Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Iron Fist rule

There's a creative problem that comes up most often in serial productions like comics and in movies (which comics are closer to than prose) that are destined for sequels (and, aren't they all if they make serious money?), but which also emerges in prose. It's a tendency that I've always referred to as the "Iron First rule."

Iron Fist is a Marvel Comics character that was created in the 70s during the height of the Bruce Lee-led martial arts explosion. As with most one-note and/or fad creations, the series only lasted for 15 issues because the fad flamed out fairly quickly, as well. (You can see this phenomenon in all kinds of Marvel efforts in the 70s and 80s, including a series based around a trucker, but I digress...) But part of what propelled the series' demise is that the character itself, despite having an interesting backstory that could have led to all kinds of creative discursions, was part of the Marvel Universe™ and had to have some way to compete with the guys who could punch through walls or shoot down aircraft with their eyes or whatever. He had to be, in short, a superhero and not simply a badass martial artist. Whither Batman, you cry? Sure, but he also couldn't just be another badass martial artist who also happened to be filthy rich enough to drive tanks down the street in order to take on the guy made of living flame.

Consequently, Danny Rand also had a superpower: his fist could become unto a thing of IRON!! That's how you beat the guys who could brush off your jeet kune do. That's how you're Iron Fist. And that's how you beat them and be Iron Fist. Every. Single. Time. Every issue involved becoming the thing of iron, perhaps even multiple times. Now, you're thinking that I've just described the average porno (in detail, even.) You're not wrong. But putting aside the implications of getting your readers off with every issue (not passing judgment here; everybody has their thing), you also can't keep doing it the same way every issue (unless you're talking about actual porn. Sometimes. I'm leaving this metaphor.) If every fight is solved by hauling out the iron fist, why not just do it in the first three pages of the issue and deal with the latest super-villain right away? (Just like porn has become 3 minute clips instead of 90 minute films. I'm leaving it. For real.)

Not only do you have to come up with a good reason to not use the ultimate power right away, you have to come up with guys that aren't affected by it unless it's used in new and exotic ways AND you have to convince the audience that all of this is credulous. Granted, baseline credulity and superheroes do not often mix. Your audience is already often predisposed to the fantastical or not really concerned about a shaky premise because they've just decided to plop down and read one issue of your continuing series. But if you do have a regular readership, they're going to get tired of that routine at about the same pace as the writer. No one wants to keep distracting themselves with justifying their story while they're trying to write it. But if your character is more self-contained, you don't have that problem.

Shang-chi also existed in the Marvel Universe™ and was also an outgrowth of the 70s martial arts explosion. However, while Iron Fist lasted 15 issues, Shang-Chi lasted for 125; a success story by almost any measure in the comics world. Shang-Chi was simply a kung fu guy, walking the earth, and his book remained in that sphere. There was no ultimate power because there were very rarely opponents of the standard super-villain style. He did encounter other characters in Marvel's stable, but almost always in their books. His story continued to be largely his story because it was about the character and not about his supreme ability. But that Iron First rule can work against more established and well-rounded characters, as well.

Most people remember this famous scene:

(among others.) "Dude! He can kill people just by looking at them! And holding his hand in the kung fu grip!" OK, fine. Then why does he have to throw down in risky lightsaber battles with his real enemies? Because if Vader could just snuff out everyone he ran across by frowning, there would be no story. "But wait!", you say. "The reason he can't just reach out and treat Luke's head like a water balloon is because Luke is also strong with the Force!" Sure. That's plausible. But what about the next time they meet up? And the next time? And the next time? Eventually, it all comes crashing in, which is why one of the few things Lucas did properly post-Empire was to let Vader die. Once you've presented an irresistible force, it either lays waste to everything or it ends. That, of course, isn't possible if the character in question, like Iron Fist, is the franchise. But that also results in the inherent problem of many sequels in movies.

The first Iron Man film was a good film. Not just a good superhero film, but a good film overall. Well acted, tightly-paced, tightly-written, and with a decent resolution. Tony Stark has created the world's ultimate weapon in the name of defending it and does so successfully. The End. Enter Iron Man 2. What now? "Well... Let's blow more stuff up!" This is the Iron Fist rule again (perhaps it is now just "the rule of Iron"?) You're still a man in a suit of armor and there have to be an increasing number of more spectacular ways of displaying that if you want to keep (some) audiences entertained. Hollywood's shortcut these days is usually CGI explosions, plus 3D, IMAX, and whatever else they can tack on to keep people from simply waiting to watch it on their 50" flatscreens at home. Iron Mans 2 and 3 are not horrible films. Robert Downey, Jr. is the lifeline in both of them, as he was seemingly born to play this role (and Ben Kingsley was a hoot in 3.) Furthermore, Tony Stark has always been one of Marvel's more interesting characters because of his implicit moral quandary (weapons manufacturer wanting to protect people), personal issues (alcoholism), and heavy load of responsibility for his company and the people whose lives are affected by it. The movies portray most of this very well, so it's not as if the films were entirely bogged down by the rule. But there can be little argument that the first film was the best because it simply told a story and didn't concern itself with having 15 Iron Men flying about in one of the most appropriately-labeled deus ex machina moments I can remember:

How do you do better than Iron Man? "Have more! And blow more stuff up!" I'm all about heightening the excitement and trying to top yourself. But there comes a time when the ordnance and the one-note superpower tends to overwhelm the story. At that point, you're just a gimmick and gimmicks, like fads, neither last long (Cue Twilight fans in 3... 2... 1...) nor are remembered very fondly. This rule does stretch into prose, as well, and sometimes very good prose.

I just finished Joe Abercrombie's First Law trilogy. It was excellent. It was a very restrained take on the fantasy genre combined with a rather brutal depiction of medieval mores, all functioning under the relatively obvious veneer of modern political corruption. His characters are great and they speak and act like real people, which is always my first hope in reading or watching a story. One of the most prominent is Logen Ninefingers. Logen is a Northman who can speak to spirits; something he does precisely twice in the ~2000 pages of story. Logen also has an alter ego that resembles the famed Viking battle frenzy, wherein he becomes what people around him refer to as "the Bloody Nine" and proceeds to slaughter everything within reach: friend, foe, and innocent alike. He does this several times in the series and almost always at a crisis point (very Hulk-like, since we're talking about comics.) By the third book, it becomes mildly predictable and a bit tedious, but what restrains it from being a completely Iron Fist situation is that there are implications to his actions beyond simply defeating the enemy. As noted, he kills everything, including characters of some prominence in the story and then is left with nothing but the guilt of having saved some and slain others that he was trying to save. It doesn't rescue the situation completely, but it at least provides tension for the reader, knowing that wanting Logen to go off won't always have the best results for the story if you've become fond of one of his incidental victims. I mention it here largely to demonstrate that the rule isn't a complete death knell to either character or story and can be contextualized successfully. However, the standard note about length must be included. Abercrombie has written three more books in the same world as the First Law series. Logen is not present in them. When his story was done, it was done.

What has occurred to me over the years is simple: If you want to have good characters, they can't be one-dimensional and you can't cover up that lack of depth with any success if you want to do something credible. Granted, it also depends on your readers' willingness to follow along.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Emotional conviction

There are a couple broad methods of storytelling. One of them is plot-driven. The story itself is the main focus and the characters are there largely to enact it. Isaac Asimov's writing is a good example of that. Asimov had grand ideas. All he needed was a couple people in a room to elaborate upon them and occasionally he'd throw in robots and a starship or two. The other method is character-driven. The story is essentially about a person or people and how they interact with the world around them. Typical superhero comic books (and their associated films) are the most obvious example of that method. The story surrounding the Incredible Hulk is the story of how he interacts with the world in both his Banner/Jekyll and Hulk/Hyde forms and how that creates problems for himself and those around him.

A Song of Ice and Fire, like many epic works, moves past that separation and has created a story that is both beyond the control of its many characters and almost wholly driven by them. In that sense, while it may be a good example of both a plot-driven and character-driven story, it still trends toward the latter, as much time is spent showing just what kind of impact world events have on the various people involved and the emotional consequences thereof. This episode was a prime example of just that.

From the opening scene, where we see that Arya's occasional loss of control of her emotions may actually have made her situation worse if she were able to kill the Hound, to the episode's centerpiece, the wedding of Tyrion and Sansa and the tangle of emotions that flows throughout the palace, we see that emotional responses not only continue to define these characters but also tend to drive the story itself, outside of seemingly emotionless entities like the Other. There are forces at work that don't depend on either our cast or their response to the good and bad things that happen to them, like the Walkers, but lust, desire, honor, and anger tend to drive most things that are taking place here, whether it's for power, money, or sex, or some combination thereof.

Daenerys' drive for power places her in a situation where she feels compelled to try to make deals with the Second Sons mercenary company. At the same time, Daario Naharis is overcome with lust for Daenerys herself and uses that to take control of the company (although why the Stormcrows became the Second Sons here, I'm not quite sure, especially given the final scene of the episode, where crows figure quite prominently.) Melisandre uses lust to gain the blood of Gendry for Stannis' own lust for power, but Stannis feels honor-bound to the Onion Knight to free him and keep him on as an advisor that might serve as a brake to the Red Woman's love for her god which is doing nothing but serving Stannis. Are these events part of the overall plan that Martin had for the story or are they natural outgrowths of the characters themselves (e.g. the author acting as interpreter and conveyor of the way these wholly formed people would act)?

Again, the centerpiece is the wedding and its aftermath. While Tyrion and Sansa's scenes may have been poignant and/or served as the backdrop to emphasize things like Joffrey's pettiness and Tywin's frustration, I think the best scene of any of those assembled around the proceedings was that of Cersei and Margery walking through the Great Sept arm-in-arm while they threatened each other or reacted to said threats as they kept up the public mask the whole way. This is a great example of a scene that doesn't have a great deal of story attached (not like discovering the effect dragonglass has on an Other, for example) but which has an enormous amount of weight hanging off of it as you observe the players maneuvering around the board of the game. This is to not even mention the blizzard of emotions going through Lena Headey and Natalie Dormer's eyes as they move along.

To draw a direct contrast with another series and another new episode tonight, the latest offering for Mad Men had me thinking that it was just 60 minutes of watching characters (mostly Don) gyrate through their emotions and basically leave any sense of story behind. The drugs, the weird introduction of the thief, the flashbacks to his first time; all of that didn't really tell a story but spent a lot of time wringing emotions out of a character that hasn't been famous for them. The episode was conflicted and not the best that they've done. On the other hand, "Second Sons" drove the story forward even as the screenplay focused on the emotional turmoil and the reactions of these characters to that turmoil. I think GoT was better served in that respect and why it remains the stronger story (and better series) overall at this point.

Lines of the night:

"So quit trying to bash my skull in and we might make it there in time for the wedding!" - The Hound, always the pragmatist.

"It's hard to collect wages from a corpse." "A man who fights for gold can't afford to lose to a girl." -
Daenerys picks up strategy as quickly as she does languages.

"Mothers and fathers made up the gods because they wanted their children to sleep through the night." - Ser Davos with the essentially Hegelian philosophy (i.e. man created god in his own image.) Watching Liam Cunningham deliver lines with Davos' customary restraint, especially in the face of the man to whom he's devoted his life, is great fun.

"You won't be a prisoner after tonight. You'll be my wife." - There's a softball for many married couples, right over the plate...

"Of course, ambitious climbers don't want to stop on that second rung." - A great scene and why Lena Headey makes a better Cersei than many expected. And, of course, probably the best line of the episode: "If you ever call me 'sister' again, I'll have you strangled in your sleep." BAM!

A couple side notes here: Diana Rigg was once again knocking it out of the park, as she attempted to detail the complex relationships between the soon-to-be-married brothers and sisters of Houses Tyrell and Lannister. Playing the doddering old woman while carefully watching Cersei's reaction is just priceless. Also, while there have been many mentions over the past few years about the necessarily smaller crowds and events than the story originally called for (i.e. the tournament of the Hand in season 1 should have had thousands in attendance for the joust) as a consequence of cost and logistics, it's interesting to note that, in the books, Tyrion and Sansa's wedding is lightly attended and by a very unenthusiastic crowd. So, for once the practical matters actually served the interests of the story. We finally get to see the High Septon, too.

"I don't understand. This doesn't seem very religious." - Gendry, trying to understand the strange practices from across the Narrow Sea. Martin's knowledge of history perhaps betrays him here, as sexual mores in the east from Roman times forward were far more flexible and accepted as part of life than they were in the west.

"Come fight death with me." - Melisandre with the double entendre (alliteration joke!) Next time a woman drops her cloak and tells me to fight death, I am so there. Has to be said, though, that it's weird even in a situation like this that full frontal on the men is still not permitted, but the women can drop their kit at any moment. Why, for that matter, is full male nudity OK in the scene with Loras, but not with a woman? Speaking of sexuality being constrained...

"Drinking and lust. No man can match me in these things. I am the god of tits and wine!"
"I vomited on a girl once in the middle of the act. Not proud of it. But I think honesty is important between a man and his wife, don't you agree?"
"If my father wants someone to get fucked, I know where he can start!"
"And so my watch begins..."
Still one of the best characters in the story, even when things are supposed to be mildly tragic, and the toast to Loras in the balcony, as trapped in circumstance as Tyrion is, was excellent. Also, Shae's expression at the unspoilt bedsheets was great.

"I'm the simplest man you'll ever meet. I only do what I want to do." - Daario Naharis, the Epicurean; the perfect new character for an episode driven by emotion.

"Sometimes do you talk fancy on purpose to confuse me?" - Gilly exploring a whole new world.  This scene, while somewhat overlong, was well done from a dialogue standpoint, as Sam elaborates upon naming conventions and their personal weight. We also finally get to see another weirwood tree.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Everybody likes that song

We begin with the obligatory shot of the author who also wrote the screenplay for The Bear and The Maiden Fair. Interestingly, he steps back a bit from the seemingly more momentous episodes that he wrote in the first two seasons (eighth and ninth, respectively) but still confronts a host of issues in the increasingly tangled plot (That's a segue...) This episode also continues the extreme departure of Melisandre abducting Gendry, which most might think would create an interesting thought process for the writer: How do I re-write my own story from 13 years ago? But that's what writers do all the time, anyway. In point of fact, the fourth book that became Feast and Dance was half-written in a time setting several years removed from Storm before he decided he didn't like that approach and scrapped it. My bet would be that he enjoyed indulging in the ability to tell the story in a different manner.

Of course, it's interesting to try and second-guess where GRRM's heart really lies in the whole picture. The story started with him envisioning the finding of the wolf pups and it's clear that the North is key to the whole epic and Martin spends a lot of time on the Wildling excursion to the south in this episode; not that that's a bad thing, as it means a lot more time with Rose Leslie and her continual output of memorable lines. But it is interesting to speculate on whether Martin had any input on which episode he'd be writing and whether it involved so much Jon and Ygritte action. Speaking of action...

I wouldn't have been especially traumatized if we'd spent the whole hour watching Oona Chaplin's ass, either. If there's one thing a king needs, it's awareness of what his people want. Robb repeatedly states what he wants and it's pretty much what a lot of us want, as well, so there you go. The larger context of Talisa's refusal to clothe herself is, of course, the fact that she has been distracting Robb's larger purpose (My special purpose!) from the moment they met and that has had consequences and will continue to do so.

Staying on topic, Natalie Dormer continues to do great things as Margaery, even if all it does is draw a focus to the innocence of Sansa... which is the setup to both of Tyrion's scenes, as he gets the reproving common sense of Bronn, seemingly understanding how to be a nobleman with a wife and a mistress better than Tyrion does, and the later anguished argument with Shae, who also knows how the world will put her in her place, even though she seemingly hooked up with one of the few who can deny that placement. She just didn't know about his father. The dialogue between Shae and Tyrion was a standout moment of this episode and was as heartfelt and sad as it was funny, which is true talent from a writer, I think.

Meanwhile, never was it more evident that the true power behind the throne is the man who ostensibly serves it. The scene between Joffrey and Tywin, including the elevated camera perspective showing Tywin standing ominously over his grandson, was excellent. The phrase is "The king shits and the Hand wipes." but, in this case, I think it's more "The Hand spanks." as Tywin again outmaneuvers the opposition at every turn (no great effort needed here, of course.) And we shift immediately from there to another outmaneuvering which is a bit more overt and involves ever-larger lizards.

In a way, it was absolutely appropriate for George to be writing this episode, since it kicks off the conquest of Slaver's Bay which led to the famed "Meereenese Knot" and the long delay to the completion of Dance with Dragons. Nothing like revisiting the scene of one's greatest struggles to gain wisdom, one supposes. It was also a nice counterpoint to one of the earlier moments, wherein Ygritte claims that the Wildlings don't march to the beat of a single drummer, whereas the Yunkai delegation, markedly representing the "Old World", distinctly does. It's now going to have to respect a different beat that it hasn't heard for hundreds of years; that of wings. There was solid CGI work with the dragons here. They definitely were prominent, but didn't render stiff anyone else in the tent, which is often the effect of greenscreening (see: the dragons' first appearance in the last episode of season 1 for a good example.)

Another nice tie-in was the confirmation of both Syrio's and Jaqen's lessons in Arya's brain as she reveals the only god she follows and lays the groundwork for both her immediate future and the long-term. This becomes a greater bonus for me as we proceed, because I was not especially fond of Arya's character in the books until Storm and then her path became fascinating, as her attitude began to resemble a character of mine that I've spent many years with in fits and starts. It only gets better from here and that's not just because the Hound has a very prominent role in her life from here on out.

An amusing side note of audience reaction week-by-week is the seeming dearth of nudity in this season compared to the previous two. Sexposition has been kept to a minimum. Well, leave it to GRRM to bring it back with a vengeance, as we were warned of not only nudity but "strong sexual content" and Theon's elaborate torture was the centerpiece for both. Martin said he wanted to do a fantasy with sex and, dammit, he's gonna do it. Book readers, of course, know where all of this is going, but Theon's story has become so obvious by now that even non-readers can predict virtually everything that's going to happen to him from moment to moment. The 'joy' is in watching the non-payoff, I guess. It was interesting to note the precise grooming habits of certain ladies in the North. I suppose it is kind of pointless to tell someone "You're doing a skin scene. Start growing it back." or waste time on a merkin. For all we know, Ramsay told her to present things as enticingly as possible, if only to make it that much worse for the Lord Greyjoy (and it is very grey joy, at this point.) Had to note that Theon was feeling weak at the start. Or was it meek...?

The Bran scene once again had the veneer of "busy work" but it did have a fine moment for Osha and an elaboration of the danger that they're walking into past the Wall, which no one but the Night's Watch and the Wildlings have yet encountered. But some of the finest acting work was once again the scenes surrounding the title of the episode, as Brienne makes a point of displaying her respect for "Ser Jaime" in taking him at his word and Jaime does the right thing as a knight and retrieves his friend from the clutches of Locke/Vargo. The whole encounter, of course, highlights the absolutely ignoble scrabbling of a maimed nobleman and a defenseless noblewoman fleeing the most(?) bestial character of the evening. Everyone is just human, in the end.

Lines of the night:

"Are you gonna share it with me? The deep wisdom you found inside the head of a bird?" - Jon's curse is to be an outsider everywhere he goes.

"I have your little prince or princess inside me."
"Maybe one of each."
"Don't get greedy." - Too late.

"Your cock shouldn't go near 'til she's as slick as a baby seal." - Something about clubbing baby seals was my first reaction to the lesson of technique by Tormund Giantsbane but... we'll stop there.

"He's rather good-looking, even with the scar.  Especially with the scar."
"We're very complicated, you know. Pleasing us takes practice." - Margaery with the facts of life for everyone.

"You waste time trying to get people to love you, you'll end up the most popular dead man in town." - The redoubtable Bronn knows the heart of the common man.

"You are being counseled at this very moment." - Yet another Charles Dance "Now shut up and like it." instance.

"The Yunkish are a proud people. They will not bend."
"And what happens to things that don't bend?" - Against dragons? They burn, probably.

"Golden chains." - Shae keeping it simple.

"I'm a Lannister of Casterly Rock!"
"And I'm Shae, the funny whore." - And still keeping their collective feet on the ground, as much as Tyrion would like to escape it. Martin has spoken often about how ASoIaF is a study of class and gender roles and how they confine us. This episode, drawing the contrasts between Wildlings and Southerners, women and men, nobles and commoners, slaves and those who would free them, was clearly an attempt by him to emphasize that aspect. The story is replete with examples no matter who's doing the scripting, but this was especially highlighted this week.

"He's not my one true god."
"No? Who's yours?"
"Death." - Not today. But soon.

"Not all girls are like you."
"All girls see more blood than boys." - It's always a challenge to pick just one of Ygritte's lines.

"If you attack the Wall, you'll die! All of you!"
"All of us." - This struggle between Jon and Ygritte in the books was an interesting spectacle, as she was clearly too smart to be fooled by Jon's act but loved him, anyway, and you could see her wavering between going with him and abandoning her people and trying to woo him to their way of thinking. It's the mirror image of Jon's own struggle, given his outsider status, and provided for a really memorable dynamic that, thankfully, both Harrington and Leslie have perfectly captured.

"What's the purpose of an arm with no hand?" - Jaime, acknowledging circumstances and trying to remain philosophical.

"How many have you killed, milord? 50? 100? Countless?"
"'Countless' has a nice ring to it." - Coster-Waldau's expressions as he attempted to hide his pride in his former skill in battle while ruefully acknowledging the lives he'd taken were priceless. Without doubt, this is his finest season and it's fascinating to watch his performance grow in the same manner that the character did in the books.

Unfortunately, we still haven't heard a complete rendition of The Bear and The Maiden Fair (other than the proto-punk one from a couple episodes ago.) Perhaps at the wedding...

Monday, May 6, 2013

"If you think this has a happy ending"

"you haven't been paying attention." Well, I have been paying attention and I was a bit put off by this week's episode. It's not the only reason I'm late this week but it had a bit to do with it. Put simply, the tension and excitement of the past two weeks was missing as there was a dearth of action and a great deal of introspection and contemplation. Those scenes often turn out to be some of the best, but it was a drastic change of pace and the episode felt like little more than setup for later events. Of course, if you're imagining TV seasons in the context of the books that they're derived from, there's a lot to set up in Storm of Swords, so it makes sense to start early. In that respect, the opening scene was understandable.

Sam and Gilly is a storyline that I know many book readers are fond of largely for Sam's pronounced humanity. In a world full of political vermin, Sam is one of the most earnest and genuine characters at hand. While I tend toward the more cynical approach (Sandor Clegane, FTW!), I can certainly see Samwell's appeal to the SoIaF audience and, of course, John Bradley's near perfect take on the role. The point where he and Gilly strike out on their own is a new beginning for Sam in a fairly Joseph Campbell-ish way and it will be interesting to see how elaborate their trek becomes. In one way, their journey south is relatively monotonous. In another, there are some key events that occur which will require more explanation than the remaining episodes may be capable of.

In the same manner, not much happens for long stretches of Bran and Co.'s journey north, but key moments have huge implications to the overall storyline. Part of the challenge of this adaptation is how much material to club the audience over the head with and keep your actors onscreen long enough to make it worth their while. Do we have 4 more episodes of vague references to Jojen's powers and Bran's symbolic dreams or do D&D begin to get worried about how much the audience is willing to take before it gets bored (speaking of viewer-only fans)? Last night's setup of a fight over rabbit skinning while demonstrating that the implications of being in touch with the dormant forces of magic in Westeros aren't always as fun as being a neo-lycanthrope didn't do a whole lot for the episode as a whole. It felt more like busy work.

OTOH, there's nothing even close to being work in the scenes with Jon and Ygritte (but a lot of busy, or at least references to it.) In truth, the scenes by the Wall were the only real "action" in this episode and, while they were exciting enough, this was one of the two instances where just watching Ygritte tease Jon may have been more interesting. Almost everything Rose Leslie said was a memorable line.

And then we come to the first real crash-and-burn moment for me in the series. I've noted several times that I'm fine with changes. It is an adaptation because the logistical challenges of filming a TV series of such size and over several seasons will require it to be. I'm OK with that and, of course, in some cases the added material to fill gaps and/or change some aspects of the story has often been truly great stuff. But Melisandre appearing to abduct Gendry from the Brotherhood was not in any way, shape, or form. I'm fine with the blood of kings angle and, in truth, her appearance reinforces the renewed fervor that Thoros discovered as he continued to revive Beric Dondarrion. But the point of the Brotherhood in the first place was that it was the protector of the smallfolk. Giving up one of them to the Red Woman is something that none of the characters would countenance, especially Thoros. Claiming that it was done for money, weapons, and food is even worse, because it suggests that the inherent idealism of the Brotherhood is not only subject to pragmatism but subservient to it. It makes the entire group simply another pawn in the game and a rather callous gathering of brigands, which only becomes more true with the later arrival of a certain (other, more gray) woman. This group has barely had a chance to demonstrate to the audience that they're "the good guys" before they sacrifice one of their own number to the machinations of the fire god. I'm all about the religious war angle and that comes into play quite prominently in Feast and Dance, but its acceleration here really threw me off and colored the entire episode (as is probably clear by now.)

My concern about this offering continued with the scene at Riverrun. Robb's moments last episode were his best of the season and it felt like they were really giving Richard Madden some great stuff to work with. This time, it wasn't there. It certainly could have been a factor of what he's asked to do in this script, since he has to be congenial and apologetic, but still exercise the divine right of kings, as it were. And, of course, they do have to slow play the build-up to one of the bigger events of the season, so it's fair to think that they might have deliberately downplayed this scene as just another development in the political struggle. I'll forgive everything as long as they ask for bread and salt.

But the real "meat" of the episode turned out to be three conversations, beginning with Brienne and Jaime being entertained by Roose Bolton. This was the first moment in three seasons when I began to imagine McElhenny as Bolton. He finally produced the penetrating stare and the facial mannerisms that GRRM so vividly describes. Granted, he does achieve the height of his strangeness in the books while he's lording it over the corpse of Harrenhal, but I've been wanting at least a glimmer of this in the previous two seasons. Everyone knows the people of the Dreadfort are weird, even Robb. It wouldn't have been that difficult to present some of that before now.

The second, of course, is the masterful confrontation between Tywin Lannister and Olenna Redwyne, as they fenced over a "discreet bit of buggery." Speaking of added scenes that turn out to be brilliant, this is definitely one of them and one of the best scenes of the season; watching two masters of the game test each others limits. Charles Dance's look of pure indignation when Olenna inquires about him having a go at a stableboy was priceless. As this whole sequence is set up, in part, by the absence of Willas from the series, I'm really looking forward to the angle they take to keep Cersei from having to marry again. I have a couple theories, but I'll cash them in when/if they happen.

And, finally, the anguished ruminations of brother and sister as father plans to marry them off to two of the most attractive people in the Seven Kingdoms. There seems to be one scene per season that shows Cersei and Tyrion sharing their respective miseries and still utterly unable to get past their mutual contempt; from the whimsical breakfast in Winterfell to the Imp failing to be the consoling brother to now, when they can only sit and stew about the lack of control that they, two of the most powerful people in the world, have over their own lives. It's excellent, especially as Cersei struggles mightily with her inability to confirm Tyrion's theories about Joffrey. It would give her brother some degree of peace knowing that he's right and she won't give it up. The whole scene is brilliant and the continuation to Tyrion having to spill the news to Sansa in the presence of the woman he really loves only made it that much better. Sibel Kekili managed to keep a straight face while also staring daggers through Tyrion's head, almost as if she knew what was coming before he said it.

The final stroke was the return of The Littlefinger and Spider Show. While the montage didn't allow them to show Conleth Hill's great expressions, it was a fitting end to a great deal of conversation and was probably a highlight for certain members of the reading audience who can't stand any changes, as they revealed the passing of Ros at the hands of the ever-gentle king. So, an episode full of setup still had some degree of denoument; however bloody.

Lines of the week:

"You got a big mouth, girl. And too many teeth." - Osha, genuine pugilist.

"Your flock gets smaller every year." - Somehow, you'd figure that Orell, being a warg who makes contact with the minds of animals, would know that it's called a "murder" of crows. But, then again, maybe the beasts don't care what we call them. How appropriate, though.

"He didn't do that thing you do with your tongue..." "You're a proper lover, Jon Snow." "But I'm your woman now, Jon Snow. You're going to be loyal to your woman." - Ygritte. What more needs be said?

"Face, tits, balls. I hit'em right where I wanted to." - Arya, prepping for the next step in life and knowing where to aim.

"I knelt by his cold body and said the old words, not because I believed in them, but because... he was my friend." - Thoros giving a testament to the failure of dogma in the face of simple humanity.

"Let's play a game! Which body part do you need the least?"
"'Please' isn't a body part." - Ramsay Snow's headgames involve proper grammar. And, of course:

"You say 'please' again and you'll wish you hadn't." - "Say 'what' again! I dare you! I double-dare you, motherfucker! Say 'what' one more goddamn time!"

"You're paying for my sins, uncle. It's not fair or right. I'll remember it." - Robb acknowledging the foolishness of all of this.

"I should send you back to Robb Stark."
"You should. Instead you're sitting here, watching me fail at dinner." - The simple chemistry between Gwendolyn Christie and Nikolai Coster-Waldau is fantastic here. Her frustrated stab of the fork combined with his gentle grip on her hand as she grabs the knife really highlights the complexity of their relationship. And:

"I would have hoped you'd learned your lesson about overplaying your... position." - Roose with the hand pun! Coster-Waldau's look in response is awesome.

"Do you deny it?"
"Oh, not at all. A sword swallower, through and through." - The real queen and the real king discussing the Knight of Flowers. The modern subtext is present, of course, but there's also Olenna's obvious amusement at the whole deadly exchange. I could have watched another hour of the two of them.

"Though Loras will certainly come to know a deep and singular misery." - Tyrion with the truth about Cersei and his other sibling: "When Jaime gets back, Ser Loras may come down with a terrible case of sword-through-bowels."

"Chaos isn't a pit. Chaos is a ladder." - Great, great line because it sums up Littlefinger in every way possible. The funny thing is that non-readers probably have no idea of the depth of this statement.