Season 3 of HBO's “Game of Thrones” begins with satisfyingly crunchy sounds of slaughter and a haunting image: chubby Samwell Tarly, abandoned by his mates in the Night's Watch, running in terror through the mists on the far side of the Wall.
And then people start to talk. And talk. And walk from here to there so that they can do some more talking.
As this popular adaptation of George R.R. Martin's “Song of Ice and Fire” novels returns tonight, it falls into an already familiar pattern. Tiny bursts of action are separated by wide expanses of conversation — veritable kingdoms of explication during which medieval spreadsheets of plot, history, geography and family lineage are explained in the mellow tones of stage-trained European actors.
Presumably the balance will slowly shift toward action as the plot builds, over the course of 10 episodes, to some climactic mass bloodletting, in this case involving those who were hot on Sam's heels.
To be fair, I enjoy “Game of Thrones” and have been happy to bear with it even when its appeal has seemed more actuarial or logistical than dramatic — during the long stretches of chessboard storytelling, when the writers seem mostly concerned with moving people around or keeping them apart. I've been an avid consumer of science fiction and, to a lesser extent, fantasy since childhood and share some affinities with those who see the show's success as a validation — a succès du fantastique.
But the season premiere is a handy time to say, for the record, that the claims made in some quarters for “Game of Thrones” — including, ever more boldly, that it's the best show on television — are overblown.
Making the series a test case for the artistic validity of fantasy literature and film isn't really necessary, or advisable, in the wake of greater achievements like Peter Jackson's “Lord of the Rings” movies and the better entries in the “Harry Potter” series. A well-made and highly effective piece of popular genre entertainment shouldn't be discounted, but it doesn't need to be overrated either.
Both serialized television and sprawling fictional cycles can exert special holds, though, and their congruence here can go a long way toward explaining the fervor fans feel for “Game of Thrones,” where they see Martin's nerdily meticulous fantasy world brought to life with respect and high production values.
But does the show's mainstream acceptance (to the extent that there is still an identifiable mainstream) mean that its producers have successfully translated Martin's stories for a larger audience not normally interested in fantasy? Or does it mean that they've made the fantasy aspects palatable by repackaging them, wholesale, in the form of an HBO prestige drama, a highly stylized product already embraced by the upper-class TV audience?
Slow pace, hushed quality, studiously restrained performances, constant leaps among multiple simultaneous story lines: In its bones “Game of Thrones” bears a startlingly close resemblance to shows like “Boardwalk Empire” and “Band of Brothers.”
The early episodes of Season 3 contain another sign of premium-cable conformity: plots or situations that address themes of slavery, women's empowerment and sexual orientation in obvious, heavy-handed ways, particularly for a show set in a medieval fantasy world.
On the positive side it's nice to have back Peter Dinklage, the cast's token American, in the role of the combative and honorable dwarf Tyrion Lannister, though he's more subdued than usual in the aftermath of the traumatic Battle of Blackwater in Season 2. He still dispatches the show's artfully sub-sub-Shakespearean dialogue with panache, and he's joined in that all-important endeavor this season by estimable performers Ciaran Hinds, Paul Kaye (in a role very different from his hilariously wasted Billy in “Pulling”) and Diana Rigg, doing the medieval-warfare version of the dowager played by her fellow dame Maggie Smith in “Downton Abbey.”
They're all fun to watch, even when their characters don't have anything in particular to do besides relay information that we need to keep up with the story or keep straight the seven (so we're told) warring families.
In any case, in “Game of Thrones” people always take second place to machinery — the big ticking clockwork of plot and relationships, of family trees and maps and flowcharts symbolized by every episode's best feature, the beautifully animated opening-credit sequence that gives an aerial survey of the show's world. It symbolizes a seductive mechanism that's deeply appealing, even as it chews up characters and ideas.