Sunday, May 18, 2014

Taglines and their emotion

One of the qualities of superior drama is genuine emotion. While it's very easy to write stories that are emotional, it's not so easy to generate the kind of emotion that becomes palpable to the audience and allows them to understand why rational people do very irrational things or why they may choose to act out a decades-long effort for a goal that they know they will never reach or why they make an effort at another goal that has nothing to do with what their life to this point seems to indicate.

All of these situations were present in this episode and it was, by far, the best-acted of the season. There were no truly transformative events but there were multiple moments when that genuine emotion conveyed more than multiple deaths or breasts ever could have.

Among the best, as always, were Westeros' favorite odd couple, who aren't nearly as odd a match any longer. Where the Hound said: "Could be food.", Arya replied: "Could be soldiers." They're on the same level now, which is what made the later scene around the campfire such an interesting one. Sandor has been teaching Arya some life lessons, but he really hasn't come close to revealing himself to her. The campfire scene changed all of that and it allowed both of them to display some of the humanity buried beneath their cold exteriors, especially since it followed on the most brutally cold display by Arya yet seen. Her execution of Rorge was kinda brilliant and my second-favorite moment of the episode. Interestingly, Clegane's speech about his brother in the books was given to Sansa in Kings' Landing where Martin displayed the quite human and vulnerable side of the imposing warrior to the only human Clegane knew was guileless enough to almost trust. It's a very different dynamic here, where he's learned to trust Arya as a boon companion (and stone cold killer) but used to the same effect in presenting the greatest cynic in Westeros as a somewhat tortured soul. That contrast is later mirrored by the second-greatest cynic, Tyrion, in my favorite moment.

Likewise, the cold, calculating Petyr Baelish finally really exposes himself to Sansa and shows what has driven him for most of his life, in which he's also set this entire recent set of events in motion, always shifting pieces and playing the game to prove himself worthy of the attention of a woman who never loved him and never would have. Littlefinger is far too intelligent to think otherwise, but that's where rational thought gets clouded by emotion. Everything he's done has, in the long term, been for the attention of Catelyn Stark, who disdained him as too small and not propertied enough to be the mate of the eldest daughter of House Tully. In that way, he was the perfect match for batshit-crazy Lysa, who was also driven by being overlooked in favor of her more attractive and socially viable sister. Even now, with Catelyn dead, Littlefinger continues his pursuits in the name of her eldest daughter, bringing himself as close as possible to his lifelong goal, even if only as a proxy. One scene that neither GRRM or the show explored was seeing Baelish's reaction to the news of the Red Wedding. Despite all of the peripheral benefits of the wheels he set in motion (lord of Harrenhal, lord of the Eyrie, etc.), to get the shattering news that the person to whom he'd devoted his life was now firmly beyond his grasp must have been overwhelming. But this is Littlefinger and when you're that driven you just shift gears to the nearest available substitute, as we see here. Dropping one of those substitutes out the Moon Door is just a way to give some degree of satisfaction to both Littlefinger and the audience.

That said, I have to say again that Sophie Turner has become one of the best performers in the series, which is setting the bar very high indeed. Her ability to convey any number of emotions with very brief looks or reactions is truly impressive. The small delight of seeing snow for the first time since Winterfell and the memories it obviously created was great. The wheels turning as she utilized her new-found sense of suspicion about Baelish's motives and then still fell into his embrace was even better.

The interesting thing about displaying those intense emotions is that it has to be done well or it falls over into melodrama. The rhythm of the author will often allow the reader to make their personal judgments about this or that character. I think Littlefinger is a more sympathetic character in the show because you can see Aidan Gillen's face writhe under developments and the burning desire in his eyes to finish what he started as a child. In that same manner, the Essos Triangle strikes me as a more engrossing situation than in the books because you can actively see the torture on Jorah's face and the blatant desire on Dany's (Michael Huisman has not quite sold me as Daario yet.) Emilia Clarke has never looked more desirable than when issuing the royal command: "Take off your clothes." But just minutes later, we get to see her exercise the (other) muscle of the queen when dictating to Jorah exactly what she's going to do to those who've defied her. We've been waiting for her line "They can live in my new world or die in their old one." for seven episodes and it was delivered at the end of a philosophical sparring match that was driven by emotion and the lust for vengeance but tempered by wisdom and Jorah's desire to see the woman he loves not descend into the tyrannical nature of rulers he's seen before. She started this with the idea of justice and he's keeping her tempered to the genuine embodiment of that concept even as he writhes under the knowledge that she's giving herself to the sellsword. The "Tell  him that you changed my mind." line was a very nice touch and the panoply of emotions that fired across his face tell you all that you need to know about writing and presenting complex humans.

But the crown prince of this episode remains The Imp. There was a great outpouring of praise for Peter Dinklage during the last episode when he turned on the crowd in the throne room. While I enjoyed it, I have a hard time associating Dinklage or Tyrion with emotions that are that direct. His roles have often been tragic and complex (see The Station Agent for a wonderful example of that) and watching him hurl contempt, even at targets that deserved it, was a distinct step away from the character that had always landed far more devastating blows with remarkable subtlety. This episode gave him three shining moments to do just that.

The first was with Jaime, as the two of them spar over the wisdom of his outburst at the trial and Tyrion gets in one last stab at his incestuous but favored siblings which draws a look of malice from Nikolai Coster-Waldau that was chilling and a line that was prophetic: "Careful. I'm the last friend you've got." When they finally get to the root of the matter, whether Jaime will stand for him in the way that Tyrion had hoped he would at the Eyrie, we see the depths to which their relationship goes. Jaime knows that he's physically incapable of fighting the Mountain. He knows that standing for Tyrion, even if he somehow wins, will permanently sever the relationship with Cersei that he's endured quite a bit to try to restore. They revel in the idea of finally truly screwing up daddy's master plan if Jaime does die... but then you see that when confronted with the genuine possibility of death that their relationship has reached its limit. It's not just that Jaime would be throwing his life away for nothing and Tyrion would still die. It's that Jaime still wants to live, which is a perfectly understandable desire. So they sit and rue the circumstances.

And then we come to Bronn. Their relationship has always been one of convenience: the mercenary sellsword and the wealthy lord. But it's obviously developed well beyond that, as loathe as they both are to admit it. Just like Jaime, Bronn is taking the rational angle: killing the Mountain and getting more gold is nothing compared to becoming a landed lord, even if Tyrion could potentially make him a more landed lord at some point in the future. They both know that he's playing with dead cards in that respect and, as much as he'd like to have his savior back on his side, Tyrion can't possibly begrudge him taking the path that 1 sellsword in 10 million would ever have access to; in addition to not getting annihilated by the Mountain. Tyrion has been buying friends for a long time because he's a Lannister, but he's found that he can't depend on blood or money in his current situation, which is when the despair really sets in.

But the best moment is, of course, the final scene with Oberyn. This is where Dinklage truly excels. This is where the raw emotion of rejection and the horrible loneliness that has haunted Tyrion's entire life becomes expressed in brief moments as the tears well in his eyes. The only member of his family to ever care for him has turned him down. The only real friend he's had, even via business, has turned him down. The woman he loves has betrayed him. And along comes the enigmatic heir to House Martell, who proceeds to spell out exactly why Tyrion has faced that rejection and why it was so unfathomable to the Dornish who take a very different perspective on the weakest among them and those who don't fit the social order of the Andals.

Again, we've waited some time for the tagline: "If you came here for justice, you came to the wrong place." and Dinklage delivers it to the person who has been focused on precisely that since he first appeared in episode 1 this season. It is the converse of the lesson on justice that Jorah delivered earlier to Daenerys: killing only begets more killing. In that respect, it remains an irrational act. But Oberyn isn't acting rationally for the sake of the world to come. He's acting for the past and the only way to quiet the demons in his breast in the same way that Littlefinger pursues his goal with the object of his desire already out of reach. Nothing will bring back Elia and her children. But Oberyn will make this stand, regardless, and he will do so on behalf of a man that society has wronged since the day he was born.

Side notes:

We have our third casting of the Mountain in 4 seasons. I wondered a bit why they chose to take the camera angle that they did when Cersei met with him. That usually done to create perspective to hide something. Is it because he's not quite as tall as the others? I'm hoping the fight to come isn't mostly camera work.

The scene at the Wall was completely superfluous. Yes, Jon still bridles under the control of Alliser Thorne. Yes, we're still waiting for Mance to arrive. Yawn. At this point, either get on with it or just leave it out.

Likewise, the scene with Melisandre and Selyse accomplished exactly nothing other than getting another look at Carice van Houten's body and wondering why Selyse was so fascinated by it. It's a concept not even hinted at in the books. Selyse Florent is frigid toward Stannis because of whom she is, not because she gets her inner fire lit by the priestess.

OTOH, the Hot Pie cameo that allowed Brienne and Pod to firmly get on the track of at least one of the Stark girls was well done. Brienne's quest was always a bit of a fool's errand, since the prospect of finding either Arya or Sansa was extremely remote. Finding a source of information on that quest was more deftly accomplished than the somewhat drawn out method that occurs in the books. Plus you get a bit more interplay between Brienne and Pod as they begin to learn each others' limits.

Lines of the week:

"I thought you were a realist. I didn't realize you'd die for pride." - Not quite the angle that was taken, but emotion gets to you sometimes.

"You give me. I give you. Fair. A balance. No balance anymore." - If only it could be that simple.

"If I wanted wits, I'd marry you."
"I like you, pompous little shit that you are. I just like myself better."
"Because you're an evil bastard with no conscience and no heart? That's why I liked you in the first place." - Bronn and Tyrion, ladies and gentlemen. Truth in comedy.

We interrupt these lines for a last look at batshit-crazy Lysa

"The slaves you free... brutality is all they've ever known. If you want them to know something else, you have to show them." - Jorah's wisest line to date.

Almost every line of Oberyn and Tyrion's scene could be included here, but the best among them:

"I've got every kind of filth down here except the kind I like."
"Making honest feelings do dishonest work is one of her many gifts."
"It is rare to meet a Lannister who shares my enthusiasm for dead Lannisters."
"Horns, a tail, the privates of both a girl and a boy..." "That would have made things so much easier."

"A lot can happen between now and never." - No greater encapsulation of the life of Petyr Baelish.

"I've only loved one woman my entire life... your sister." - Great, even if entirely predictable.

And the winner:

"What's your name?"
"Thank you."
"You're learning." - Completely emotionless and excellent.

Monday, May 12, 2014


John Constantine is returning to the in-motion visual medium this fall. NBC has announced that Constantine will be one of their new shows for the season, as they try to capitalize on the recent surge in horror/sci-fi/fantasy audiences (they were always walking among us...) i09 was recently raving about this trailer:

I'm, um... mixed. While I appreciate the fact that, unlike the abhorrent Keanu Reeves film, it appears they actually, you know, read Hellblazer before making the series, it still strikes me as questionable.

First off, Constantine isn't an exorcist. While his story is steeped in Judeo-Christian mythology and lore and some of the best story arcs have revolved around his relationship with Lucifer and other entities of that ilk, presenting him in this fashion leads very quickly to the assignation of black hats and white hats. The demons are the black hats and their exorcist must, of course, be the white hat... which is exactly the wrong way to approach the character AND the wrong way to present this material, in general. Despite trying to attach themselves to the coattails of shows like Game of Thrones and True Blood, I get the feeling that NBC still hasn't quite grasped the idea of shades of gray (yes, even more than 50...) If you draw a clear line between good and evil, not only do you confine your stories to boilerplate Hollywood/Joseph Campbell stuff, you also do the Keanu Reeves thing by utterly missing the point of the character.

John Constantine is generally an asshole. He has friends who range from hating themselves for letting him into their lives to barely tolerating him. Part of the reason is his essentially anti-social attitude. The other part of the reason is that many of them know what he's done to other people who considered themselves his friends. Constantine sees the big picture. The big picture, as we know, often overlooks the little guy. Those little guys are often friends of his and if he needs to sacrifice them in order to accomplish a greater good (like freeing an entire town from the death cult that has infected it) well, that might just have to happen. And does. Repeatedly. Constantine is not without a conscience in that all of these sacrifices that he's made tend to stay with him (some of them quite literally) and so he spends a fair amount of time inside a bottle. Is NBC going to be willing to show him screwing over the people that love him, drinking himself to death, and spitting in the eye of whichever demon he's scripted to deal with this episode? Or is it just going to be a canned retelling of The Exorcist every week? I think the former is a bit much for their main channel. If it was showing up on one of their subsidiaries like FX (home base for the brilliant and way-too-risqué for NBC Archer), I'd feel a lot more secure that they weren't going to sanitize it into idiocy or, even worse, a slightly scruffier version of Highway to Heaven.

Secondly, Hellblazer was rarely confined to just Christianity. There are a lot of other religions and forms of magic in the world and Constantine had experience in most of them. That was what made him what he was; jack-of-all-trades, master of none. That's part of why other entities considered him so dangerous because they were focused on one area of the netherworld and he was comfortable everywhere. If you're going to confine him to a strictly Westernized and Americanized approach, again, you've limited the range of motion of the character before he even hits the screen or are reducing him to taking the occasional excursion to New Orleans ("The Brady Bunch goes to Hawaii!!" "The Simpsons go to Africa!!") to deal with the eerie voudoun before getting back on the anti-Satan train the following week.

Finally, Constantine is a cynic. That's what made him interesting when Alan Moore first created him. That's how he excelled when Jamie Delano and Garth Ennis took him to the greatest heights that the series hit during its run. He's bitter about society (he's the former front man for a hardcore punk band, Mucous Membrane; what else would I be listening to while writing this other than Minor Threat?); he's contemptuous of almost everyone because he can see what makes them tick; he despises his own knowledge, the ambition that led him to acquire it, and the horrible things that it has led him to experience and to do. Matt Ryan, at least in the clips I've seen, is not that guy. He's way too glib and not nearly suspicious enough of those around him to be John Constantine. Yes, he's blond, and raggedy, and English (Keanu Reeves? Seriously? You needed a casting director and found some guy gutting fish, right?) but he doesn't display that unfathomably canny attitude that makes the character what he is.

Despite my praise of Ennis, Delano, and Moore, I have to say that the best encapsulation of the character I ever read was done by Neil Gaiman in a limited series called The Books of Magic. The premise was that a young boy was the Earth's new sorcerer supreme (ahem) and he needed to be taught just what that meant and how to deal with it (a decade before Harry Potter.) In one of those issues, his guide is the inimitable John Constantine, who proceeds to give the lad the streetwise angle on how to deal with his newfound power and all of the danger that it will present. At one point, they stumble into a meeting of DC's magical community (Zatanna, the Spectre, various demons, etc.), all of whom are trying to influence the young Tim and Constantine stops them all cold. The room comes to a standstill as he tells them: "You know me. You know my reputation. Does anyone really want to start something?" Silence. When Tim asks him how to tell the good guys from the bad guys, Constantine tells him that there aren't any. They're all just people, trying to get by. I don't get that kind of real world acumen from the limited bits that I've seen of this show and it's the kind of mercenary and realistic attitude that's not generally going to appear in a show that NBC likely thinks is mostly about the horned guys on fire.

And, yes, confessed cynic here, especially on topics like this. I've seen too many bad attempts at this sort of thing to the point where I doubt that any network that is as concerned about the censors as NBC is will ever be able to get it done. At this point, it's cable or nothing and preferably pay cable... which also means it's HBO or nothing, since a Constantine written with the acumen of a Black Sails is a series waiting to be put out of its misery before the first episode.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Trials and tribulations

So this is the point where you could feel like they're stretching it a bit if you're a reader. The Red Wedding takes place roughly halfway through the book and it continues to be compelling reading the rest of the way through. The show is still compelling television, but the Red Wedding's impact is now a year old and any imaginative impetus generated is long gone. The first three or four episodes this season had their own driving forces but the last two haven't been as gripping. That happens every season (see: bridge episodes) but not normally for two in a row. The downside is that there's a bit less to be geeked about on Monday morning. The upside is that it's an indication of a big setup for moments to come, none of which I will spoil here, per usual. On the other hand, this episode presented any number of moments to think about, which is often what makes the best stories. You walk away not necessarily in awe, but in considering just what was done and by whom and how others reacted.There's a lot going on that doesn't necessarily involve blood or moments that draw it but still involve dense plotting and very real characters and emotions.

It was a treat to finally see Braavos in the opening credits, complete with clockwork Titan, in addition to getting another look at it in the episode itself. It's unfortunate that a lot of the detail about Braavos can't make it into the show yet, because it's definitely one of the more interesting locales that Martin created for the world. What's even more interesting in the scene at the Iron Bank is (just like last week) how similar it is to our own reality, where the banks own everything and king and commoner alike will sit upon the plain stone benches and become supplicants to the power of money; all in the Bank's good time, of course. Liam Cunningham has a great moment pleading Stannis' case to the money gods, but it struck me as kind of odd that in the series they show him missing the first two segments of his fingers on his left hand, whereas in the books Stannis only removed the first knuckle. Better visual impact, I suppose. And, of course, who better to have as the chief of the Iron Bank than overbearing but still refined Mycroft Holmes? Braavos also reintroduces us to Lucian Msamati, playing Salladhor Saan, and despite the skin on display, there was none of the fabled sexposition. Instead, just an old pirate joke.

Continuing the seeming directorial theme of the past couple episodes, we come to this week's Great Departure from Canon. Asha Greyjoy (yes, Asha; I refuse to continue with the "Yara" nonsense because it's silly) advances on the Dreadfort to free Reek/Theon. This, of course, never happens in the books because the Dreadfort is on the other side of the North from the Iron Islands, which means they'd have to sail all the way around the south and Dorne, past Kings' Landing and White Harbor and up the narrow river to the Dreadfort. This kind of sea traffic does happen in the world and it's really no different from running through the Strait of Magellan to do Pacific trade with Europe before the Panama Canal was built. However, my book bias says it's mildly crazy except to keep Gemma Whelan employed. Again, gotta do what ya gotta, etc. The difference between this GDC and previous ones is that this scene actually turns out to be really good. Alfie Allen does brilliant work presenting the desperate and terrified Reek and seeing Ramsay take down three or four Ironborn reavers gives some indication of just how capable he is. In the end, they wrote their way out of the GDC pretty easily and appear to be setting up another one, but there are a lot of ways to go with the events in the North during Feast and Dance, so it won't be hard to get to the same place, even if by a different path. Coming back to the bath scene and watching Ramsay indulge in his mindgames on top of mindgames allows the audience to enjoy his constantly churning mind, even if Reek still looks pretty put together after months upon months of torture.

It will be interesting to see how the series-only audience reacts to Dany's ongoing stay in Meereen. Many book readers decry it as stagnant. I wasn't as put off as most, as I could sympathize with the struggles that Martin was having in staying true to his characters and the route the story had taken to that point (boy, have I been there...) This scene was a great example of that. Runnin' things ain't easy, especially if you're trying to be conscientious about it (which, like, no one normally is.) This was a good opportunity to once again observe just how big Drogon and Co. are becoming and was also a good moment to introduce Hizdahr zo Loraq who is the first character that only appeared as of Dance with Dragons, so we're firmly stepping past the expected timeline here (again, keeping in mind for those of you who aren't readers, that Feast and Dance were intended to be two halves of one book, so perhaps not quite as far a leap forward as you'd think.)

But the best scene outside of the trial has to go to the Small Council meeting and the subsequent fencing match between Oberyn and Varys. All the little clues of rank and expectation are on display at the meeting (Tywin sending Mace, the Lord of House Tyrell, to fetch paper; Oberyn being the most interested in Varys' description of Daenerys and her doings; etc.) There are clues and hints here of future events and revelations, so it's always a good idea to pay attention to those nuances but I can't say much more. I wonder, though, why D&D and Cogman (the writers) felt like Varys wouldn't have known of Oberyn's widespread reputation as a warrior with sellsword companies in Essos, unless the Spider was just playing him to get something else...?

And, then, of course, the trial. This is a really interesting scene from a dramatic standpoint. You know where this is going. Everyone knows where this is going. The question is simply: how difficult will it be to get there? Do you have a give-and-take before one side wins on the strength of surprise evidence and/or a witness or do you have the farce where one side is basically Franz Kafka? We got the latter and it's interesting to watch because of how frustrated the audience becomes at having seen the whole picture that Tyrion has seen while the show audience gets led by the nose by those truly in control. The crowning moment is, of course, when Shae appears and lays Tyrion's heart on the table to be stabbed repeatedly. It's a somewhat different dynamic than in the books because of what happened in the second episode, but it's still just as heart-rending for him. It's not so much the lies about he and Sansa plotting. He would know that they've gotten to her and threatened her if she doesn't. It's when she gets back at him for sending her away and reveals the extent of their relationship that you realize how things have changed irrevocably for both Tyrion and Tywin.

The latter, of course, had all of his plans falling into place like clockwork up to that point. He knows his kids. He knows what they'll likely do, so this was the perfect opportunity to bring his "proper heir" back into the fold and continue the Lannister line. But he doesn't know the extent of the emotion between Shae and Tyrion or how that betrayal will make the latter react, as he still partially sees Tyrion as this beastly little man with an appetite for whores and one who will try to save his own skin if given the opportunity, which Jaime has given him. Emotion ruins even the best-laid plans but it also drives drama and so here we are. While I respect the fact that this trial was, in many ways, the Lannister family problems being laid out and finally brought to a head, I can say that I really wouldn't mind going a long time without ever hearing "The Rains of Castamere" again.

Lines of the week:

"Here our books are filled with numbers. We prefer the stories they tell. More plain. Less... open to interpretation." and "You can see why these numbers seem unlikely to add up to a happy ending." - Mycroft, givin' it to'em short and sweet. Having been in bookkeeping for a number of years, I've actually had the opportunity to have a conversation like that a time or two. Stannis' reaction is pretty true to form.

"Does this mean I'm the Master of something now? Coins...? Ships...?" and "I have seen the Unsullied. They are very impressive on the battlefield. Less so in the bedroom." - Watching the foolish Mace become petulant about being Master of Ships to his rival from the south is more telling than anything else about Lord Tyrell's character. And Oberyn is, of course, Oberyn. Always in the bedroom.

"I wish I was the monster you think I am." - Tyrion hasn't had a ton of material this season but this strikes closer to home for both him and the people around him than almost anything else.

"You've got bigger balls than he ever did. But with those big balls of yours, how fast can you run?" - Ramsay always seems to have a (ahem) grasp of things.

But the best line came from that same scene, as Alfie Allen gave us an example of pure terror and a completely broken identity:

"I don't believe her! I know who I am!" - only to be told that he had to pretend to be his old self by Ramsay a while later. Watching him be nice to Reek is far creepier than when he's savage and that's good acting and good television.

Sunday, May 4, 2014


For the longest time, I've felt that The Wire was the best thing ever put on TV. There have been a few close seconds: seasons 3-7 of The Simpsons, Breaking Bad, and now Game of Thrones. However, since I read the books long before the series ever emerged into the force that it has now become, I've never quite been able to separate one medium from the other. The Wire is the best television show ever. Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire is still more book series to me than TV series and this is one of those episodes that kind of highlights that. So far this season, each episode has had kind of a stunning event (as D&D had implied during the pre-season interviews; "each episode has a kind of 'Red Wedding' moment") that sets the Interwebs abuzz.

This episode kind of lacked that if you happen to have read the books, since everyone who has already knows that Littlefinger was essentially the impetus behind the entire series of events that became the chaos that is his ladder by convincing batshit-crazy Lysa to murder her husband, Jon Arryn, Hand of the King and fosterer and mentor to both Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark. So the TV-only audience is one step closer to being on the same page (ahem) with the rest and perhaps finally firmly aware of just how dangerous one, small, barely-a-lordling can be if he's really ambitious. Aidan Gillen did remarkable work tonight, as well, since you could see his reluctance behind his usual steely demeanor as Lysa was throwing herself at him. And, as always, poor Sansa gets to listen to the screamer all night.

That said, for the first time I'm at a bit of a loss in terms of thinking about really powerful scenes because a lot of this was just progression or bridging. In a narrative sense, it's difficult to continually have "wow moments" (DaveBrandonCreatingTheFuture™) one after the other because your audience will become inured to them and your story will begin to suffer from requiring yet another peak, followed by the inevitable come down. In Hollywood, they tend to "solve" that problem by just blowing up more stuff. Not possible in the more limited scope of TV budgets and yet expanded scope of a serial production (if one chooses to look at the series as a sequence of 10-hour films, which seems reasonable to me.)

Even so, there were high points in this episode. They were just a bit more subtle than usual. For example, both scenes with Arya and Sandor were, as usual, excellent. Arya naming the Hound at the end of her list, even though likely expected by most watching, book-reader or not, was great. Rory McCann's continued concern over the way his pseudo-charge is developing,  even through the haze of his general disdain for all things, is great. You could see the thoughts moving through his raised head as she finished: "Did she just name me? Well, alright, then." It's an excellent student-teacher relationship that I'm sure GRRM is kicking himself for not exploring further.

The later scene with the swordplay was almost better. Much as I appreciate the essentials of Eastern sword technique (and was a practitioner of it for several years), there is something to be said for simply overpowering your more nimble opponents with solid steel and irresistible force. The fact that said opponent is a young girl without much of a chance to develop the strength to try to counter that armor (especially when worn by a nearly 7-foot man) just makes the point that much more obvious. The Hound is such a cynic that he continually tries to reinforce the point that nothing she does will make things better, whereas Arya is determined to make them so, even if she has to take a relatively morbid path to do so. In that way, they're as alike and as disparate as two characters can get.

But did D&D jump ahead of the books again? Tywin tells Cersei that the last of the Westlands' gold mines was played out three years before. That doesn't mean the Lannisters are broke. It just means that they're not as liquid as before. Thus, the greater emphasis on the Iron Bank this season, which is a much larger presence in the current thread of the TV series than it ever was in the books. Is this a way of creating a bit more dramatic tension about the crown's debt or is it a way to keep the audience intrigued since the power of the Bank is so similar to our own current times? Either is acceptable from a storytelling perspective, but I wonder if Martin did drop them a hint of the Lannisters' impending financial troubles and they decided to run with it?

Sticking with that perception of "lacking a big moment", the lone scene with Dany and Co. seemed to introduce the notorious Meereenese Knot in just a few short moments. How does one keep slaves free in a culture that is utterly reliant upon them since time out of mind? If one is going to rule, what makes Westeros that much better than Slavers' Bay and however much of Essos one can conquer (and without half the politics)? For that matter, if one is trying to be just and free people from their bondage, what entitles one to do it anywhere other than the strength of the sword? Wouldn't freeing people from bondage mean ending the serfdom of Westeros just like the slavery of Essos? Once again, the gray areas of both story and character dominate, especially in the case of Dany. At least we got the name drop of Cleon the Butcher, too.

I will say that the one scene I was genuinely disappointed in was that between Oberyn and Cersei. Here are two of the most interesting (and volatile) characters and two of the strongest actors with extended time together and they spend it largely rehashing Oberyn's slights against the Lannisters and Cersei's despair over Myrcella's absence. Those are certainly valid topics, but I was hoping for a bit more in the way of fireworks. Once again, peaks/valleys/how many can you tread, etc. The little tête-à-tête with Margaery was, in contrast, more interesting for its lack of flames. One has to assume that Margaery is wary enough to understand that a sympathetic Cersei is akin to dealing with a sleepy viper. Lena Headey is doing great things this season and that's saying quite a bit considering what she's done to date.

So we come to Craster's. My main concern with the deviation with Bran's story was that he would actually link up with Jon and the impact that would have on the two characters. In the end, they wrote their way out of that and the whole thing became a bit of an unnecessary sideshow. There were interesting points, certainly, in that the fight scene between Jon and Karl was well done (and the counterpoint to the assertion by the Hound about big swords versus faster ones) and it was definitely exciting to see Hodor get the killing blow on Locke, despite it being a case of him being warged by Bran (the gentle giant looking in confusion at the hands that just committed murder was a very nice touch.) But, in the end, it felt a bit too obvious that this was a scene inserted to try to cover for long stretches in the book where, again, Bran's story is the trek north and Jon's is getting ready for Mance and the Wildling army to appear. Again, you do what you gotta to keep the ball rolling. I just think that, as a capper to an already intermediate (as it were) episode, it kind of highlighted some of the story problems that they're already running into.

Side notes:

The extended applause for Not-Joffrey's coronation reminded me of the gushing for Obama shortly after his first election. The fact that he wasn't his predecessor was enough to win him a completely farcical Nobel Peace Prize. It was, of course, notable that Cersei was the only one not applauding the death of her firstborn.

It was interesting to see the Bloody Gate, despite not seeing it on our trip to the Vale in season 1. One assumes that was a budgetary issue. That said, in the books, Sansa and Petyr stop off at his old home before proceeding overland through the gate. Having just sailed from Kings' Landing, one would have expected them to stop at Gulltown where we could have skipped the Gate sequence entirely.

Brienne and Pod's scenes were similar. There's some development going on in that Brienne reverts to her pre-Jaime distance and aloofness while the ever-earnest Pod does his best to screw up and break her out of it. But this odd couple can't hold a candle to the previous Brienne pairing or Arya and Sandor, of course, and that made it seem a little like filling time.

To go even further with the Hound's comments about fighting styles (tank-like knights vs. faster blades), I really want to play Crusader Rex again... /wargamenerd.

Drink from the Skull will be sharing a stage with Sword through the Gullet in Gin Alley next week...

Quotes of the week:

"Who told you to take the Meereenese navy?"
"No one told me."
"Why did you do it?"
"I heard you like ships." - Forget roses. Queens want ships.

"You know what stories poor men love best? Ones about rich girls they can't have." -Petyr with the little biographical note that batshit-crazy Lysa elaborates upon later with Sansa.

"What do you think will happen if you leave?"
"They'll say I wasn't a very good squire." - Pod the pragmatist.

"Mostly I poured wine." - Pod the realist.

And the winner and still champeen:

"Your friend's dead and Meryn Trant is not, because Trant had armor. And a big fucking sword." - It's mildly terrifying seeing how mature Maisie Williams is in that scene. What's she going to look like in three years?