Sunday, June 8, 2014

All Wall, all the time

The 9th episode of each season has become notorious for including THE moment of the season. In season 1, it was Ned's execution, letting all the viewers know that no one was immune to Martin's pen. In season 2, it was the Battle of the Blackwater, in what I thought was at least some desire by D&D to make up for the fact that season 1 had been completely bereft of large-scale combat in the midst of a war. In season 3, it was the Red Wedding (Seriously. No one is safe. Fer reals.) The difference in season 4, which was asserted by D&D prior to its beginning, is that we've already had multiple huge moments over the course of the season. It wasn't a case of build up to climax... except in one storyline: the Wall. In that respect, they kind of overdid it in that almost every scene of the North so far was Jon and Co. saying: "The Wildlings are coming!" to the point of fatigue. You can only cry (dire) wolf so much before people start ignoring you and that was what I had largely begun to do, in addition to the fact that the scenes in the North had often been the most standard-fantasy-heroic-adventure stuff, which I can probably live without for the rest of my days.

However, in those prior seasons, that big event, even the Blackwater, has not dominated the entire episode. Tonight was a miniature version of Feast for Crows: We're going to give you these characters and only these. We'll get back to the rest of them some other time. On the one hand, that's irritating, as there's a lot more going on (obviously.) OTOH, I think this battle lived up to the majority of its hype as, for the most part, you could really imagine the magnitude of what was going on but were still given opportunity to focus in on the heroic set pieces, like Alliser Thorne throwing down with Tormund Giantsbane. Furthermore, unlike the Blackwater, this fight saw named characters die left and right in true, GRRM fashion ('cuz, you know, that's what happens in war, strangely enough.)

Of course, GoT being GoT, they stopped in the middle of fire and blood to watch the effects those kind of circumstances have on the human condition. Even though it's half-expected, I really enjoyed John Bradley's depiction of Samwell almost literally growing up before our eyes as he explained to Pyp how to try to live through the night (oops...) and still live up to the vows that they'd taken. Furthermore, I appreciated Owen Teale's acknowledgment of his error as Alliser Thorne while staying within the contemptuous and venomous nature of the character. Being willing to admit one's errors is, in fact, a sign of genuine leadership, as opposed to the tale of woe that he spins about "loudmouthed twats."

But the really impressive part of the episode was how they managed to keep so many moving parts operating at once. This kind of action is a logistical nightmare (as it often is in reality) and when D&D mentioned post-production that doing this season "almost killed us", I'm betting that this was the episode they were thinking of. I was genuinely impressed with the CGI transition from the battle beginning at Castle Black, over the Wall, and to the assembled ranks of Mance's army. But even more spectacular was the terrific crane shot late in the battle, moving from named character to named character enmeshed in their own aspect of the fight. It makes me cringe to think about how many takes they might have needed to get that one right while everyone goes through their battle paces. Kudos to director Neil Marshall (also director for the Blackwater) for pulling that off. I want that guy on every historical war movie I see for the rest of my life.

Sam wasn't the only one coming into his own at a moment of crisis, of course. Edd's command of the Wall late in the battle showed his positive side (kill or be killed, yo) and Grenn's encouraging his brothers to bellow their vows at the oncoming giant was awesome. That kind of unification of spirit is a further reflection of Thorne's actions, as well, so I think the screenplay really found its footing in this extended battle scene, as all of those perspectives were part of what kept the fight interesting (not to mention the excellent solo fights, such as the one between Jon and Styr, which may be the best mano-a-mano fight in the series to date.) But it also calls up an interesting perspective about human nature in these kind of crises.

The conflict at the Wall is one of the cruces of the story. This is the Ice side of the Song because of the Others, but it's also the most pointed question about the societal system in Westeros in the first place: are we people or property? The Wildlings follow the typical hidebound traditions of claim to the land for x number of generations and so on. But their main focus is the desire to live free; to not be obligated to a lord simply because that person is recognized by society as having a higher social station. So although the fight at the Wall is often presented from the perspective of Good/Night's Watch vs. Evil/Wildlings, it can be argued that the Wildlings have the purest motives of all of the various factions of the story: the desire not to rule, but simply to live on their own terms. They can't live as well in the utter North, so it's not as if their motives are (ahem) as white as the driven snow. But more of them would be willing to do so if they weren't being pushed forward by the Others. In that way, they're no different than any of a hundred different migrations in Eurasia. You can see the tribes as evil if you're living on the land they're coming to, but if they're running ahead of an even greater threat, it becomes hard to blame them for doing so. Then, of course, you bring in the Thenns and that bit gets to be a bit harder to argue...

I also don't want to make this into a Cliven Bundy screed, where everything is caused by the evils of government, but it's pretty clear that Martin's intent is to show a certain degree of enlightenment to the aged and corrupt systems that dominate both Essos and Westeros. Whether that enlightenment will take root is one of the driving questions of the story.

Lines of the week:

"We're all gonna die a lot sooner than I planned. You're the closest I'm going to get to knowing." - At this point, Sam does at least get the vows right in that they don't require the Watch to be celibate. They just require them to not get married and/or father children. Of course, if you're of the Puritan disposition, one immaculately follows the other, but that's what happens when people try to deny basic biology in the name of presumed higher callings (see: Catholic church.)

"Right now, I don't wanna think about the bear you never fooked." - Ygritte ruining what was going to be a great story.

"Serve him up a nice thick slice of ginger minge." - Hearing this from Styr expands the meaning into a fairly uncomfortable place...

"Thousands of books and no eyes to read them. Old age is a wonderful source of ironies, if nothing else." Who else thought of this episode of the Twilight Zone?
"Nothing makes the past as sweet a thing to visit as the prospect of imminent death." - Peter Vaughan's performance as Maester Aemon tonight was fantastic.

"Promise me you won't die." - The world's most broken promise by every soldier who's never come home.

"When you're nothing at all, there's no more reason to be afraid." - A somewhat more nihilist approach by Sam.

"You know nothing... Jon... Snow." - Once again, they got the quote right. I think the outrage if they hadn't would have been far in excess of that over Littlefinger's misquote.

And the winner:

"I should have thrown you from the top of the Wall, boy!"
"Aye. You should've." - Jon Snow with the most realistic response to the vows and promises that war has made him break to everyone around him.

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