Saturday, July 19, 2014

Choice of character

There was a post on the board a few weeks ago that sparked something in my mind because I'd considered it a number of times over the past 4 years, but after I wrote it down I filed it away to be finished later because I was (and am) currently struggling with another story. Now that I've decided I'm stuck for the evening, the question reoccurs. Said question borders on the tautological: Can you like a character better in one medium than another if the new version is done well enough? In other words, how do you separate the two? If I think Sandor Clegane is better on TV than in the books, is it because the character was actually done better or because the actor has not only lived up to my expectations for the character but has actually exceeded them? Does that make show Hound better than book Hound? Does it depend on the actor? Does it depend on the script? Does it depends on how attached you are to the character in the original medium? Furthermore, do the TV characters end up being superior in some cases simply because of the fantastic foundation upon which they rest? It's a lot easier to write someone when the original author has already done the favor of laying their groundwork for ~4500 pages. Does that make our central question moot? Is there any other reason to have the Internet other than to discuss unanswerable questions? Well, let's discuss.

Tyrion- As I noted in the episode 8 write-up, there’s a distinction that becomes much more prevalent in the characters that are written as quite canny and literate; Tyrion being one of those. In the show, we can’t read their thoughts, which deprives us of some of their eloquence. But in the books, we can’t see their reactions and facial quirks and it’s that aspect which often defines Peter Dinklage as an actor. His undeniable charm has sold Tyrion to an audience of even more millions, beyond even the fact that he gets many of the best lines. Furthermore, he’s far more good-looking than the Tyrion from the books, who was a fairly distorted dwarf with off-color hair even before he lost his nose (unlike the Margaery-pleasing scar he bears on HBO.) Those things play as they’re supposed to in the visual medium. Most humans respond more favorably to an attractive person than they do to one who falls below that common standard (there’s a lengthy discussion possible here about standards of beauty being societal or instinctive; I trend more toward the latter based on the reactions of children, but that’s going far afield right now.) However, even with Dinklage’s contributions, I think Tyrion is still a better character in the books simply because of the time and space he’s allowed to elaborate upon those inner workings that make him the character he is. If given the screen time necessary to more fully acquaint his audience with exactly who he is and the depth he has as a tragicomic figure, perhaps that would be different. This does nothing to detract from Dinklage's performance in the show and, indeed, this first choice is one of the more difficult because of the involvement of the writer. Martin has stated before that Tyrion is the character with whom he feels the most familiarity so there's little doubt that he'd be a more developed individual in the books. Furthermore, Dinklage has developed Tyrion as a different person in the show (he has not read the books) and there's plenty of argument to say that that difference is better, but not necessarily a better Tyrion.

Cersei- is absolutely a better character in the show, without question. Prior to Feast for Crows, Cersei was a device; a constant foil for a multitude of other characters. Martin wrote her with intelligence, certainly, but the personal depth took a long time to come to the fore. Lena Headey has had the opportunity to develop that depth from day one and she has excelled in doing so. She’s made Cersei into a sympathetic character for much of the audience even as she’s been utterly reviled (as intended) for the rest. Her defining moment was when Tywin informed her that she’d be marrying Loras and the cocky, evilly-gloating Cersei immediately crumbled to helpless daughter in the same fashion as her younger brother whom she’d been cackling at moments before. It’s tough to do that kind of transition as an actor. It’s tough to write it as an author and still maintain some kind of genuine reaction on the part of the majority of your audience. Headey sold it and then, even after creating that moment of sympathy, continued to be the ice queen in season 4, culminating with her self-satisfied smirk over the corpse of Oberyn Martell. I think having her wholly realized from the outset has led her to become a character of far greater complexity. You can't fault Martin for not making her a viewpoint character from the outset, as these things have a life of their own, at times, and he probably only realized that she had grown into that status as he began Feast. I realize there is some dissension out there over Headey's performance as being too sympathetic but I would urge those people to look at Cersei as a human and not simply Malificent with blonde hair.

Jaime- is an interesting question. Both versions show the transformation from elitist prig to thoughtful man and both versions use Jaime as one of the most obvious “shades of grey” examples that is one of the primary themes of the entire work. Interestingly, the show has allowed him to swing back and forth over the line at different points: the infamous rape scene next to Joffrey’s body was a significant departure from his path in the books (as the scene never took place), while his assistance in Tyrion’s escape in the book was a far more venomous scene between the brothers than the fairly heartwarming moment in the series. Overall, I’d have to say that he’s a “better” person in the show, but that assumes that you want him to be. Is he better in the show because the audience can more easily access Nikolai Coster-Waldau’s charismatic performance or is he better in the books because he’s still the grim, cynical persona arcing more toward the Hound as someone who has given up on the concept of knighthood or good people, in general? I think I’ve found him to be better in the show simply because Coster-Waldau’s rendition has been more entertaining but I’m not sure that he serves the story better than the book version (assuming that I understand Martin’s intent for the character.) Jaime in the book is still in that transformation and there's room to argue that Coster-Waldau's transition has been too complete at this point (although, again, the rape scene puts the lie to some of that.) I've become fond of Jaime as a character in the latter two books largely because he is a cynic, but I tend to favor the show version in many ways because of Coster-Waldau's sterling performance. How this guy went from a bit role in Kingdom of Heaven to this is a mystery to me, given his obvious talent, but it certainly does help to have good material to work with.

Daenerys- Daenerys, Daenerys, Daenerys… So, trying to play an innocent babe-in-the-woods who, in the books, is almost literally a child (she’s 14 when married to Drogo) and who becomes a queen with a distinct level of authoritah is a challenging prospect for any actor. I think Emilia Clarke has done a phenomenal job with the task, culminating in the Mask of Rage moment this season when she dismissed Jorah. That said, it’d be kind of difficult to do worse with the role because the book character has in many ways been something of a cipher. She’s delivering the Targaryen storyline and the depiction of Essos but hasn’t really been one of those characters whom you remember fondly for various moments (other than Dracarys.) Martin has had near-legendary problems with her storyline, which has faded out for lengthy periods of time (she has about 50 pages in Clash of Kings) and which has become difficult to move forward for fear of completely voiding the character’s consistency. There is no there there, when it comes to Daenerys. That changed to a certain degree in the latter part of Dance and we now have a clearly more interesting path for her to proceed upon, but I think the show character has had more opportunity to present Dany the person, as opposed to Dany the plot element, and I think that’s more worthwhile. However, again we're hampered here by not having access to her innermost thoughts which tends to demonstrate a bit more of her intelligence in the books in the same manner as Tyrion, so I think this is a closer call.

Jon Snow- Without question, I think the book character is better. As much as I appreciate Kit Harrington’s efforts, Jon Snow of the Page is simply far more thoughtful and deliberate than Jon Snow of the Screen, even when he was a novice at the Wall. Harrington has played him to his intended age and with all of the emotional turmoil that he endures playing out on his face. The book Snow is more guarded than that and his actions become more reasonable as a consequence. Harrington never sold me for a minute as the Wildling ex-pat. Snow in the book, even though I was in his head the whole time, put on a more believable performance for his new allies. Furthermore, Harrington plays him with a great deal more angst than the book character displays and I've carried a distaste for that particular human condition since I stopped reading the X-Men in the late 80s as a direct consequence of Claremont's overindulgence in it. While Harrington is a capable actor, I think his inexperience shows through moreso than any of the other younger people and he becomes a bit wooden in tough spots. One can argue that that actually reflects Jon Snow's personality to some degree but I think Martin has done a better job of depicting him as somewhat detached but still very human.

Bran- Likewise, I think Bran is better in the books, but this may be more of a method problem than anything done by the actor. Bran’s role is tough because a lot of what happens to him is completely beyond his control, such that he can only react, rather than act, not solely because of the magical events occurring that he doesn't understand but also because he depends on others for his survival and even mobility. In the book, we’re treated to a lot of Bran’s inner thoughts, which demonstrates more clearly how he’s adapting to the situation around him and why. We won’t ever get that in the show without an expository infodump that is bad for TV. Furthermore, the delivery problem rears its head. In prose, otherworldly things can come to life in a very reasonable manner for most people. It’s a lot easier to read about genuinely fantastical things happening and be carried along by the story than it is to see them on a screen in front of you because you don’t need a suspension of disbelief for your own imagination, which is providing the pictures as you read along. You still need that when it appears in front of you because it may not be your interpretation of how it should look and it will never look as good as it does in your mind simply because of that gulf. That makes Bran’s role more difficult on TV than it is in the books. Also, Bran's story suffers from the same problem that Dany's does, in that it's out on its own, largely unaffected by events elsewhere in the world, so it was possible for Martin to leave it for extended stretches which leaves the actors cooling their heels or engaging in relatively mundane stuff ("We're still traveling north...") that doesn't give Isaac Hempstead-Wright a great deal to work with.

Arya- Show. Show, show, show. Beyond doubt. Maisie Williams has been a revelation as Arya and is one of two characters that has so firmly embodied her role that it becomes difficult to tell whether she’s better because she’s better or better because she does the role to a level almost indistinguishable from the original character. I was not especially fond of Arya’s storyline until Storm of Swords, but I was blown away by Williams from the moment she appeared onscreen. I guess the real question will be if she can maintain that performance as the character transitions into the state in which she has become one of my favorites in the books. Interestingly, while Jaime, for example, seems to become more interesting on the show because he becomes more sympathetic, Arya wins out because she becomes less so. In both media, she becomes more brutal and less human to a degree, but the transition is far more stark in the show because it happens over a much shorter time. Furthermore, Maisie was a much more appealing person than Arya of the books, who was much more like a child who had been plucked from her home and dropped into quite dire straits. Am I saying that show Arya is better because her reactions may have been less genuinely human? I might be.

Sansa- Again, I think the show wins out here and really only from this most recent season. It took me a long time to warm to Sansa in the books, too, but I did eventually come to appreciate the strength that she displays as the completely powerless character that finally comes to realize how to play the game and how important she could be within it. That presence of mind is still kind of muted in the books, but she took control with a vengeance this season and had some of the greatest moments in its latter stages. Sophie Turner could easily be noted as the best actress of season 4 and making Sansa a more sympathetic character to much of the audience is part of that. It's also a total contrast to Arya, in that Sansa has become more sympathetic to me because of the very human nature of her reactions. Or is that just my more mature estimation of character than my first encounter with Sansa some 18 years ago?

Stannis- While I really appreciate Stephen Dillane’s performance as the man who insists he should be king (he was fantastic as Thomas Jefferson in HBO’s John Adams), I think Stannis has become less than what he should be in the show. In the original story, Stannis is the iron man: unassailable, unmoved, solely determined to gain what he thinks should be his. In the show, he’s far more vulnerable, which is everything Stannis is not. Granted, he’s not a perspective character, so we rarely see things from inside the eye of Stannis (i.e. Davos would not have been present while Stannis was nailing Melisandre on the Westeros table) but his reactions have also been more emotionally-driven than expected and it’s made the character not as imposing. Also granted, it’s hard as hell to be an actor and play someone who seems impervious to everything around him, so I don’t blame Dillane, but this is one area where I think that D&D may have taken it in the wrong direction.

Oberyn- I mention him here despite the brevity of his role because he's one of the outstanding examples of this contrast. The Red Viper was an interesting experiment in dramatic presentation. The character in the books is interesting but mostly because he was specifically designed to be so and not because he delivers an aspect of the story that's particularly deep. He’s an alpha male with a singular purpose: vengeance. The reaction of Tyrion and others to his presence makes that apparent from the moment he’s introduced. The audience is supposed to instantly understand him and, consequently, like him in the same way that they’re supposed to understand and like Omar from The Wire. In later years, many people have come to appreciate the other, deeper, more complex characters of The Wire moreso than Omar because of that depth. Same thing here. I appreciated Oberyn for fulfilling the role that he was intended for. Having said all of that, I think Pedro Pascal exceeded expectations of “coolness” for Oberyn Martell. He stole every scene that he was in and I think he improved upon the character.

Theon- Alfie Allen isn’t as smooth and arrogant as Book Theon nor is he as savaged and desperate as Book Reek. That said, he’s done a remarkable job playing the two sides of the very complex story that is Theon’s life. Still, without those extremes, I still feel like Theon has been more impactful in the book because we've been able to spend so much more time with his two halves. Oddly, though, I think that the show version has given us deeper insight into the character with small scenes like the burned letter to Robb and the clear transitions of emotion across Theon's face during the re-baptism and Reek's face when Ramsay dangles yet another temptation/threat in front of him in a fashion similar to Dinklage/Tyrion. Even with access to his inner thoughts, I feel like I understand the character better with Allen's depiction. I think that note about having the advantage of millions of words already written about these people is most prominent here. I don't think I can make a real choice.

Finally, we come to the Hound. I think that, like Williams, Rory McCann's depiction of his character has been so spot-on that it's difficult to separate the two. He basically is Sandor Clegane, down to telling fans to "Fuck off!". And, again, we circle back to those original quandaries: Can McCann be better because he nailed it or did he come to that natural level at which there's no point debating who is better because they both simply are?

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Kneejerk moment: Sex and not sex

So Charlie Jane Anders wrote a piece for i09 about the use of sex in fiction and it reminded me of the page above which is probably the most famous rendition of sex that (n)ever occurred in Marvel Comics for any number of reasons.

First off, it was while Jim Steranko was doing his famous run on Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD. Steranko had been in advertising prior to coming to comics, which is blatantly obvious via any casual glance at his work, including the above. He was used to spotlighting the topic of interest and didn't spend a lot of time on backgrounds or other supporting aspects to the panels which most good comic artists (and writers. and editors. and readers.) regard as essential to the proper delivery of the medium. There's a vast difference between comic strips and comic books. The former usually deliver a message or a joke. The latter deliver a story. If you're going to tell a story, you need to flesh it out. That fleshing is often done by including background art in the panels as the story proceeds. Think of it as description in prose or part of the cinematography of a film. However, Steranko was so good at delivering his story, even without words (as on the page above), that he was one of the few that could dispense with the backgrounds and still produce masterful work. In a way, he was an expression of the other half of that cinematography aspect, in which what the camera shows you, front and center, what you need to understand the writer's vision.

Secondly, this page was produced and published in 1968, while the comics industry was still under the onerous weight of the Comics Code Authority, designed to protect all young minds from the horrible consequences of real life and humanity and stuff. So, even though Steranko wanted to show Nick Fury and Contessa Valentina Allegra de la Fontaine relaxing at home in the manner that many lovers do, the CCA would have forbidden young eyes from seeing anything even resembling sex or intimate contact (kissing on the lips was also verboten under the Code.) So he drew the scene in as oblique a manner as he could in order to get it past the censors which were (I shit you not) a collection of uptight women in their 50s and 60s exactly as you would expect in stereotypical fashion. Of course, by that point Marvel had figured out that their primary buying audience were actually college-aged men, which were not exactly the target waifs of the Code but were easily smart enough to figure out exactly what was going in this scene. Funnily enough, it still had to be altered by the editors from his original production as, for example, he originally drew the phone off the hook, but that was considered too suggestive and something that the censors would flag.

The best part about this is that, of course, the scene became famous precisely because it showed no nudity or intimate activity. It's perfectly seductive and enthralling just as it is and delivers the message better than anything overt or softcore ever could have. Just as Charlie notes in her column, subtlety is often far sexier than actual sex and that's something that many, many authors, directors, and artists often fail to realize.

As noted frequently here, Game of Thrones has often used sex to drive the story, not because it was essential for the characters at that moment, but because it was a way for Martin to demonstrate that Westeros was a real place with real people who had real desires and sex (and fire and blood) is one of them. However, it became so frequent that a term was soon coined for it by the fanbase: "sexposition". I don't object to it in the show and, admittedly, there is so much story to tell in A Song of Ice and Fire that the kind of subtle moments that can convey real energy in a 2-hour film would be lost in the fairly hectic pace that the show currently has. The exploration of character is taking place over long arcs, whereas the more subtle moments oddly have to be shown at a slower pace in what is actually a shorter format. So there is nothing subtle about the sex in GoT and it can occasionally feel ham-handed as a consequence or present merely for the titillation that one seems to expect out of HBO's "adult" series.

In contrast, this is the opening shot of Blue is the Warmest Color, a film I've raved about before and mildly criticized for the (ahem) extended length of its sex scenes. But this opening scene may be the hottest one in the film, as it's the first glance between the two women and the expression of desire fairly explodes off the screen, whether you choose to see it as love at first sight or lust at first sight or both. You can feel the air smoldering between the two of them in every scene they share before they ever get horizontal and it's a fair question to ask whether that would have been enough, along with some properly placed scenery as in Steranko's work, to convey the intensity of their relationship even without the rest of the flesh. I'm not trying to be a prudish critic here, either. I was fine with the sex scenes in the film and I think there's something to be gained from watching the act itself as art. But I think couching it properly so that it serves a purpose in the story other than trying to snare the simple lust of the reader/viewer and instead engages her imagination is the best path in any creative work.

I sold a story recently that does have a fairly intense sex scene in it. I included it because the main character has been going through a series of moments where he doesn't quite know where he is and he begins reacting to things in a fairly emotional fashion, so it felt appropriate to place it there, as it also engages the sensations of heat and sweat. He was reacting in a very primal fashion, so it seemed right to show one of the most primal activities of the human condition in a way that perhaps confronts the reader, rather than entices. Could I have done it in a less abrupt fashion? Probably. But the story itself is relatively visceral to begin with, so I guess we'll see if I was right when it's released. Perhaps the adage "if it feels right, do it" also applies to writing to some degree?

And, all of that said, there's nothing wrong with just good, old pr0n if that's what you're into. There's a reason it's one of the foundation stones of the Interwebs: people like it. Everyone except Hobby Lobby, anyway.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

And yet another closing

So, yeah. Lot of things to talk about. If you step back and look at the bigger picture, it's obvious that the end of Storm of Swords was intended to be a bit of a breaking point in the series. Martin's original intent was that he would put in a gap of five years or so to allow the political situation to settle and also allow the child characters (Bran, Arya, etc.) to grow so that their roles weren't restricted by physical issues. Of course, when he was several hundred pages into the next book, he realized that he had spent the majority of those pages re-capping what had happened in that five-year period, so he scrapped it all and started over (thus creating part of the extraordinary wait for Feast for Crows.) In that respect, the show is no different in that they've spent a great deal of time over the past couple episodes not only bringing stories to their logical conclusion but also killing off a large portion of the cast. (Don't worry. They'll be replaced in number by next season. Off to Dorne! Woo hoo!) But there were still plenty of segues to the continuing epic with a couple high points and a couple that were just off.

For as important as the events at the Wall were for character, resolution, and plot, I thought they spent a bit too much time there. While Ciaran Hinds continues to play it stately, I'm not sure we needed his perspective on Jon and Ygritte's relationship when we were already going to have the burning scene and Tormund's perspective (who spent much more time with the two of them.) Also, once again, the budget limitations kind of killed this scene, since there was probably no money left to show Stannis' armies crashing into and scattering the Wildling army rather than simply surrounding Mance's camp. It would certainly leave a first time watcher wondering where the hell the other 100K are, although Stannis accomplished what Jon's goal was in the first place: cutting the head off the beast. There was a great moment there while Stannis and Jon came to grips with who each other happens to be and the expected roles they'll follow in the future.

The collection of Cersei scenes that followed was fairly skillfully written, in that it reestablished her influence over her own choices (ordering Qyburn to proceed on the Mountain, refusing Tywin, getting Jaime to screw her in ceremonial places, etc.) but also tied up things that need to be tied up in order to lay the groundwork for next season. Furthermore, it clearly arced the story toward its conclusion as far as Tywin is concerned, since everything began to slip beyond his determined grasp. I think it's interesting how they've played his knowledge of his twins' relationship, in that he seemed willing to tip his hand to Jaime during Tyrion's trial but just as willing to play stupid while Cersei confronted him with it here. In the books, he's somewhat less concerned about all of that and it certainly raises one of the central cultural questions that I've always had about the story: why do the other houses care so much about incest?

Certainly, the Targaryens were 'other' in that they were Valyrian while the rest of the population are Andals (except the Dornish), so it was natural to look on the practices of the ruling house as something that would never happen with proper folk except that they, you know, had the dragons. The practice had also become less common as the dynasty had proceeded. Even so, many of the houses still had a deep attachment to their Targaryen overlords and custom has deep roots in Westerosi society. If you're willing to accept overlords who had long since passed their prime simply because tradition says so... Of course, one of the pillars of the story rests upon the fact that Robert had essentially said that that much adherence to tradition, in the face of the Mad King and his depravities, was no longer acceptable. Furthermore, one could argue that Aerys was one of the clearest examples of why not to continue with the practice of incest. I suppose the fact that Robert's wife was pursuing the Targaryen tradition even as he overthrew them is one of the little faux ironies of the story.

Meanwhile, one of the other social constructions begins to have even wider repercussions: How do you cripple an economy overnight and still make it work? (Well, one way is to be Goldman Sachs, but then it only works for a few...) The fact that many slaves in the Bay had become accustomed to their lives or even favored them because of the station that they brought was something that was clearly not considered by the clarion song of freedom and, if played to its fullest extent, is rife with story possibilities...

HOWEVAH, a lot of those story possibilities are interesting to people like me who enjoy social transformation (some people refer to it as 'revolution' (still hoping)) but they tend to lack drama unless said drama is packed together at a very rapid pace which then makes that transformation somewhat illogical and trivial. Thus, the famed Meereenese Knot of Martin's dismay. Even worse, a lot of those situations don't play as well visually as they do in prose. You can go off on extended descriptions of issues of the day in prose and make it work. On TV, it can come off like C-Span, dragons or no dragons. I'm certain they included the Missandei/Grey Worm relationship to add a bit more character meat to Meereen and they're going to have to do more with it if they want to keep people interested in Dany's story at all. Of course, now that we're arcing full force into Dance of Dragons, there are a lot of ways to go. One note here is that we did finally get some screen time with Viserion and Rhaegon... only to see them chained up in a dungeon. Remove the chains from the slaves and add them to your real children. That'll solve everything.

One reason I say that we are full on into Dance because Bran and Co. are firmly there. I wasn't even certain that they were going to do the wight fight outside the tree (which I keep wanting to call a 'world tree' because of World of Warcraft; read/play/see enough of these damn things and they all start blending together) but I'm glad they did because Ray Harryhausen FTW, dammit! I'm enough of an old-timer at SF/fantasy films to basically always think of Jason and the Argonauts whenever anyone shows me animated skeletons. They were a lot smoother than his, of course, since CGI is often leaps and bounds better than stop-motion from the 60s, but there is a certain intelligence that seems to be conveyed to the automatons by the hesitation inherent to the older technique. Anyway, decent scene, although I was a little disappointed by the look of both Leaf and the interior of the cave, especially given that Mr. Three-Eyed Raven was depicted far differently than in the books. I'm, again, hoping that this was a money issue and not a step down from the immortal Gemma Jackson. It also has me wondering how they're going to get around to explaining who Mr. T-ER is, since the relevance of his identity is basically absent in the TV show to date and is really only prominent for careful readers and those who've followed the Hedge Knight stories.

And now we finally get to the one major departure from canon: the showdown between Brienne and the Hound. Here's where I offer all of D&D's excuses about how they're doing an adaptation, not a note-for-note simulacrum. They are, of course, correct. They have to do an adaptation. But I thought they were going to end Brienne and Pod's travels this season with a far more powerful scene, so I was a little disappointed on that front. In the process, they also managed to seed character problems into the rest of the story and spoil the subtlety of one of my favorite moments from the book.

The seed: Brienne knows that Arya is alive. That means that she can carry that information to other people and make it part of their worldview. One can suggest that this was already done by Arya and Sandor naming her at the Bloody Gate, but how hard would it be to write in disbelief on the part of the Arryn guardsmen that some dirty little girl was claiming to be Arya? Not very. Brienne, OTOH, is a person of some respect and stood in Arya's presence. That has little ripples across a lot of ponds, given that most people assume Arya to be long dead. It doesn't mean it's blown the lid off of anything, but it can significantly alter the perceptions of a number of characters.

The spoilage: In the book, the Hound's infection is what brings him to the point of death. Arya abandons him in the same way she does here, but it's because he can't walk any farther, not just because she wants to let him suffer and die. In that way, his ending is kind of the ultimate denouement to a life completely driven by violence. There was no violence to his end in the books. He just finally exhausted his ability to keep moving and keep killing. That plays to me in a way that him being mortally wounded in yet another fight simply doesn't and I think the possibilities for both actors would have been far greater with her simply watching him sit down and die, rather than all of the slam-bang action that took place in this sequence. It was worthwhile for a few quotes and for hearing the unbridled rage in the scream of Brienne as she slammed away with the rock, but I think the idea of 'less is more' is what has always made that scene memorable for me in the books, above and beyond the fact that it was my all-time favorite character from ASoIaF meeting what was probably the most appropriate end of any of them.

Finally, the escape. I know some people will complain about the lack of interaction between Jaime and Tyrion in this sequence, but I think a lot of that interplay in the books really kind of detracts from what's happening around them. The whole sequence is already anguish enough for Tyrion without piling on and I think the relationship that's been built up in the show between the brothers is even stronger than what Martin wrote, so leaving them on a good note with a heartfelt embrace felt right to me.

As for the rest of it, they got it all spot-on. I was so concerned that they wouldn't follow through with the strangulation bit, but they got it and Peter Dinklage was brilliant in the performance. We miss a little on the details (in the books, he strangles her with the chain of office for the Hand), but since those were absent earlier, it didn't make that much difference. Charles Dance also played Twyin's last actions somewhat differently but, in many ways, I think he played them better. Tywin is a manipulator and being spiteful while sitting in the privy is just no way to make things move better for you (more fiber!) Trying to convince those that you are sure must be weaker than you is usually the way out. Of course, when confronted with someone who has just murdered the woman he loved with his bare hands, your options become few, if not non-existent. That, of course, becomes the road down to the docks in a ventilated crate and a further destination unknown.

Lines of the week:

"Of all the ways I'd kill you, poison would be the last." - And then he offers him the Wildling equivalent of rotgut...

"We're not in the Seven Kingdoms and you're not dressed for this weather." - This is what Michigan people say when any Southern state gets a little snow.

"You should know: the process will change him. Somewhat."
"Will it weaken him?"
"Oh, no!"
"Very well, then." - Cersei and Qyburn, still the molders of men(?)

"I'm not interested in hearing another one of your smug stories about a time you won." - This line was so true about Tywin that I was cracking up.

"They're so small I can't even see them. I only see what matters." - Cersei, taking control.

"They young may rejoice in the new world you have made for them. For those of us too old to change, there is only fear and squalor." - Truth, especially iPhone squalor.

"She loved you."
"She told you?"
"No. All she ever talked about was killing you. That's how I know." - Tormund talks about marriage.

"You can shit later! There's people coming!" - Arya should have told Tywin...

"Go on, Brienne of fucking Tarth! Tell me that's not Lannister gold." - Still my favorite.

"Going it alone... You won't last a day out here."
"I'll last longer than you." - The student finally leaves the master.

And the winner, for Dinklage's masterful performance:

"I am your son. I have always been your son."- In more ways than he ever knew.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

All Wall, all the time

The 9th episode of each season has become notorious for including THE moment of the season. In season 1, it was Ned's execution, letting all the viewers know that no one was immune to Martin's pen. In season 2, it was the Battle of the Blackwater, in what I thought was at least some desire by D&D to make up for the fact that season 1 had been completely bereft of large-scale combat in the midst of a war. In season 3, it was the Red Wedding (Seriously. No one is safe. Fer reals.) The difference in season 4, which was asserted by D&D prior to its beginning, is that we've already had multiple huge moments over the course of the season. It wasn't a case of build up to climax... except in one storyline: the Wall. In that respect, they kind of overdid it in that almost every scene of the North so far was Jon and Co. saying: "The Wildlings are coming!" to the point of fatigue. You can only cry (dire) wolf so much before people start ignoring you and that was what I had largely begun to do, in addition to the fact that the scenes in the North had often been the most standard-fantasy-heroic-adventure stuff, which I can probably live without for the rest of my days.

However, in those prior seasons, that big event, even the Blackwater, has not dominated the entire episode. Tonight was a miniature version of Feast for Crows: We're going to give you these characters and only these. We'll get back to the rest of them some other time. On the one hand, that's irritating, as there's a lot more going on (obviously.) OTOH, I think this battle lived up to the majority of its hype as, for the most part, you could really imagine the magnitude of what was going on but were still given opportunity to focus in on the heroic set pieces, like Alliser Thorne throwing down with Tormund Giantsbane. Furthermore, unlike the Blackwater, this fight saw named characters die left and right in true, GRRM fashion ('cuz, you know, that's what happens in war, strangely enough.)

Of course, GoT being GoT, they stopped in the middle of fire and blood to watch the effects those kind of circumstances have on the human condition. Even though it's half-expected, I really enjoyed John Bradley's depiction of Samwell almost literally growing up before our eyes as he explained to Pyp how to try to live through the night (oops...) and still live up to the vows that they'd taken. Furthermore, I appreciated Owen Teale's acknowledgment of his error as Alliser Thorne while staying within the contemptuous and venomous nature of the character. Being willing to admit one's errors is, in fact, a sign of genuine leadership, as opposed to the tale of woe that he spins about "loudmouthed twats."

But the really impressive part of the episode was how they managed to keep so many moving parts operating at once. This kind of action is a logistical nightmare (as it often is in reality) and when D&D mentioned post-production that doing this season "almost killed us", I'm betting that this was the episode they were thinking of. I was genuinely impressed with the CGI transition from the battle beginning at Castle Black, over the Wall, and to the assembled ranks of Mance's army. But even more spectacular was the terrific crane shot late in the battle, moving from named character to named character enmeshed in their own aspect of the fight. It makes me cringe to think about how many takes they might have needed to get that one right while everyone goes through their battle paces. Kudos to director Neil Marshall (also director for the Blackwater) for pulling that off. I want that guy on every historical war movie I see for the rest of my life.

Sam wasn't the only one coming into his own at a moment of crisis, of course. Edd's command of the Wall late in the battle showed his positive side (kill or be killed, yo) and Grenn's encouraging his brothers to bellow their vows at the oncoming giant was awesome. That kind of unification of spirit is a further reflection of Thorne's actions, as well, so I think the screenplay really found its footing in this extended battle scene, as all of those perspectives were part of what kept the fight interesting (not to mention the excellent solo fights, such as the one between Jon and Styr, which may be the best mano-a-mano fight in the series to date.) But it also calls up an interesting perspective about human nature in these kind of crises.

The conflict at the Wall is one of the cruces of the story. This is the Ice side of the Song because of the Others, but it's also the most pointed question about the societal system in Westeros in the first place: are we people or property? The Wildlings follow the typical hidebound traditions of claim to the land for x number of generations and so on. But their main focus is the desire to live free; to not be obligated to a lord simply because that person is recognized by society as having a higher social station. So although the fight at the Wall is often presented from the perspective of Good/Night's Watch vs. Evil/Wildlings, it can be argued that the Wildlings have the purest motives of all of the various factions of the story: the desire not to rule, but simply to live on their own terms. They can't live as well in the utter North, so it's not as if their motives are (ahem) as white as the driven snow. But more of them would be willing to do so if they weren't being pushed forward by the Others. In that way, they're no different than any of a hundred different migrations in Eurasia. You can see the tribes as evil if you're living on the land they're coming to, but if they're running ahead of an even greater threat, it becomes hard to blame them for doing so. Then, of course, you bring in the Thenns and that bit gets to be a bit harder to argue...

I also don't want to make this into a Cliven Bundy screed, where everything is caused by the evils of government, but it's pretty clear that Martin's intent is to show a certain degree of enlightenment to the aged and corrupt systems that dominate both Essos and Westeros. Whether that enlightenment will take root is one of the driving questions of the story.

Lines of the week:

"We're all gonna die a lot sooner than I planned. You're the closest I'm going to get to knowing." - At this point, Sam does at least get the vows right in that they don't require the Watch to be celibate. They just require them to not get married and/or father children. Of course, if you're of the Puritan disposition, one immaculately follows the other, but that's what happens when people try to deny basic biology in the name of presumed higher callings (see: Catholic church.)

"Right now, I don't wanna think about the bear you never fooked." - Ygritte ruining what was going to be a great story.

"Serve him up a nice thick slice of ginger minge." - Hearing this from Styr expands the meaning into a fairly uncomfortable place...

"Thousands of books and no eyes to read them. Old age is a wonderful source of ironies, if nothing else." Who else thought of this episode of the Twilight Zone?
"Nothing makes the past as sweet a thing to visit as the prospect of imminent death." - Peter Vaughan's performance as Maester Aemon tonight was fantastic.

"Promise me you won't die." - The world's most broken promise by every soldier who's never come home.

"When you're nothing at all, there's no more reason to be afraid." - A somewhat more nihilist approach by Sam.

"You know nothing... Jon... Snow." - Once again, they got the quote right. I think the outrage if they hadn't would have been far in excess of that over Littlefinger's misquote.

And the winner:

"I should have thrown you from the top of the Wall, boy!"
"Aye. You should've." - Jon Snow with the most realistic response to the vows and promises that war has made him break to everyone around him.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

(Computer) Science fiction

I'm already watching too much TV on Sundays (and probably watching too much, generally) so I didn't bother to tune in to HBO's Silicon Valley for its initial season. By the same token, I may not bother with AMC's Halt and Catch Fire, even though the premise is far more interesting. Having watched the first two episodes of the former and the first episode of the latter in the last 24 hours (See? Too much TV), it was interesting to contrast the two, since they're approaching the topic from very different perspectives and eras.

Silicon Valley is done in the style of Veep, in that it's a half hour comedy of absurd people in absurd situations about the modern software industry and its race to be the "next big thing." It's a creation of Mike Judge and, admittedly, I am a Judge fan. I think Office Space is still one of the best comedies ever made and I appreciated his work on both Beavis & Butthead and King of the Hill, although I was not a hardcore fan (i.e. have seen every episode) of either. While I did have a couple laugh-out-loud moments while watching SV, there were only a couple. The rest of the time I was actively conscious of myself sitting there not laughing and occasionally wondering why I was bothering.

Drawing a direct comparison with Office Space, if your main character (Richard) is a simp instead of an everyman and his immediate supporting cast is a collection of people who are various shades of annoying/space-filling/repellent, it's going to be hard to sell your story, since people won't identify with the characters as easily. Furthermore, if the cast is some combination of those shades and you can only draw a couple real laughs an episode, it's going to be very hard. It doesn't help that almost all of the characters are stock "computer geeks" from central casting: Richard looks like he's going to go into conniptions everytime someone acknowledges his presence; Erlich is bombastic guy who pretends to know it all when he really just got lucky; Dinesh is token Indian guy who's probably smarter than all the rest of them combined, and so on.

There's a certain vein of humor there that has a lot to do with personal experience. Office Space was broadly appealing because it was both smartly written and many people could relate to its soul-deadening experience. Veep is not in everyone's wheelhouse because it's a particular style of humor (generally, the kind that often makes you uncomfortable for one or more characters) and it will have more resonance for those that actually have experience in the workings of American politics. I have that so I find it hysterically funny (especially because I've known people who worked on the Hill who are more like the characters from the show than they'd be willing to admit.) By the same token, Silicon Valley is trying to mine the "super-rich programmers completely out of touch with humanity" angle, which most of us recognize, but may not have personal experience with. The problem I'm having is that, unlike Veep (or Office Space), none of the characters are distinctive enough nor the actors talented enough to get past that "needed to be there" shell.

Halt and Catch Fire, OTOH, has more hooks to it if you're actually interested in story. It's set in the days when PCs and the computer revolution were just taking off, so there's more energy to the premise than the intentionally dreary SV, where everyone is just trying to tweak something that someone has already done... which is the central complaint of HaCF whose characters strive to be "different" than the omnipresent IBM (this is sounding like Steve Jobs' wet dream from that era.) The problem is that few people of that era (yes, I remember it) were concerned so much with being 'different' or 'new' or 'innovative' as they were with just being competitive. It seems like HaCF is just transposing today's modern sensibility about software development to yesterday's concerns about hardware development. Yes, that will sell your story as your primary audience will identify with it, but it's also a bit trite.

Thankfully, the cast seems to be a bit more skilled than SV, but their characters are similarly stereotypical: Joe is Ambitious Salesman who talks to everyone as if he's quoting the Pauline epistles while showing them the REAL way to do things; Gordon is Unappreciated Genius with wife, Donna, who is least appreciative because genius detracts from family somehow; Cameron is Gender-Neutrally Named Woman Who Does 'It' Better Than Any Of The Men ('It' being the central conceit of the drama.) I mean, sure, I found it more interesting to watch, even if my initial thought about seeing Joe and Gordon playing their roles was: "How did they manage to split Walter White into two different people?" But it's really hard to get past the initial bombast of the writing coming from such stock characters. I have a certain greater level of appreciation for it at the moment because I was there when this was going on (albeit too young to be anything other than an interested user/observer) and because there's an enormous level of detail in it (BYTE magazine, Cameron listening to The Vandals, etc.) But I have my doubts that those things will be enough to get away from what seems to be a very conventional story (in direct contrast to the premise of the show); so conventional, in fact, that they felt the need to include a stick-in-the-mud character like Donna and then immediately 'solve' her issue to avoid the so-called "Skyler White problem." Even with that bit of forethought, that whole scenario was so boilerplate that I was recoiling from the screen.

And then I turned off the DVR and the TV was showing a better computer show/movie than either of them... So, I don't know. Given some encouragement, I might go back and watch another couple episodes of Silicon Valley to see if I "get it" and I'll probably watch the 2nd episode of Halt to see if it goes somewhere (my entry level for AMC dramas these days remains a guy in a gas mask and his tighty-whities driving an RV at high speed with two corpses in the back), but I don't have a lot of faith at the moment.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Close the deal

There comes a time in every story, every encounter, almost every point of life where you have to close the deal. When it's lying there in front of you, finish it. When the goal is within reach, finish it. When the focus of your life for however many years is there, finish it. As we all now know, Oberyn Martell, the Red Viper, didn't close the deal. Hesitation will get you nowhere.

But, of course, in many stories, the deal was never meant to be closed. This was one of them. Martin has stated many times that certain characters were slated for death: Ned Stark and Robb Stark are just the two most notable examples for most fans of the Song of Ice and Fire. But Oberyn Martell was one of those, too. There's an old expression: "If you seek vengeance, you had best dig two graves." It was evident from the moment he was introduced that Martell was a singly-focused character, both in personality and in the writer's intent. Here was a person meant to take the story to a precipice... and then fall over it. Nothing about him would change, because changing would defeat the purpose of his existence, both in the mechanical and existential senses.

On the other hand, the rest of the episode was filled with examples of characters who did close the deal, to one degree or another, and in doing so changed in a variety of ways. That's what made up the genuine fascination for me in what was otherwise a very slow pace (in addition to the fact that I know what's happening.) You get to see the wonder of Ramsay as his father transforms his life; the anguish and fury of Daenerys as the ground leaves her feet; and the brilliant awakening of Sansa as she finally begins to take control of her own destiny.

That trend begins in the smallest of ways, with Grey Worm and Missandei bathing in the river. D&D are spending a lot of time on this relationship that doesn't exist in the books. At one point, I felt like it was too much, as there's still so much occurring in other corners that could use the screen time. However, as they progressed through their two moments, one clothed and one non-, it occurred to me that this was another example of the showrunners extending their own writing chops into Martin's story but in the same vein as him. Here were two people thrown together by circumstances beyond their control who'd had essentially no control over their own lives almost from birth and still mostly didn't, as they breathed at the behest of a queen (fortunately, one who cares for them on a personal level.) But when given the opportunity to create something between themselves that can't be controlled by others, they took it. All of that complexity (the handmaiden of a queen communing with the eunuch chief of her devoted warrior corps) was summed up in the simplest expression of honesty: "I'm glad you saw me." "So am I." Honesty being a rare bird in this world makes that all the more endearing and worth the screen time expended. (And, as a straight male aside here, I have to say that when Nathalie Emmanuel stood out of the water... uh... wow. I mean... yeah... Wow! Not surprised to see even a eunuch gawk there...)

Continuing in the East, the showdown between Jorah and Daenerys, while long in coming, was extremely well-played. Jorah is an interesting character in that, while suffering the continued frustration and humiliation of the woman he loves shacking up with a mercenary captain, he feels that his expression of devotion, above and beyond his earlier betrayal, should place him in a favored spot. That is, of course, not how it works, as betrayal is never forgotten and devotion and affection frequently are. Jorah, if he'd been wise to the nature of the deal, should have taken his pardon back in the day and fled Essos back to the Mormont lands. Instead, he fell in love with his target and tried to close another deal that was forever denied him. He just didn't know it at the time. There's a certain level of pathos to the Jorah character that Iain Glen continues to excel with, even under the guise of his usual restraint. Speaking of which, Emilia Clarke was excellent in this scene, as her mask of barely controlled rage could have tipped over the edge into scenery chewing (think Al Pacino at any point in the last 20 years), but she held it perfectly.

Ramsay, on the other hand, knows what's good for him and makes sure that all the loose pieces of flesh are cut away in proper order. This whole sequence was interesting, not least because, in the books, we never get to see Moat Cailin. It's constantly referred to but no point of view ever travels there. So, seeing it in the opening sequence was cool, but getting to see the fortress itself and the bogs it caps as the gateway to the North was even better. Ramsay knows how to play the game for solely his own benefit. That benefit extends from the good graces of his father, Roose, who proceeds to transform Ramsay's life by making him no longer a bastard. He is now the heir to the Dreadfort and the Warden of the North, which means that his schemes are no longer dismissed as the errant ways of a baseborn sociopath, but now proper noble conduct. It has to be said that Alfie Allen continues to do brilliant work as the sorely conflicted Reek/Theon. Just the moment where he was about to break down in front of the challenge of the garrison commander spelled out exactly how real his identity as Reek has become. On the one hand, he could have broken the chains and taken command of the garrison to resist the Bolton army, which likely wouldn't have been able to take the fortress. On the other hand, seeing how badly it was going for the Ironborn in the midst of a swamp, he knew that Ramsay would have him eventually, so he made sure to finish his mission as Reek.

But the best moment in that respect, by far, was done not once, but twice, by Sansa. Again, Sansa is one of those characters that people seem to either love or hate. I detested her for the first couple books and I continue to think that was Martin's intention. But I think it may have been a bit of a mistake on my part, too, since Sansa's reactions to everything have always been quite human. People quail in the face of danger and often have outside expectations about what their world should be like. They often learn otherwise about those expectations and become defeated and cynical, but few of them are able to pivot and begin to not only draw strength from those experiences, but also take control of their circumstances and begin to use them to their advantage. Sansa has become one of them. This is not Arya, who has learned to coast above trouble and seize opportunity where she can. This is Sansa, who has now learned the game at the feet of a master and is about to begin playing as her own piece on the board, rather than simply a pawn. Her gaze over the shoulder of Anya Waynwood at Petyr was transfixing, as she knew that she had surprised him with her invented story (have to say that Aidan Gillen was masterful here, keeping the straight face, but with his eyes showing just a bit of wonder at the skill with which she was playing it.) The fact that this scene played out differently from the books actually made it better, as there Littlefinger escapes on a technicality of protocol. Later, Sansa's clipped responses to his threatening questions lead us to begin questioning just who was in charge of whom here. And, of course, the descent of the stair as Catelyn the Second was great. Right now, the first among equals as far as acting goes this season is Sophie Turner, without question. She's been magnificent.

Oh, yes. The fight. Well, knowing a bit about how to wield a staff/spear, I have to commend the fight choreographers. They showed Oberyn wielding it properly: using the danger of the spearhead to keep distance with your opponent, stepping inside their strikes and then turning to trap the sword with the staff, keeping the shaft moving to not try to take a direct hit from the sword which would destroy it, etc. I enjoyed it, even if screen Oberyn seemed somewhat more vulnerable than book Oberyn did. And they got the lines right! There was much dismay last episode that Petyr had used the line "Your sister." when pushing batshit-crazy Lysa through the Moon Door instead of the line from the book "Only Cat." I had forgotten about that line (it's been a while), but I will never forget the exchange between Ellaria and Oberyn upon her first sight of the Mountain: "You're going to fight that?!" "I am going to kill that." It was delivered just as it should have been, as has been every line that Pedro Pascal has uttered as Oberyn. I'm really going to miss his presence, even though I knew it was temporary. He was excellent. Deal closed.

Side notes:

I liked the depiction of the assault on Mole's Town, not only for its demonstration of Ygritte hellbent on revenge, but also her continuing humanity when she notices Gilly. That's a complex character. I was a little disappointed for the first time in the music for that scene. I guess I expected something a bit more urgent than the heavy bass line.

It's still interesting to see the little details that D&D maintain to demonstrate Dany's departure from the typical noble/royal attitudes. Here's the queen of the biggest city-state on Slavers' Bay taking time out to fix the hair of her handmaiden. It's a role reversal intended to convey humanity and I think it continues to work well with the very emotive Emilia Clarke.

I was confused by the long shot of the Bolton army returning to the Dreadfort. Obviously, Ramsay had returned some distance from the Moat to meet Roose in the field, but why bother showing us the grand return? A couple seconds would have sufficed, if it was necessary at all.

We only got a couple minutes with the Odd Couple, but it was still worth some good lines and Arya's almost-hysterical laughter had me cracking up as soon as she started. There was no better depiction of the frustration and cynicism that has already overtaken this young girl. To come as far as she has and find that Death has beaten her there (today...) once again was a really good moment.

And even though it seemed to be a departure from the overall theme of the episode, the extended conversation of the Kingslayer Brothers was, once again, one of the best scenes. Tyrion's long discursion into the meaning of life seen in the activities of a mentally-handicapped cousin and the obvious resonance with Jaime, as he recognized how all of them were the beetles in most of the events surrounding them, was really well done.

The only thing I really missed about the whole fight sequence was seeing the dismay of Cersei and Tywin when Oberyn declared his intent (in the book, it happens in the throne room.) Their frustration at Tyrion having gotten the better of them and the realization that the next-in-line to the throne of Dorne may die while they're trying to bring House Martell back into the fold (Tywin because obviously and Cersei because they have Myrcella) was a powerful moment in the book.

This week's band name: The Pillar and the Stones.

Lines of the week:

"She surived Caster and he was the worst shit I've ever met." and "Whoever dies last, be a good lad and burn the rest of us." - Dolorous Edd, pragmatist.

"Traditions are important!" says the man carrying the banner of the Flayed Man.

"You betrayed me! From the first!" - Daenerys with the second tagline of the series.

"I wanted to see the look in his eyes when he knew it was over." "Yeah. Nothing beats that look." - Two killers, talking shop.

"Family. Honor. All that horseshit." - The Hound never changes.

The Kingslayer Brothers:

"Oberyn believes in himself."
"That's putting it mildly."

"There's no kind of killing that doesn't have its own word."
"Cousins! You're right. Well done."

"On the contrary, laughing at another person's misery is the only thing that made me feel like everyone else."

But still the best:
"You're going to fight that?!"
"I am going to kill that."

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Taglines and their emotion

One of the qualities of superior drama is genuine emotion. While it's very easy to write stories that are emotional, it's not so easy to generate the kind of emotion that becomes palpable to the audience and allows them to understand why rational people do very irrational things or why they may choose to act out a decades-long effort for a goal that they know they will never reach or why they make an effort at another goal that has nothing to do with what their life to this point seems to indicate.

All of these situations were present in this episode and it was, by far, the best-acted of the season. There were no truly transformative events but there were multiple moments when that genuine emotion conveyed more than multiple deaths or breasts ever could have.

Among the best, as always, were Westeros' favorite odd couple, who aren't nearly as odd a match any longer. Where the Hound said: "Could be food.", Arya replied: "Could be soldiers." They're on the same level now, which is what made the later scene around the campfire such an interesting one. Sandor has been teaching Arya some life lessons, but he really hasn't come close to revealing himself to her. The campfire scene changed all of that and it allowed both of them to display some of the humanity buried beneath their cold exteriors, especially since it followed on the most brutally cold display by Arya yet seen. Her execution of Rorge was kinda brilliant and my second-favorite moment of the episode. Interestingly, Clegane's speech about his brother in the books was given to Sansa in Kings' Landing where Martin displayed the quite human and vulnerable side of the imposing warrior to the only human Clegane knew was guileless enough to almost trust. It's a very different dynamic here, where he's learned to trust Arya as a boon companion (and stone cold killer) but used to the same effect in presenting the greatest cynic in Westeros as a somewhat tortured soul. That contrast is later mirrored by the second-greatest cynic, Tyrion, in my favorite moment.

Likewise, the cold, calculating Petyr Baelish finally really exposes himself to Sansa and shows what has driven him for most of his life, in which he's also set this entire recent set of events in motion, always shifting pieces and playing the game to prove himself worthy of the attention of a woman who never loved him and never would have. Littlefinger is far too intelligent to think otherwise, but that's where rational thought gets clouded by emotion. Everything he's done has, in the long term, been for the attention of Catelyn Stark, who disdained him as too small and not propertied enough to be the mate of the eldest daughter of House Tully. In that way, he was the perfect match for batshit-crazy Lysa, who was also driven by being overlooked in favor of her more attractive and socially viable sister. Even now, with Catelyn dead, Littlefinger continues his pursuits in the name of her eldest daughter, bringing himself as close as possible to his lifelong goal, even if only as a proxy. One scene that neither GRRM or the show explored was seeing Baelish's reaction to the news of the Red Wedding. Despite all of the peripheral benefits of the wheels he set in motion (lord of Harrenhal, lord of the Eyrie, etc.), to get the shattering news that the person to whom he'd devoted his life was now firmly beyond his grasp must have been overwhelming. But this is Littlefinger and when you're that driven you just shift gears to the nearest available substitute, as we see here. Dropping one of those substitutes out the Moon Door is just a way to give some degree of satisfaction to both Littlefinger and the audience.

That said, I have to say again that Sophie Turner has become one of the best performers in the series, which is setting the bar very high indeed. Her ability to convey any number of emotions with very brief looks or reactions is truly impressive. The small delight of seeing snow for the first time since Winterfell and the memories it obviously created was great. The wheels turning as she utilized her new-found sense of suspicion about Baelish's motives and then still fell into his embrace was even better.

The interesting thing about displaying those intense emotions is that it has to be done well or it falls over into melodrama. The rhythm of the author will often allow the reader to make their personal judgments about this or that character. I think Littlefinger is a more sympathetic character in the show because you can see Aidan Gillen's face writhe under developments and the burning desire in his eyes to finish what he started as a child. In that same manner, the Essos Triangle strikes me as a more engrossing situation than in the books because you can actively see the torture on Jorah's face and the blatant desire on Dany's (Michael Huisman has not quite sold me as Daario yet.) Emilia Clarke has never looked more desirable than when issuing the royal command: "Take off your clothes." But just minutes later, we get to see her exercise the (other) muscle of the queen when dictating to Jorah exactly what she's going to do to those who've defied her. We've been waiting for her line "They can live in my new world or die in their old one." for seven episodes and it was delivered at the end of a philosophical sparring match that was driven by emotion and the lust for vengeance but tempered by wisdom and Jorah's desire to see the woman he loves not descend into the tyrannical nature of rulers he's seen before. She started this with the idea of justice and he's keeping her tempered to the genuine embodiment of that concept even as he writhes under the knowledge that she's giving herself to the sellsword. The "Tell  him that you changed my mind." line was a very nice touch and the panoply of emotions that fired across his face tell you all that you need to know about writing and presenting complex humans.

But the crown prince of this episode remains The Imp. There was a great outpouring of praise for Peter Dinklage during the last episode when he turned on the crowd in the throne room. While I enjoyed it, I have a hard time associating Dinklage or Tyrion with emotions that are that direct. His roles have often been tragic and complex (see The Station Agent for a wonderful example of that) and watching him hurl contempt, even at targets that deserved it, was a distinct step away from the character that had always landed far more devastating blows with remarkable subtlety. This episode gave him three shining moments to do just that.

The first was with Jaime, as the two of them spar over the wisdom of his outburst at the trial and Tyrion gets in one last stab at his incestuous but favored siblings which draws a look of malice from Nikolai Coster-Waldau that was chilling and a line that was prophetic: "Careful. I'm the last friend you've got." When they finally get to the root of the matter, whether Jaime will stand for him in the way that Tyrion had hoped he would at the Eyrie, we see the depths to which their relationship goes. Jaime knows that he's physically incapable of fighting the Mountain. He knows that standing for Tyrion, even if he somehow wins, will permanently sever the relationship with Cersei that he's endured quite a bit to try to restore. They revel in the idea of finally truly screwing up daddy's master plan if Jaime does die... but then you see that when confronted with the genuine possibility of death that their relationship has reached its limit. It's not just that Jaime would be throwing his life away for nothing and Tyrion would still die. It's that Jaime still wants to live, which is a perfectly understandable desire. So they sit and rue the circumstances.

And then we come to Bronn. Their relationship has always been one of convenience: the mercenary sellsword and the wealthy lord. But it's obviously developed well beyond that, as loathe as they both are to admit it. Just like Jaime, Bronn is taking the rational angle: killing the Mountain and getting more gold is nothing compared to becoming a landed lord, even if Tyrion could potentially make him a more landed lord at some point in the future. They both know that he's playing with dead cards in that respect and, as much as he'd like to have his savior back on his side, Tyrion can't possibly begrudge him taking the path that 1 sellsword in 10 million would ever have access to; in addition to not getting annihilated by the Mountain. Tyrion has been buying friends for a long time because he's a Lannister, but he's found that he can't depend on blood or money in his current situation, which is when the despair really sets in.

But the best moment is, of course, the final scene with Oberyn. This is where Dinklage truly excels. This is where the raw emotion of rejection and the horrible loneliness that has haunted Tyrion's entire life becomes expressed in brief moments as the tears well in his eyes. The only member of his family to ever care for him has turned him down. The only real friend he's had, even via business, has turned him down. The woman he loves has betrayed him. And along comes the enigmatic heir to House Martell, who proceeds to spell out exactly why Tyrion has faced that rejection and why it was so unfathomable to the Dornish who take a very different perspective on the weakest among them and those who don't fit the social order of the Andals.

Again, we've waited some time for the tagline: "If you came here for justice, you came to the wrong place." and Dinklage delivers it to the person who has been focused on precisely that since he first appeared in episode 1 this season. It is the converse of the lesson on justice that Jorah delivered earlier to Daenerys: killing only begets more killing. In that respect, it remains an irrational act. But Oberyn isn't acting rationally for the sake of the world to come. He's acting for the past and the only way to quiet the demons in his breast in the same way that Littlefinger pursues his goal with the object of his desire already out of reach. Nothing will bring back Elia and her children. But Oberyn will make this stand, regardless, and he will do so on behalf of a man that society has wronged since the day he was born.

Side notes:

We have our third casting of the Mountain in 4 seasons. I wondered a bit why they chose to take the camera angle that they did when Cersei met with him. That usually done to create perspective to hide something. Is it because he's not quite as tall as the others? I'm hoping the fight to come isn't mostly camera work.

The scene at the Wall was completely superfluous. Yes, Jon still bridles under the control of Alliser Thorne. Yes, we're still waiting for Mance to arrive. Yawn. At this point, either get on with it or just leave it out.

Likewise, the scene with Melisandre and Selyse accomplished exactly nothing other than getting another look at Carice van Houten's body and wondering why Selyse was so fascinated by it. It's a concept not even hinted at in the books. Selyse Florent is frigid toward Stannis because of whom she is, not because she gets her inner fire lit by the priestess.

OTOH, the Hot Pie cameo that allowed Brienne and Pod to firmly get on the track of at least one of the Stark girls was well done. Brienne's quest was always a bit of a fool's errand, since the prospect of finding either Arya or Sansa was extremely remote. Finding a source of information on that quest was more deftly accomplished than the somewhat drawn out method that occurs in the books. Plus you get a bit more interplay between Brienne and Pod as they begin to learn each others' limits.

Lines of the week:

"I thought you were a realist. I didn't realize you'd die for pride." - Not quite the angle that was taken, but emotion gets to you sometimes.

"You give me. I give you. Fair. A balance. No balance anymore." - If only it could be that simple.

"If I wanted wits, I'd marry you."
"I like you, pompous little shit that you are. I just like myself better."
"Because you're an evil bastard with no conscience and no heart? That's why I liked you in the first place." - Bronn and Tyrion, ladies and gentlemen. Truth in comedy.

We interrupt these lines for a last look at batshit-crazy Lysa

"The slaves you free... brutality is all they've ever known. If you want them to know something else, you have to show them." - Jorah's wisest line to date.

Almost every line of Oberyn and Tyrion's scene could be included here, but the best among them:

"I've got every kind of filth down here except the kind I like."
"Making honest feelings do dishonest work is one of her many gifts."
"It is rare to meet a Lannister who shares my enthusiasm for dead Lannisters."
"Horns, a tail, the privates of both a girl and a boy..." "That would have made things so much easier."

"A lot can happen between now and never." - No greater encapsulation of the life of Petyr Baelish.

"I've only loved one woman my entire life... your sister." - Great, even if entirely predictable.

And the winner:

"What's your name?"
"Thank you."
"You're learning." - Completely emotionless and excellent.