Monday, 15 April 2013

A Mistral Of Masks

Of course, the disadvantage in taking the "slow reveal" approach to season openers demonstrated by "Valar Dohaeris" is pretty obvious: it's slow.  One fifth of the way through Season 3, and we're still just seeing the very start of some character's journeys.

Fortunately, that's not all we're seeing.  "Dark Wings, Dark Words" continued the theme of pauses for consideration - and to mourn - but more than that, it offered us glimpses behind a whole hosts of masks, generating revelations that will take us through this season and beyond. Some masks we've already seen behind, others we've long suspected we had deciphered.  Some were new to us, but more importantly, almost all of them were new to our characters, and we can learn a great deal from their reactions as these layers are penetrated, or unwound like the parchment from a raven's leg.

(Spoilers below, but I'll steer clear of discussing the books - this post is TV viewer friendly).

Looking back over my notes, it's clear that as usual, this is going to be an episode best deconstructed by character.  There is an ordering we can place upon those characters, however, according to the nature of the masks being worn or removed during the course of the episode.

The actual, honest to Gods...

Let's start with the most literal case: the return of Theon.  I've already promised not to wax lyrical about Storm of Swords, so let me simply say that this was one of the rare occasions when book readers were as surprised as TV viewers.  What's interesting about his two scenes - if we refuse to label the actual pain inflicted as "interesting", as oppose to "unpleasant" - is that the chief torturer of Whereeverthehell [1] unmasks Theon physically so that he can begin the process of, er, physically unmasking Theon, only this time the mask is somewhat more metaphorical, and the physical task somewhat more unpleasant to witness.   I suppose torture is one way to get to the truth, though not so much if the truth is all your interested in.  An awful lot of blood comes spilling out at the same time, along with an awful lot of lies.  The efficacy of torture would seem to come down entirely to how much of the latter byproduct you are prepared to suffer in order to gain the former.

Next to the horrors Theon is enduring, getting a man drunk and kidnapping him after he's passed out seems almost friendly.  This is how the Hound returns to us this season; he's clearly fled north following his desertion at the Blackwater, which is an interesting choice.  There's still liable to be Lannister men around keeping tabs on Robb Stark's forces, and it's not as though the Young Wolf is liable be happy to see the former lapdog of the boy who killed his father.  On the other hand, the Tyrells are now bestest buddies with the Lannisters and the Iron Throne, so running west was a bad idea, he's too recognisable to risk heading east and trying to hire passage across the Iron Sea, and Dorne... well, personally I'd have thought Dorne was by far his best bet, but I suppose a land that warm might have more than its share of brush fires, so perhaps that ruled the place out.

Whatever has brought the Hound to the Riverlands (maybe he's headed for the Wall; not much chance of having to fight his way through fire up there), he manages with his second line to start dominoes toppling when he identifies Arya Stark, which brings us neatly to our second case.

An end to dramatic irony

These are the masks we've long known the truth behind.  Arya is Exhibit A, here, we've known since the very first episode who she is, but since the ninth episode of the first season (and at least one time before that)  we've watched every character she's met deal with the mask she's created.  Some were playing along with her game (Yoren, of course, and one wonders exactly how much Jaqen H 'ghar knew is an intriguing question), some got at least part of the answer as time went on (Gendry, and in a limited way Amory Lorch, not that it did him any good).  And others were sufficiently scary that if they had worked out was going on (not that Tywin was entirely blind, naturally), everything could have gone horribly, horribly wrong.

Which raises the obvious question - written all over Maisie William's face in her final shot of the episode [2] - is whether those last two categories have finally come together.  What exactly are the Brotherhood of Banners playing at here in the ravaged Riverlands?  Hating the Lannisters is a wonderful hobby, but we've long ago learned (and the typically insufferable Lord Karstark showed up this episode just to remind us), in Westeros the enemy of your enemy can still want you dead, or end up killing you by disinterest or incompetence just as easily as if they'd held the knife themselves.

Take Brienne, for example.  In two quite lovely scenes Jaime gets under her mask in short order to reveal her primary motivation - sticking it to anyone but the Northerners on the off-chance they helped do in Renly (Jaime's own mask is removed here as well, of course, thanks to an uncommonly well-informed farmer).  But when House Bolton's men find the Kingslayer and announce their intention to return Jaime to The Young Wolf - preferably in one piece, but that's clearly negotiable - there's no real sign from the group's leader (called Locke, apparently) that Brienne is any more safe than is her former prisoner.

Indeed, Locke's motivations are themselves masked, which is hardly surprising since he was only on-screen for a minute or two.  This third type of mask, which however metaphorical prevents the viewers themselves from understand a character's motivations.  We'll get to that in short order, but first let's talk about the elder Stark girl, and the eldest Tyrell, er, anything.

Lady Olenna has always been a favourite of mine.  There are some comments so thoughtless and insulting that only an elderly lady could possibly get away with, and Margaery's grandmother rarely disappoints - and nor, here, did Diana Rigg, who walked the line between kindly old woman and dangerously sharp powerful matriarch perfectly.  And that's exactly what the scene needed, because as Sansa is persuaded into stripping both her own mask of worship and Joffrey's of bare civility (that he was finally persuaded to don at the end of last season, almost certainly by Tywin), this scene needed to fulfill two purposes.  The first was to show how Sansa, for all the cynicism and political nous she's gained in the days since her father was executed, is still a dangerously open book.  One lemon cake and a few cooed words and she's spilling the beans like a tornado in a Heinz factory.

The second purpose is to raise an interesting question: what masks are the Tyrell's wearing?  Now Olenna and Margaery know the truth of Joffrey's nature (and watch how carefully Margaery steps around Joffrey's comments in her private audience with the king later in the episode), what's going on behind their comforting words?  Has Margaery been in her mask all along?  Is her mask... a shitload of cleavage?  Now there's a thought.  Cersei seems to have worked it out, but even if Joffrey wasn't the self-absorbed psychopath he so clearly is, you try telling a teenage boy that hot women with plunging necklines are something to be avoided.

Double blind

The Tyrells (and indeed Locke) get us neatly onto our third category; characters for whom we're just as much in the dark as are those they interact with.  We'll briefly dispense of one such character: Simon the Invisible One from Misfits, who is proudly continuing a long-standing tradition of giving the game away simply by being too high-profile and/or talented to be taken seriously as as ostensible bit-part.  Just some goon hired by Yara to rescue Theon?  Please. There's more coming, here.

The most important instance of audience blindness, however, might turn out to be Talissa Mygere.  I'll hold my hand up here; this is the book-reader in me trying to adapt to new terrain.  Robb's story last season and apparently this one have by now undergone so many deviations from the book that I'm at least flailing around the shallow end of the swimming pool of ignorance first-timers are swimming through.  Knowing what happens in the third book is of highly limited use in predicting Talissa's actions and motivations, and that alone makes me suspicious.

That said, there's simply something inherently worrying about her character.  There's no-one to back up her story of who she is.  As happy as Robb (who note has his own mask discussed here, that of his role of king, and also the mask foreigners would put on him of smelly bearded barbarian, which frankly doesn't seem far off as xenophobic stereotypes go) was to go along with it, Talissa's seduction of him struck me as pretty calculated, and at the very least has pissed of Walder Frey and - for some reason - Rickard Karstark, neither of whom Robb is in a position to lose now the Tyrells and Lannisters are presenting a united front.

Also, she's far too keen to get on Catelyn Stark's good side.  Hands up how many people would see their mother in law arrested and decide the best thing to do was keep talking to them?  Hands right up where I can see them, now.

Yeah, thought not.

This might also be the category we might want to place Bran in.  After all, before this episode not one of us had even heard of a Worg (spelled "Warg", but I refuse point blank to believe that true Northerners would pronounce that word the way Ygritte and  Jojen Reed seem determined to). But this is a revelation of language, not of characterisation.  If the kid from Love, Actually had revealed to Bran that he was "some dude what can take over animals and shit", the collective response from the audience would be "Well, duh".  It's not that there's no value in the exchange, not least because a) "warg" is useful linguistic shorthand and b) it raises an interesting question about what else Jojen might know.  Of course, the former isn't particularly necessary here anyway, since Mance Rayder is kind enough to explain it to Jon Snow this episode in any case. Actually, this explanation is by far the better, if for no other reason than it involves Mackenzie Crook, immediately suggesting that David Bren't unbearable behaviour in The Office was actually the work of Gareth the Warg, hoping for a promotion.

No, what Bran undergoes here is neither a shock to the character nor the audience, so much as a colouring-in of what was already sketched out. Speaking of which...

Little earthquakes

Let's finish off with the revelations of one Catelyn Stark, recent widow and still more recent orphan, currently serving time for not allowing Lord Karstark to commit treason in quite the manner her son, the king, approved of.  On one level, her story about the near-death of baby Jon strikes me as another attempt to engender sympathy for a character roundly despised book readers (I continue to think the show-runners would have an easier time of this had they not make show Catelyn approximately ten times stupider and whiny than her paper equivalent, but we'll leave that aside for now).  Certainly, Cat's relationship to Ned's bastard is rather less savagely unfair on the screen, and this particular scene strengthened that impression.  Who among us hasn't made a promise because of our guilt that we found ourselves unable to keep as the feeling faded?  Who hasn't felt the twinge of unjust hatred, experienced guilt as a result, and then transformed that guilt into more hatred?  Is there any more efficient chemical reaction in the universe than the one that turns remorse into contempt within our synapses?  A reaction that never ends, feeding itself constantly, until one day you realise it's fueling itself at the expense of everything else in your life?

That's where Cat is now, convinced her hatred of an innocent child and the unworthy, widening spiral it drove her into has directly led to every horror her family has suffered.  Which is ridiculous, obviously, and as the Manics once informed us "Self-disgust is self-obsession, honey" this scene does less to make Cat seem sympathetic than it maybe thinks it does.  Still, it's a moment of sad clarity in among the constant battering of the storms of war and loss, and we may be running short of those pretty quickly. This quick look under the self-imposed mask of Hoster Tully's daughter and Eddard Stark's wife may be the last opportunity we have for such unmasking for a little while.

The war is coming, and the masks will need to be properly secured very, very soon...

[1] Actually, there's not too many options as to where this can be. It's pretty tough to imagine Dagmar bringing Theon back to the Iron Islands; Balon Greyjoy might not necessarily stake a man to the beach with the tide coming in just for disobeying and striking his foppish wolf-loving son, but that's a hell of a risk to take.  Much more sensible to sell him to someone and claim he died in the siege of Winterfell.  There's not too many options available here; basically it would have to be a northern lord.  There was only one nearby we're aware of, actually.  There's no definitive evidence available right now, but a certain similarity of shapes might give the game away for those watching this episode closely.  

[2] Just as an aside, I loved Gendry's bafflement as to why Arya didn't use her three death wishes more effectively.  It was a nice moment on its own terms, but what I love about it is how closely it mirrors fan objections to her choices last year.  Again, I've promised not to go into detail regarding the books, but it's worth noting here that the show does a better job of selling her choices than the book does; there, at least one name is arguably simply pissed away.  That said, we should bear in mind the fact that, as remarkable a child as Arya is, a child she remains all the same.

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