Monday, April 27, 2015

Who are you?

This was the running theme of this episode, from Arya choosing to become nobody to Cersei discovering where she has landed now as the Queen Mother, to Jon growing into his role as the Lord Commander, to Sansa discovering just what will be asked of her in maintaining her new role as the last link back to the ancient Stark family. Indeed, the entire storyline is essentially a testament to discovering who these characters are, whether they're growing up and learning how to deal with the world as the Stark children have or discovering how they're going to live in a world of utter turmoil, as most of the rest of the characters have had to discover (or have died trying to; as Stannis noted: "Honor got your father killed." True 'dat.) It was appropriate, of course, to begin an episode about changing or transforming identities in the House of the Many-Faced God, who knows all of these paths which, in the end, all lead to the same resolution ("There is only one god and all men know his gift.")

In the course of going through this journey of self-discovery in this episode, we are way, WAY off the books now in a couple areas (most prominently Tommen and Sansa) so it's a new adventure for everyone. The prevailing question now will be whether we as viewers are willing to trust D&D on their vision of how these characters handle these transformations, since it likely won't be in lockstep with Martin's. Indeed, it never has been, since they've deviated before and, interestingly, Martin has almost always said that he'd have preferred to follow D&D's path if he could go back and rewrite parts of the books. Admittedly, there are ways to deviate like Sansa, which is likely just a matter of them showing stuff that's going to occur in Winds, since her activities are pretty huge in the grand scheme of things, and then there are ways like Tommen, which kind of has to be done given that Tommen is a boy of eight in the books and not the teenager that he is in the show. I think that it's the showrunners' taking advantage of the benefit of hindsight, in that the story is already set down, so they can just pick over the parts they know and make tweaks to upgrade it. The characters, of course, get no such test runs so they have to make certain decisions on the fly. As we saw with Tyrion, sometimes that doesn't work out so well. Believe me, there were a couple more that are going to be almost as bad for the deciders in question, but I'll continue to refrain from book spoilage right up to the moment where it's past my ability to do so.

Since self-discovery was kind of the theme, I thought it was worthwhile to have even more than the usual number of great character interaction scenes. The most notable for me was the discussion between Pod and Brienne about their respective unusual pasts that led them to being squire and (almost) knight. Podrick's story is true to his character in the books (except that it was Kevan Lannister who brought him to Kings' Landing), while Brienne's is not but is roughly the same. I mentioned last week that Podrick remaining as cheap theater to Brienne's quest would get tiresome quickly and I'm glad to see that they've led the two to a deeper understanding of each other in the very next episode. Brienne, at this point, has come to understand that treating Pod the way she has is a reflection of how she's been treated. Societal change begins with the individual and all that. This is where I really miss the Hound who'd have made that point in blunter terms and much more quickly.

The next was Petyr and Sansa's moment where he reveals just what maneuvers he has in mind to try to cement his position with the North. It's a sign that Baelish's mind is always turning. He knows that most of the people left in the capital are foolish or weak or already outflanked, so he immediately began moving upon Tywin's death (as he reminds Roose Bolton) to resurrect the old alliance between the North and the Vale. However, the key point in the exchange between Littlefinger and the last link to the Starks wasn't Sansa steeling herself to go home and face the Boltons, but instead Baelish's face while he was delivering his pitch to get her to do so. The whole time he didn't look in her eyes while trying to make his sale. Of all the characters in the story, the one who is most sure about just who and what he is happens to be Petyr Baelish. Why would he not be able to maintain the mask in this case? He mentioned later that he knows little of Ramsay Bolton. Was he lying there and, thus, not able to entirely lie to Sansa? Seems unlikely, but it was interesting to see nonetheless. On top of that, Sophie Turner's face when she first greets Lord Bolton and as she slides right into character as the dutiful noble lady, participating in the game, was excellent. The fact that she's reassured right away by the common folk staffing the castle ("The North remembers.") should lead to some interesting events in the weeks ahead. Later, Roose and Petyr sparring over the direction ahead for both their houses was intriguing, as the mistrust between these two liars and traitors (ahem) reeks.

But the best scene of this type (indeed, perhaps the best scene of the episode) was the confrontation between Margaery and Cersei after the latter has realized that Margaery has truly stolen her son and Cersei is, at long last, an afterthought in the game. Margaery, as the Elizabeth Taylor of Westeros, has finally secured her position with the teenaged king: horizontally, the best way possible, and she's finally seeing fit to exercise the benefit of that position with the Queen Mother (or is it 'Dowager Queen'?) Cersei, for her part, turns in an excellent look of death when she reassures the queen of being able to provide "Anything you need." In the land where women are usually property and disempowered, it's unfortunate that Cersei can't recognize the opportunity to make alliances in the way her father did, but some people just think they're good at the game when they're really not. Her earlier realization on the ride to the wedding, as people shouted Margaery's name, is just reinforcement of that failure.

In that respect, it was almost refreshing to watch Stannis' meeting with Jon and see the former basically lay out the map of how the game works and what he would need for it to work well. Jon, true to his vows, ain't havin' any. It's an interesting conflict between the man who is heeding his oath (Jon) and the man who insists that everyone play by the rules... except when it's necessary to make things really work as he'd like them. As noted, his contempt for Ned Stark when he didn't do so is apparent but it also shines a slightly brighter light on Stannis' hypocrisy. Experience makes liars of us all? Perhaps.

And, of course, it was fitting to return to Arya to discover this greatest of transformations, as the willful, proud, determined, hardened young woman realizes that all of that must be left behind to make the transition that she wants and now believes will be the way to fulfilling all that she has hardened herself to complete. We see the most real emotion that we've seen from Arya in some time (There's almost nothing as hilarious on the show at this point as watching Maisie Williams yell: "Ow! Cunt!"), both in her outrage at how she's been treated and in her genuine grief at being told to separate herself from the one totem, Needle, that remains her only tie to the House of Stark and to her former teacher, who first taught her that there was only one god. In the end, she can't make that complete separation. It reminds me of Luke trying to heed all of Yoda's advice to release his fear and become a true Jedi. In the end, it seemed to work even though he appeared to fail. Now we'll see how Arya works through it. You can become no one, but you cannot abandon yourself.

Bits and pieces:

Reader outrage! The line! They missed the line! Jon Snow's greatest line in all 4500 pages of the books currently in print... and they left it out! This is far worse than Littlefinger changing a throwaway comment when he pitched Lysa out the Moon Door. This was the line! For those who aren't readers, this isn't a spoiler, as the moment is the same when Jon executes Janos Slynt. But the best part about that whole sequence is when Slynt is walking off and thinking he's gotten away with his usual crap and Jon turns and says: "Edd, fetch me a block." Otherwise, they got the rest of the scene generally right, with Stannis looking on in approval. So, it still worked, but I think they missed a great opportunity.

I thought the whole High Septon sequence and Cersei's visit to the High Sparrow was well done. There are, of course, major implications to all of that and it was interesting to hear Ser Meryn utter his first moment of wisdom: "I don't think this is a good idea."

The whole wheelhouse scene was entertaining but essentially served as setup for the Jorah kidnapping (and it looks like they may have found a replacement for a character that many feared wouldn't appear.) There's nothing wrong with that, but it was a bit anti-climactic based on other more genuine moments that had happened earlier. Also it was interesting to note that, for the first time there was a major scene in a major city (Volantis) for which they didn't create a model in the opening credits. Perhaps it's because that's the only scene which will take place there, but they did spend time pointing out the Volantene tradition of tattoos that keep their slaves segregated. That may have been another sign of budget tightening where they were able since it probably costs a shiny Braavosi coin to add to that credit sequence.

Lines of the week: (A lot of good ones this week.)

"I didn't come here to sweep floors."
"No? Why come then?"
The implacability of Jaqen H'ghar is is his most endearing feature.

"It was all over so fast."
D'oh! Sorry, Tommen. That'll improve with experience.

"This is all I want to do, all day, every day, for the rest of my life!" You and every other teenaged boy. And most men.

"I flayed him living, along with his wife and brother. Made his son watch."
"The new Lord Cerwyn paid his taxes."
Funny how that works.

"There's no justice in the world. Not unless we make it."
Petyr sounding like Stannis.
"A man can be killed."
Brienne sounding like Jaqen.

"I heard it was best to keep your enemies close."
"Whoever said that didn't have many enemies."
Stannis' logic never fails to impress.

"Who are you?"
"You're about to find out!"
Maisie is still amazing.

"It's good luck to rub a dwarf's head."
"It's even better luck to suck a dwarf's cock."
Varys' expression at this one was priceless.

"Someone who inspires priests and whores is worth taking seriously."
Hard to argue this.

And the winner:

"I wish we had some wine for you. It's a bit early in the day for us." Oh. My.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Crucible of choices

It feels like they're laying more groundwork for the series this season, as the second episode had the same feeling of the first: a lot of introduction and setup and not many scenes of real impact. That's fine because they're continuing to tell the story and the whole canvas, if anything, gets even more complicated with the advent of the 4th/5th book(s). The show is even leaving out significant chunks of it and a rather prominent character (Lady Stoneheart; do yourself a favor and don't Google that name if you don't want to spoil the books) and it's still going to get even more confusing for those who have trouble keeping up with all of the factions. So, it stands to reason that they might spend a bit more time showing the lay of the land before getting into the really dramatic and/or bloody stuff.

This episode was really about choices and how they might come back to haunt everyone who's forced to make one. From Sansa turning away Brienne to the latter persisting in carrying out her oath; from Arya remaining determined to see the inside of the House of Black and White (in the world that's anything but) to Daenerys discovering that there's simply no pleasing all of the people, all of the time, no matter whom you kill; from Prince Doran trying to navigate his way through the attempted diplomacy of dealing with the death of his brother and the lust for revenge of that brother's daughters to Tyrion deciding which vintage to kill himself with while he's an Imp in a Box, everybody has to make a choice that isn't going to sit well with people around them, with themselves, or both.

One of those, of course, is Jon Snow, who is offered the chance to become Jon Stark by Stannis before becoming Lord Commander of the Night's Watch thanks to Sam's helpful(?) campaigning. That choice, too, is fraught with peril, since he has no shortage of enemies within the organization he's sworn to serve. He could have jumped at his boyhood dream: to become the heir to Winterfell and be the Warden of the North (especially since we now see the symbol of the Flayed Man stamped on Winterfell in the opening credits) but instead he makes the fairly ethical decision that if he can't heed his vow to the Watch, what kind of ruler would he really be? This, of course, ignores the fact that he's technically already violated his vows to the Watch by, y'know, having sex, but there are vows and then there are vows...

Meanwhile, in the first drastic departure from the books of the season, Brienne actually meets up with Sansa and Littlefinger. This scene does not appear in Feast or Dance... which isn't to say that it couldn't appear in Winds, since Brienne's path is a little different in the books. However, I thought it was well played by all involved, but especially by Sophie Turner (Sansa) since her few moments this season continue to play out the obvious maturity that Sansa has gained in her time with Petyr and she recognized the logic of his argument against Brienne, even if she may not have entirely recognized his motive of simply keeping control of her. Choose the new danger of wandering around with the accused murderer knight or the continued danger of being the pawn of the greatest schemer in Westeros? Sounds like a win-win.

The only character whose decisions didn't seem to be a devil's bargain was the one that many fans consider to be the devil herself. I thought the red viper statue as a message from Dorne was an especially nice touch by the producers. That, of course, led right into the scenes of my favorite house in the books: Martell. I'm a fan of Alexander Siddig, so I was excited to know that he was going to be playing Doran and his verbal sparring with Ellaria was great. It also tied in well with Oberyn's assertion from last season that they "don't hurt little girls in Dorne." As usual, they didn't skimp on the detail. Areo Hotah, the captain of Doran's guard and his bodyguard in this scene, is from the city of Norvos in the books, where the famous warrior priests raised him and he was married to his battleaxe at the age of 15. I had heard that they spent a great deal of time getting the weapon in question to be just right and it, indeed, looked great. However, the complexity of Doran's situation is what makes the scene work and the story proceed, since he's facing a country inflamed by anger and yet knows that giving in to that emotion is likely the wrong path to take.

Similarly, Daenerys faces probably the most difficult decisions of the episode and highlights the problems that Martin had in writing this section of the 4th/5th book (which he later derided as the "Meereenese Knot".) If you're trying to be a just ruler that heeds laws rather than whim, you're going to piss people off. If you're trying to be the enlightened ruler who attempts to perpetuate the ethical choices you've made about slavery, you're going to create a situation of civil war between the rich and the poor (We should be so lucky...) which usually doesn't help anyone, but especially the poor. Thus, how do you walk that middle ground without the whole experiment falling apart amidst the passions on either side? The wise person would say "You don't." but teenage dragon queens are, if nothing else, impulsive even when it comes to controlling one's impulses in the name of better government, as the loyal Ser Barristan attempts to remind her with an example driven by her father, Aerys. The struggle over ethics in Meereen doesn't end with social mores, either, as Daario attempts to drive home a lesson about empathy to the frequently impassive Grey Worm and his Unsullied compatriots. To know your enemies, you must understand them. That includes understanding their emotions which are often driving their status as your enemies.

But altogether the most interesting choice and the most life-altering has to go to Arya as she enters the House of Black and White, accompanied by everyone's old friend, Jaqen H'ghar (This, too, is a mild departure from the books, as he isn't the person that greets her at the House in Braavos.) Whereas most of the rest of the characters are already on their respective paths with their decisions affecting where those paths end up, Arya is striking out on something entirely new here and it's easily one of my favorite parts of the whole epic. I wasn't very fond of Arya's character in the first couple books, but she began to hit her stride in Storm of Swords, not least because she spent a great deal of time with my all-time favorite character, the Hound, but also because it was clear how she was transforming as she learned the bitter truth about life in Westeros (as does her sister in a more subtle fashion.) Her arc in Feast/Dance is a fascinating one and show-watchers should get a real kick out of it. Plus we get more of Jaqen's "A man does or doesn't" quips, so no one can complain.

Bits and pieces-

In Arya's case: still with the words. The rage hasn't subsided, but the list is much shorter than it used to be. Progress!

Again, Alexander Siddig! Many people might remember him from Syriana, where he played the forward-thinking Prince Nassir. This is going to be great.

Lord Kevan Lannister being up front with Cersei is one of the more entertaining moments of life back in Kings' Landing and at least provides her with a foil that her character seems to require to gets its greatest moments from. In the same manner, Jaime heading to Dorne (another departure from the books; Dorne's situation is told from the perspective of Arianne Martell (daughter of Doran), Areo Hotah, and Arys Oakheart, the bodyguard for Myrcella Baratheon) with perfect foil, Bronn of the Blackwater, accompanying him will doubtlessly provide some great moments this season.

Podrick doing comic relief in Keystone Kops fashion is going to get very tired, very quickly.

Still no Boltons or Theon. Given that Asha (Yara) Greyjoy has a relatively key role in Feast/Dance, I'm wondering how or if she's going to show up. Now that we know that D&D are willing to put some actors on ice (ahem) for a season, it's feasible that they could do it with more than just Bran and Co.

Interestingly, the vast majority of the most interesting choices in this episode were those made by women; including empowered women. Despite much of the story being about the degrading position of women in Westeros, even when they're at the pinnacle of society, it's certainly interesting to see many of them begin to use their situation to the advantage of not just themselves, but also those around them.

Lines of the week-

"You have everywhere else to go."
But you can do that being other people, too. Perhaps even better...

"I have no idea why men so love the taste."
"It gives some men courage."
"Does it give you courage?"
Sansa taking a moment again to try to puncture the immaculate facade that is Littlefinger.

"Everywhere has already got a ruler. Every pile of shit has someone's banner hanging from it."
Tyrion trying to explain the futility of being an Imp in a Box.

"Show people too much kindness and they won't fear you. Then they won't follow you."
No one will ever refer to Stannis as 'Mhysa.' He'd probably have them burned if they did.

"The law is the law."
Daenerys was edging toward both Judge Dredd territory and John Adams. It's a fine line to walk between them.

And the winner:

"Nothing's worth anything to dead men."
That's my girl...

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Ask of me these questions three... and 20.

Episode 1 of the fifth season of Game of Thrones opens with Cersei's memory of the prophecy that has followed her life, which one can take as an allegory to the way the show will be going: looking into the future, with all of its uncertainties, but with some knowledge of how it's supposed to turn out. Whether that allegory is dire or exciting (or both) depends on where you are in your mindset between reader and watcher.

The fifth season begins with the relatively common knowledge that the show will begin to diverge in a more significant fashion from the books. Reactions to that are pretty varied, since there've been minor variations in the storyline from the moment the show began. Part of the cause for the greater divergence of this season, of course, is that the show is almost to the point where it's overtaking GRRM's progress on the story. (He has become more conscious of that: he's forgoing most of his convention appearances and even passing up the writing of an episode for next season in order to focus on the sixth book, The Winds of Winter.) But given that Martin has stated before that the vast majority of changes that Benioff and Weiss have made in terms of story and character are things that Martin wishes he could go back and change, I'm relatively confident that the show will proceed as closely as possible with what the showrunners know is coming. Will it get to the point where we're seeing new material on the screen that we haven't yet read about in Martin's tomes? Well, it's too late for that already, since the appearance of the Night King last season, so it's more a matter of whether you're willing to enjoy the ride now and then read a more elaborate version of it when Winds does finally hit the shelves.

Continuing to mirror the audience, this episode had a fair number of contemplative moments that were presented as conversations and arguments (Cersei and Jaime, Tyrion and Varys, Jon and Mance, Daario and Daenerys.) While it was expected that the twins would once again diverge over the circumstances of their father's death, it's interesting to note that Cersei's occasionally irrational opinion of Tyrion is the cold reality of the situation in this case: he did actually commit patricide, as opposed to the previous accusation of regicide. It's that weight that Tyrion is carrying with him as he attempts to drink himself to death in Pentos while Varys harangues him about doing something useful. Tyrion's opinion is, of course, that there's nothing useful he can do, since there's no decent leader to rally behind... that he knows of. Daenerys and Mance, OTOH, are confronted with the quandaries of leadership. Is the right path to display strength in the face of opposition and overwhelming circumstances, respectively, or is it wiser to concede some things for the presumed betterment of the majority? Mance can bend the knee and save his people but he loses them just the same. Daenerys can allow some of the customs of Meereen to go forward while still attempting to repudiate the others or she can simply be the face of granite, as often befits a queen, and fight her way through everything. Those aren't easy decisions and they do come with a fair amount of weight for both performances and story. I thought Jon and Mance's conversation came off well. I was a little less sanguine about the other and perhaps it was because one discussion was coming on the verge of death and the other in the post-sex afterglow, although both were about proceeding toward more death and destruction. (Also interesting to note that the ratio of male to female nudity was far more equal in this episode, albeit still only full frontal on the female end.)

But, of course, the Game has always been about tough decisions or the unwillingness to make them and the consequences that follow.  It becomes even less certain with the consummate Game player, Tywin Lannister, lying in state in the Grand Sept. No one made decisions of clarity like Tywin and everyone is now adrift in the world after him. That was clear when it was not-so-subtly implied that Jaime's suspicion about everyone wanting to tear down what Tywin had built was entirely accurate, as everyone in the throne room was ready to question Cersei's judgment, including her uncle and cousin Lancel, although for vastly different reasons ("They never would have come to the capital when Lord Tywin was alive.") Daenerys suffered through the same thing, as Ser Barristan attempted to warn her about her actions and then started in surprise when she dismissed the idea of diplomacy by stating that she wasn't a politician, but a queen. It was that kind of (relatively) blind absolutism that Barristan had seen before in the persons of Aerys and Robert that led him to regret his service. That was a great moment by Ian McIlhenny, but it's also possibly indicative of the episode's theme as a whole: the opinions of women in leadership roles are still undervalued because of their gender. Even if Cersei wasn't "trapped" by the prophecy, she'd be trapped by her sex and Daenerys faces the same thing even without a prophecy.

I thought director Michael Slovis did a great job of shifting the viewing perspective to emphasize the attitude of both his subjects and the scene. We were Tyrion, peering out from within the crate, a breathing hole our gateway to the world, but also highlighting the fact that we were now truly alone and discarded by anyone we ever cared about. In the same manner, we looked up at Brienne from the place of her sword as she glowered and brooded over her failure to rescue Arya and we stared past her into the unfeeling, cold, gray sky and she perpetuated that cold disdain toward the faithful Pod. He's obviously a very visual storyteller and he incorporated that into this episode. It will be interesting to see him follow Arya into the House of Black and White next week.

Overall, the episode was a bit on the expository side (Tyrion and Varys' conversation about why the latter does what he does and whom would be a good person to follow was the more grindingly notable in this respect) but seasonal first episodes are almost always like that. I think they're setting up character transitions a little too quickly (especially Tyrion in this case, since his journey to Meereen is going to be very different than the one in the books) but, again, you have 10 episodes to tell 1000 pages or so of story and it may be even more than that, given that this season is supposed to incorporate "book 4", which ended up being two separate publications (A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons) and supposedly the show is only supposed to run for 7 seasons, although D&D have been wavering on that, even though HBO has said that they're not applying pressure to extend it, assuming that D&D will know when to end their show.

Bits and pieces-

The introductions of the bird groups- The Sons of the Harpy and The Sparrows -were dramatically different. The former assassinated a member of the Unsullied, while the latter merely confronted Cersei in the form of cousin and former lover, Lancel. There is, obviously, a lot more to come.

The fact that Ser Barristan is still dressed in clothes that would be more suitable for one of The Sparrows is disconcerting. He's the foremost guard of the woman who is the queen of the oldest and wealthiest city on Slaver's Bay but he still looks like she just found him in the doorway of a tavern and decided to take him home. I don't remember any details in Dance about his mode of dress, but I'm pretty sure he didn't stay that way (Dance is the only one of the five books that I haven't re-read so we're venturing into hazy territory (albeit "prophesied") for me, too.)

Sansa speaking like she has some authoritah is a good start for the character. Of course, being reproachful about whether Littlefinger, of all people, has planned ahead with regard to the people around him is probably displaying more hubris than entirely necessary.

As usual, the "new" scenes (i.e. not from the books) were among the best. The interaction between the Tyrell siblings, Loras and Margaery, was excellent and perfectly appropriate for Margaery's casual disdain for her brother's activities, first cited in season 2 when she wondered if Renly would be better able to get it up with Loras present.

I was a little put off by the suggestion that both Rhaegal and Viserion were firmly beyond Dany's control, since that's never stated in the books and it leaves her character in the show looking like she's lost her greatest asset, beyond question, when the uncertainty is what should be the highlight here.

53 minutes? Only 53 minutes? For the season opener? Seriously?! Lame sauce, man. I was expecting that Arya's arrival in Braavos might be the last segment.

Lines of the week-

"Do you know what it's like to stuff your shit through one of those airholes?"
"No. I only know what it's like to pick up your shit and throw it overboard."
Varys, as usual, crushing the most dramatic of complaints with withering sarcasm.

"Convince him to bend the knee. Or he burns."
Seems easy, amirite?

"Lord Arryn will never be a great warrior-"
"Great warrior? He swings the sword like a girl with palsy."
Rupert Vansittart as Lord Yohn Royce was great.

"We're late for dinner as it is."
"You're very respectful."
"I'm very hungry!"
So was Loras, apparently...

"What's the point of trying to keep a secret in a place like this?"
Kings' Landing in less than 20 words.

"There are faster ways to kill yourself."
"Not for a coward."
To alcohol!

"The powerful have always preyed on the powerless. That's how they became powerful in the first place."
This was definitely the episode for succinct philosophy and history lessons. This one works for our modern day.

"The freedom to make my own mistakes was all I ever wanted."
Sounds like me talking to my dad 30 years ago.

No winner this week, as nothing particularly knocked me over, which kind of exemplifies the episode. It was a solid opener, but nothing that really had me nodding in appreciation. Now, if they'd actually done the House of Black and White...