Monday, 25 May 2015

"Great Dancers Are Not Great Because Of Their Technique, They Are Great Because Of Their Passion"

With my feelings on that scene at least partially exorcised with my post earlier this week, I can move on to discussing the rest of "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken".  That's still no easy task, however, partially because the final scene still casts a long, ugly shadow over the rest of the episode, but mainly because said instalment just wasn't really any good.

(TV spoilers follow)

With the episode taking for its name the words of the Martells of Dorne, it's more frustrating that ever that events around Sunspear are being bungled as badly as they are. The Dorne plot of A Feast For Crows is one of its highlights, even if it does worsen the more-or-less directionless sprawl of the later books, and yet what has made it onto screen ranges from disappointing at best and flat-out irredeemable at worst. Last week it would have been incomprehensible that a scene involving a three-way confrontation between the Sand Snakes, Areo Hotah, and Jaime and Bronn could be boring, but that's exactly what happened. And this is a problem beyond how badly staged the scene itself is.  For this show in particular  - for this episode in particular - undercutting the Sand Snakes is one more vertical, bleeding wound in a tally already far too high. Reducing what are reputed to be Westeros' primary female merchants of unstoppable arse-mincing to a trio of goonettes who gave Jaime and Bronn less trouble than four randoms from the Dornish coastguard is one more act of totally failing to distinguish between showing the idea that women are less important than men and supporting that idea.

(Yes, I'm aware that there's a good chance Bronn has been poisoned by that nick he took from a Sand Snake's blade, so they might well have the last laugh. That might serve to make the scene seem more useful in hindsight. But we'd still be dealing with three potentially awesome female characters reduced to delivery systems for crises for men, which doesn't actually improve the situation at all.)

I mean, sure, you could try to argue that I'm drawing too strong a conclusion from a hilariously badly assembled scene. But that would be missing the point: terrible scenes just don't spring forth from the void at random.  If a show that's become so adept at brutal action scenes turns in something so truncated and uninspired, it's because that scene was a long way from being anyone's priority. Which is no surprise at this point. Besides the bad ballet of the struggle at the Water Gardens and the show's seeming determination to piss away Alexander Siddig at every opportunity (a crime that should carry the death penalty), you have the fact that Sunspear is the only location in five seasons to appear on the opening credits without being named.  Imagine if Winterfell was simply called "The North" in the credits and you'll have some idea of how much Dorne plot screams "Oh, do we have to?".

I think this goes a long way to explaining why the events beside the Greenblood have been so wretchedly converted. It's been suggested by some (Kieron Gillen for example) that this season, and the Dorne plot in particular, demonstrates that Beniof and Weiss are far more gifted at adaptation than they are at generating original material.  This doesn't quite sound right to me. As Phil Sandifer pointed out, you only need to remember how delightful Arya's time with Tywin Lannister was to see the problems with that hypothesis. I think the truth is even more simple: Beniof and Weiss simply can't be bothered to put effort into the plots they're not interested in.

Presented as evidence for the prosecution: Robb Stark's season three plot, the previous high-water mark as regards baffling incompetence. I've gone into some detail as to how badly the ball was dropped here, but as a brief reminder, the show failed utterly to explain why Robb's strategic position changed utterly between the end of season two and the start of season three, why he lost so many men at Harrenhal, what his relationship was with the river lords and even, most puzzlingly, exactly how Walder Frey had reacted when he married Lady Mygere. That last move would have made little sense in any case - if two of your main characters are going to be betrayed and murdered at season end, failing to set up exactly how that betrayal comes about is ludicrous - but it's even more strange when you know that the Red Wedding was a major reason Beniof and Weiss decided to take on the project in the first place.

The most plausible conclusion to draw here is that Beniof and Weiss really wanted the sheer horrible spectacle of the Red Wedding, but didn't have any interest in Martin's meticulous set up, leaving us with a season arc that can be summed up as "Robb is sad and losing, he asks for more men, and OH HOLY FUCKING SNAP!!!".  And of course by choosing to so poorly serve Robb's story in the third year, the showrunners risked lessening the effect of the Red Wedding when it actually came along, so cynically tossed in the murder of a pregnant woman to ramp up the tragedy stakes.

Which is what much of season five has felt like so far, of course; mimicking Martin's plots without his structure, and then throwing in moments of bloodshed and horror beyond the already extreme nastiness of the books. Sure, this isn't helped by the meandering, bloated form of books four and five, but A Clash Of Kings was longer than it needed to be and the show did an admirable job of flensing away the rot (though perhaps its no coincidence that the second season was the show's weakest up until this year).  This feels like the show has become so reliant on the huge plot beat that it's given up properly joining the dots (we might call this "Russell T Davies syndrome"), which is a real problem when Feast... and Dance... have comparatively few of them, and when Beniof and Weiss' tactic when faced with needing to insert extra trauma always go for the murder and torture of women (Ros, Ros again, Talisa, and now Sansa).  It's like watching a magician spin plates, except every now and then he grabs a woman from the audience and repeatedly smashes the plates over her head.

Not that all the plate-spinning is uninteresting. Tyrion and Jorah Mormont remain tremendous value for money, as their trek towards Meereen has been commendably pared down and yet still provides time for some great material. Tyrion accidentally breaking the news to Jorah that his father is dead was brilliantly played, and of course feeds into a major theme of the show: what do you do when your father dies, what do you do when the man who provides you with fatherly advice dies, and what do you do when those two people were totally separate people. And then to move from that to the sudden threat of the slavers and again to dark comedy about the length of Tyrion's manhood (there may be no funnier line the show will ever produce than "The dwarf lives until we find a cock merchant")? That takes real skill.

Indeed the brief scenes in Essos this week (Dany being conspicuous by her absence, though I guess we know by now that royal weddings take a long time to plan, especially if you want to make sure all the guests make it out alive) might have been the highlight of an otherwise uninspiring episode.  If so, a close second must surely be the ongoing collapse of the precarious status quo in King's Landing. Even here, as has been pointed out, there are fundamental problems with how this plot is unfolding, with the show's most major surviving gay character spending two years as a one note joke before graduating to a helpless victim of religious bigotry (despite being one of the greatest warriors on the continent). This is a serious point, but I'm not going to go into it, not because I undervalue it, but because I don't see anything Attewell has left unsaid in that article (though I should take note of the brilliant joke someone made about how this plot change has turned the Faith Militant into Westboros Baptist Church).

With this put aside, though, the High Sparrow plot continues by some distance to be my favourite plot of the season. Cersei's worst instincts in the wake of her father's death (see above) are now more on show than ever. And, as usual, her principle stumbling blocks are intertwined; a failure to plan anything more than six hours in advance, and the indestructible certainty both that she must not be treated the way she treats people, and that no-one would ever react to something the way she would react to it.

Both of these are on full display with her short but wonderful scene with the Tyrell matriarch. Her spluttering, ineffectual outrage as someone finally replies to her in kind is beautiful to behold. And of course, Cersei being Cersei, it doesn't lead to so much as a millisecond of reflection, even though Olenna has basically directly pointed out that "Queen of Thorns" is at this point barely any less meaningful a title than "Queen Regent".  Olenna reminds her of more than that, too. The Lannisters, as she makes clear, will find it difficult to hold onto the Iron Throne with the Tyrells as disinterested observers, and utterly impossible with them as enemies. It should go without saying that this is a very serious threat, but understanding that would require Cersei to view the Tyrells as a danger. As rivals. And apparently there is no chance of that.

We can, perhaps, summon at least a little sympathy for Cersei here. Her unbreakable conviction in the uniquely wonderful nature of her house is so clearly a product of being brought up by her distant, calculating father, with his obsession over the theory of families and his total disinterest in the practicalities.  With Tywin gone, it must be even more important for Cersei to cling to the fictions he wove for her. But however much we might feel for Cersei, it's still abundantly obvious that she is digging a mass grave for the family her father worked so hard to maintain. As I say, her mistakes stem from being unable to recognise that others might respond as she does. Cersei is so paranoid about any harm befalling her son that she's willing to risk war to keep him safe from his own wife, a woman dependent on his safety for her own legitimacy.  And yet she's sure that the Tyrells care so little for their heir and the first queen their family has ever produced that they will abandon them to the Faith Militant rather than risk confrontation. Put bluntly, Cersei is staking everything on the roses having vastly more sense than she does, on not responding in kind to her near-terminal case of stupidity. Which seemed to work in the private audience with Olenna, who clearly doesn't want to follow the Queen all the way down the blood-slick rabbit-hole, but that was clearly only because the Tyrell matriarch was willing to wait for Loras' release.

In other words, Cersei escaped a war she couldn't possibly win only by the narrowest of margins, and yet she spends the rest of the episode beaming like she's inherited her father's gold-producing sphincter. Cersei saw forbearance and mistook it for surrender, which might well be an even greater mistake than presuming Olenna would be powerless without her son to back her up.  How is Cersei can't consider the possibility that a mother might actually hold more power than her titled son? How can she fail to even imagine that a woman who calls herself "queen" without actually having that rank might have gathered influence for herself?

And what is it Cersei is using as her shield against the woman in control of the largest army in the Seven Kingdoms? She acts slightly put out when Loras Tyrell is being harangued by the sparrows. She makes no threats, nor offers bribes, or even bothers to wipe her insufferable smirk off her face throughout. It would be a thoroughly unconvincing performance under any circumstances, but only hours earlier Olenna already got to see how Cersei acts when she is genuinely offended.  There is precisely zero chance of the Queen of Thorns being taken in by Cersei's smug, feigned outrage. And yet this seems to be precisely what Cersei has pinned her hopes on avoiding a new war on. That by not explicitly cheering on the arrest of Loras and Margaery it will somehow be forgotten that Cersei legitimised the High Sparrow [1], refused to interfere when he detained Ser Loras, and had made assurances earlier that same day that Highgarden's heir would be swiftly released. I can't help remembering how condescending Cersei looked four years ago when she tore King Robert's last will and testament up before Eddard Stark in the Red Keep's throne room. A paper shield is worth so very little, she knew back then. How is it she's lost her way to the point where she's convinced herself a half-hearted denial is so much better protection?

So what happens next? Clearly Cersei has given that question essentially no thought whatsoever, but that shouldn't stop us.  The two most obvious alternatives is that King's Landing ends up under siege by a forest of roses, and that the High Sparrow decides to move on from arresting gay men and lying queens to taking the incestuous and lying queen regents. Indeed, there's no obvious reason it can't be both, which would mean that Cersei's attempts to protect her son from her own wife could lead to revolutions both inside and outside the capital, with her locked in a religious dungeon and her son - who throughout this crisis Cersei has relied upon to be utterly passive and unwilling to see swords drawn - without Kevan Lannister's army or a citizen defence he can rely on as his city is slowly starved.

Four episodes from now King Tommen Baratheon, First of His Name, may well be longing for the good old days of Stannis' attack from the Blackwater. All that remains now is to see which domino is the first to fall.  And, of course, to hope that Beniof and Weiss don't lose interest in this plotline and start churning out turgid crapulage. That would be helpful too.

[1] It was interesting to watch Cersei deny involvement in this to Littlefinger, insisting the king had given the order.  Cersei demands respect as the Queen Regent because of the power she wields, but the instant she might be called to account for what she's done with that power it's suddenly the king whose in charge and what could she do about any of it anyway? This is of course a classic double-think move, as anyone who has ever tried to get journalists to realise their incompetent coverage of politics might have damaging consequences could certainly tell you.


darkman said...

Imagine if Winterfell was simply called "The North" in the credits and you'll have some idea of how much Dorne plot screams "Oh, do we have to?"

You have read the books, can you blame them?

SpaceSquid said...

I rather like the Dorne plot in Feast, though I admit it's mainly build-up for a plot in Dance that then fizzles out horribly.