Sunday, June 1, 2014

Close the deal

There comes a time in every story, every encounter, almost every point of life where you have to close the deal. When it's lying there in front of you, finish it. When the goal is within reach, finish it. When the focus of your life for however many years is there, finish it. As we all now know, Oberyn Martell, the Red Viper, didn't close the deal. Hesitation will get you nowhere.

But, of course, in many stories, the deal was never meant to be closed. This was one of them. Martin has stated many times that certain characters were slated for death: Ned Stark and Robb Stark are just the two most notable examples for most fans of the Song of Ice and Fire. But Oberyn Martell was one of those, too. There's an old expression: "If you seek vengeance, you had best dig two graves." It was evident from the moment he was introduced that Martell was a singly-focused character, both in personality and in the writer's intent. Here was a person meant to take the story to a precipice... and then fall over it. Nothing about him would change, because changing would defeat the purpose of his existence, both in the mechanical and existential senses.

On the other hand, the rest of the episode was filled with examples of characters who did close the deal, to one degree or another, and in doing so changed in a variety of ways. That's what made up the genuine fascination for me in what was otherwise a very slow pace (in addition to the fact that I know what's happening.) You get to see the wonder of Ramsay as his father transforms his life; the anguish and fury of Daenerys as the ground leaves her feet; and the brilliant awakening of Sansa as she finally begins to take control of her own destiny.

That trend begins in the smallest of ways, with Grey Worm and Missandei bathing in the river. D&D are spending a lot of time on this relationship that doesn't exist in the books. At one point, I felt like it was too much, as there's still so much occurring in other corners that could use the screen time. However, as they progressed through their two moments, one clothed and one non-, it occurred to me that this was another example of the showrunners extending their own writing chops into Martin's story but in the same vein as him. Here were two people thrown together by circumstances beyond their control who'd had essentially no control over their own lives almost from birth and still mostly didn't, as they breathed at the behest of a queen (fortunately, one who cares for them on a personal level.) But when given the opportunity to create something between themselves that can't be controlled by others, they took it. All of that complexity (the handmaiden of a queen communing with the eunuch chief of her devoted warrior corps) was summed up in the simplest expression of honesty: "I'm glad you saw me." "So am I." Honesty being a rare bird in this world makes that all the more endearing and worth the screen time expended. (And, as a straight male aside here, I have to say that when Nathalie Emmanuel stood out of the water... uh... wow. I mean... yeah... Wow! Not surprised to see even a eunuch gawk there...)

Continuing in the East, the showdown between Jorah and Daenerys, while long in coming, was extremely well-played. Jorah is an interesting character in that, while suffering the continued frustration and humiliation of the woman he loves shacking up with a mercenary captain, he feels that his expression of devotion, above and beyond his earlier betrayal, should place him in a favored spot. That is, of course, not how it works, as betrayal is never forgotten and devotion and affection frequently are. Jorah, if he'd been wise to the nature of the deal, should have taken his pardon back in the day and fled Essos back to the Mormont lands. Instead, he fell in love with his target and tried to close another deal that was forever denied him. He just didn't know it at the time. There's a certain level of pathos to the Jorah character that Iain Glen continues to excel with, even under the guise of his usual restraint. Speaking of which, Emilia Clarke was excellent in this scene, as her mask of barely controlled rage could have tipped over the edge into scenery chewing (think Al Pacino at any point in the last 20 years), but she held it perfectly.

Ramsay, on the other hand, knows what's good for him and makes sure that all the loose pieces of flesh are cut away in proper order. This whole sequence was interesting, not least because, in the books, we never get to see Moat Cailin. It's constantly referred to but no point of view ever travels there. So, seeing it in the opening sequence was cool, but getting to see the fortress itself and the bogs it caps as the gateway to the North was even better. Ramsay knows how to play the game for solely his own benefit. That benefit extends from the good graces of his father, Roose, who proceeds to transform Ramsay's life by making him no longer a bastard. He is now the heir to the Dreadfort and the Warden of the North, which means that his schemes are no longer dismissed as the errant ways of a baseborn sociopath, but now proper noble conduct. It has to be said that Alfie Allen continues to do brilliant work as the sorely conflicted Reek/Theon. Just the moment where he was about to break down in front of the challenge of the garrison commander spelled out exactly how real his identity as Reek has become. On the one hand, he could have broken the chains and taken command of the garrison to resist the Bolton army, which likely wouldn't have been able to take the fortress. On the other hand, seeing how badly it was going for the Ironborn in the midst of a swamp, he knew that Ramsay would have him eventually, so he made sure to finish his mission as Reek.

But the best moment in that respect, by far, was done not once, but twice, by Sansa. Again, Sansa is one of those characters that people seem to either love or hate. I detested her for the first couple books and I continue to think that was Martin's intention. But I think it may have been a bit of a mistake on my part, too, since Sansa's reactions to everything have always been quite human. People quail in the face of danger and often have outside expectations about what their world should be like. They often learn otherwise about those expectations and become defeated and cynical, but few of them are able to pivot and begin to not only draw strength from those experiences, but also take control of their circumstances and begin to use them to their advantage. Sansa has become one of them. This is not Arya, who has learned to coast above trouble and seize opportunity where she can. This is Sansa, who has now learned the game at the feet of a master and is about to begin playing as her own piece on the board, rather than simply a pawn. Her gaze over the shoulder of Anya Waynwood at Petyr was transfixing, as she knew that she had surprised him with her invented story (have to say that Aidan Gillen was masterful here, keeping the straight face, but with his eyes showing just a bit of wonder at the skill with which she was playing it.) The fact that this scene played out differently from the books actually made it better, as there Littlefinger escapes on a technicality of protocol. Later, Sansa's clipped responses to his threatening questions lead us to begin questioning just who was in charge of whom here. And, of course, the descent of the stair as Catelyn the Second was great. Right now, the first among equals as far as acting goes this season is Sophie Turner, without question. She's been magnificent.

Oh, yes. The fight. Well, knowing a bit about how to wield a staff/spear, I have to commend the fight choreographers. They showed Oberyn wielding it properly: using the danger of the spearhead to keep distance with your opponent, stepping inside their strikes and then turning to trap the sword with the staff, keeping the shaft moving to not try to take a direct hit from the sword which would destroy it, etc. I enjoyed it, even if screen Oberyn seemed somewhat more vulnerable than book Oberyn did. And they got the lines right! There was much dismay last episode that Petyr had used the line "Your sister." when pushing batshit-crazy Lysa through the Moon Door instead of the line from the book "Only Cat." I had forgotten about that line (it's been a while), but I will never forget the exchange between Ellaria and Oberyn upon her first sight of the Mountain: "You're going to fight that?!" "I am going to kill that." It was delivered just as it should have been, as has been every line that Pedro Pascal has uttered as Oberyn. I'm really going to miss his presence, even though I knew it was temporary. He was excellent. Deal closed.

Side notes:

I liked the depiction of the assault on Mole's Town, not only for its demonstration of Ygritte hellbent on revenge, but also her continuing humanity when she notices Gilly. That's a complex character. I was a little disappointed for the first time in the music for that scene. I guess I expected something a bit more urgent than the heavy bass line.

It's still interesting to see the little details that D&D maintain to demonstrate Dany's departure from the typical noble/royal attitudes. Here's the queen of the biggest city-state on Slavers' Bay taking time out to fix the hair of her handmaiden. It's a role reversal intended to convey humanity and I think it continues to work well with the very emotive Emilia Clarke.

I was confused by the long shot of the Bolton army returning to the Dreadfort. Obviously, Ramsay had returned some distance from the Moat to meet Roose in the field, but why bother showing us the grand return? A couple seconds would have sufficed, if it was necessary at all.

We only got a couple minutes with the Odd Couple, but it was still worth some good lines and Arya's almost-hysterical laughter had me cracking up as soon as she started. There was no better depiction of the frustration and cynicism that has already overtaken this young girl. To come as far as she has and find that Death has beaten her there (today...) once again was a really good moment.

And even though it seemed to be a departure from the overall theme of the episode, the extended conversation of the Kingslayer Brothers was, once again, one of the best scenes. Tyrion's long discursion into the meaning of life seen in the activities of a mentally-handicapped cousin and the obvious resonance with Jaime, as he recognized how all of them were the beetles in most of the events surrounding them, was really well done.

The only thing I really missed about the whole fight sequence was seeing the dismay of Cersei and Tywin when Oberyn declared his intent (in the book, it happens in the throne room.) Their frustration at Tyrion having gotten the better of them and the realization that the next-in-line to the throne of Dorne may die while they're trying to bring House Martell back into the fold (Tywin because obviously and Cersei because they have Myrcella) was a powerful moment in the book.

This week's band name: The Pillar and the Stones.

Lines of the week:

"She surived Caster and he was the worst shit I've ever met." and "Whoever dies last, be a good lad and burn the rest of us." - Dolorous Edd, pragmatist.

"Traditions are important!" says the man carrying the banner of the Flayed Man.

"You betrayed me! From the first!" - Daenerys with the second tagline of the series.

"I wanted to see the look in his eyes when he knew it was over." "Yeah. Nothing beats that look." - Two killers, talking shop.

"Family. Honor. All that horseshit." - The Hound never changes.

The Kingslayer Brothers:

"Oberyn believes in himself."
"That's putting it mildly."

"There's no kind of killing that doesn't have its own word."
"Cousins! You're right. Well done."

"On the contrary, laughing at another person's misery is the only thing that made me feel like everyone else."

But still the best:
"You're going to fight that?!"
"I am going to kill that."

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