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.

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