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...

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