Sunday, 30 June 2013

A Blizzard Of Beginnings (Part 2)

Right then.  Let's close the shutters on the third season of Game of Thrones by paying visits to two castles, and to one frozen wasteland.  TV spoilers below, as usual.

The Brother and the Mother

Of all the threads this show has had to try to do justice to this year, Sam's was almost certainly the easiest.  A ridiculous amount of walking and misery and mooning over Gilly?  Not hard to see how that can be abridged.

The only moment that absolutely had to be nailed, of course, was the killing of the Other during Sam's long march south.  Whether or not "Second Sons" quite managed that is an open question.  I don't have any doubt that the choice to place the incident later in Sam's timeline was the correct choice.  In the book, Sam's encounter comes before the rendezvous at Craster's Keep, which keeps the momentum from the Battle at the Fist going, but with that already cut from the series (a move I've probably spent enough time complaining about) linking Sam's White Walker to those that took Craster's babies was a smart move (it also ties better into the arc of Sam gradually getting more able to look after himself by putting it after Mormont's murder).

The execution (no pun intended) is a somewhat tougher case.  The atmospherics were excellent - I always love the rate occasions when this show dabbles in horror - but the actual clash itself seemed almost incidental, much like the wight attack on Commander Mormont in season one, now I think about it.  Of course, in a lot of ways that's the point.  Any kind of protracted fight has Sam dead, or the Walker looking rather foolish and not at all like an unstoppable force of super-nature.  A few moments of tussle and the luckiest of lucky hits is all that could have gone down.

Aside from that one major scene, there's not much to say about Sam's rather brief role in this season, other than to mention how wonderful John Bradley and Hannah Murray are together; two utterly naive people constantly surprised that the other is even more naive than they are on various different subjects.  Watching Sam fight the White Walker to save the woman he loves was far more satisfying than seeing him simply try to save himself, and the touching bond (actually, that sounds wrong, as Maester Aemon would be the first to remind us) the actors have built up for us.

The Warg and the Wanderers

Much like the Extended Adventures of Davos Seaworth mentioned in part one, Storm of Swords does few favours for the youngest Stark anyone cares about.  With Winterfell so many weeks of travel from the mystical forces Bran seeks in the north, there's little for him to do but watch the people around him walking.  Martin had circled around this problem with Arya's early chapters in Clash of Kings, but it's here we have the first real example of a phenomenon that causes great damage to both Feast for Crows and Dance with Dragons: the endless travelogue.

There really are only so many descriptions of pine fields and foothills a person can stomach.  Film of trees is pretty, at least, but the same problem eventually arises in a visual medium as well, which seems the most plausible reason for why Bran appears so infrequently in this season, though given Isaac Hampstead-Wright the chance to get his voice under control might have been a factor as well.

So - and I realise this is becoming a theme, but just wait until we have to slog through Feast... - kudos to the show-runners for so sensible a contraction.  Beyond that, though, problems remain. Thomas Brodie-Sangster makes for a great Jojen Reed - I think it's something in the eyes - but Ellie Kendrick simply doesn't convince as Meera.  I don't think the actress is to blame; there's plenty of places where her middle-class playful intensity would work perfectly well. First daughter of the wild Crannogmen just isn't one of them.  Kendrick's cut-glass accent is particularly problematic when contrasted with Natalie Tena's Osha, who I've never been sure about and who did little to change my mind this year.  Indeed, the discovery that her character is escorting Rickon elsewhere - hopefully off-screen - came as something of a relief.  If Kendrick is a perfectly good actress in the wrong role, Tena is playing a perfectly good character in the wrong series.  When one character in a group is being played by a child actor (and Hampstead-Wright is clearly a developing talent; he ain't there yet) and another can only say one word, you can really do without the third pretending she's a raccoon.

So I guess the TL;DR here is that nothing really happened, and those things not happening didn't happen to convincing characters. Which is a shame (I'm not sure why the Rat King story showed up here, either; it'd have been too obvious a foreshadowing had it been in episode 9, but here it does nothing but provide a link in to the gloating at the Twins).  Still, our intrepid band have made it beyond the Wall now, so maybe they're getting close to the end of their journey.  Or, if not, that the road becomes more interesting from here on in.

The Crow and the Wildling

In contrast to our other tales of the north, Jon's story this year an the risk of suffering from an abbreviated approach.  This because the root of the action here is emotional.  There's a lot of moving around here, just as with Sam, Bran and associated companions, but here the journey is simply a frame for what was really going on, which is Jon working out just how much he likes the Wildlings, and the resulting conflict with his original mission.

In theory, this shouldn't be too much of a problem, since having a bunch of flesh-puppets on hand is exactly the sort of thing one needs to speed up the bonding process.  That might shorten the necessary time required, though, but there's still a minimum span you need to sell the idea, and I'm not sure the show managed it.  As usual, I'm not inclined to blame the actors - though Kit Harrington remains one of my less favourite stars.  Kristopher Hivju makes for a great Tormund Giantsbane, and Mackenzie Crook turns in a surprisingly restrained as the bitter Orell.  In the end, though, both are so terribly underdeveloped that they remain what Arnold Rimmer would call "people I've met"; there's no sense that their upcoming betrayal by Jon is something he's particularly bothered about.

Thank God for Rose Leslie, then, who pretty much sells the entire plot alone.  It helps that Ygritte seems smarter here than I remember her in the novels (though my mind may well be playing tricks), explicitly telling Jon she understands what he plans but convinced he won't be able to go through with it.  In fact, the entire question of Jon's sudden conversion to the Wildling cause is handled better here than the books managed - apparently there's nothing north of the Wall that can't be improved by linking it to the murderous horrors at Craster's Keep.  By strengthening Jon's stated motivation, and by making Ygritte sharper, the storyline basically becomes as strong as it could possibly be given the amount of time dedicated to it.  It just wasn't long enough.

(Mind you, given the number of people who dislike Jon, it was probably a savvy move not to devote more time to him.  In truth, his story is the one I think has suffered the most over the last three years of adaptation, so although his chapters are generally second only to Dany's regarding how much I looked forward to them in the first three books, I can completely understand how people who haven't read the full story are finding his vignettes irritating.)

The Kingslayer and the Beauty

With the north now tamed, let's head southwards to Harrenhal and the Riverlands, and Westeros' strangest buddy comedy.  Nicholas Coster-Waldau has really earned his pay this year.  Somehow, with some timely frowning, strategic nudity, and saving a woman from a bear (which personally I think was more about being a dick to the bear), everyone's forgotten that this is the character that tried to kill a ten-year old boy, stabbed the loyal and friendly Jory Cassel through the brain, and murdered his own cousin in order to shave a few decimal points of the chances of an escape attempt failing. There is not a single viewer extolling his virtues that Jaime wouldn't kill in cold blood if it meant five more minutes of privacy the next time he wants to fuck his sister.

Except here's the thing.  The two most rigidly honourable and empathic characters in the show are between them directly responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people. Not alone, of course; they had some help from two insane/sadistic kings and a spectacularly touchy former Hand.  But as Talisa pointed out in her first appearance, an awful lot of people died because of the choices the Stark men made, and the vast, vast majority of them didn't deserve it.

Jaime, on the other hand, saved hundreds of thousands of people.  Does that give him a pass?  Does it mean more or less than saving Brienne to us?  We know who she is, after all. and with Gwendoline Christie having knocked it out of the park (bear-pit?) this year, plenty of people seem to love her too.

Christie is a big part of the equation here, in fact, because whilst Coster-Waldau has done very well with engaging out sympathies (helped by an adaptation that's rather less biased in favour of Jaime's enemies than the first two books are, simply by the nature of their viewpoint characters), it's Christie that holds this together by being an altogether more interesting character than her book counterpart.  The cynical reading of this is that Christie is a striking woman who the make-up department have made plain, rather than the actively ugly Brienne.  A more neutral point is that Christie doesn't have Brienne's utter charm vacuum, which was pretty much a given considering actors pretty much rely entirely on charm to get anywhere.

Really, though, I think the truth is that Christie just plays Brienne with sufficient intelligence that we feel inclined to follow her lead as she becomes increasingly unable to hate Jaime.  The book Brienne is so humourless and plodding - like Eddard Stark without a fascinating back-story - that it's hard to care too much about her changing opinions.  Faced with this problem, this story-line in the novels is mostly an intellectual exercise in moral judgement (well, that and giggling at the Brave Companions, unforgivably lost in the transition to television).  On screen, the emotional heft has become obvious and impressive.

The Rulers and the Puppets

Further south still, and we arrive at King's Landing, currently in the grip (sorry!) of the continent's latest and perhaps most successful Hand.  This has really been Tywin Lannister's year.  And, not coincidentally, Charle Dance's too.  For all that I enjoyed his verbal sparring with a precocious child last year, watching what Dance can do when pitted against Peter Dinklage and Lena Headey was an utter joy to experience.

Watching Tywin deal with Joffrey was deeply pleasurable as well, though for very different reasons.  Tywin's unique brand of passive-aggression would quickly become tiresome were it his only weapon, but used sparingly to shut his grandson up, it's an exceptionally satisfying approach.

But it's Tywin's war theory that makes him so interesting.  Not just his ability to accept he is losing a war in the field and so immediately set about winning it with letters (despite the recent alliance with the Tyrells meaning he almost certainly could have beaten Robb in a ware of attrition, albeit at tremendous cost of time), but his insistence that doing so was entirely reasonable.  "Explain to me why it is more noble to slaughter ten thousand men on the battlefield than a dozen at dinner" he asks, and even the phenomenally intelligent Tyrion can think of no retort.

(Indeed, it's not clear what response there could be, at least when one considers how different the concept of civilians and combatants is in Westeros to our own world.  The vast majority of men fighting in the War of Five Kings are peasants forced into fighting by their lords.  Conscripts, in other words.  At least everyone killed at the Red Wedding volunteered for the conflict (in the admittedly limited sense that they chose to honour their oaths to the Starks over those to the Iron Throne).  Killing Talisa and Catelyn was an obvious step too far, and given the number of loyalist men killed in the massacre outside the Twins it's not like a dozen casualties were all the event could boast, but Tywin is implicitly drawing a distinction here between what he authorised and what Bolton and Frey chose to do on their own initiative.)

Of course, Tywin himself would argue this is all beside the point. For him, it's all about The Family. It's another one of Martin's lovely touches that one of the series' most dangerous villains has so theoretically laudable a motivation (theoretical in much the same way that Jaime and Cersei should in theory share a special bond of love.). The problem is the utterly ruthless way he goes about his goal. For all that there's no question she deserved it, his cold-blooded shooting down of his daughter - essentially telling her she lacks the skill to do anything more productive than just shutting up - was absolutely devastating. . And what do you say about a character who's most human moment in two years (season one winning overall with "They have my son!", though even that is ambivalent as to whether Tywin is enraged by his loss or by the audacity behind it) is explaining how his devotion to his family is such that he didn't even drown his disfigured child at birth?

(That idea might have caused confusion among TV only watchers, wondering how Tyrion's nature could have been obvious at birth. This is just one of the problems of adapting novels. In the books, Tyrion has a freakishly large head and mismatched eyes, which made his non-standard form obvious from the very beginning.)

If there's been one problem with Tywin serving up so many scoops of awesomesauce ice-cream, it's that the rest of the Lannister clan didn't have much to do other than be ordered around and complain about being ordered around, depending on the situation (Joffrey is an exception here, of course, he's too busy being slowly tamed - we hope - by the Tyrells).  For Cersei, this has had an upside, giving the show an opportunity to flesh her out somewhat through the twin revelations that she's deeply unhappy, and that she's entirely aware of how unspeakable her son has become.  The former is really an obvious corollary of her obsession with acquiring power and her total inability to know what to do with it when she has it, and the second somewhat clashes with her actions in season one (though maybe she's so paranoid she can't help egging Joffrey on in his own craziness on that front), but it's always nice to see the comparatively sympathetic side of Cersei, if only because it provides a nice contrast whenever she reverts to form - threatening to have Margaery killed in her sleep, for example.  With so much effort given to rehabilitating Jaime this season, it's nice that the eldest Lannister child got the chance to tug at our sympathies as well.

Which, of course, brings us irresistibly to...

The Freaks and the Whores

The - forgive me - big man himself.  With Peter Dinklage still deservedly the show's main focus following Sean Bean's departure, there's a hard upper limit on how much I can ever complain about anything Tyrion gets up to.  That said, with Stannis' fleet reduced to a navigation hazard, there really hasn't been all that much for Tyrion to get up to this year.  For most of the season, then, Tyrion's story has been a character piece, as we explore in no particular order his dysfunctional relationships with his father, his sister, his nephew, his whore/lover, and finally his wife.  Oh, and his sex-genius squire.

None of which was anything less than gripping, of course (well, other than the Pod side-story, which needs to be scrubbed from each and every DVD before the season is released next year; preferably by Benioff and Weiss themselves, and preferably by tongue), particularly since it would be close to impossible to put Charles Dance and Peter Dinklage in the same room and it not be interesting to watch.

The most fantastic water-treading in the world is still treading water, though.  Indeed, if there's any problem with Storm of Swords in general, it's this; there are too many story threads in which tensions don't build, and characters simply move aimlessly from one place to another until suddenly they're swept up in a set-piece (the two following novels have the same problem, minus most of the set-pieces).  In this case, the set-piece in question is Tyrion's marriage to Sansa Stark, which may not have the thrill of an all-out military assault on a fortress-city, but managed to hit enough emotional beats that the sense of general misery was almost unbearable even before Joffrey threatened to rape the bride.  There's something wonderfully twisted in the idea of the despised Imp getting to marry one of the most beautiful women in Westeros and being fucking miserable about it.  For that matter, there's something wonderfully twisted in Sansa Stark marrying one of the most kind and decent men in Westeros (to those that deserve it) and being convinced she's been sentenced to a fate, if not worse than death, then only falling short of it on a technicality.  Neither can compete with the twisted nastiness of Tywin Lannister telling his son that his family will suffer if he doesn't stop being selfish and refusing to rape a teenager.

Still, what marriage doesn't have a few bumps in the road?  Seeing Tyrion and Sansa conspiring against those that would mock them was a wonderfully sweet moment in a sea of misery and violence.  And sure, it was the last spark of happiness the newlyweds are liable to see for some time now that the bride has discovered she's become the eldest Stark around through a process of elimination, but who knows?  Maybe one day they can start plotting other people's misery once again.

Actually, I'm being very unfair here and considering two people simultaneously just because they happened to be married.  Sansa might not be feeling the sun on her face anytime soon, but at least Tyrion has some crazy foreign sex to look forward to!  Now that he hasn't deflowered his wife on their wedding night, Shae looks like she just might be willing to open herself up for business once more.

So that's where we end this series of posts.  With the whores, if for no other reason than I don't think anyone would expect us to.  Having already screamed about the utterly bullshit treatment of Ros this season in three separate posts now, I shall refrain from doing so in a fourth, but let's consider Shae here for a moment or two at least.  For all that I've slammed the show this year for moving its crappy attitude toward women from the standard eye-candy level one has to put up with from television in general to actual major structural failings (shit, I guess my anger has made it to a fourth post after all), GoT has at least made Shae a far more nuanced character than Martin ever seemed interested in, to the point where it is pretty much impossible to see how the two versions of the character can possibly run in parallel from this point on.  It seems unimaginable that the Shae of the novels could be confronted by Lord Varys and react in the same way as Sibel Kekilli, and as that scene unfolds one realises something profound: the long-term plans of one of the smartest and most cunning men in Westeros; a schemer so proficient he has survived three royal families who kept trying to kill each other, whilst trying to bring them all down, are seemingly at risk due to the stubbornness of a single foreign whore without so much as a surname.

If there's any purer distillation of Martin's underlying theme of the nature of power, I'm not sure what it is.

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