Sunday, 7 April 2013

A Storm Of Selah

It's that time again! It's a new year, and a new opportunity to dissect the Game of Thrones season opener and pointlessly attempt extrapolation as to the quality of the next nine episodes.

Which of course is my way of admitting up front that there's little point in trying to do that. Given the sheer density of and variation in plotlines the show needs to juggle, the pattern it seems to have fallen into was probably inevitable: bring the hammer down in episode 9, spend the season finale shuffling things into place for the next season, then spend the following season's premiere reminding people exactly where that shuffling left everyone. Given that there's not really a great deal to talk about regarding "Valar Dohaeris", any more than "The North Remembers", other than to ask how well it fulfilled its thankless but unavoidable task.

Well, that's not quite true...

(Totes spoils below, obvs.)

Let's stick with the idea for a while though, and ask how well the episode worked as a reminder and a scene-setter. The answer is reasonably well, and almost certainly better than last year's attempt. Yes, as has been pointed out, "The North Remembers" had the comet to act as a method of tying the various disparate story strands together. For all that Bran in Winterfell and Dany in the Red Wastes have had no direct interaction whatsoever, they could at least look up at the same stellar phenomenon and muse as to its meaning.

Which is fine, and all, but I'd say "Valar..." has something even stronger; a shared sensation of pause and reflection. When the second season opened, it was during the very first moves of the War of Five Kings. Robb had just defeated and captured Jaime, both Renly and Stannis were gaining strength as they prepared for their respective bids for the Iron Throne, and the Night's Watch had rode out into the frozen North with what little strength they still possessed. The gap between seasons was a pause whilst we waited for the other shoe to drop.
Consider how different things are now. Robb has gone from slaughtering the Lannisters to snapping ineffectually at their heels. Stannis lurks sulking on Dragonstone. The exhausted Lannister forces are taking the opportunity for a desperately needed rest after their victory at King's Landing. Even Dany fits into this formulation after a fashion, given a long sea voyage for her to take stock. This is an opportunity of consideration and reflection must different to the oncoming storm that surrounded the beginning of season 2. There's a very different storm coming this time around, of course, but the clouds for now remain on the other side of the horizon.

So whilst season 2 needed something like the comet to tie everything together, however loosely, season 3 can start off in a much more focused fashion by allowing our characters to consider the cost of last year's conflicts, both to themselves, and to the people around them.

One of the most interesting themes in A Song Of Ice And Fire is the difficulty many of even the more sympathetic characters in the stories have in recognising how damaging their actions are to the silent majority. On no fewer than three occasions in season 2, Tyrion attempted to explain to his sister or his nephew of the inevitable cost to ignoring the needs of the Kings Landing population. Obviously, he got nowhere, what with Joffrey being a psychotic egomaniac and his sister lacking the ability to consider anything further ahead than Friday afternoon, but the arrival of the Tyrells quickly demonstrates how medieval public relations are supposed to be performed.

Whilst Margaery is handing out toy knights, Davos is trying to carve the Red Priestess into pieces for the butcher's bill she has incurred, and Robb Stark stares in horror at the slaughter of two hundred of his mean, hacked to pieces by the Mountain (I'm not sure how exactly that happened, but I assume they were the captives taken when Tywin demolished the diversionary force Robb sent his way in season 1). The tail end of last year was all about the headlong quest for victory - whether it be on the battlefield or in matrimony - with no time to think through the wider implications of one's actions (did anyone represent this so well last year as Theon Greyjoy)? Now, with every fighting force in the Seven Kingdoms exhausted, defeated, or unable to come to grips with the enemy, it's time to think about exactly what the blood and hoof-prints has brought about [1].

These ideas of how one should use the lives of those sworn to you stretches across seas both Narrow and Dothraki, providing a far stronger link to Dany than any mere comet, as she stands on the shores of Astapor and debates buying eight thousand slaves she can command to kill for her. Perhaps not surprisingly for a woman who was not only effectively sold into slavery herself, but bases her entire self-identity around the idea that the laws of Westeros are not to set aside, Dany is disgusted at the idea of acquiring slaves. To Ser Jorah, this is a distinction without a difference, and in a narrow sense, I can see the point. If you demand loyalty to your person to the point where you expect one's followers to die at your command, then whether or not they're passed a coin before their guts are exposed to the open air seems a strange sticking point. As Queen, Dany would make every able bodied in the land her potential soldier. The difference between conscripts and slaves strikes me as smaller than she would like to believe.

All of which means there's a theme running through the episode for those that care to look. And as always, this serves the show greatly, making it feel more like eight TV movies haphazardly edited together - a common problem with this show. Moreover, this focus makes for a more confident premier, willing to exclude three major storylines, where "The North Remembers" felt compelled to at least show every current main character, even if Arya didn't get any lines. Much better to accept not everyone will appear, and give us more time with Tyrion - whose horribly unpleasant meeting with his father was worth the admission price alone.

There's only one place where this careful construction falls apart, though it's a fairly major one: beyond the Wall. Last year the show went two for two with jaw-dropping finales. Reasonable people may disagree over whether our first good look at the White Walkers and their army of undead killers made a bigger impression than the dragon-draped Danaerys, but both were most certainly in the same league of "HOLY SHIT!".

The problem was that in both cases there was no way the show could keep the momentum going for long. There's too many other places the show has to jump to. "Blackwater", for all its strengths, was a clear aberration. No-one, I'm sure, was expecting the entirety of this episode to focus around the coming apocalypse in the north, any more than they expected "The North Remembers" to spend all its time on a trio of ill-tempered flying lizards.

That's not the full story, though. Part of the reason we knew to expect a ratcheting down of tensions following Dany's success was that three dragons or not, she and her few followers were stuck out in the middle of nowhere. Once everyone's finished staring in awe at the first dragons the world has seen in over a century, someone still has to work out where the next meal is coming from.

That's a far cry from what's happening around the Fist of the First Men. When you end a season with a monstrous undead host about to charge your heroes, and you follow up with nothing but a few screams and a sun racing across the sky, that's really fucking cheap. And yes, I realise the reason why it was so fucking cheap was that they didn't have the money to make anything that wasn't really fucking cheap, that doesn't really make things much better. "We never could have followed through on what we promised" was a shitty position for Nick Clegg, and it's no better here. All of which is before we get onto the question as to just how Sam got away in the first place. One fat guy outpaces an enormous force of zombies and cold-daemons on horseback that have already spotted him? Bwuh?

I guess one could argue that this omission at least helps with the focus, allowing another moment of consideration as the battered remnants of the Watch meet up with Sam and head south. That strikes me as a rather weak straw, but I guess it works. Again, though, that's just an argument that last season's cliffhanger was never going to be delivered upon. In the books, the first the Night's Watch know of the Others approaching is in the prologue to the third novel, meaning the attack didn't have to carry the weight of fan speculation for months, this despite the fact that Martin could describe the resulting slaughter is as much detail as he wanted to. Knowing one can''t match that level of action and responding by increasing expectations strikes me as a real problem, though after several paragraphs of complaining I should confess that I'm not entirely sure what could have been used as a fulls top for the second season. I guess if one would rather ensure each year ends with the same kind of bang as the first one than ensure each year begins without a feeling of crushing disappointment, then that's one's own business.

Enough, then, of my complaining about a poor start to a fine episode, and what stands to be a fine start to an excellent season. Tomorrow we get to see those few characters we missed this time around, and we may discover that our time spend treading water is already over for the year...

[1] Apparently Sansa realises this so profoundly she's prepared to pretend she knows what's going on among the smallfolk even when she can't possibly know the truth. Not that she cares about the truth, of course, so I guess somehow Littlefinger has already imparted his first lesson. "The truth is always either terrible, or boring" is probably Sansa's finest moment to date, though through no fault of Sophie Turner's it's not like there's a massive degree of competition for that particular title.

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