Sunday, March 31, 2013

The storm begins

So, a solid opening episode. As with both previous seasons, there were a lot of intro and catch-up sequences in this first offering. That's going to be standard in a series as complex as this one but the best part about that, of course, is the intro element, since we got to see a few new elements to the story that book readers have been waiting for. A couple of those elements showed up in the title sequence, as Winterfell became largely replaced by the smoking ruin that it now is and Astapor appeared for the first time.

The Wildling sequence was simply a way to introduce Mance Rayder (and Tormund Giantsbane), which is fine, but it was also a great way to display another of the fantasy elements in the northern story by showing a giant for the first time. The key element of this sequence was the clear maturing of Jon Snow, as he properly plays the subterfuge in responding to Mance by using his own outrage at the actions of Craster to fuel his story. Telling a good story often requires a foundation in truth and/or history, as any good author will tell you (even GRRM, who based this tale on the Wars of the Roses and the Italian city-state wars.) I'm glad they kept in the scene of Jon kneeling to Tormund, though.

We're treated to two lengthy sequences of Tyrion, since he was the key player of last season and had the most tumultuous events right near the end. Pod prevents Bronn's attempt at sexposition. It was interesting to note Tyrion and Cersei's rapid descent back into standard sibling rivalry as soon as they began discussing their father. ("What are you going to tell him?" "Why do you care?") It sounded like any pair of siblings I've ever known when trying to manipulate their parents to take their respective side. It was good to see them emphasize Bronn's mercenary nature, as well, to keep the audience from becoming too comfortable with the idea that someone in Kings Landing might be doing something out of genuine altruism ("I don't even know how much I'm paying you now." "Which means you can afford it.") I think I'm going to name a band "Knights are worth double." This theme was continued with the brief appearance of another mercenary type, one Salladhor Saan. I'm betting it will be the last we see of the pirate, since his role in the book is equally brief. It's too bad because Lucian Msamati plays him with a great deal of style and personality ("If you fail, they will burn you. If you succeed, they will burn you.") This scene with Davos and his later one on Dragonstone are both effective in presenting his genuine earnestness and internal conflict in trying to serve Stannis and yet detach them both from Melisandre.

However, one wonders at the later scene with Tyrion and Tywin. It drives home the latter's contempt for his son and the broad injustice and disdain that has encompassed Tyrion's life to date... but we already knew that. Was this scene really necessary other than to have the excellent Charles Dance on camera for a few minutes in the first episode? Certainly, it might have been presented to indicate Tyrion's desire to escape the game and return to the west, but he had just spent most of the last season showing how much he enjoyed the game so, again, I'm not sure this scene did a whole lot for the story. There was one great line, though: "Jugglers and singers require applause. You are a Lannister."

Robb's entry into Harrenhal had me mostly watching Roose Bolton, of course (for non-book readers: Yes, that's a hint.) When they found the piles of dead inside, I expected Bolton to look as unaffected as ever. Instead, Michael McElhatton showed some emotional impact. I don't think McElhatton has been bad in the role, but Bolton is such an unusual figure that I guess I've been expecting more from him. As Jaime said in SoS: "Bolton's silence was a hundred times more threatening than Vargo Hoat's slobbering malevolence." That's a memory of a terrifying figure and McElhatton is... not. On the upside, the costuming is as brilliant as ever, as you could see the brand of the flayed man on the leather doublet over Bolton's armor. It's that kind of detail that really helps make the show what it is. This scene also introduces Qyburn, which is great for the enormous ripples that it foreshadows, but no sign of the other Free Companions, which is a bit discouraging.

OTOH, on the costuming note, Dan Wenioff and D. B. Weiss laughed about the fact that Jorah Mormont has been wearing the same shirt since season 1 in one of their commentaries on the season 2 DVDs and here he is again in that same yellow shirt. But that's a very minor point of a solid scene with the dragons (Dragonfishing, FTW!), now as large as the average Doberman, and the continued emphasis on Dany's intent to do things "the right way". It wouldn't be too much of a stretch to be cynical about that effort, assuming that Dany being the "good" aspirant to the throne is a bit too convenient (and, of course, is one of the reasons for the long delay of Dance of Dragons (the famed Meereenese knot.)) I'm not there yet, as Dany is still a decently complex character, but I wonder how much they'll choose to focus on that issue in the TV series.

The short scenes with Sansa, showing her maturation into an understanding of how to deal with Littlefinger even as she insists on Shae playing the imagination game properly, and Cersei's subtle conflict with Joffrey, as Margaery becomes the new woman in his life, are well-written developments demonstrating the change of emotion for both. Sansa still wants to imagine herself elsewhere like a child, but adapts outwardly. Cersei wants to resume her control of her son now that war is not at their doorstep, but he's more eager to impress his new bride ("My mother has always had a penchant for drama. Her command of the facts grows less as she grows older.") Cersei, as always, is not above tossing a shot when the opening is presented ("We can't all have a king's bravery.") This is good groundwork for Margaery's role as the frustrating populist and her attempt to sway the people around the capital to side with her (not to mention next episode's arrival of the Queen of Thorns.)

Dany's issues come into sharp focus as she attempts to purchase some Unsullied and later survives an assassination attempt. Unfortunately, the latter was attempted by a Sorrowful Man in the books and is replaced by the Qartheen warlocks here. Given that Jaqen H'ghar kept going on about the Red God and didn't bring up the Faceless Men, does that mean that both groups will be absent in the show? Part of what makes the world real is the high number of groups, factions, people, and motivations. Continuing the House of the Undying story seems to detract from the fact that many people want to see Dany dead for any number of reasons. And, of course, they had to do the arrival of Barristan Selmy in the open, as there's not much chance of fooling the audience by calling him "Whitebeard" for a few thousand pages. Even so, where was Strong Belwas?! Is he another detail to be brushed aside? They've already eliminated a number of characters from Dany's story (including her handmaidens.) I understand the limits of budget (you can only pay so many actors) and time (and have them on screen) but turning the whole thing into the Dany and Jorah show doesn't really serve the texture of the story, either.

Still, a solid opening and one has to be prepared for the deviations from the books, as both the showrunners have warned about them. It's good to be back.

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