarding shows on television (and arguably ever). Game of Thrones is back, offering an unprecedented expansion of a world that's so dizzyingly detailed and complex that even watching the series takes some work — but for anyone who's willing to put in the time, the work is more rewarding than ever.