Monday, June 20, 2016

What Has Gone Before kept going

Hm? Wha-? Was I supposed to be awake there?
I'm a "book reader" when it comes to Game of Thrones, as opposed to a "show watcher", which means that I read the novels before the show began; since 1996, in fact. So the vast majority of what occurred in the seasons leading up to the current one (season 6) was replay for me: I knew what was going to happen but it was enjoyable simply to see it played out onscreen and by an excellent cast. Sometimes it really is cooler to see dragons than it is to imagine them. In a similar vein, I read the entire run of Preacher, month by month, in the 90s, so you'd think that I'd have a similar reaction to the TV show. I'd be able to anticipate what was coming and be excited, even if I knew how it would turn out.

But four episodes into the first season, I don't really have much to look forward to because we're really not getting anywhere. We've seen mildly weird stuff, but nothing anywhere near the extremes that the comic series approached. We've seen a little bit of character development, but nothing that makes any of the characters particularly gripping. Meanwhile, most of the cast is still kind of running in place and the story is stuck with them.

Hey. Hey! You're not paying attention.
On the positive side, we have Jesse deciding that he's going to use The Voice for something positive: getting people to serve God. Specifically, he's getting Odin Quincannon, local industrial and real estate overlord, to do so. But that means... what? The most we've seen of Quincannon so far is that he likes snuff films, is willing to pay people so that he can bulldoze their houses, and gives rather short and direct eulogies for people that die on his land. None of that adds up to anything particularly dramatic when he suddenly finds a reason to listen to the song of the Lord. It's not the equivalent of Cersei suddenly giving away all of her money to the poor of Kings' Landing and becoming a Silent Sister, simply because we don't know enough about Quincannon for it to have that kind of impact.

Similarly. the funeral of Lacey shows Tulip getting pissed about how casually both her demise and the consequent corpse are treated. Great. Tulip can get angry. But we've known that since episode one when she killed two guys in a speeding car over some meth. Tulip is supposed to be a major character in this story, but her participation in this episode was a couple minutes of indignant rage about everyone else's passivity. Shouldn't there have been something else there? The entire episode seemed to be character setup that was already established. It's like the background that editors tell you not to include when you're making a pitch for a fantasy novel: if the exciting stuff is in the past, then why do we care about your story now?

I know there was an interesting story in here somewhere.
Likewise, Cassidy continues the role of clown and occasional scheming addict, but that turned out to be OK. At least he's contributing something by running a con on the angels (Yes. They're not bounty hunters. We'll just call them angels since they've at least revealed that they come from the land in the clouds.), which are the two characters that actually most moved the overall (and current!) series plot forward this time, since they've come close to admitting just what it is they're pursuing and why it seems to require Jesse's vivisection. If there's any reason that a casual observer just coming across the show would stay and watch, it's the comedy of errors that is that trio while Cassidy attempts to score with their cash, and the fact that they retain some degree of mystery while they ineptly attempt to be mysterious.

Y'all are idiots for abandoning God. And sitting here this long.
But all of this surrounds the central plot of the episode, which is Jesse trying to be a man of God and fill the church by holding a raffle. Once again, we seem to have a writing team that wants to play in a Tales from the Crypt-esque world but doesn't quite know how to pull it off while still saying something "profound" about Jesse's motivations. The flashbacks to his childhood, his father's expectations, the incredibly restrained whipping, and Jesse's general disenchantment with religious life are obvious attempts to display the experiences (what has gone before...) that would make Jesse the kind of metronome of morality that he seems to be (hardcore crook to minister who still isn't above beating the shit out of people in bars and manipulating the emotions of his assistant for a big screen TV.) But none of that made for particularly gripping television, either, as it seemed to stumble away from the weird stuff while trying to say something larger. This is, in truth, the problem that I eventually had with the comic series, but Garth Ennis was a hell of a lot better at it. I stayed with that for 66 issues and over five years. I may not last three months with the show unless they can give me a better reason to pay attention than watching Cassidy toy with the minions of Heaven.

A little bit of the old ultraviolence

For most of the series, the 9th episode has been the big battle scene of one kind or another, whether it was a domestic dispute or something more explosive. "The Battle of the Bastards" was no different in that respect, but it was still somewhat different in that much of it was taken up by a depiction of the brutality of warfare, rather than genuinely heroic or shocking or even interesting events. In truth, I actually found the earlier battle in the harbor of Meereen to be much more interesting, since it was the first extended action we've seen of the dragons as a group since the famous "Dracarys" scene and the first we've seen of them, collectively, in their adult forms. That's not to say that the battle in the North was done poorly but I've mentioned before how tired I've grown of the close-up angle that gives audiences the "real-time" experience, but also often leaves them asking what happened instead of remarking on what did happen. There was plenty of that tonight.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all about the depiction of battle in as messy and chaotic a form as it often is. To quote a noted Confederate general: "It is a good thing that war is so terrible. Otherwise, we should grow too fond of it." The modern film that is most noted for introducing the concept that war is, indeed, hell (to paraphrase one of the aforementioned's Union counterparts) is Braveheart and the main battle of this episode borrowed heavily from the (woefully inaccurate) Battle of Stirling Bridge and (almost equally so) Battle of Falkirk in said film. We have the infantry charge, the cavalry response, the indiscriminate arrow volleys into the combined forces, and even the attempt to pursue the fleeing commander from the field. I don't know that Martin has this scene planned in the same way (or if it's even planned), but it seemed fairly obvious that D&D were at least drawing inspiration from the way the battles in Braveheart had been staged. And, given that so much of the episode was taken up by said fight, there's not much of a theme to follow other than the title I've given this review.

Interestingly, though, if you'll indulge the historical geek for a moment. I jotted down a note when Jon mentions in the planning tent that Ramsay has to fight because otherwise the houses of the North would lose faith in him. That note was: "This is Rome and Carthage." Hannibal's campaign in the Second Punic War was meant to draw the other cities on the Italian peninsula away from Rome in the same manner, by beating them in the field when Rome felt their clients might waver. As soon as I typed that, Jon began talking about avoiding a "double envelopment", which is exactly how Hannibal won the Battle of Cannae, the most significant defeat for the Romans in that war (and which led to them waiting to train an entirely new generation of legionaries before they took the field in standard formation again, fighting a pseudo-guerrilla campaign all the while. You think Westerosi are dedicated to war? You have no idea.) But as a contrast, the Boltons actually engaged in hoplite tactics (shield wall crushing the opponent back with long spears (sarissa)) when they encircled Jon's forces, rather than the more flexible approach of Roman legionary tactics. Here endeth the geek lesson.

Why am I going on about all of this history? Because it represented the most interesting part of a long sequence that probably could have been wrapped up a bit sooner except that, again, this was episode 9 and, thus, required the big fight. But, again, I'd have been a lot happier with more of the big lizards doing the Greek fire thing (Byzantines; more history, sorry) to a bunch of ships loaded with pitch than watching the "chaos of battle" bit on the northern heath because I felt like I'd seen it before. Yes, this was a culmination of several storylines (including Rickon's basically absent story) and accompanying impact was necessary, but I guess I was expecting a bit more. Or perhaps a bit less repeating of history, cinematic and otherwise. All of that said, there was some decent drama in the scene where Jon was being buried alive by other corpses. That drama was defused by the fact that there's no way they'd kill Jon again at this point so, in the end, it was just a matter of getting to the conclusion.

The fact that that conclusion was entirely bittersweet is just exemplary of what life is like for the Starks. They reclaimed the ancestral home, but lost the last direct male heir (Bran is not coming back, folks.) They crushed the Boltons and finally ended the menace that was Ramsay, but they had to get back in the debt of Littlefinger to do it. Life is full of tough choices and this was just the most prominent series of them. On the other hand, Daenerys didn't have to struggle too much with her choices, since it gained her a fleet, expanded her forces (I've heard the Ironborn are pretty good fighters...), and maybe even got her a date with the next Seastone queen. Life is good. She also needed Tirion to talk her out of a plan of depredation that was every bit as destructive as anything Ramsay Bolton might ever have done, so there's no telling what the urge for vengeance might do to anyone; even the most ethical of tyrants.

In that respect, you can see some of what Davos was talking about in his discussion with Tormund: this is still the game of thrones. The small people like a former smuggler and a Wildling leader are just caught up in it, usually to their detriment, if not death. Watching Sansa walk away with a little smile as Ramsay was torn to shreds by his own dogs is exemplary of that urge for vengeance. It's also potentially a warning that even the most innocent and ethical person among all those involved in the game might be pushed far enough to commit an act of savagery; exchanging one tyrant for a potential other, as it were. In the end, everyone is subject to the old ultraviolence whether they're going to get something good out of it or not.

Side notes:

From a technical standpoint, I thought there were a couple hiccups. As noted, the "up close and personal" battle stuff has become tiresome. I much preferred last season's episode 9 fight where it was still done in "real time", but also showed the whole battle so the audience could follow events as they went along. Similarly, the contrast between the dragons burning the fleet and the negotiation scene in Meereen was pretty stark. It felt very much like those sequences were kind of spliced together, as I didn't get a feel for any connection between the two completely disparate scenes. I'm not sure if the cuts from the action over the bay to the hill above were too abrupt or what exactly struck me as odd, but it was the most prominent scene I can recall of the actors looking very much like they were standing in front of a greenscreen, rather than part of the setting.

I kept waiting throughout the battle for the Smalljon to turn on Ramsay. As a book reader, knowing the contempt that House Umber holds for House Bolton makes it difficult to swallow that alliance. The Karstarks are understandable, but the Umbers aren't. Show watchers have no such hang-up, so the whole Rickon sequence this season probably played better to them. In the end, it was obvious that Sansa's letter to Littlefinger from a couple episodes ago was going to be the key moment in the battle, but part of me continued to say "Really?" as the Smalljon urged his men forward.

I continue to be impressed with Carice van Houten's portrayal of the lapsed Red Priestess, Melisandre. Despite her obvious cynicism, she's so programmed with the dogma that she persists in citing the will of the Lord of Light even as she disdains his unknowable nature and motivation. ("What kind of god would do that?" "This one.") Any religious leader will tell you that it's natural to doubt, but her attitude goes beyond that right now. Continuing to believe in Jon as the latest "one who was promised" seems to be her clinging to something to keep her moving forward, rather than being sure that she is bringing the Red God's prophecy to fruition. That's good character stuff.

Likewise, Sansa and Jon arguing over the truth ("We have to do this!" "We're not capable of doing this!") is like any diplomatic planning room I've ever seen. You acknowledge what you can and can't do and then you move on with what you want to do. Jon paraphrasing Donald Rumsfeld for the second episode in a row ("You fight with the army you have!") continued to be funny.

On a diplomatic/political note, D&D have introduced something that GRRM won't have to face: a second cultural transformation for Dany. She's already instituted one in Slavers' Bay and reinforced it by slaughtering the forces that Astapor and Yunkai sent against her. But now her alliance with the Greyjoys rests on the idea of the Ironborn giving up their Viking ways and becoming... what? Merchants? Farmers? Fishermen? That's a bit like declaring Jim Crow illegal and expecting the culture to change overnight. The Vikings eventually changed because they became landed gentry in other lands and the increased trade meant that raiding other places (and better defended places) was no longer so enticing or necessary. Telling everyone on the Islands that they now serve the Dragon Queen and she's declared that everything has to change and right now is more than a bit unrealistic. That's not to say that aiming high isn't something that Dany has done before, but doing it again? Eh.

Finally, at some point you have to imagine that Jon will stop doing everything his id tells him to, right? I mean, even after Sansa warns him repeatedly about Ramsay's head games, Jon dives right in and leads his army to the slaughter. This is the guy that's Lord Commander of the Night's Watch and a potential heir to Winterfell (and other... things...) and yet, if you piss him off, you can get him to dance on a string better than any marionette ever made. I really think they've overplayed that for the last time, especially since it almost killed him for the second time in his life. Putting the mechanical rabbit in front of the greyhound is only interesting the first couple times you do it.

Also, what's with the conquistador helmets on the Boltons? Intentional historical allegory or just something that they thought worked visually? I found them to be jarring.

Lines of the week:

"Despite appearances, I think you'll find the city's on the rise."
This is like public pronouncements of how good the economy is doing because some rich guy made a killing on derivatives.

"Will your men want to fight for you when they hear you wouldn't fight for them?"
That was the one moment when you thought Jon might be able to bait Ramsay and another reason that the Umbers continuing to follow the latter seems unlikely.

"Maybe that was our mistake: believin' in kings."
Davos, the Onion Knight, continuing to speak the truth.

 "I have some goat's milk. Stronger than any of that grape water you southern twats like."
Tormund doing the same.

"If the lord didn't want me to bring you back, how did I bring you back?"
Religious tautologies always work when they're serving the purpose of whomever is speaking them.

"I've done other things just as bad. Or worse."
"And he paid for them."
"Doesn't seem like it. He's still alive."
Even Tirion has limits that encourage him toward the ultraviolence.

"They're loyal beasts."
"They were. Now they're starving."
Funny how that works.

And the winner:

"He'd like to give you his big cock. You won't get one without the other."
"And I imagine your offer is free of demands."
"I never demand, but I'm up for anything, really."
Asha inviting the queen to bed is the biggest display of balls this season.

Monday, June 13, 2016

So, now we're arcing toward annoying

I've run into a few people over the years who felt that Breaking Bad started slowly. My typical response has been: "Are you kidding me? It opens with a guy in a gas mask and his tighty-whities, driving an RV at high speed across the New Mexico desert, with two corpses sliding around in the back. How can you open much faster than that?" But what they're usually referring to is the few episodes after that where we find out about Walt's dead end career as a chemistry teacher and his cancer and his somewhat shrewish wife and all the other dolorous things that make his escape from that life into the role of Heisenberg so obviously enticing. There was a change of pace, but I was so interested in the performances of Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul at that point that I didn't really care. This was a story and I wanted to know more about it. But that story was about Walt and there was enough depth there to build on, even if most people think it took a few episodes to really get up and moving. Preacher is supposed to be the story of Jesse and The Word. However, there are a number of other stories happening at the same time (Tulip, Cassidy, Arseface) and it looks like the showrunners are having a hard time figuring out how to introduce all of it in some kind of sequential fashion, so we're getting a sine wave of pacing that makes all of it seem somewhat irrelevant.

Let's take Tulip's encounter with the cop. It lasted a few minutes and told us... what? That Tulip's a veteran? Maybe. The ring could just be a highway dodge. That she's really interested in "saving her man"? Maybe. That's a nice story to tell someone when you've been hauled down for doing 60 over the limit. That she's convincing enough to sell a state trooper a line of bullshit? Yeah. I think we know that already, so why are we visiting it again in episode 3? What purpose does it serve in the long-term, either for Tulip's character or the story as a whole? What purpose does it serve for the story you're telling in this episode tonight? (I'm reminded again of Jim Shooter's famous dictum: Every comic is someone's first. They all have to have a beginning, middle, and end in each issue.) There just doesn't seem to be much there.

Similarly, Sheriff Root suddenly becoming Sheriff Ed Tom Bell doesn't do a whole lot for me. Root was one of the more detestable characters of the comic series, not a guy you'd sympathize with because the world had gotten too crazy. He provided a focus for the animus of the readers toward the situations that were afflicting Jesse and Co. (not least to his son, Arseface.) In other words, he made a solid bad guy. And perhaps that's the real problem here to begin with.

We seemed to have a bad guy in Sheriff Root, but now he's just lost control of his world and seems more plaintive than like someone trying to reassert control. We seemed to have bad guys in the two hunters from heaven but they had a nice sitdown with the sheriff and now we know they're basically just trying to do the right thing (as they describe it, anyway.) There's still the lurking presence of a bad guy in the still-unnamed Odin Quincannon, but the audience hasn't been shown enough of him to really make that determination, especially since he's had all of a half-dozen total lines in three episodes. What we have is a bunch of people who are some shade of gray, rather than black or white, and I normally love that. I'm perfectly fine with the characters not being divided into white hats and black hats. Honestly, I prefer it. The problem here is that they're all the same shade of gray, which makes it hard to determine why any of them are interesting at all, since everyone seems to be just one big, confused but happy family at this point. Perhaps once they finish stumbling into each other and apologizing, we'll finally get someone who becomes annoyed and picks a fight; conflict being kind of essential to any decent story.

One would think that the showrunners are aware of the massive potential for conflict inherent to Cassidy. But so far, the latter has been reduced to comic relief (I did appreciate the appearance of the sun-blocking paddy hat, since that was a hallmark of the character in the comics. The production's eye for detail is definitely apparent.) and little else. There isn't even really a foundation for the level of affection that exists between him and Jesse, since all we've really had on camera is a couple minutes of them drinking and Jesse trying to get Cassidy to go all "exposition dump" on us. Why would Jesse have taken in this strange guy, other than being a preacher and trying to accept everyone as a child of the Lord, yadda yadda yadda? I guess that's a foundation, but Jesse doesn't strike me as mentally strong enough to take that position just yet, especially since he's wandering around as confused as the rest of the cast, if not moreso because he's still doesn't understand the presence of The Word.

I'm not burying it yet. I liked some of the technique employed by director, Scott Winant. Quincannon walking from the theater into the light was a very comic-like splash page effect. And the flashback scenes to Tulip, Jesse, and the now-absent Carlos were well done, giving both a dramatic turn to an episode that lacked it and a nice flash of the roots of their relationship. But I'm not watching Preacher for directorial technique and I'll go ahead and assume that over 99% of the rest of the audience isn't, either. There has to be something for me to want to come back to and Jesse using The Word to make Cassidy dance and throw himself into walls really isn't it. Tellingly, while watching the latest episode, I was actually dozing off, which was unusual not just because it was the middle of the afternoon, but also because, as most people will tell you, I don't sleep that much. There has to be something soon that makes me sit up and take interest, because The Word clearly isn't getting through to me.

You can't escape who you are

We've known for a while now that Arya would never be able to become one of the Faceless Men. Her identity as a Stark is too much a part of who she is as a person. The fact that she's even in Braavos and the House of Black and White in the first place is because of her identity as a Stark, since she asked for Jaqen's help in order to continue her mission of taking vengeance on everyone she blames for the death of her family. And family and identity are what this episode ("No one") is about, from Arya's assertion of herself to Jaime's confrontation with the truth about himself that he's tried to avoid to Tirion's attempt to get those around him to see life the way he does (consisting mostly of booze and bad jokes.) These are all expressions of who these people are, even if they're not what they'd like to be.

The example that's been driving this point home is the theater company that's been performing in Braavos since the beginning of the season. This is the framing element that D&D have been using to drive the point home that the great game of thrones is, in the end, largely about family/clan loyalty, just like the historical model that Martin originally based it upon: the Wars of the Roses and the clan wars among the Italian city-states. This is what Jaime cites in his confrontation with Edmure over Riverrun. Edmure can't abandon his son and wife to the depredations of the Freys and Jaime can't change the fact that he's a Lannister and he'll do anything to get back to his sister and lover. It pains him to admit that he's subject to the whims of another, even if those whims defy the notion of the man that he'd like to be and which Brienne attempted to remind him of. But, in the end, he's a Lannister and Cersei is Cersei. He can't escape it.

In some respects, the meta question created by the play is whether many of the main characters are acting of their own free will. I think that question is answered for Jaime and Arya (one is not, the other clearly is) but it remains to be seen how many others are merely actors in the play that makes up their lives and whether they would be someone else if given the opportunity. I think Tyrion is the best example, as he wistfully imagines owning a vineyard and making (and drinking) his own wine. But when pressed at various times in the books, he's still stated that he's a Lannister. The clan loyalty is still there. But it's obvious that, at various times, Daenerys has clearly imagined being someone different and not being saddled with the responsibility thrust upon her. Only in recent times has she finally fully embraced the idea of claiming all that she sees as her rightful heritage. And why? Because she's a Targaryen and her family once ruled all of Westeros, so she must do so, as well.

We can carry that meta idea even a step further and question the basic way in which the story is told. There's a debate among fiction writers about whether stories are plot-driven or character-driven. In the simplest and most biased interpretation, the former are about action and the latter are about feelings. But my estimation of the concept is a little different. Character-driven stories are centered around the actions and experiences of one (or perhaps two or three) characters. Without them, the story doesn't exist. Most superhero comics are character-driven. Captain America, the comic, doesn't exist without Captain America. Game of Thrones, on the other hand, is plot-driven: the story of what happens is going to proceed without or without any particular character. As we've seen so often, the deaths of what seem to be major players are just steps in the painting of the final picture. This is a story about events and those events are often driven by the actions of the main characters, but it's not reliant upon their actions to propel it forward. The snowball is already rolling downhill and everyone just better be able to keep up. In that respect, they're acting out their roles as surely as anyone who's ever stepped on a stage and performed. That's also what the play in Braavos is saying.

The interesting thing about the intersection of the play with the other identity story in Braavos is that the House of Black and White is essentially a cult of assassins. Those assassins are frequently hired by the wealthy to remove each other. It plays a role in the game of thrones. But it's accepted and even welcomed among the common people of Braavos for the service it provides to those in need. The life of the common person is often hard and the House of Black and White provides the release they seek at the end. In a city founded by ex-slaves, it's understandable that the regular person would be fine with the masters continuing to fight and kill each other, as long as the ones doing the killing did so at least partially amidst the ideal that, in the end, one dead person is the same as any other. Whether you're killed in the game as part of a noble family or released from disease on the streets of Braavos, the House brings everyone to the same level, where identity is irrelevant. In short, all of life is explained by Sandor Clegane.

Side notes:

This is the eighth episode and we're clearly in the home stretch. Given that, it was no surprise to see that Benioff and Weiss had returned to being the lead writers on this one. As you'd expect, it was well done. However, there were a couple down notes. While I understand the usefulness of the "drink with me and tell jokes" scene, the whole thing kind of fell flat. We get that Tyrion isn't particularly thrilled with the role that he has to play. That was never more obvious than when he was bidding farewell to Varys, knowing that they might never see each other again. I was still waiting for the punch line to the whole "drink and joke" scene when Grey Worm went running out of the room. I have a feeling that the editor had to be used on that one. Similarly, was there some point to the shot of the Hound pissing into the river? I mean, we knew what was happening. I'm not sure why we needed the view of the ripples on the water. If he'd been pissing on a corpse he'd just made, that would have been something worth taking the extra moment for.

In contrast, the showdown between the Mountain and the Faith Militant was really well done. Cersei's smirk at the beheading could not have told a more detailed story about her as a person and the shot of the blood running into the drain was a perfect example of the methods that she's always employed to get her way. Similarly, the chemistry between Gwendolyne Christie and Nikolai Coster-Waldau has not faded one bit in the last couple years. Their meeting in the tent had all the elements of what remains perhaps my favorite scene of the entire series: the moment in the baths ("Jaime. My name's Jaime.") While they both feel duty-bound to their roles for very different reasons, it remains fascinating to watch them deny what's in front of them, especially in Jaime's case, since the obligation to duty he feels is comprised mostly of his desire to return to another woman. It was great to get a dose of that again.

Was it only me or did The Waif tracking Arya through the city feel like The Terminator? They even used the comic-like impact shots that James Cameron loves so much, when The Waif would step into the shot again and the flicker of emotion would go across her supposedly robot-like face. If she'd started speaking in Austrian-inflected English, I'd have probably been OK with it. Also, it was interesting to see the end result of the widespread speculation on the Web last week about Arya leading her into a trap. While I was a little put off about how easy it seemed for Arya to ignore her fairly dire injuries after rolling down a few dozen stone steps (especially when confronting Jaqen H'ghar in the last scene), the salute with the sword and the return of the water dancer let me gloss over that a bit. Also, the little wry smile by H'ghar at the end was perhaps confirmation that even he doesn't know all the desires of the Many-faced God and perhaps here was the one person who went through all of the trials presented and rejected what she's been given. This was perhaps the truth revealed in another manner.

Finally, it was nice of them to acknowledge (by Varys, of course) the fact that Tirion had essentially made the same mistake as Cersei in giving in to the wishes of fanatics in order to accomplish what seems to be a greater goal. Having the catechism of Daenerys Stormborn spread by the priests of the Lord of Light will almost certainly involve larger complications in the future. With only two half-seasons to go, is there time for a holy war between the Red God and the Seven?

Lines of the week:

"Essos is east and Westeros is west, but what's west of Westeros? That's where all the maps stop."
What happens when you choose your own path?

"Those are your last words? 'Fuck you'? Come on, you can do better than that."
"You're shit at dying, you know that?"
The Hound is still good at the killing, brohim.

"She'll come back. She has to. My heart's been broken too many times already."
Varys with the reality of being the Master of Whispers.

"Podrick fucking Payne. I thought you'd be dead by now."
"The way all women look at him is frankly irritating. Preferred working with the little brother on that count."
"Lesson #1: Assume everyone wants to hit ya. Because they do, Pod. Everyone wants to hit a fuckin' squire."
Seriously. This is why Jerome Flynn is still in the show and why we're all thrilled that he is.

"This is my home. And if Jaime Lannister wants it, he can bloody well take it the way everyone else does."
Siege or go home, no exceptions for prissy Lannisters!

"Your place is in the gallery with the other 'ladies' of the court."
Kevan Lannister with the slight.

"Why don't you drink? Why don't either of you ever drink?"
I need this, so you need this!

"You imagine yourself a decent person? Is that it?"
Edmure with the smackdown, even if he couldn't keep it going.

"We all bloody die! Except this one here."
Beric Dondarrion defying the good sense of the Hound once again.

The almost-winner:

"I choose violence."
No quote better embodies Cersei's preferred approach and Lena Headey delivered it perfectly. That was excellent.

Because the Hound's always the winner
And the winner:

"There was a time I would have killed all seven of you just to gut these three."
"You're getting old, Clegane."
Because the Hound's always the winner, even if Thoros is right.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Spiritual slump

Today's musical interlude is descriptive, but not determinative. In other words, despite what follows, don't lose all hope yet.

Ongoing series will often run into the problem of the sophomore slump, in that their second season will often be much less interesting than their first, either because their writers have gone down too many bad trails or because they blew their wad in the first season and weren't quite ready for the follow-up. Of course, normally that takes an entire season. After having seen the second episode of Preacher, I'm mildly concerned that writer Sam Catlin and directors Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are having premature... troubles.

Two weeks ago when I wrote about the pilot, I mentioned that I thought the elements of the story that more closely resembled something like Carnivale were the ones that I could really see working for the series. Part of that is the willingness for the writer and director(s) to say: "This is our world and welcome to it." In other words, you can't play up the fact that weirdness is happening. It simply is what happens, similar to a Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That involves all elements of the production, from sets to score. Too much of this second episode spent time emphasizing just how "weird" these events were supposed to be. The most obvious point was when Jesse stops in the road to investigate the baby seat before Tulip effectively kidnaps him. At that point, the screeching violins were telling you that "THIS WAS A MOMENT OF CRISIS AND YOU SHOULD FEEL CRISIS"/Zoidberg. Why? Do we need to be told that this is a tense moment? The lack of lighting and the fact that a baby seat is in the road should tell us that (although it was kind of tough to tell what it was; a direct shot with the camera might have been better than having Jesse and Tulip tell us later.) That was a director saying: "This isn't WEIRD enough. Hit the strings!" That's not someone who's sure of his story or his setting.

Similarly, we spent a lot of time doing obvious establishment shots like the one of the bounty hunters up there (I'm trying so hard to not spoil stuff...) Even more prominent was Jesse meeting Cassidy back at the church before the whole "origin story" drinking session. That was basically the director(s) saying: "Here's the home turf of our hero, where he feels most comfortable, and where you should feel at home while we take another long look at the run down building that represents the complicated faith of our hero and his flock." But we get that already. We don't need to keep being reminded of it. And, also, what gives with the whole "So, what's your story, Cassidy?" That's a direct quote. Two guys are drinking and you can't come up with a subtler way of getting into Cassidy's past than simply asking for it. You're not telling a story there. You're reading from a pitch. Give me a story.

I still like some of the details. The hunters using dark steampunk tech is good; very Gilliam-esque. Cassidy slurping blood off the floor is a measure of what he is in more ways than one (vampire and addict.) But, by the same token, I'm also a little distressed at the lack of some detail. This is out in the sticks of west Texas (which is pretty much all of west Texas...), right? Then why is it that the outside of the church looks like a meticulously groomed movie set? There's no dirt other than what's been perfectly raked and smoothed. There's no debris, natural or otherwise. There's nothing that indicates that people actually, y'know, live here. This is a problem (among many) that the Constantine TV series had. John Constantine is supposed to be someone from the underbelly of society, but every time he appeared on camera, his clothes looked like he'd just walked out of a dry cleaner. Similarly, Jesse and Cassidy are supposed to be fairly lowdown guys, but you can't convince me that these guys are salt-of-the-earth if there ain't no earth.

Once again, the person that seems to have most embraced his or her role is the her. Despite Tulip being given the fairly boilerplate tough girl activities (beating the guys at poker, etc.), there's enough mystery in what she's doing for us to at least be willing to follow her around. She also seems to have the most complex motivations, which means that she's interesting to think about between episodes. Think about Don Draper and you'll know what kind of character I'm speaking of. I would have gladly spent more time watching Tulip do her thing than seeing them build up to the second use of The Word. Yes, we realize that Linus has issues at the baptism. Yes, we get the symbolism of the bus driving by. So we're getting to the payoff and his first line is: "You can't just walk into my house and turn the tub on!" Wut? OK, fine. Maybe it was ad-libbed. Maybe they really didn't think there was a better line that, you know, could involve the fact that they both knew why Jesse was there and how they both knew that they'd been together at another, more conventional, baptism.

Alright, fine. Never mind. I'm quibbling about details, right? In fact, I liked some of the details; like the large CD collection in the front room. If this is taking place in the 90s when Preacher was originally written and published, that would've been normal. But if it's in the present day, maybe it's just an indication of the "other side of the tracks" nature of the whole town. Great. That works. And then he uses The Word...

So, when Jesse uses The Word, it's usually a crisis moment. I've written about the problem with abilities that only appear when the story needs them before and Preacher, the comic, avoided that snafu to a certain degree. It is, of course, way too early in the story to be overly concerned about the problem of trivializing the greatest manifestation of what makes Jesse "the Preacher", but it's also too early to have it easily explained by those it affects, too. When he uses the power, instead of Linus being utterly disoriented, he recovers in seconds and begins asking plot questions: "What'd you do to my brain?" How is it that obvious? This guy's face is burning, he's soaking wet, he's lost a chunk of his memory, and he's immediately aware of what happened to him? Hm. Yeah. I don't buy it. It sounds too much like the directors trying to spoon feed the story (in episode 2), rather than letting it develop.

OTOH, they introduce Odin Quincannon (yes, that's who the old guy (Jackie Earl Haley) is; no, that shouldn't be a spoiler) and spend exactly zero time giving any detail on just who he is and what he means to the local community. We get to see Donny break a guy's nose on the car horn, but don't know why we've had this little interlude and aren't given anything particularly strange to make us remember it. Why not? They came in, got a deed, and demolished a house. I mean, I guess that's weird but there didn't seem to be any follow-up to it that made it particularly memorable. The only reason I'm mentioning it is because of the lack of substance, not because it was particularly interesting.

So, yeah. A lot of problems. I'm far less enthused about this week's production than I was about the pilot and I wasn't head-over-heels about the latter in the first place. I actually looked at the clock while I was watching this one, if that gives you any indication of just how enthralled I was. I'm not bailing yet. It's not Constantine-level of god-awful. But I have a far more jaundiced eye for what's coming.

Stuff you don't like to do

You're telling me I gotta do what?
At many points in life, you're stuck doing things that you'd rather not be. Most people don't like their jobs. I don't like mine. I'd rather be writing for a living (such as being a TV and movie critic...) But you do what you gotta in order to get by and most of the scenes in this episode (titled "The Broken Man") are about that approach to life. Last week was when circumstances turn against you. This week was about the distasteful things you often have to do in order to get out of them. In many cases, it was a question of self-interest (the Hound not really caring about anyone, Theon wanting to crawl into a hole and die, Jon just wanting to get away from war) versus the supposed higher calling that should be motivating people to press on. Said higher calling is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. Jaime was actually pursuing a path that involved both self-interest (getting back to his sister) and the greater interests of House Lannister (recapturing Riverrun for erstwhile ally, Walder Frey), but it didn't make it any more enjoyable, even if it was a nice opportunity for writer Bryan Cogman to reintroduce Bronn for the first time this season.

[Tangent: Bronn is, without question, the most changed character from books to show. In the books, he was a secondary character of interest solely to Tirion and, once his bit was done in the latter half of A Storm of Swords, he disappeared. But Jerome Flynn turned him into such a fan favorite that not only did he wander off into storylines that didn't occur in the books (Dorne; not Sunspear, just Dorne (no, I'll never forget.)) but now he's being introduced into those that did (the siege of Riverrun.) It remains to be seen whether GRRM will return him to relevance in the same way that he promised to have more for Osha to do because of Natalia Tena's superlative performance, but it wouldn't surprise me. /tangent]

I'd really rather be with my dead girlfriend and, yet, here I am pleading with you on behalf of another ginger.
Most of that distasteful activity centered around activities in the ongoing "squabbling between houses" as Ser Davos put it, so it's not difficult to see how a lot of our cast isn't really interested in pursuing glory on the behalf of people that don't really like them (Jon, Theon, Sandor Clegane) or for goals that all of them find to be contrary to their own principles. This continues to highlight the contrast between the nobility and the commoners that the High Sparrow brings into focus with every episode: the war among the nobles hurt everyone but those people conducting the war until the Sparrow turned it on them. Even the "protectors of the people" known as the Brotherhood Without Banners (a specific denial of the nobility's tendency to identify themselves as elevated above regular folk because of the colors and bloodlines that they carry) has sunk to brigandage in the midst of the ongoing chaos.  This is what drives people to religion. Or alcohol. Or murder. In this episode, we got examples of all three (Margaery, Theon, The Waif (kinda.))

Septa Aella, the Implacable
The one that stands out among that pack is, of course, Margaery, who's engaging in her adopted role with a great deal more enthusiasm than the rest. You have to be a fanatic in order to fool fanatics. There was some question in the last episode as to whether Margaery had really been put under the sway of the Sparrow and the faith, but this episode dispelled all of that. Margaery is a canny operator and she knows that doing the Sparrow's bidding in order to get her grandmother out of the city (removing the presence of the Tyrells for his purposes) also saves Olenna's life. The note of the rose (There's a short story title; too generic for a band name) reveals her true devotion to house and family. Her claiming that she no longer likes sex is probably just a way of (ahem) sticking it to the Sparrow by suggesting that the faith extends too far to serve what are his own political purposes, as he's no slouch when it comes to playing the game despite all claims to the contrary ("We're just here to serve the common people", etc.) He knows that the death of Baelor the Blessed without an heir led indirectly to the Dance of the Dragons that burned the seven kingdoms from one end to the other. If crown and faith are united, there has to be a continuing crown. So, you do what everyone else did this episode and grudgingly encourage the woman you've been scolding as a harlot to get back into bed and, really, no one likes to do that...

On the other hand, this episode was also an opportunity for a lot of characters to revel in some blunt talk that said some things that most people (fans and characters alike) have been thinking for quite some time, so life isn't always a trial. Olenna dressing down Cersei for her rash and stupid decisions involving the faith was about the most richly deserved moment in the history of the show, to date. Plus, one gets to read about all kinds of historical parallels involving current events, if you're so inclined. Meanwhile, Brynden Tully's obvious disdain for both those he considers beneath him (the Freys) and simply beneath contempt (Jaime) was a great reintroduction of the Blackfish. Furthermore, the scene between Asha and Theon was a genuinely great moment for the two actors. Alfie Allen has continued to do yeoman's work as Theon, but Gemma Whelan really hit every note on key as she berated her brother to stand up for himself while showing real emotion and concern on her face for his well-being. It's a fine line to tread without appearing either "weak" to the Ironborn or too harsh for Theon's fragile condition. Speaking of appearing weak, I guess it's kind of appropriate in Iron Islands culture for a female captain to enjoy screwing women like the rest of her crew, but it strikes me as D&D/Cogman being a bit obvious in terms of bending to expected sexual perceptions in which the woman plays the nominally weaker role (the one imposed upon instead of doing the imposing.) In the books, GRRM avoided that since Asha is quite the sexual being, but does so with men and leaves no question as to who is fucking whom. I think I would have been more comfortable with her showing that her role reversal (a woman in charge of Ironborn) is complete in all facets of her life.

Yeah, that look of consternation was on my face, too.
Similarly, the "big shocker" moment of the episode, the attempt on Arya's life by the Waif, was a bit off. While the moments with the Westerosi captain were entertaining and showed an Arya fully in command of her world and finally sure of her path, it seemed a bit too obvious to be approached by a random woman on the street. Having been training to be a Faceless Man for this long and knowing that they wouldn't let her go that easily, it seems unlikely that she wouldn't have been ready to vivisect anyone that stepped that close to her at just about any moment. Yes, she was cocky and paid the price for it, but she's also now the equivalent of a trained assassin and that just seemed too easy. I suppose that the Waif was our one character that was actually engaging in something that she really enjoyed, as opposed to most of the rest of our cast. One wonders just how many Braavosi understand when someone has been marked by the Many-faced God and chose to not got involved as the mortally-wounded Arya staggered through the streets. Gotta push on through.

Side notes:

While I understand the technique, I have to say that the alternate cuts between scenes are getting kind of annoying. It used to be that an extended scene would be cut into parts and the episode would move around between three or four storylines before returning to the second or third part of the long bit. In recent seasons, we've seen a lot more direct swapping and tonight's episode did a lot of that, in which we switched back and forth between, say, Riverrun and the Hound multiple times, while events progressed in each. While that does allow for easy transitions between events of actual significance, it starts to feel like a cheat. They didn't have to show (or pay for) the church community getting slaughtered by the Brotherhood because they switched to Braavos for the shocker moment and then back to Clegane to just show the aftermath. It's not like we need to see more people getting cut to pieces (and, as noted, it costs a lot of money to shoot those battle scenes, pay for FX, pay for extras and stuntmen in action, etc.), but it does tend to set up stereotypical moments like the end of this episode, where we see Clegane grabbing his axe before storming off camera. We could have gotten the same effect if he'd seen the carnage happen or, honestly, if he'd walked in and we closed out with him looking at the hanged priest. But we needed a moment of IMPACT after the cut to Braavos and so we get the obvious churning jaw of impending vengeance. It could be writer, director, editor or any combination of the three but, as I said, it's been happening more frequently in the last couple seasons and it's starting to feel cheap.

"Lemme tellya about that cocksu-!"
In all honesty, nothing in this episode, as good as it was, was as thrilling as seeing Ian McShane return to HBO. The opening on the construction project reminded me of the barn-raising scene in Witness and here was Al Swearengen, noted Amishman, leading the effort. (The language in that second link is very NSFW.) This is why McShane would have taken this bit role. It gives him the opportunity to berate people for both blindly and poorly following religion while he gets to play the most profane priest in Westeros. What made that scene even more poignant was the return of my oft-noted, all-time favorite character in A Song of Ice and Fire, Sandor Clegane. While I was perfectly happy with his death scene in the books and found it even more poetic when we read about the rumors drifting around the Crownlands that indicated that he might be alive and had reoriented his life to working at a small monastery, I'm fine with him being back in action, as well. On the technical side, it was kind of weird to find this whole odd and rather slow tangent in the midst of a season that has moved at breakneck speed and with so many balls being juggled.  This felt like something that should have shown up in episode 2, rather than episode 7.

"Go on. Try and tell me about what I don't know."
The most interesting and amusing change was the introduction of Maege Mormont's youngest daughter, Lyanna, as the new lady of the manor. In the books, Maege is still alive, having been sent by Robb to Seagard prior to the Red Wedding. She also has several other daughters older than Lyanna. But this was a great scene and kind of highlighted Robb's part in the overall theme, as dealing with an impertinent 10-year-old for the addition of her 62 men was probably the last thing he wanted to be doing. Given that said impertinent child had a better grasp of the political situation than anyone but Davos only made it better. Bella Ramsey was excellent.

Just as a minor technical note, where exactly did Sansa come up with a Stark stamp for her letter to a benefactor that Jon doesn't know about? Has she been carrying it with her all the way from Winterfell?

Lines of the week:

"I think some of them are a bit afraid of you."
"I'm used to it."


"There's a reason you're still here."
"There's a reason: I'm a big fucker and I'm tough to kill."
There's nothing like the Hound to cut things down to their very essence. (Pun alert.)

"Congress does not require desire on the woman's part. Only patience."
So, uh, yeah... Here's the thing about that... The Sparrow later suggesting that "Sometimes the true path is hard to find" was a softball just waiting to be put over the fence.

"We're not clever like you southerners. We say we'll do something, we do it."
Tormund with the guilt trip and jab.

The smackdown.
"I wonder if you're the worst person I've ever met. At this age, it's honestly hard to recall. But the truly vile person does tend to stand out."


"You've lost, Cersei. It's the only joy I can find in all this misery."
I am so going to miss Dianna Rigg when her role is finally wrapped up. I hope this wasn't it.

"You have better instincts than anyone in the Lannister army."
"That's like saying I got the biggest cock in the Unsullied army."


"Good thing we're friends or we'd be fucking you in the ass right now."
This is why you keep Jerome Flynn around.

"Your 'honor'... Bargaining with oathbreakers is like building on quicksand."
A little over the top. He's right, though: Sieges are dull. In medieval times, you had about as much chance of dying of disease (or boredom) as the besiegers as anyone inside did of starvation.

"Nothing on the Iron Islands has an ass like that."
That's why everyone's looking for saltwives, presumably...

"We'll get you justice!"
"If I got justice, my burnt body would hang over the gates of Winterfell."
Seriously, Alfie Allen is still great.

"We weren't animals. Animals are true to their nature... and we'd betrayed ours."
Al pontificating on the idea that humans aren't inherently savage. That's a loaded question.

and the winner:

Because the Hound's always the winner.
"Violence is a disease. You don't cure disease by spreading it to more people."
"You don't cure it by dying, either."

Monday, May 30, 2016

Sometimes it's just out of your (cold)hands.

There comes a time when you realize that things are just going to be different, no matter what you try to do. Circumstances, people, the weather; sometimes they all conspire against you and you just have to either go with the flow or stand there like an idiot and try to keep the tide from coming in. Good luck with that. That was the prevailing theme of this bridge episode that is setting up the remainder of the season and, indeed, the remainder of the story: the world is going to change and you'd better be ready for it. Resistance is futile. This was highlighted in the earliest moments by Bran flashing back to the Mad King Aerys and his command to "Burn them all!" as the Lannisters entered the city in the last stages of Robert's Rebellion and Jaime Lannister, the Kingslayer, the Oathbreaker, ended the reign of the Targaryens. The world was changing and Aerys wasn't keeping up. Of course, some of us have been waiting for said changes since the story began 20 years ago, so I continue to have the feeling about this season that so much of it has been predicted for so long that it often feels anti-climactic.

For example, although they didn't name him as such, it's obvious that Benjen Stark was actually Coldhands, the being that guided Bran and the Jojens north to the greenseer in the books and then couldn't enter because of his nature. That nature is now confirmed as something halfway between a wight and a human. His true identity and his nature have been speculated upon by book readers since he first appeared in a Storm of Swords (16 years ago, if you're counting.) I understand them leaving the character out of the show to this point because of the constraints of budget and time and because Coldhands in the books is kinda more fantastical than most others, since he rides a giant elk and has a flock of ravens under his command. But I can't help but feel that not only was his appearance and explanation obvious to book readers (yes, even if GRRM refuted said speculation when his editor asked), but it probably feels like a "Who?" moment to show watchers, since he hasn't been seen since season 1 and was a bit player then.

On the other hand, when we consider events that haven't occurred in the books, the fact that the common people were asserting control throughout the Seven Kingdoms has become more and more evident as time passed. With the Faith Militant now backing them up and most of them realizing that "they got the guns, but we got the numbers", this episode just highlighted that fact as the full force of the Tyrells was faced down in the streets by the Faith and the surrounding crowd, who were clearly on the side of the church (and, probably, the side about to put one of the most attractive women in the land on a nude stroll through the streets. Priorities, yo.) This turn of events wasn't as predictable as Benjen's reappearance/confession, but it's clearly been building since the Brotherhood Without Banners first appeared and was solidifying by the end of Dance of Dragons when the Faith had taken control of the city from Cersei and Kevan Lannister. This was evident on a very personal level, as well, when Tommen speaks to the High Sparrow and it's very clear who is granting favor to whom. A few minutes later, Tommen finally reunites with his queen and, again, the one in control of the situation is very clearly Margaery. Welcome to the dichotomy of the absolute dictator that is led around by the nose by whoever can speak most convincingly. It's tough to be the (boy) king.

Now that King Tommen has joined Crown with Faith (something probably not even approachable in the books, where Tommen is only nine years old), it makes the eventual dispersal of control of the kingdoms to a more widespread hand almost inevitable. At the very least, it confirms the bloody war between nobility and commoners at the behest of the church... which creates a very interesting question for when another noble presence, one Daenerys Targaryen, a noble but still champion of the little people, returns to Westeros. Do the people regard her as yet another highborn tyrant come to put them under her thumb or accept that her idea is to throw down the great houses... so that they all serve her? Wait, wut? Yeah. That's going to be an interesting writers' quandary (as have been so many other things about Dany.) Throw in the church that never liked the Targaryens and their incestuous and sorcerous ways in the first place and it will be hard to find allies for the incoming queen.

Meanwhile, in matters of slightly less broad import, we finally meet Sam's father, Randyll Tarly, who's every bit as grim and ferocious as I'd hoped for. James Faulkner was excellent in this role. His Wikipedia entry says he's best known for playing Randyll Tarly, but because I'm a geek, I remember him as Herod Agrippa in the I, Claudius TV series from the 70s. He spends his time similarly to his brethren in the Lannister and Tyrell families, railing against the events that have landed his unloved eldest son and his Wildling common law wife and bastard son on the noble Tarly doorstep. That dinner scene was the best of the episode, because you can see Sam bearing up under the weight of his father's scorn and you can even expect that one of those scowls is going to finally trigger the eruptive response. But, as always, Gilly arrives to speak the truth and try to lay the smackdown on the lord of the manor. In the end, we see those events pass by Horn Hill, anyway, when Sam survives the barrage of criticism and leaves with his wife and son. Oh, and the family sword.

Similarly, Arya's version of pushing against the tide has finally come to rest. She will never be a Faceless Man. She lives by her emotions. They're what drive her and make her. The realization that there are consequences on the other end of the assassin's blade (or poison) is one of those things that does indeed take some time to digest for someone that young, even as driven by rage and hatred as she is. She will always be Arya Stark and the hiding (and now retrieval) of Needle is the confirmation of that. I guess we could have hoped for a slightly more visceral event to have pushed her over the edge, such as actually committing the murder of an innocent actress, but that may have been just more time and money spent on another scene that wasn't necessary. It does add a bit of a "redemption" aura to Arya's whole storyline, which I don't think is quite the right angle to take with the character. No one should think of Arya as a "hero", per se, as she's mostly just been trying to survive and adapting nicely to whichever conditions have come along. For a long time, I've been looking forward to the idea of how the writers (both Martin and D&D) were going to work out her status as a Faceless Man with her obvious inclination to both help and rejoin the remainder of her family. That option is now closed to the show, but perhaps it's something that GRRM is still interested in tackling.

And no review of this episode would be complete without mentioning the ultimate complainer of how the whole world is against him (often with good reason):  Walder Frey. For those of you that understand college football, Walder Frey is the Michigan State of Westeros. It was great to see David Bradley in the role again, even if solely as a setup (Disrespekt!) for next week's events in Riverrun. I know that most fans are just waiting for the Late Lord Frey to get what's coming to him from the Red Wedding (Disrespekt!), but I really enjoy seeing him ranting about how everyone around him is an idiot who doesn't listen (Disrespekt!) and I hope we get something more substantial (Disrespekt!) before the hammer finally drops.

Finally, the one character genuinely making the tide as opposed to having to swim against it was, as usual, Daenerys and it was appropriate to have that kind of counterbalance occur at the end of the episode. On the other hand, the whole scene was kind of superfluous. We already know that the Dothraki are completely devoted to her service, since they saw her walk unscathed from an inferno where she'd just slaughtered all the other khals a couple episodes ago. Did we really need another oath of service because she was asking for one from Drogon's back? This seemed like more of an excuse to end the episode with a pseudo-uplifting moment and spend a little of the CGI budget at the same time. This has been one of the lurking problems with Dany's storyline for years now: it involves a lot of waiting while more pertinent stuff happens elsewhere. But just like everyone else mentioned here, the fans will have no more luck trying to change things than Jaime, Arya, or Randyll Tarly. The only person with that power may be Bran.

Side notes:

I mean, really, how many Dany-standing-before-a-crowd-and-proclaiming-herself-the-promised-one moments can we have? We get it. Also, the most important question of that whole scene was: Did she feed the horse to Drogon before she mounted him?

It's mildly interesting to note that the show is now swerving back to the books in terms of Jaime's story, since he's apparently going to be leading the siege at Riverrun as he did in Dance with Dragons. The whole Dorne misadventure never happened in the books, just as it shouldn't have in the show. Someday, perhaps, we'll learn the point of that whole production.

The strange weapon that Benjen is wielding when he saves Bran and Meera resembles a kusari-gama but, like, with fire, man. I can't say that I was thrilled with the direction of that scene, since it was kind of heavy on the modern trend toward doing everything in real speed so that you're not quite sure what's happening until it's over and/or someone has to stop to deliver a cool piece of dialogue. Considering the number of undead that were chasing the two of them through the no-longer-held door, my first impression was there was no way one guy with a flaming flail was going to make a difference. Also, using fire in the furthest wilderness of Westeros is kind of like a signal flare to everything within 20 miles, right? I know. I'm being picky. That scene just didn't sit well with me.

Despite all the complaints, all credit is due to D&D for exploiting the fanatics "who yearn for death in the service of the gods" angle without coming down so hard that comparison to modern parallels like ISIS is irresistible.

Richard E. Grant, the lead actor of the troupe in Braavos who complains about how he's a master of his art and doesn't get noticed for it (Disrespekt!), looks remarkably like Christopher Walken. When I saw him again this week, I was totally hoping for the bigger cameo.

Lines of the week:

"You're nervous. You're a nervous talker."
" ... "
"Well, that's not any better, being a nervous mute!"
Gilly with the truth, as always.

"Told me to leave. Promised to kill me if I didn't. Well, a person starts to not feel welcome at that point."
And Sam, likewise.

"The Faith Militant are very stern with those who overstep their bounds."

"You lost it? It's a castle, not a sheep!"
Seriously. More Walder Frey, please.

"It will be a trial by combat. I have the Mountain."
Read: I won already. Unless the Church has a really big fanatic.

And the winner:

"My final speech is shit. But to be fair to myself, which I always like to be, the writing's no good."
Ego is a necessary thing for an actor. And writers, too.