Wednesday, June 6, 2012

"We're all liars here."

And that, of course, is how the Game is played, right to the end. It was, of course, the finale on Sunday. I've been a bit distracted by other things and part of my distraction was a somewhat mixed and/or muted reaction to what went down in episode 20. I wasn't entirely disappointed, so much as more than a little aware that I'd seen/read so much of this story before that I didn't really need a "bridge" episode to get me to the next sequence. I was and am already waiting to get there. But I'll go into that in more detail in a bit.

This episode was about lies: the major ones, like the carefully choreographed setting aside of Sansa for Margaery in the throne room, to the little ones, like Brienne telling 3 northmen that she served the Starks just moments after insisting to Jaime that she didn't; the huge ones, like the visions of the House of the Undying, to the smaller ones, like Jon and Qhorin deceiving the Wildlings about the former's loyalty. The wedding, Melisandre's visions, Theon's bravado, Tyrion's reign as Hand, the empty vault and, of course, Jaqen H'ghar. All lies, to one degree or another. Lying is how politics and power games function, whether in a fantasy medieval society or in modern America. In the end, those that can do it best tend to succeed.

It was gratifying to see Alan Taylor take the director's reins again, as I think he's probably the best among the regular group that has been employed (and he's now a producer, as well.) Little touches, like beginning with Tyrion's mismatched eyes, reminding everyone that he is still the dwarf, the outcast, are emblematic of his method. Also, opening the throne room sequence with a pile of horseshit only slightly less odorous than the careful dance that would proceed in that scene was another nice note of style.

This scene was our establishing shot for the episode. It was the wrap-up to the furious pace of "Blackwater" and a demonstration of the victors sharing the spoils. We got the first recitation of the full titles of the king in quite a while, a blatant demonstration of the ambition and deviousness of the Tyrells (admittedly, Loras (Finn Jones) could stand to have an expression on his face other than petulant child by next season), the remonstrations of duty and character by the Lannisters, and finally the acquiescence with the best moment, Sansa laughing to herself as she leaves the room... before Littlefinger buttonholes her and gives her the reality that she, once again, just misses. Sophie Turner has been great this season and this brief moment was no exception. "Look around you. We're all liars here and every one of us is better than you."

I have to say that one of the moments that put me off was the following scene with Varys and Ros. I'm all about giving Conleth Hill more moments to shine (which he did here: "I am not like most men." "That's what most men say."), but was it necessary to show a scene of this length for Ros' recruitment. I wonder if that could have been simply woven into next season as she's going about a task for him? Regardless, best hashtag I've seen recently is: #InVarysWeDoNotTrust.

Meanwhile, everyone's favorite odd couple proceeds on their merry way. Nikolai Coster-Waldau, having not been given a huge range of situations to deal with this season ("Be a prisoner. Go."), is at his arrogant finest in the last few weeks while paired with Brienne. "You're a virgin, I take it?" That said, one of the best expressions of the night was the look on his face when Brienne eviscerated (and castrated) the three soldiers in seconds, followed by the command to "Stay" as if the Kingslayer was the nearest dog. Next season is already looking good. By the same token, Robb's scene with Catelyn was a bit more stilted than before, perhaps intentionally, as he's firmly decided that her decisions no longer have any impact on what he's doing ("The only parent I have left has no right to call anyone 'reckless'.") I think they handled the wedding about as simply as it needed to be. There is some degree of dissension out in the GoT community about the presence of Talisa and why the whole love story needed to play out on screen, whereas it takes place between the 2nd and 3rd books. I didn't particularly object to the off-camera joining of Robb and Jeyne in the books, as I know that Martin was trying to convey both the progression of time and the grueling aspect of a ceaseless war. Given the difference in media, I think trying to drop a new character on a TV audience and especially one that carries such import for the story overall (alliance with the Freys, etc.), without giving them any opportunity to know about her and identify Robb's feelings for her, would have been a very poor idea. There are still reviewers that joke (humorlessly) about the endless parade of characters in the series. Adding another and expecting the audience to catch up to events that weren't even on their screens is a bit much.

It was nice to see Melisandre back on screen, obviously recovered from her postpartum depression. While their relationship seems understandable in the books, given the absolute fervor of most of those surrounding Stannis (including his wife, Shireen, who is being cast for season 3 as I write), I continue to think that it seems a little unfounded for the stern and pragmatic Stannis to have his head so spun around by the red woman with little else to go on other than "I've seen it!" That's why it was kind of gratifying to hear Stephen Dillane use the "Where's your god now?" approach. Melisandre's equally poignant response: "Inside... you." was one of the few hints at mystery that the writers have proceeded with and which, again, I'll get into a bit later.

By far, the best scene of the episode, though, was the one between Theon and Maester Luwin, while the horn of (presumably) Bolton's bastard and his men sound outside (this is why vuvuzelas were banned at the World Cup...) Theon's presentation in the books is that of arrogant prick and he never really loses that mantle, even when confronted with the reality of the loss of Winterfell and the shame to follow. His presentation here, as I've mentioned before, is far more tragic and, while he is just as stupid and overconfident as he is in the books, he's also carrying a burden that is far more pronounced than any that Martin ever assigned to him. In the same way that Osha was moved by Natalia Tena's performance from token figure to one of actual intelligence and interest (and which will be expanded upon by Martin in Winds of Winter), I think the writers of the series and Alfie Allen shifted Theon from side character to one that people could take an active interest in, not simply to detest like Joffrey, but to sympathize with as someone caught up in a world he can't possibly control but continuing to protest to everyone (even himself) that he can. This line would not have come from Book Theon: "Know what it's like to be told how lucky you are to be someone's prisoner? To be told how much you owe them? And then to go back home to your real father-!" Their later exchange only drives the point home, perhaps unnecessarily: "I've known you many years, Theon Greyjoy. You're not the man you're pretending to be. Not yet." "You may be right. But I've come too far to be anything else." The final insult to injury is the clout over the head when he's supposedly making the one "honorable" choice of his life, but which is actually just another way to escape responsibility, in the end. Dagmer Cleftjaw's pointed line: "Was a good speech. Didn't want to interrupt." was a last kick of sand into the face of Theon, never good enough to be Hero of the Beach (Ironborn, of course.) While I really missed the more elaborate events surrounding Winterfell (we're not even told who burns down the castle, departing Ironmen or invading Boltons), I understand the time constraints that required shortening the story (rhymes with "tweak"...) and I hope they'll be able to make it up sufficiently in season 3.

They could have gone further with the scar. This is one of the few complaints I've had in two seasons about set, props, makeup, or other immersion details. I'm sure Peter Dinklage didn't relish the idea of sitting in a makeup chair for six hours every day to have half of his nose removed, so I can understand some restraint there (in addition to money concerns) but I think I have scars on my face that look more dire than that one. This was a good moment almost solely for Dinklage's performance, as there was little else to be gained other than to confirm that Bronn was also removed from power and that Shae would be sticking around. Tyrion summed up my interest in politics in perhaps the most cogent manner I've ever heard:  "These bad people... Out-talking them, out-thinking them... It's what I'm good at. And I like it. I like it more than anything I've ever done."

That said, again, it is sometimes the little things that make the whole project work. At this point, my favorite piece of music from two seasons is the soft, inquisitive, vaguely eerie harp that accompanies the presence of Jaqen H'ghar. It was a great idea to leave an abrupt demonstration of his abilities as a Faceless Man to the very last moment. This is, again, one of those things that is demonstrative of a difference in medium. Leaving this kind of event to the last moment in a book would leave your readers confused. Doing so in a TV series, where so much is done visually, is exciting and I think it worked well. It speaks to how long I've been reading these damn things that at every point where Jaqen and Arya used the words "Valar morghulis" the first thing that came to my mind was "Valar dohaeris."

Aemon's last moments were also well done (again, little lies to the boys) and I appreciated both seeing a line and some actual acting from Rickon (Art Parkinson), as well as a few more seconds with Shaggydog and Summer (for the eternally absent dire wolves that are still supposedly crucial to the story...), and later Ygritte's look of wonder and surprise at Jon's viciousness when he kill Qhorin (similar to Jaime's at Brienne's display of skill earlier) and the finale showing the impending attack by the Others and a horde of wights. That last moment was the only one where lies were simply not possible. Winter is coming, indeed.

Most of what I've mentioned has been positive and not indicative of why I would be disappointed in the episode. But, as I said, most diehard fans like me have little need of a show that wraps up everything very neatly until next time. We know that the story continues. We know how the story continues. There's nothing at all wrong with leaving a few loose ends hanging (one that they did leave adrift is what happened to Davos Seaworth, as I'm quite certain that many amongst the TV audience simply believe him to be dead (with good reason)) and enticing people to find out why. Or, for that matter, using a ready opportunity to drop some questions into the plot line that people can muse about until next spring. Said opportunity was the House of the Undying.

I honestly never really liked this sequence in the books. It was one that became almost jarringly surreal in a book that was otherwise firmly rooted in the pragmatism of (literal) cloak and dagger. However, one upside to it was the chance to show scenes from Daenerys' past and a past she was not even aware of (including a figure that was clearly Rhaegar Targaryen.) It's this kind of lore and history that is what makes the series an "epic" fantasy and it is the lack of same that many fans (such as Ello and Linda of here) complain is missing. This kind of stuff "makes the world", as it were. goes so far as to suggest that, in replacing lore with sappy romance (i.e. Robb and Talisa), the producers have pushed the series past one that is "based on" A Song of Ice and Fire to one that is "inspired by".

I'm not sure that I'd go quite that far. As I noted above, I think there are very valid pragmatic reasons for leaving Robb's relationship on screen. Furthermore, some of that same pragmatism exerts control over why such things aren't shown (lack of money and airtime, which this season has suffered from far more than the first.) Most importantly, though, I think it potentially detracts from the central thrust of the story. When the furry appears in the famous moment of The Shining, does anyone really know what that means? Does it impact the story in significant fashion the way the ocean of blood or the murdered twins do? No. It's a conceit of Kubrick's and a weird touchstone for people who've seen the film. In the same fashion, did we really need to see four dwarves raping a beautiful woman in the House of the Undying? Did we need to see Rhaegar citing his son, Aegon, as the "prince who was promised"? Would that kind of stuff create intrigue in the manner that Ello and Linda suggest took place with Lost or would it just create confusion in an audience already supposedly burdened by a cast already stretching into the dozens and set to increase by a couple dozen more next season?

HBO has been doing a pretty decent job of trying to school people on the background of the books and the world in which the story takes place. They've done so largely by including features on their website and adding extras to the DVD/Blu-ray releaes. Having been immersed in the books since 1996, I really haven't paid much attention to any of that. I know it all already. But with those resources available, is that detracting from their willingness to show history and lore? Or is the show sufficiently different from one like Lost, the central mystery of which was the basis of the show's identity, to not need mysterious visions and an endless reference to names and family branches to already encourage discussion through next winter about the show and what is happening? Does this come down to a difference of stylistic approach or is it more a concern over how close the producers are hewing to the material?

For example, Ello and Linda suggest that the way Theon is represented has spoiled what made the character Theon Greyjoy. He is "not Theon". I've heard many similar complaints about key figures like Cersei and Daenerys. But, given the quicker pace and greater constraints of the medium of television, that kind of change is almost inevitable. Characters are going to be different and, more importantly, be interpreted differently in a different medium. As fond as I am of the story, I suspect that I would say that many of the altered versions as presented in the show are actually better than their counterparts in the books. Osha is undeniable (by Martin's own estimation.) Theon is far more interesting (How long could Alfie Allen have gone on being the shallow prick that is Theon in the books?) So, I'm not sure that complaining that certain presentations and detail are lost is sufficient evidence to say the producers have seemingly lost their way, even if I do agree that the House of the Undying sequence was a bit lacking in its execution. Honestly, did it really matter that she went there to retrieve the dragons rather than simply seeking an audience so they could assassinate or kidnap her, anyway (as in the book)? Isn't going there to retrieve her children a more compelling scenario?

For that matter, how would they have gone about representing who Rhaegar was, since Martin actually never specifically named him in Clash of Kings, but has generally acknowledged that, yes, that's who was in the vision. Dany never knew him. She was an infant when last in his presence. Jorah Mormont may have been able to identify him if described, but then we start veering off of Mormont's character. Put simply, I guess I'm saying that while I wouldn't have minded seeing those scenes of Rhaegar from the book, I can understand why the produces would choose to leave them out in favor of something far more pertinent to the viewers who've been watching for the last year-and-a-half:

Nice cameo by Momoa, too.

So, there it is. Another season done. I think it's still proceeding well, overall, and I'm looking forward to the first half of Storm of Swords next season. This note from confirms casting for the Blackfish, the Reeds, the Queen of Thorns, and Thoros of Myr, among others, and I've seen an audition video for Vargo Hoat. Of course, the character I'm most looking forward to would have to be the Red Viper (House Martell fan: Unbowed. Unbent. Unbroken.) I have a couple conflicting images of him in my head, so I'll be interested to see how they mesh with a new face.