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.

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