Friday, 23 May 2014

Plunder And Amnesia

(Housekeeping note: I've gathered my various discussions of the Game of Thrones TV series and the original book series under one label: The Game's Afoot.  For those who have seen the show and are understandably nervous about spoilers in my book posts; rest assured that any post starting with a still from the show will be book-spoiler free. Otherwise, I suggest you steer clear.)

"Sweating and straining,
Oh it seemed so simple at the time." - Semisonic, "Never You Mind".

Longterm fans/hate-readers (which I think I have; it's hard to tell from cowardly subtweets) will be well aware of my attempts to tie the titles of my Game of Thrones posts together season by season.  The titles for seasons one and three have a trivial link, of course; season two requires only slightly more thought/music knowledge. So come season four, it was clear I'd have to come up with a new naming strategy.  And given a) season three's theme was plays on the third book's title and b) season four was spend the majority of its time on that same book, it seemed an obvious choice to stick to the same plan, only this time to riff off the paperback subtitles (which follow both linguistically and chronologically from the original single-volume title: see what I did there?)

(Show spoilers follow; book spoilers expunged)

Thus were "Steel and Snow" and "Blood and Gold" expanded upon to create descriptions for ten houses/institutions in Westeros.  The instant I hit on that idea, I figured out how my comments on season four could differentiate themselves at least a little from the storm of posts on the show out in the blogohedron. Instead of trying to tie each episode down to a specific theme, I could use them as springboards into discussions about the state of play of the various powers in the show as the season progressed.  The tricky part was deciding which people to discuss where.

For some it was pretty easy. I knew from the very beginning who would occupy slots nine and ten.  I also knew I wanted to discuss the Lannisters and Tyrells pre- and immediately post-royal wedding, which almost certainly meant episodes one and two, given the latter's title and writer.  The Arryns would most likely be best saved for episode seven (again this was an assumption based on title).  I had enough idea of the thrust of my posts for Dany and for the Martells that I knew the former had to come as soon as possible after the news of Astapor and Yunkai reached the Mother of Dragons, and that the latter could basically go anywhere. As for the Starks, well, it's the Starks.  There'd be no shortage of opportunities to discuss them.

All of which means I had five episodes pretty much locked down, a sixth that was bound to be somewhere in the middle third of the season, and two floating posts that could go anyplace where there wasn't a better option. I figured that would give me sufficient flexibility, and off I went.

It seemed like a pretty good plan.

But here we are now, only halfway through the season. with all three of my floating posts used up, and episodes six and eight still unclaimed.  One of them I knew would have to be the Greyjoys, with the other being probably - though not definitely - the Boltons [1].  The first problem here is that neither of those families has been on our screens much at all at this point.  The second is that when they are on screen, they're on screen together, which makes deciding which of them we're going to talk about at this point more than a little difficult. What comes first; how Theon has been damaged by the Boltons, or how the Boltons are planning to rely upon the Theon they've so damaged?

Actually, though, the answer is pretty simple when you dig down a little ways.  This has to be where the post on the Greyjoy's story goes because, by all the signs, this episode was where the Greyjoy story got itself shut down for the foreseeable.

Not that it really got going this season in any case.  There's been what, four scenes featuring Theon so far this season? With each one focusing on how he isn't really Theon anymore in any case?  Not that this is surprising to book readers, since Balon Greyjoy's youngest son was completely absent from books three and four, with book three containing not a single viewpoint character from the Iron Islands. Given that, it's hard to understand why Alfie Allen appeared in season three at all, other than due to contractual obligation. "Theon is tortured and castrated" is not a storyline which needs to take up any real amount of time, after all.

But the need to have Theon show up on the screen during sections in which he was benched in the books is only half the problem.  The other half of the problem (part of a more general issue over how the last two books were big on sprawling backstory and small on actual events) is that when Theon does return in the books, it takes forever for him to be anything but a passive observer of how nasty the Boltons are. At the risk of straining your patience past breaking point having spent five or six paragraphs explaining my choices of post title, it's worth considering the structure of the original books here before returning to the show.  I may have forgotten someone (that's what the comments section is for, of course, particularly if Jamie reads this) but to the best of my recollection, if we consider A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons as being a single book (as Martin had intended), Theon holds the distinction of being the only POV to disappear for an entire book, not counting the characters who disappeared owing to having been murdered.

For the show, this decision might well have caused problems regarding Allen's contract, but for the book it makes total sense.  A Storm of Swords was quite grim enough in tone without taking time out every few chapters to watch Theon having his fingers/bell-end cut off by a psychopath (something the showrunners failed to take note of, of course).  It was quite long enough, too. Removing the heir of Pyke was therefore a splendid decision all round.

Compare that with Feast for Crows/Dance with Dragons, in which removing characters from circulation would have been just as beneficial.  It took forever for Brienne's story to get beyond a mediocre travelogue.  Jaime's still hasn't, and nor has Sansa's. A whole new character was introduced in Dance... to do almost nothing until he finally showed up at his destination, at which point he did almost nothing.  But the worst problem is with the Greyjoys.  Somehow, the ruling family of the Iron Islanders has more viewpoint characters (four) post-Storm... than any other family bar the Starks, who they tie with (beat if you exclude Jon Snow, but I think the poor dear's had enough being kept separate from the Starks for one lifetime).  Which would be fine - squid-worshipping Vikings aren't the sort of thing you'd imagine ever getting enough of - except that the amount of time the Greyjoys spend doing interesting things isn't particularly high. Certainly, it's vastly outweighed by the time they spend happening to be nearby when set-up for potentially interesting things eighteen thousand pages down the road trundles past.  This can make for heavy going in the books, but at least there we're privy to Theon/Reek's interior monologue (though reasonable people can disagree on whether that's particularly interesting; I'd go with "not really"). On screen, you've basically got a lot of Alfie Allen looking sheepish, which doesn't particularly make for riveting television.

This is the bind Benioff and Weiss find themselves in.  Theon's role in season two was legitimately interesting.  His role in season three shouldn't have existed, and his role in seasons four and five is liable to be spectacularly uninteresting unless they go majorly off-piste (hell, he can't even rape anyone; how's he going to fit in with this year's theme?).  There's certainly every reason to think they'll plump for the latter option; the various adventures of Theon, Yara (Asha as she is in the novels), Aemon and Victarion Greyjoy seem like obvious choices for a bit of judicious culling come season five (well, maybe not Victarion; he at least seems to have the kind of violent rollicking adventures Iron Islanders should be all about).  All of this is worth bearing in mind when we consider Yara's doomed attempt this episode to free her mutilated brother, because I think that scene is a lot better than a lot of people give it credit for.

Admittedly part of the problem here is that plenty of TV-only fans have no idea what the book Greyjoys get up to, and so lack the foreknowledge which makes me view the scene more favourably than I otherwise might.  But it's not like the scene isn't trying its hardest to make the point in other ways.  Just take a look at how it's filmed.  The contrast couldn't be clearer as Yara brings the warm light of torches into cold, blue darkness. And it immediately terrifies Theon. It scares him so much that he presses himself as far from it as possible, so that the whole of the kennels are lit by the flames (painting the route to freedom Theon was so desperate for this time last season) except for him.  For Theon the world is still dark and cold, because he's choosing dark and cold.  The flames light Yara's face, all concern (by Greyjoy standards) and confusion, but none of this is reaching her brother.  He's so far from the light that they can't even be on screen at the same time, not really; out-of-focus shoulders are about all that can be managed, despite the two siblings being within touching distance. 

Theon doesn't lean forward - the light doesn't start to lick his face - until Ramsay Snow arrives on the scene. Yara might have brought the torches, but it's Ramsay who's brought the light. After a season spent searching in vain for the approval of the Starks (and was there a moment in this series when Robb was more punchable than when he slapped Theon down for the crime of caring about Robb's house?), and a season spent equally hopelessly trying to reintegrate himself into his "real" family, Theon's latest object of worship is a cold-blooded sadist and murderer. Well, we can't choose the people we love, I guess, especially when it's brought on by Stockholm Syndrome.

And then, as quickly as the rescue attempt begins (whatever else the Boltons are, they're poor choosers of nights-watchmen) it's all over. A lot of viewers have complained about how suddenly Yara cuts and runs when Ramsay threatens to call in the dogs. on the rather reasonable grounds that you'd have to be an idiot to believe Ironborn would be freaked out by a few slavering hounds. But let's consider the possibility that Cogman gets this as well.  Look at who Yara is focusing on as the cages are opened by Ramsay (who obviously does think the doggies will do the job, but then he's spent his life terrorising peasants and women; his opinions on how to scare bloodthirsty corsairs should not be taken as the show's official line).  It isn't the Bastard of the Dreadfort she's looking at, it's her brother.  She's not scared that the dogs will kill her, she's debating whether the ruined husk of a man that was once her sibling is actually worth fighting for any more.  Her final line in the episode gives us our answer; Theon has been abandoned by his family once more.

In short, it's not dogs that drive her from the castle; it's disgust. And whilst more than a few people have argued her failed mission and sudden escape render the whole sequence pointless, this too is  mistaken. A goal failed is not time wasted, so long as the failure itself demonstrates something interesting. In this case, it's a matter of narratives - specifically a narrative ending (or mutating, depending on how you see it). Over season three Theon's story became less and less being a Greyjoy narrative and more and more a Bolton one, He's now nothing more than an extension of Ramsay; plunder the bastard can use as he will. He's stolen Theon from the Greyjoys like they steal their saltwives from the shores they raid.  His new pet is completely under the thumb, bought and paid for in the only way the Greyjoys themselves respect: with iron (a not inconsiderable part of all this is contrasting Theon's season two impression of a vicious prick with someone who is very much the real thing). So when Yara storms in to try and grab her brother, of course it fails, and of course it seems out of place.  She no longer belongs in Theon's story. She's just a spanner to be removed from the works so things can get back to normal. The one thing this sequence isn't supposed to be is well integrated. Theon is now so badly damaged he's swapped the choppy breakers of the Sunset Sea for ( it turns out) the still hot water of a bath given to him by the man who had his dick cut off [2].  The story of Theon has become the story of Reek, and there's nothing his former family can do about it. He is at peace with the lie, in way he never could be with the lie that he was a Stark, or the lie that he could ever go home again.

In a show famous for such moments, that's still a remarkably sad note. It's another of Martin's masterstrokes, of course, build up a character from gobby antihero to amateur villain, willing the audience on to hate the heel-turner and his murder spree (which honestly is fairly modest by this story's standards), only to throw ever-increasing degradations and tortures against him so as to force each of us to draw our own line on the Stony Shore regarding the point at which Theon stops deserving what happens to him.  But now that horrible process is behind both him and us. Theon is gone and only Reek remains.  The Greyjoys are no longer a part of his story.  Perhaps no longer a part of the story in general, at least for now, despite Balon Greyjoy having achieved at least a silver medal in the War of Five Kings [3]. There is little to be done here but to mark their grave as a relevant force.

Well, that and tremble in fear at the massive avalanche of uninspiring petty sniping and sulking the books suggest we're about to get hit by.  We can certainly do that.

[1] If I could, I'd have gone with the Tullys here instead, but with Cat dead and Edmure and the Blackfish showing no signs of appearing this season, it appears alas that "Tears and Rot" will be a post I never get to write

[2] And wasn't it nice how the show spent some time with Sallador Sahn in a Braavosi bath-house/brothel so we could see how real corsairs take their baths?  Three years ago Theon would have fitted in perfectly with those surroundings. Now, it's unthinkable.

[3]  Will he outlive Stannis as well to take the crown amongst the initial contenders?  There's a leech with his name on it that says otherwise.


Anonymous said...

"hell, he can't even rape anyone; how's he going to fit in with this year's theme"

You're being very phallocentric there, Ric... (Or sticking strictly to UK legal definitions anyway.) I'm pretty sure *that* scene we previously discussed partly comes under that umbrella, although it may not be in this season.

SpaceSquid said...

Bonus points for the use of "phallocentric". But no, that scene won't be this year, which makes the theme of the year very much phallocentric assault. I don't get to make the rules. God knows, I don't get to make the rules.