Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Last Gang In Town (Part 1)

And it's brawn against brain
And it's knife against chain
But it's all young blood
Flowing down the drain

OK, so there wasn't actually a chain in the television adaptation of Game of Thrones ( a shame, though hardly an inexplicable one).  Otherwise, though, that quote works pretty well as an encapsulation of a great deal of the second season, which closed three weeks ago with an extended episode.  But how well did "Valar Morghulis" cap the last year's action, and how well do episodes 11 through 20 measure up to A Clash Of Kings?  I warn you, this post got so big I had to split it into two. Hey, if it's good enough for Martin...

(What is below may never spoil!  Unless you read it, obviously.)

Last Gang in Town

We'll begin, as the episode did, in King's Landing.  Tyrion has awoken to discover he still has his nose (so that's a step up from the books, at least), but that he has a rather unsightly gash across his face which one hopes will finally stop people complaining Peter Dinklage is too pretty to be the Imp. 

Dinklage has been consistently excellent this season, a distinct improvement from his already strong performance last year.  His constipated wailing at Joffrey during the riot in King's Landing was the only low point (his grasp on his affected accent is still less than absolute, I think), his triumphs were too frequent to mention.  Every facet of literature's funniest, horniest, smartest little man came across this year, and the show owes no smaller debt to Dinklage than the people of Westeros' capital do to the character he portrays.  Here's hoping people are rather more grateful to Dinklage than they are to Tyrion.

Also impressive has been Jack Gleeson.  I wasn't a big fan of his portrayal of Joffrey as a prince, but as a king, he's done a good job of mixing together pride, petulance, bloodthirst, fear and viciousness.  There was a definite arc to him this year as well.  Early on, he's all about forcing whores to beat each other and ordering his subjects murdered for standing nearby a man armed with cow dung.  When that latter idea backfires spectacularly, he at least learns a little about the importance of not pissing off one's subjects, and whilst he leaves them to their fate during the Battle of the Blackwater, he at least has sense enough to cloak the retreat in a pretext, however flimsy.

By the time we see him back on the Iron Throne this episode, he's finally willing to read the lines others are writing for him.  He's obviously not lying when he praises Margaery's beauty - the little shit looks like he's tempted to screw her there and then - but the careful dance he performs with the Tyrells, his mother, and Grand Maester Pycelle to allow him to shrug Sansa Stark aside demonstrates a new willingness to (if not necessarily interest in) ensure his subjects will be on his side.  For a king who I don't think we've seen ever before sit his throne without threatening death or ordering arrests and mutilations, that's an interesting change.  Whilst it didn't happen in the book, I wonder whether Lord Tywin had had some curt words with the Boy King before his official audience.

Speaking of Tywin's arrival, this is another way in which the show differs from the book, in which Joffrey immediately undercuts his newfound ability to toe the line by calling his uncle a cowardly dick.  I'm not sure which version I prefer, but I suspect given the structure of the season, the show made the right call in leaving it out.

We'll talk about Lord Tywin more in a moment, but let's stick with King's Landing for now and discuss Cersei.  Lena Headey didn't have much to do in "Valar Morghulis", but in general over the season she's had great fun, even if her love of scheming and short-term solutions have been given comparatively short shrift.  I do miss that side of Cersei (her confusion of strategy for tactics pretty much defined her entire approach to rule, I thought), but the focus on her relationship with her callous, preening son offers a nice complement to what we see in the novel. 

Her tormenting of Sansa is particularly complex and interesting.  Sansa (or so everyone thought) is walking with open eyes into the same loveless, stifling marriage arrangement Cersei endured herself, which evokes the only kind of sympathy a narcissist can ever feel, but a the same time Sansa is also Cersei's replacement, destined to take from Cersei the only thing that separates Tywin's only daughter from total irrelevance.  Throw in Cersei's realisation that her son will make a far worse husband than Robert but her unconditional love for him and the unbreakable superiority complex of her family, and she ends up thinking Sansa an idiot if the girl thinks she can love Joffrey, and breathtakingly ungrateful if she thinks anything else.  That's amazingly good fun to watch, especially when Cersei's drunk.  Like I said last time, being a highlight of an episode featuring one of the best battle sequences ever shot for television in no mean feat.

That's us done with the lions in the keep, then, but before we leave King's Landing, two further quick observations.  Firstly, is there any character with a more punchable face than Littlefinger?  Even Joffrey doesn't seem so objectionable; at least he doesn't pretend to be your friend whilst he's eyefucking you and/or planning your destruction.  I don't really think it's Aiden Gillen's fault (though his performance doesn't really do a great deal for me), but Littlefinger is definitely the character who's come off worst from the move from the printed page.  All the charm is gone and been replaced with slime.

He still gets himself Harrehal, though, whilst Varys looks on, sick as a dog.  That brings us to my second note; Conleth Hill is still the ultimate ball-less bad-ass.  Well, I assume he isn't ball-less, but you get the point.  Varys has been in the background all season, as is only fitting, but his visit to Ros suggests some interesting deviations from the books next time around, as well as hopefully giving the show's prettiest prostitute more to do, there seemed very little point to her inclusion this season, for all that I don't think I'll ever get tired of seeing her naked.

The Emptying of Harrenhal

Coming back to Tywin Lannister, whoever had the idea to put him in Harrenhal and give Arya the task of serving him instead of Roose Bolton should immediately promoted to Head of Awesome.  I'm not sure the Tywin we see talking with Arya entirely lines up with his nature in the novels, but that doesn't really matter.  The show is usually (though by no means always) at its best when fleshing out characters the books may have given slight attention to (Tywin doesn't lack for appearances, but almost invariably we see him through the eyes of Tyrion, which doesn't provide much in the way of dispassionate analysis), and the fact that Maisie Williams continues to astonish just makes it all the sweeter.  I always felt A Clash of Kings gave Arya comparatively short shrift; her chapters give us plenty of hissable villains and a cool assassin but not much else until the her closing chapters.  I think the show has made much better use of her.

This is a good time to mention Jaqen H'ghar.  For whatever reason, he didn't click for me at all.  Some of it, I think, is down to Tom Wlaschiha's performance, though I confess that I can't pin down exactly why I don't think it works.  He certainly doesn't strike me as a believable killer of men, but of course that's the point.  All I can say is that I'm not sorry to see him change his face and stride off into the south. That said, though, Williams' reactions to him were sublime.  Watch her response this episode when he disappears from the outcrop above them and suddenly appears right behind her.  There's no fear or wonder in her face at all, she's just annoyed by the theatrics.  Brilliant.

North by North-West

Overall, the maneuvers of the King in the North as he attempts to secure the Riverlands was probably the least successful storyline this year.  Catelyn, in particular, has been once again terribly served.  To return to a point I've touched on more than once since the show premiered, Catelyn's political nous was one of her very best qualities in the books (though I'll admit it didn't do enough to make her particularly interesting to me), but as with last season, that's been thoroughly excised, with Catelyn being reduced to a mere observer.  No longer does she suggest an alliance with Renly, instead she is sent on the mission by her son.  No longer does she discover her son has made a spectacular error of judgement whilst he was away and broken his marriage  promise, instead she counsels against the idea and is ignored.

It doesn't help, admittedly, that I still don't like Michelle Fairley's portrayal, but the more I think about it the more I realise that Fairley has been perfectly cast for the character the show wants to portray; it's just not a character worth any real consideration.  If nothing else, the books put some effort into making Catelyn sympathetic despite being directly responsible for the war that first killed her husband and then resulted in the burning of Winterfell.  The show just doesn't seem to care what we think, to the point where, as mentioned, she decides to free Jaime rather than see him murdered and that last fact is never mentioned again.

Another problem with this subplot is how nebulous Robb's goals are.  In the novels, it's made clear that he's formed an alliance with the Riverlands (Catelyn's homelands), which is preventing him from just heading back  home and securing the north.  It isn't hard to see why much of this storyline has been cut, much as it interested me in the book, but between Robb not having an objective reason to remain in the field (killing off Joffrey never seemed like a sound enough plan, though maybe that's the book-reader in me talking) and casting away his promise to Walder Frey in exchange for some sexy times, and you have what I think is a markedly less interesting tale than its paper equivalent.

Then we have poor old Jaime, tied to a post and wallowing in his own shit.  Not a good look.  Clearly, without major changes to the story (which is always easier north of the Wall and east of the Narrow Sea, where there's less dominoes to consider), Jaime was going to have to spend most of this season in the stockade.  I've got no problem with releasing him early.  But the way this was done, by having him cave in the head of his own cousin, struck me and continues to strike me as utterly ridiculous.  The son of the man who went to war over the twisted dwarf he despised purely because they shared a name should know far, far better than to slay his kin, particularly when it was never explained why wounding him (or even just having him play possum) wouldn't work just as well.  There's been some suggestion in the general fan community (read: a guy what tweeted me about this) that killing Ser Alton was necessary to remind us all that Jaime isn't to be trusted, but that strikes me as a poor argument; there are many ways to achieve that end in a far less unspeakable fashion.  As with Cersei, one of the real strengths of this show is in how well they've introduced the complexities of Jaime early on, rather than waiting for the chapter from their viewpoint later on, but this felt like a significant and entirely unnecessary step backwards.

Having said all that, I'm loving me some Brienne.  The book version is all lumpen suspicion, but Gwendoline Christie brings some much-needed dour fire to the role.  Plus, she took out three dudes like a boss.  "Two quick deaths?"  Nice work, wench!

Coming soon: the Narrow Sea, the gardens of Qarth, the ashes of Winterfell, and the frozen north...

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