Saturday, 22 June 2013

A Blizzard Of Beginnings (Part 1)

I suppose I should get this up, before Senior Spielbergo accosts me at another wedding...

But really, what's the point?  Everyone knows what a GoT season finale is all about by now.  Something bloody and shocking and unexpected happens in episode 9, and the last slice of the season lets us know what we can expect in the following year.

That's not necessarily a bad structure, or anything.  It just makes it tough to find anything interesting to say beyond cataloguing the various plot strands and maybe engaging in a bit of extrapolation. So let's give that a go, adding in some thoughts about how well each strand has gone over the course of the year, and get some way into deciding whether these episodes - commonly and correctly considered to comprise the best season of the show so far - have done justice to the first two thirds of A Storm of Swords - commonly and correctly considered to comprise the best stretch of writing in the series so far.

(TV spoilers below).

The Skinners and the Squids

Let's start with Theon, shall we, if only because by starting at one of this year's most obvious low points of the year we can get it out of the way and start thinking about better things.  Theon's arc this season was utterly wretched.  It was damn close to being the definition of superfluous, and in a show with so little time to spare, that's a considerable problem.  I mean, at least the show does useful things during the titty scenes.  Here, Theon's increasingly imaginative suffering served no obvious point whatsoever.  Much as the show should be working far harder than it is to differentiate between portraying misogynist attitudes and revelling in them, there should be some feeling that the frequent depictions of sadism (Joffrey's crossbow fetish, Locke's maiming of Jaime) are something we need to endure in order to understand the world we're visiting.

Nothing like this is evident during the scenes in the Dreadfort.  Some effort is made to try and at least make this thread a mystery by withholding the identity of Theon's tormentor until this final episode, but this fails utterly as well.  Obviously as a book reader I knew what was happening all along, but even for newcomers, it can't have been much of a shock to learn the man torturing Theon was the same man who lay siege to Theon's forces at the conclusion of the previous season, and who was instructed to offer the Ironborn safe passage in exchange for the youngest Greyjoy.  Ten episodes is too long to stretch out the reveal that what's happened to a character is absolutely the most plausible scenario available.

Really, Bolton's brief explanation to Walder Frey at the beginning of this episode was all that was needed.  "My bastard son has the Greyjoy, and is torturing him".  Cut to Balon and Yara (both sadly missed during this season; Balon especially has been utterly phenomenally realised for the screen) looking in horror at a severed appendage.  Yes, if you're going to have a detached dick arrive in a parcel, you have to have shown it cut off earlier in the season - not for nothing do playwrights talk at length about the iron theatrical rule of "Chekov's cock" - but that just brings up the fundamental question of why it had to be a dick in the first place.

The absolute best thing you can say about this thread is that it's built up Ramsay as an obvious grotesque, a viciously evil character who cannot be trusted for a second.  Why this can't have been done whilst he was actually doing something of any use (which in the books comes later, hence why Theon's story here goes nowhere - we were never supposed to actually see it) is not clear.

Still, at least this gives Yara something to do next season.  That said, I'm not sure what's going to happen here.  Having given Theon an entirely sensible lecture last season about the stupidity of expecting Iron Islanders to operate deep inland, it makes sense that Yara plans to sail around Westeros and attack from the east - that would put the Dreadfort no further from saltwater than is Deepwood Motte - but that will take a great deal of time, to the point where we'd be likely to leave behind ten episodes of Theon's torture for ten episodes of Yara's yardarms.  I'm not sure that's much of an improvement.

Just a quick note on the elder Bolton.  Michael McElhatton had himself a great year, injecting just the right amount of steely disinterest into Roose right up to the moment he revealed his true colours and murdered his king.  His scene with Walder Frey this episode was great fun, the sneering contempt Bolton has for his bloodthirsty ally was completely clear, but masked just well enough for Frey to miss it entirely.  Bolton ranks among my favourite villains in the story, so it's nice to see him so well served here.

But for all that Bolton seems to have done no worse than Frey - both are now the highest authorities in their own realms - how will he fare next season?  Frey has the Lannisters close by to keep the other river lords in check.  Bolton will be thousands of leagues away, halfway between the Neck and the Wall, surrounded by an autumn heralding a harsh winter, and a populace who is liable to despise him, no matter what story he spins about what really happened at the Twins.  It seems to be a general rule of thumb in Westeros that our villains tend to get off more likely than our heroes, but how much longer can that streak go on for?  Or will Bolton keep control of the north for just long enough for Yara to stick a spear in his belly?  The war may be over, but it is not just the north that remembers...

The King and the Cartography

I complained at some length (and more than once) about Robb's storyline this year, so I shan't rehash those comments in any real detail.  Short version: for whatever reason, the show put no effort into justifying how Robb went from unstoppable strategic genius to flailing misery-guts with an obsession for frowning at maps.  Whatever led the show-runners to mishandle his plot arc this year, it wasn't a monetary concern, the book shows exactly one of Robb's battles against the Lannisters, and that's in the first book (and Robb isn't even there, having left Bolton the honours whilst he hunts down Jaime).  Perhaps the amount of dialogue needed to explain just how badly the Greyjoy attacks had weakened moral, or to cover Bolton's treachery more thoroughly (in the books Bolton costs Robb a third of his army in a massive tactical blunder which in hindsight is entirely deliberate) was considered not worth the time - God knows, it wouldn't have done to not get closure on the tale of Podrick's uberschlong - but there was a real sense of the show marking its time until it could get to the Red Wedding.

That's mainly a problem for people who knew what was coming, admittedly.  The risk this season took was in dismissing Robb so much that the effect of the massacre at the Twins might have been dampened, and that quite clearly wasn't what happened.  The Red Wedding itself was exceptionally well done (though as mentioned at the time I remain uneasy about the manner of Talisa's death), and in the end, that's liable to be all that anyone remembers regarding Robb in this year.  Shaky build-up, near-faultless pay off.

Poor Arya.

The Hound and the Pup

The younger Stark girl poses something of a problem for me.  On the one hand, she's easily one of the best characters in both the books and the show. One really cannot go overboard in praising Maisie Williams.  On the other, I found her actual story in the second and third books somewhat frustrating.  Too much trudging around from place to place whilst Martin waxed lyrical about how, like, the weather was really shitty.  Here the show has a considerable advantage, and not just in Williams.  The necessary abridgment of Arya's tale works entirely in its favour, and thanks to stellar work from Joe Dempsey the original text's maudlin take on a damaged and vengeance-consumed little girl becomes a strange kind of buddy movie with added swords.

The Brotherhood also does very well following the medium conversion, all grime-streaked denial of how bad things really are.  Finally, the addition of Melisandre to this plot (something the book doesn't do) completes the picture, both by giving Gendry more to do than he managed in the books and by giving Arya a clearer reason for ending up with the Hound than I remember the book managing.

Plus, who could resist cheering when Arya repeatedly stabs a Frey boasting of desecrating her brother's body?  What I was saying about about sadism and violence being endured as part of something larger?  This is it.  The fact that such a hideous murder can be cathartic may say something unpleasant about us (or more specifically in this instance, me), but its place in this story is approximately seventeen million times more justifiable than a guy getting his cock cut off halfway through fucking a nun.

(Also, "The first man" is one of Arya's best lines so far, and the little tyke has had some real keepers already.)

I've not much to say about the Hound this year, since in general he's been the same ill-tempered killer he's always been when not going about the business of saving Sansa. He's bouncing off Arya as well as could be hoped, no doubt - that scene where he offers her one free swing with a rock before he kills her was phenomenal - but is Rory McCann's accent starting to slip?  It seems Sandor gets more Scottish with every league north he travels.  Whether this will blossom as the two decide what to do with their time next year is anyone's guess.

The Onion and the Flame

One of the problems with Martin's series, at least up to Feast For Crows, is that he's very good at introducing new characters and locations when they become useful, but once they've served that purpose, they can be left hanging around with nothing particularly interesting to do (from Feast... onwards, of course, the series develops new problems; not least that pretty much everyone is left hanging around).  Stannis's forces at Dragonstone feels like the most obvious example of this problem (as I say above, Arya's adventures have a similar problem, particularly in the first half of A Clash of Kings, in which her chapters are frequently a real chore to get through).  With his chances crushed at the Blackwater, much of the third book, and the third season, seem to be made up of him moping around and complaining about his luck.  Meanwhile, Davos spends his time trying to figure out how to deal with a king who won't listen to his advice and couldn't really do much with it even if he did.

As with Arya, then, this is a thread well served by the light touch it's given in this year.  That's not its only advantage.  The show-runners have gone slightly off-piste here, and it's to the show's benefit. Giving Stannis an insane wife (a criminally underused Tara Fitzgerald) and a foetus museum was nicely creepy, but mainly it's the addition of Gendry to the storyline that makes this work.  It provides a link to the mainland that events on Dragonstone would otherwise entirely lack, and by removing Edric Storm (a book character who's a partially legitimised bastard of Robert's who Melisandre originally plans to sacrifice) in exchange for everyone's favourite Flea Bottom orphan, Davos's choice to betray his king's orders rather than let his king betray his own conscience is given greater emotional heft, and the discussion over the rightness of sacrificing one person to save a realm gains added context, because we know the person in question.

It also means that this storyline is now very difficult to predict even for book readers.  Where will Gendry go now?  Since removing Edric puts Gendry one step further up the line of succession (if Stannis dies it'd be even money as to whether his daughter would be the "legitimate" ruler of Westeros, or Gendry would be), will his escape come to have major knock-on effect in the continent's politics?  We watch this space, and we wonder.

The Schemers and the Sacrifices

Varys and Littlefinger didn't really get much to do this time around, about which I have mixed feelings.  To be more accurate, I have mixed feelings about Littlefinger; less Varys is automatically unacceptable (Conleth Hill remains as sublime as ever; his scene with Shae this episode was typically brilliant).  Three years in have not changed my belief that despite being a thoroughly talented actor, Aidan Gillen is utterly miscast as Littlefinger, meaning that as much as I love the character he plays, I find myself ruing his absence less than one might expect.  It probably doesn't help that among all that time spent waiting for him to decide to head off to the Vale, his only major action this series was to had Ros over to Joffrey, a plot development which I slammed at the time as exceptionally problematic, and which time has not cooled my anger over.  Still, that "chaos is a ladder" speech was fucking awesome, so I guess there's that.

The Mother and her Children

The season ends with her, so we shall too (yes, there's a second part to this post, but I'll finish that with Tyrion)?  Dany's storyline through the first part of Storm of Swords [1] is generally pretty upbeat, at least as long as you think she's in the right.  Indeed, it has been suggested that this was a deliberate choice by Martin in order to provide some balance to all the horrible things that happen to the mostly sympathetic characters in Westeros.  Certainly Dany's tale, already my favourite following the first two novels (I never could resist a nice bit of world building)  takes another step upwards to become my single favourite strand of my single favourite novel in the series.  Wandering the world freeing slaves and slaughtering slavers?  Sounds like good times to me.

And yet... It's been pointed out numerous times that there is at least arguably something problematic at the heart of Dany's tale, being as it is about a white woman who turns up at a series of city states run by brown people, decides that she doesn't like their societies, and overthrows their governments so that she can tell them what to do instead.

I have mixed feelings on this perspective.  On the one hand, I totally understand why the story as I've summarised it above causes problems.  This literally is a story about a westerner (and yes, Dany's family were originally Valyrian, not Westerosi, but they've been in the west for three hundred years, and Valyria itself was still to the west of Slaver's Bay) conquering cities on a different continent and putting herself in charge.  The optics of that are pretty bad.

On the other hand, once you start digging into the storyline itself, it's not clear to me how well the criticism holds up.  For one thing, Dany is not winning because she happens to have better technology.  She has dragons, I suppose, but their pyrotechnics in Astapor notwithstanding, they're almost incidental.  The reason Dany takes Astapor and Yunkai is because she persuades a large section of its own people that they'd be better off with her than the people who've oppressed them for generations.  A white character fomenting rebellion is not the same thing as a white character conquering through force of arms.  Much is made of Dany's refusal to have her Unsullied fight for her as slaves.  She wants people to follow her because they want to.  She wants people to fight against their oppressors for their own benefit.

Hell, as Ser Jorah says more than once in the books (I confess to not recalling if this made it to screen), she could have head for Westeros right after taking Astapor.  She could have, in other words, ignored the problems of this area of the world, write them off as not her business, and taken a fleet westward.  I'm not unaware of the fact that arguing other countries' problems should be ours to sort out is itself commonly a post-colonial attitude.  I'm just saying that "fuck these brown people, let's get back to sorting out Whiteville" is a decision with its own problems. One could take a further step back and point out the fact that there's no unambiguously correct choice for Dany to make post-Astapor doesn't get Martin off the hook because it was Martin who brought Dany to Astapor to begin with, but at a certain point one is just arguing that stories featuring fictional white nations and fictional non-white nations can't plausibly be put together.  This is a particularly difficult position to take when you consider the kind of intercontinental story Martin is putting together, because it leaves one with the choice of ignoring the kind of inter-racial strife that has haunted humanity since prehistory, with making every person in a fictional world white (which, Gods know, has its own problems), or inverting everything so that Westeros is populated by darker-skinned people, and Essos by the white man.

(Actually, that last option would be fascinating to see, right up until the moment the almighty Karl Jago rapes a fourteen year old black girl after she's forced to marry him.)

It's also worth noting that the books do a good job of making it clear that Dany's actions are neither universally benevolent, nor is the post-Mhysa balance of power in Slaver's Bay clearly an improvement.  This is important, because it's not really something the show has lingered on.  In fairness, there's plenty of time next season; right now Dany is still busy winning battles, and if history has taught us anything its that the fall-out from military actions only really becomes clear once the dust has settled.  But I mention this because the final scene in "Mhysa" really brings home the underlying potential problems here.  Whilst Martin takes pains to ensure Dany's story doesn't become unthinkingly imperialistic, the show concludes its third year with hundreds of brown-skinned people holding a white girl aloft and praising her for giving them their freedom.

That's just clearly not OK.  Having her work to create a situation in which they can free themselves, fine.  Setting up a cult of personality so all the poor non-white slaves can worship this highborn white kid from across the seas?  That's just astonishingly tone deaf.  Rather than minimising the problem, the show has made it pretty much as troublesome as it can, and signed off with that image for a year.

Which means not only did the season not go out on a "holy crap!" moment like its two predecessors (choosing instead to basically just recycle the image of Dany's armies marching out of Astapor from several episodes earlier), but on a unnerving note of worrying thoughtlessness.  Cheers, Game of Thrones!

Still, like I said, better still to come.  Next time round we'll be looking at those struggling around or beyond the Wall, and we return to King's Landing to check in on everyone's favourite lion-obsessed family,

[1] I phrase it that way so as to give no clue as to what happens in the rest of the book, not to hint that things take a turn for the worse.  She may keep winning victories, or things might turn bad.  You will not determine which it is here.

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