Friday, 6 July 2012

Last Gang In Town (Part 2)

Part 1

Time for another look at Game of Thrones' second season finale, as we consider how well the show adapted the travails of Jon in the north, Dany in the east, Theon in his father's shadow, and Stannis in a number of compromising positions with a sexy redhead.

(Spoilers etc.)

We'll start with Stannis, I think, even though he hasn't much to do here (hardly unforgivable, given the amount of screen-time and mook-maiming he got to bathe in last episode).  Stannis was always the most interesting of the Baratheon brothers; the very definition of Lawful Neutral (as oppose to say, Jules Winnfield: seriously, what the fuck?), a man completely incapable of bending the truth or the law, and as a result hated by almost everyone.  He's the guy who would tell his daughter she looks fat on her wedding day.  Indeed, he admits at one point in the books that it was exceptionally hard for him to decide whether or not to join his brother's rebellion at all, so ingrained is his sense of loyalty to legitimate authority (it always amused me how similar Stannis' and Jaime's dilemmas were at that time; trapped between two opposing oaths).

How much of that has made it onto the screen is debatable.  Stephen Dillane was certainly a very good pick for the role; his eyes constantly seem to hint and things beneath the surface we'll never get to see.  He looks at people the way a pressure cooker would.  It's also impressive how different Dillane can make Stannis's blankness pre-disaster as oppose to post-disaster.

On the other hand, it's too hard for me to reconcile the man who is lawful to a fault committing adultery with a woman who he then tries to strangle.  The former is perhaps just about justifiable if you see it as some part of Stannis' agreement to take on the mantle of Lightbringer (although even then, it makes no sense that he'd be screwing Melisandre during the same period that she's criticising him for not really buying into her religion), but trying to kill his mistress in a fit of anger?  Uh uh.  Not our Stannis, no sirree.  And whilst there's obviously no reason why the screen characters have to be colour photocopies of their novel versions, one should surely be able to see reasons for each change made, beyond "Stannis is mad so he'd totally try and choke his frail".

Mind you, Melisandre (who's been great all season) didn't really help.  Does everyone in fantasy get taught how to give the least rousing speeches possible?  We had the Hound's distinctly unlovely oath as he charged out of the Mud Gate last episode, and now we have Melisandre listing all the different ways this war is going to suck abominably for her king.  Theon's speech to his minions isn't much better; it's hardly any wonder they knocked him out and slunk away.

Last year I was pretty down on Alfie Allen, who not only struck me as wrong for Theon (who should be more sneering and less petulant), but wrong for any job in which he was required to say words in exchange for money.  Alas, season two has done little to improve my opinion of him. He has flashes of competency, mainly when playing against Patrick Malahide or Gemma Whelan, but mostly he comes across as a sulking, disgruntled rodent, and managing to be both a chronic over-actor and entirely boring to watch all at the same time.

Remove Allen himself from consideration, though, and there's a great deal to like about the Greyjoy arc this season.  Malahide is truly phenomenal as the bitter Balon Greyjoy, spitting angrily on everyone and everything like a vampire turned too late in life to get anything but frustration out of the deal. Whelan does well too, though that might just in comparison to Allen, and Ralph Ineson makes for an interesting Dagmar, although he doesn't exactly help dispel the feeling that the Iron Islands were overlooked when the various accents of Westeros were being considered.  The scenes on Pyke drag less than their book equivalents (whatever else Clash of Kings is, it is not concise) and watching Theon decide whether to send warning to Robb or to burn the letter was one of the best conceived and shot scenes the show has done. Clearly we need more scenes where Allen keeps his mouth shut.

Once Theon gains the mainland, his story becomes the story of Winterfell.  This, frankly, felt pretty sloppy in places.  I don't think it's unreasonable to want to know what happened to the two hundred men Ser Rodrik Cassel took with him to Torrhen's Square.  Why did he return to Winterfell alone?  Did those men join up with Bolton's bastard?  Where were they when Bran and company leave the smoking remnants of the Stark castle?  Why would anyone think the capture of one of the most important places in the entire show should happen off-screen at the start of an episode?  What made Osha change her mind; offering her services as a warrior to Theon one minute and risking her life helping a cripple and a boy the next?

Perhaps this would be easier to take if the thread wasn't so reliant on Allen (who has exactly one good scene; talking to Maester Luwin about during the siege), and on Isaac Hampstead-Wright, who's much better at displaying a young lord's thoughtful calm than he is expressing misery or fear (that said, though, there was something deeply affecting by watching his tearful outburst as Theon had Rodrik dragged to the block; a nice reminder that after all is said and done, Bran is still only a boy).  Thank the Gods for Donald Sumpter and Natalie Tena, who are by far the most watchable characters in the north.  Shame only one of them makes it out alive.

Moving east, out of the Seven Kingdoms, we find ourselves at Qarth, the greatest city that ever was or ever will be, and the storyline least recognisable from the book equivalent.  I think there's probably a strong case to be made that the show runners made the right decision in beefing up the action here - I don't remember feeling Dany's adventures in Clash of Kings dragged, but I can see how it wouldn't work once removed from her direct perspective - and if nothing else, it gave book readers something genuinely new and surprising to chew on.  Where are her dragons?  The idea of a coup in Qarth based on her arrival was also an interesting one, though Nonso Anozie didn't really work for me as Xaro Xhoan Daxos, delivering as he did almost every line as though he were signing for a particularly uninteresting parcel.  Fortunately, Ian Hanmore's Pyat Pree more than makes up for it, a terrifying spidery tree of nervous evil, who I was very sad to see killed off.

The House of the Undying itself could never be anything but a disappointment - filming Dany's visions faithfully would have been a fairly major undertaking - but it was certainly nice to see Khal Drogo one more time, and it's interesting Dany has to pass under the Wall to get to him, which works as an alternative nod to the same possibilities brought up by the climbing blue rose she sees in the book.

There's some odd pacing to the Qarth story that I think ends up hurting it.  After the slaughtering of the Thirteen, we see very little of Dany, and what we do see isn't very interesting (though both Clarke and Glen are characteristically brilliant), until all of a sudden she's at the House of the Undying, she experiences her visions, and dispatches of Pree all in something of a rush.  Moreover, it doesn't completely make sense.  In the book, using the dragons to burn the Undying Ones seemed entirely reasonable, and pretty dramatic.  Here, where it's Pree himself who gets a faceful of dragon-flame, it just looks like the guy is an obvious idiot.  It's like tying a skinhead up and punching him in the crotch, whilst his three mastiffs look on.  It's just never going to end well.

At the last, though, the thread redeems itself, revealing Doreah has turned traitor, and having she and Daxos both locked inside his (entirely empty) vault.  Doreah's pleading was particularly funny, basically "I only did it because he promised he'd kill you".  I guess you have to go with what you've got.

The season ends, and so will we, north of the Wall, or in the swirling snow of Iceland, depending on how you look at it.  This for me was the most frustrating strand of Clash of Kings; after building up the threat of the Others and their wight slaves in Game of Thrones, far too much of Jon's time here is spent watching Craster wheeze and bluster, or wandering around the wilderness looking for Wildling women to fail to kill.  Nothing in the second book feels more like filler than this does.

Whether Denioff and Weiss agree with my diagnosis, they certainly came up with the right prescription: more White Walkers, and more Dolorous Edd.  It doesn't entirely solve the problem, but it certainly helps (the resolution to the second episode's cliffhanger still feels very cheap, though), as does spending more time getting to know Ygritte, played very nicely by Rose Leslie. It's the final scene of the thread and the season that saves it though, giving the second year of the show the cliffhanger the book should always have had: hundreds of wights and dozens of White Walkers moving through a blizzard, heading for the realms of man.

In sum, then, putting Clash of Kings on the small screen was a mixed success, but a mixed success in translating a brilliant book still results in a brilliant year of television.  Overall, I'm not sure it worked as well as season 1, though that's mainly a structural problem imported from the book (a long build-up to one event, rather than a snowball rolling down a mountain [1]), but having nailed the landing with "Blackwater" and set everything up for season 3 here, the show has proved its first season success wasn't merely a happy accident.

[1] At least we got to the event it was building to, though.  Fuck you, Dance with Dragons!

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