Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Game Over, Man, Game Over!

Well, that's certainly set the cat amongst the highly-symbolic pigeons, hasn't it?  I haven't seen the internet this up in arms since the 10th Doctor regenerated into himself!  And this resolution wasn't even shit!

But, after the smoke has cleared, and the blood wiped from our eyes, how successful was "Baelor" overall?

(The uber-est of uberspoilers follows after the jump.  You Have Been Warned...)

The thing about ending an episode by chopping the head off your ostensible protagonist (as well as surely the recipient of your biggest paycheck, and your presumed most likely draw for viewers) is that it's very easy to judge the whole of the installment on the ending, and just skim over everything that happened up until then.  We'll call it Finale Preoccupation Syndrome.  It kept Lost in business for at least three years, actually.

So let's deal with the aurochs in the room.  Eddard's execution was brilliantly handled, from Joffrey's poignant pause before delivering his verdict to the silence that fell as Ned realised that this was finally it.  The horrible unfairness of Ned sacrificing his honour and his life is lifted from the book, of course, but Alan Taylor and the writing staff added plenty to the scene.  The symbolism of Arya snapping the neck of a pigeon before the execution and then watching a flock fly away following it is no coincidence; Joffrey holds the lives of his subjects just as Arya held that pigeon, which means it's time for the pigeons to fly away, before they get end up minus a head.  There was also a horribly appropriate nod to the first episode, when Arya clambered up onto high ground to see a very different kind of spectacle, and a very different first glimpse of a king.

The death on the steps of Baelor was probably the most important scene to nail in the first series, and there's no question this was managed.  But what about elsewhere?

I've been trying to think of an analogy for how this episode played out.  Let's go with Lord of the Rings.  I've made no secret of how disappointing I found Jackson's adaptation of The Two Towers (which was far, far less impressive than Fellowship...), so imagine Benioff and Weiss had written the screenplay instead.  And it's glorious - tense and poignant and funny in all the right places, the absolute pinnacle of what can be done when translating Tolkien's literature to the screen.

Now imagine they skip over the battle for Helm's Deep.

On one level, sure, apart from the fact that the book's most important battle is missing, it's the best adaptation you're ever going to see.  On the other hand, the book's most important battle is missing.

I accept that my desire to see some major-league combat is a personal thing.  There may be plenty of people happy enough with the small-scale melees.  And since the action is interspersed with politics, character moments, jokes, and titties, it's not like there isn't anything else to hold the attention.

But if you're going to adapt a book that includes a war, you should probably show the war at some point.  I know there are people out there who thought Tyrion being knocked out by his own side was funny (and I suppose it is), but I couldn't interpret it as anything else than a massive flashing sign reading WE'RE NOT GIVING YOU A BATTLE AND WE DON'T CARE.  I'm not unaware of the costs such scenes incur, but I've seen The Pillars of the Earth, so it's not like it can't be done with a little thought.

Like I said, it's mainly personal preference.  Not entirely, though; the show has been ramping up the stakes over this war for a few weeks now.  Having it take place off-screen is a sure way to ensure the pressure isn't released, so much as dissipates. [1]

Indeed, tension issues, and the attendant pacing considerations, were a bit of an issue elsewhere in the episode.  I've always loved the idea that Khal Drogo is lain low by an infected wound.  Someone noted this week (I forget who) that there is something of a recurring motif in the series of major characters dying or being defeated by the most ignoble things.  Joffrey takes a dagger to the eye outside a brothel, Robert is gored by a boar, and now a witch's magic is all that can save Khal Drogo from an unfortunate lack of Savlon.

Even so, the speed with which we moved from "Drogo is ill" to "Drogo is being bathed in horse's blood amongst screaming spirits whilst Dany goes into labour" was, frankly, ridiculous.  Nothing evidences this fact so well as the scene not bothering to explain that Dany was the only person who could hear the otherworldly howls coming from the tent.  As a result, everything gets garbled, Jhogo's duel with Jorah, though awesome, couldn't really be focussed on, and most importantly, Mormont looks like a total fucking idiot for carrying a mother in labour into a tent apparently being used for a demon disco.

Having said all that, the speed with which various other scenes were dispatched is actually justifiable when you have another episode of One and a Half Men to broadcast.  Bronn and Tyrion continue to be the best pairing the show has come up with, and their drinking game with Shae [2] is definitely the highlight of the episode, at least until the finale.

All told, the series is going great guns.  It's definitely found its own identity, and as Maureen Ryan has said, it's now possible to recommend the series in its own right, rather than just suggesting they read the books instead.  Still, I can't help but think about all the scenes I love from the books that might never be shown for the sake of saving money.  I'd had that thought before the series was ever announced of course: "Could they do scenes X and Y justice?"  Right now, the show is just about managing to provide enough of the goods.  But that can only last for so long...

[1] Or maybe I'm just pissed off that Robb suddenly did get 2 000 extra troops from sources unknown.  That still reads like a cheat to me, but it does mean Jamie and Dan got the best of our last discussion.

[2] Not replaced by Ros after all, as it turns out.  So did Winterfell's most famous whore really come all the way down to King's Landing to provide a finger-bang drum-beat to Littlefinger's exposition?


Jamie said...

Nice point about the pigeon :) Certainly a better metaphorical use of the Columbidae family by Benioff and Weiss than by fucking Ron Moore.

I know what you mean about the Battle of the Green Fork, it was disappointing (although one wonders how on Westeros they would have fitted all the other incidents needed into the episode had they had an extended battle sequence). However, I'm not sure it was solely a decision based upon the twin time/money factors. A suggestion from Ran's review over at westeros.org (http://www.westeros.org/GoT/Episodes/Entry/Baelor/Book_Spoilers/) is that Peter Dinklage, around whose character the scene in the book revolves, simply isn't as suited to fighting as his fictional counterpart. However, that being the case, it doesn't mean that they couldn't show the battle at all, the omniscient camera perspective having a wider scope than that of the book's individual chapters. Still, I will be interested to read the interview with the show's VFX producers that is promised in the review.

One of the things I was surprised about, which I thought was a strange choice, was the altering of Robb's plan, so that the force left behind at the Twins was not still the greater part of his forces (just the majority of his cavalry heading towards the Whispering Wood), but this time a much smaller force. I'm getting worried about how exactly they'll introduce Roose Bolton in the second season (as introduce him they must...) if the forces he has commanded are essentially massacred now.

I agree absolutely that they are going to have to properly show some war at some point; that point at the very latest better be Blackwater, as that takes up almost an episode's worth of chapters by itself! (6 chapters, out of a total of 70.) Heaven knows how they'll be able to depict that well, especially with Martin going crazy on the screenplay.

SpaceSquid said...

You bastard, Jamie! Thousands of pounds on therapy to block out Battlestar Galactipigeon wasted!

Dan Edmunds said...

I too felt a little bit cheated by lack of WAR! But if the loss of seeing those two battles is what the cost was of making the rest of the series spot on then all I can say is, I pay it gladly.

Sure it would have been nice to see, but no part of it was actually important beyond it happening. So if it was for budget reasons, my hat is off to the producers for picking substance over style.