HBO’s insanely successful and highly anticipated series “Game of Thrones” landed with a resounding bang last Sunday. Picking up right where season two left off, the newest season opens with “Valar Dohaeris,” meaning, “All men must serve” in high Valyrian. It is an appropriate title to be sure, as we are shown some rather grim character aftermaths from the emotional Battle of the Blackwater and the current whereabouts of the Starks.

By no means a dramatic episode, “Valar Dohaeris” lacked the sex and bloodshed for which the TV series is known and focuses on setting up the pieces for the upcoming season. Borrowing a thing or two from the novel, the emphasis is on the ever-changing political tide in King’s Landing and the beginnings of a major shift in power between the key players.

None of the new characters are as exciting as veteran Irish actor Ciarán Hinds (“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2”) as Mance Rayder, a.k.a. the King-Beyond-the-Wall. Hinds captures the strength and charisma that enabled Rayder to unite all the wildings under his rule while still retaining the humility and unassuming nature that makes him drastically different from the likes of Joffrey and Stannis Baratheon.

Lena Headey, who portrays the perpetually wine-drunk Queen Cersei, is as spiteful and bitter as ever when faced with the young, beautiful and dangerously politically savvy Margaery Tyrell, played by fan favorite Natalie Dormer of “The Tudors” fame. Hopefully the writers expand on the rivalry between the Queen and Queen-to-be, as their actions and decisions have the ability to affect whoever sits on the Iron Throne. The tense dinner between Cersei, Joffrey, Margaery and Loras is a prelude to the type of havoc Margaery can wreak as she is shown to be incredibly self-aware and quick-witted, the exact opposite of Cersei, who holds power but doesn’t understand how to wield it.

The best scene of the episode naturally involves Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister. Stripped of his title as Hand of the King and shuttled away to a tiny, cramped room to nurse the vicious wound he received during battle, it certainly was a shock to see the normally well-composed and sarcastic imp lose his confidence and sharp tongue in the presence of his domineering father, Tywin. As rewards are handed out to participants in the battle, Tyrion at least deserves recognition for orchestrating the defense of King’s Landing against Stannis’s forces––yet he was shown nothing but contempt for saving thousands of lives. As the new Hand of the King, Tywin not only failed to visit his wounded son, but also ridiculed and denounced Tyrion when the latter asked not for fame or glory, but for the simple right to be his father’s heir. Tyrion’s reaction to his father’s brutal verbal abuse was heartbreaking and hard to watch. For once, the dwarf was left speechless, admitting defeat and facing a terrifying and uncertain future.

In the north, Robb Stark and his battle-hungry army come across the now-abandoned Harrenhal strewn with hundreds of mutilated corpses of northern men. Robb still treats his mother as a prisoner for freeing Jaime Lannister, but unfortunately we don’t catch a glimpse of the Kingslayer or Brienne this episode. Other popular and vital characters to the series not shown in the opener include silver-tongued Varys and the younger stark children: headstrong Arya, greenseer Bran and the youngest, Rickon. The two boys were left homeless after the Sack of Winterfell, traveling with a Osha the wildling woman to escape as far from Theon Greyjoy as possible.

Meanwhile, there seems to be some sort of uneasy truce forming between Sansa Stark and Littlefinger, who offers to whisk her away from King’s Landing. However, Littlefinger’s own companion warns Sansa’s handmaiden and Tyrion’s lover, Shae, to watch out for her Lady around the conniving Master of Coin. This drives the plot forward for Sansa, who up until this point has been a rather dislikable and underused character. With her marriage called off, father dead and brother at war with those keeping her hostage, Sansa’s escape will provide a chance for her to grow stronger and bring about a new story arc that will deal heavily with Littlefinger and his uncontrollable ambitions.

The fact that HBO chose to show Ser Davos (the “Onion Knight”) in the season premiere, despite his relatively small role in the previous season, foreshadows his growing importance. After his humiliating defeat, Stannis sees and speaks to no one except the Red Priestess Melisandre. Stannis was indifferent to the return of his most loyal subject and was quick to throw Davos in prison, even though the man had barely been rescued for speaking out against the woman’s tactics.

Across the Narrow Sea, Daenerys Targaryen arrives in Astapor, one of the three great city-states in Slavery’s Bay. Her dragons have grown larger, but according to her, “not fast enough” to conquer the Seven Kingdoms. Thus, she seeks to purchase an army, and comes across the Unsullied––highly disciplined and skilled eunuch slave-soldiers known for their unwavering obedience and extreme prowess in battle. Also re-introduced in this episode is Ser Barristan Selmy, formerly the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard. Though a much esteemed character, there is wide dissatisfaction amongst fans and critics with his introduction to Daenerys. In the novel, Selmy meets Dany under a guise to test her worth and provide insight into Ned Stark and the history of her family. In the HBO series, he immediately identifies himself and pledges his loyalty to her.

Though deviations from the novel are acceptable and often expected, some changes are too big and too hard to ignore, and we can only hope that the writers find a way to bring together the important plot points that would have otherwise gone to Selmy’s alias.

After a conflicting second season, it appears that season three is getting back on track by setting up its character pieces and main story arcs. There is definitely a storm brewing in King’s Landing, and after Robb’s mistake of marrying outside of his contract with the Frey’s and his mother’s release of the Kingslayer, things aren’t looking much better for the Young Wolf. The only contender for the throne that seems to be getting her way is Dany, who after learning a harsh lesson in Qarth, is slowly growing into her role as a leader and preparing to take the throne through her army and her skills as a politician. Although she still has much to learn, Dany has come far from the timid and shy girl she was in season one to the khaleesi she is now.

Rating: 4 stars