Monday, May 25, 2015

Presents for the setup

As with previous seasons, the seventh episode (The Seven?) tends to be the setup episode for the end of the season. As of the end of tonight, the balls are pretty much all in motion and it remains to be seen what peaks will be reached in episode nine. Will it be Stannis' siege of Winterfell? Or the great games in Meereen? Or Jon and Tormund's encounter at Hardhome? Or all three?

The title of this episode was The Gift. It's clearly a nod to the meeting of Tyrion and Daenerys, but it's also easily extended to any of the other events that took place. The most obvious theme is that of the High Sparrow and his followers. In their eyes, they're merely extending the gift of the gods' justice, wisdom, and protection to the average people in the face of the depredation of the nobility. Of course, the way they'd see it, it's also a gift to the nobility, in order to rescue them from their lives of sin and eventual damnation. The faith has been waiting 300 years to throw off the dominance of the blood of the dragon and return the land of the Andal faith to the actual descendants of the Andals. Their chance has arrived and it will be the tools provided to them by the Queen Mother herself who gives the faith the control of the throne that it has always desired. Interestingly, the Sparrows feel that they are doing the same work as the Brotherhood without Banners: protecting the common people from being injured by the wars of the nobility. Of course, the Brotherhood under Lord Mallister carries the banner of the Lord of Fire, while the Sparrows are devotees of the Seven. Will it be the common people exchanging a war of houses for a war of faiths? Such a gift.

But the theme is also that of children. Many people choose to see them as a gift and I think the example of that and its complications was obvious throughout. From the passing of Aemon's life while he warned about the preservation of Little Sam to Jaime's frustration at being told the truth by the daughter he can't admit to having to Cersei's moment of true emotion when she told Tommen how important he was to her. These are emotions deeply rooted in not just the human impulse for survival (Aemon) but in the animal instinct for the preservation of one's young (Jaime and Cersei.) Aemon continues to think of the mission of the Watch and the preservation of the realm, but the parents think of the preservation of their blood and hoping that someone doesn't take that gift away from them, be it Trystane Martell and his scheming family or an army of religious fanatics. Stannis also steps into that parental role by finally revealing his waning faith in order to spare the life of his only child.

Strangely, the two scenes where that gift theme is most obvious- Tyrion and the prison scene with Bronn -are also the two scenes that seem to be the clumsiest in a story sense. While I get that Tyrion had to make contact with Dany this season (his path toward that goal in the books is far longer, far more convoluted, and nowhere near as distinct a desire on the part of Tyrion), bringing the queen of Meereen to a wilderness fighting pit outside the city is about as hackneyed a plot shortcut as D&D have ever delivered. There are a hundred different reasons, having little to do with the "traditions" of Hizdahr's family, why that's simply not a good idea (the Queen bothering to pay attention to lower fighters, the Sons of the Harpy, etc.) Even the mechanics of the scene played out poorly, as there was little reason for Dany to remain there to watch the butchery, "traditions" or no, and then even less for her to watch the masked warrior (Jorah) go through the process of beating everyone before revealing himself. The whole scene felt like a poor premise and just as poor execution. Granted, it stuck out as a budgetary and pacing necessity, as there was probably only enough money to do the great games once and it would be logistically difficult for Dany to recognize and receive Tyrion in those circumstances.

Likewise, why Tyene would bother to spare the life of an enemy in exchange for simple compliments is completely beyond me. They've already established that the Snakes all seem to have Obara's lust for and approach to enacting vengeance but also that Tyene was the one looking for Ellaria's approval. Are they presenting her as someone constantly looking for attention, such that she'd give some unnamed mercenary the gift of life just for saying that he appreciated her tits? And this only after the sexposition moment of her explaining that she'd not only envenomed him with the Long Farewell but obviously gotten it to speed up by getting his blood moving to the wrong places (for a prison cell)? I'm really lost here. The Snakes are kind of a fan favorite among book readers that has little to do with their actual impact on the story. So far in the show, they easily rank among the most misused characters and in a role that seems wholly superfluous. Are D&D using them simply because the Arianne storyline of the books was too much of a tangent and otherwise the Dorne scenes would be nothing but Doran scheming amidst his gout?

But, in the end, the greatest gift, of course, came from Littlefinger. In revealing what he knows about Cersei's sex life to Olenna, who then passed that knowledge to the High Sparrow, he not only reaffirms his alliance with the (currently) most powerful house in Westeros (They should change their words from "Growing Strong" to "Winter is coming... and we got the food.") but also removes the rogue element near the throne (Cersei) that engendered a greater threat to all of those in power and, for that matter, trashed his bordello. That's Petyr; always thinking ahead even while he gets revenge. Olenna's quote ("You've always been rather impressed with yourself, haven't you?") may be true, but few have more reason to be at this stage than Lord Baelish, the truest example of a relatively lowborn man rising to unmatchable heights.

Side notes:

I'm sure all of those still seething in frustration over the Ramsay/Sansa storyline must have been mildly apoplectic after watching Reek betray everyone else in favor of his torturer yet again. That Hollywood ending isn't getting here anytime soon. Sophie Turner does it again, though. That moment where she tried to shake Reek back to being Theon was gripping, even if it is a fair question that, given the weather, how a candle would stay lit in the Broken Tower.

Likewise, John Bradley's performance in the attempted rape scene with Gilly was really superb. The monotone voice while he warned them when he rose to his feet was excellent. OTOH, the appearance of Ghost, while welcome, was rather jarring. Ghost's owner and other self, Jon, has just set out on a dangerous mission to the far side of the Wall. Why in the world is Ghost still in Castle Black? Of the few complaints I've had about the series, the use of the wolves is one of them. Working with the animals is extremely difficult and time consuming, so it's at least partially understandable, but the bizarre changes to Ghost's role and presence seem to be annulling one of the key points of the book and an important aspect of Jon's character and his time at Castle Black.

While arming himself, Jorah reveals that he's still wearing his family ring. There's no way any slaver would let someone being sold on the block retain that kind of value. That said, the expression on the slaver captain's face when Tyrion finishes beating his restrainer was fantastic. "See what I'm offering? This dwarf kicks ass!"

You're going to get tired of me saying two things this season: 1) Jonathan Pryce is killing it as the High Sparrow and 2) Where the hell is Alexander Siddiq (Prince Doran)?

Lines of the week:

"I believe this mission to be reckless, foolhardy, and an insult to all the brothers who've died fighting the Wildlings."
"As always, thank you for your honesty."
The way Jon just continues to shut down Ser Alliser never fails to entertain.

"Your name is Theon Greyjoy."
It almost looked like Sansa broke through there for a second but, no...

"This is the right time and I will risk everything."
Even the devotion of the red priestess, apparently.

"Oh! Oh, my!"
Sam's moment when Gilly finally gives him the business was great.

The scene with Lady Olenna and the High Sparrow had a few:
"Don't spar with me, little fellow."
I've gone out of my way to find other Diana Rigg films just because of how great she is in this role.

"The people always do the dirty work."
Fer reals.

"A lifetime of wealth and power has left you blind in one eye. You are the few. We are the many."
Heard this one before, too.

"I'm sorry about the locale."
"No, you're not."
Seriously. She's so good.

"Lies come easily to you. Everyone knows that. But innocence, decency, concern? You're not very good at those, I'm afraid."
Margaery with the brutal truth before the ravens finally come home to roost.

And the winner:

"All rulers are either butchers or meat."
Daario with the sage advice.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Drama's milk

Tricia and I got into a textversation today about what may or may not be an underlying theme and/or plot point in Fury Road that had occurred to me for a second or two while sitting in the theater and which I had then discarded (probably under the avalanche of spiked Buzzard-mobiles or something equally menacing.) And that was:

Why is Immortan Joe so determined to retrieve those breeders?

I mentioned the two essential liquids of the Mad Maxian world: fuel and water. I also cited what I felt was a third: blood, as it seemed to me that Joe was trying to ensure his personal legacy by living on through his offspring in the typical fashion of most animals, human and otherwise, and especially monarchs of human history. Furthermore, blood was seen as essential to the war machine that was the very thing that the women of the film were trying to disrupt (and which Max was the unwilling participant in.) At a couple points in the film, it’s revealed that not only is Joe farming breast milk from a number of other breeders but that the war rig that Furiosa is driving is also filled with it, presumably to trade with the other two locations of Joe’s empire (Gas Town and Bullet Farm.) Tricia suggested that that was the 4th crucial liquid of society and that Joe was pursuing Splendid, Toast, and the others because only they could produce it, as potential mothers. Any human can provide blood, but only mothers can provide milk.

But, again, why those mothers? If he already has a stable of producers, why was it so important to retrieve Splendid and the others? Was it a genetic factor? Was Joe old enough to know that he ended up with superior War Boys from certain women? Rictus might have been a superior specimen because of his size and physique or he might have developed to that level from the better conditions afforded Joe’s favorites (nature or nuture.) It seemed that Joe was going for at least a tiny mix of genetic patterns, in that two of the women were blonde, one a brunette, and the last a redhead. Of course, they were all apparent Caucasians or close to it, as almost everyone has been in the Max films, so genetic diversity isn’t that high on the scale, apparently. Toast the Knowing was the lone exception and only because I know that the actress (Zoë Kravitz) is half-black (and half-Jewish.) Also, as Tricia reminded me, the best "breeders" are women with broad hips that can more easily handle delivering something the size of a human infant. None of the women that Furiosa and Max were protecting were particularly broad anywhere, much less below the waist. Thus, the larger women shown in the milk farming room would have been the more reliable breeders over a longer period of time.

Was it simply a figment of control? Joe is the supreme power in his corner of the world and if someone runs off with the women that he considers his possessions, it presumably would be a sign of weakness (not least because the theft was conducted by one of his own lieutenants.) If someone steals your stuff, you try to get it back. If you're trying to maintain your possession, you do so as savagely as possible to try to assure anyone else of what happens if they were to be so foolish. But that seems too simple, especially since Joe made an effort to call Splendid back to him, rather than simply trying to destroy the rig and kill everyone in it once he'd seen how difficult a task the chase was turning into. Simple isn't really Miller's style (this is, after all, a man who signs off on every frame of his films, including the score.)

Instead we're faced with the possibility that Joe may have been motivated by the most essential of dramatic compulsions: love. But was it love for his unborn son? Splendid? All of them? Are they his prized breeders- his prized possessions -because he loves them? Or does he only love having them? Are they his prizes because of lust or because he's actually come to care about them, especially Splendid? It's difficult to differentiate at that level without being inside the minds of the director and the actor (Hugh Keays-Byrne.)

Lust would be an easy answer if we assume that Joe conforms to the common standard of beauty, in which screwing someone like Capable (Riley Keough) or The Dag (Abbey Lee) is assumed to be more interesting to most hetero men than screwing one of the milk women in the Citadel. Again, no way of knowing but, again, Miller is not known for "easy". I think Keays-Byrne played the role fully intending to indicate that Joe desired more from Splendid than just the sex. I think it was clear from the emotion in his voice that he wanted her back for her (and the child) and he felt the loss of her death as the loss of a person, rather than just an asset or a toy. And if we look at much of Miller's other work in the last couple decades (Lorenzo's Oil, Babe, Happy Feet), we see family as a recurrent theme. In this case, we see not only Joe's anguish at the sundering of his family (the loss of his Five Wives and potential (and actual) loss of his unborn son) but we also see the bonding of the women, Furiosa, Nux, and even Max as a unit looking for a place of refuge; a new home, even as Max's continued visions about his lost family are what almost cause him to leave their new unit.

So we circle back to the original debate: Is mother's milk the fourth precious liquid of their society? I think my answer is still "no", if only because Joe's desire for his wives goes beyond their status as simply favored breeders and veers into the deeper question of relationships. Mother's milk is a resource and perhaps a thematic fluid for Miller's theme of family, but I think it remains outside the story's essential resources that define Max's world as the semi-nightmare that it is.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Furiosa Road

I loved Roger Zelazny. His work was boundlessly inspirational to me and, perhaps even more importantly, was packaged in a use of language so intricate and poetic that I used to put down books of his in the middle of a paragraph and boggle over how someone could come up with turns of phrase that creative as often as he did. One of his lesser works is a novel-that-should-have-remained-a-novella entitled Damnation Alley. It's about a post-apocalyptic setting where the lead character volunteers to make the run from formerly LA to formerly Boston and deliver a package. The passage across the nuclear wasteland that is formerly the USA is known as, of course, "damnation alley." The story was an inspiration to a number of other creators, including John Wagner, scribe of the Judge Dredd comics who used it as a spark for his first extended arc, The Cursed Earth; and Chris Avellone, lead designer of the Fallout series of games; and the band, Hawkwind, who wrote a couple of tracks based on a world like the Alley. Another was Australian director, George Miller, who wrote and directed Mad Max and The Road Warrior after seeing the rather shoddy film based on Zelazny's work. This month, after 30 years away, Miller released the latest chapter in the trials of Max Rockatansky, known as Fury Road.

I'm way behind the curve in writing this review, since the film holds an astounding rating on Rotten Tomatoes (98%(!)) I say "astounding" because Mad Max: Fury Road is "just" an action film, most of which rarely see this kind of unanimity among major critics, since most are not particularly burdened in the plot department. Fury Road is no different in this respect (protagonists are trying to get to a place; antagonists are trying to stop them) but the fact that the story is fairly linear makes a certain degree of sense in the big picture, the shortest distance between two points and all that. However, when the basis of your entire world is that it is utterly dependent on two liquids (gasoline and water; a situation not overly dissimilar from our own), it's understandable that trying to add in things like circles and triangles to your basic geometry will only slow you down and make the film lose focus. What's truly successful about Fury Road is that it does take time to add in those higher concepts but leaves them as undercurrents in a raucous display of intensity such that they can be enjoyed by those willing to pay attention (as I did) or ignored in favor of the rambunctious action (which, I think it's safe to say, the bulk of the audience to date has done.) If you went to see an action film, man, were you lucky, because you found a great one. If you went to see some slowly-revealed cultural touchstones that still have something to say about our own reality ("Who wrecked the world?"), then you were just as lucky.

The film is easily one of the more frenetic adventures I've seen in quite some time. Between the swarming Buzzards, the fanatical War Boys, the Polecats, the war rig, the war drums, and the flamethrower guitar, you couldn't get much more visually impressive while still keeping the majority of effects in real time, rather than CGI. This is a Car Wars adventure taken about as far as you can go. What I also appreciated was cinematographer John Seale's sure handling of camera angles during the chase/fight scenes. A trend over the past decade or so has been to close in on action sequences to try to simulate the chaos of a fight for the audience. What that has led to is a lot of blurred action and an inability to follow what's actually happening until they cut to "really cool move" by whomever the star is. In the comic world, we'd accuse the inker of having spilled water on the pages except for the one panel he managed to preserve. You lose the ability to follow the story with that technique and your choreography that you likely spent thousands on goes for naught. In contrast, Fury Road, with dozens of bodies flying about the screen and scrabbling across vehicles at high speed, still managed to follow a sequence of events from one point to the next so you knew exactly how dangerous the Polecats were (to their targets and themselves) and exactly how destructive the Buzzards could be (again, to targets and selves.) It was a really refreshing experience to be able to know just where everyone was on the highway of death even before they were smoking hulks left to the side.

The upside to all that excitement is that it was exactly that: exciting. Seeing Miller's imagination at full blast while he strove to make a two-hour car chase continually interesting is a phenomenon that won't soon be equaled, I think. OTOH, for those that have seen the Max films before, it's pretty easy to look at Fury Road and say "This is just the chase scene from the second half of The Road Warrior. But bigger and with more explosions." And that would be true, except for the subtext.

In the Road Warrior, the  most important liquid is "the juice", meaning gasoline. The only way the crazed road gangs can rule the wastes is with the ability to ride them (and, it has to be said, in vehicles that might get about a half mile to the gallon, if they coast a lot. (Every fantasy world has its little incongruities. Go away, science self. We're having fun here.)) In Fury Road, they've come to the realization that it's not just the juice that's necessary, but also water. Control those two fluids and you control the world. But, interestingly, what becomes the even more precious liquid to many of the characters is actually blood. Immortan Joe's War Boys, altered to be combat machines that somehow burn out their own plasma, use human blood banks to keep going. Our man, Max, has the misfortune to be one of those. But even more important to warlord Joe is the idea of  blood as heredity. The cargo being chased by him and his warriors is his harem; one of whom is pregnant with his son. As Joe is obviously in the last stages of life (needing a respirator harness to move around), it's clear that he feels the same need that many dictators do: to establish a legacy and live on through the offspring left behind. That's his self-centered contribution to reestablishing the society lost to all of the individuals in Miller's world.

The harem fled with the assistance of one of Joe's top lieutenants, Furiosa (Charlize Theron), and not because they particularly objected to being sex slaves, as they had living conditions vastly better than almost anyone else at the Citadel where Joe ruled. Instead, they objected to what people like Joe had turned the world into and how they sustained it as a place of fire, chaos, and death. By the time they disappeared, they had painted slogans around their quarters ("Who wrecked the world?" "Our babies will not be warlords!") explicitly condemning the world that Joe and those like him (such as Lord Humungus from The Road Warrior) had made and perpetuated. As many critics have pointed out, this is an intrinsically feminist message and a pointed one; specifically blaming men for having reduced society to this barbarous state and doing nothing to restore it. That's a far more complex and noteworthy message than the "tragic hero loses family" motif of Mad Max and the basic nihilism of The Road Warrior.  Of course, the clownshow that is "men's rights" groups have played right into this, objecting not only to the movie's central themes but also to the fact that Theron is every bit the action hero that Max (Tom Hardy) is and even more dynamic than he is for much of the film.

Speaking of the two stars, it's interesting to note that both of them have played far more complex roles in the past but both inhabited their rather taciturn characters fairly well. Max, as played by Mel Gibson in the three previous films, is a withdrawn, brooding, and fatalistically cynical person after he loses his family. Hardy did an excellent job playing the Gibson role and even fattened it with more expressiveness than Gibson had ever done (all three films were still relatively early in Gibson's career.) By the same token, Theron took on the role of nascent idealist and still managed to keep her realist combat approach front and center. You never doubted that she was capable of killing you, me, and everyone else in the room. At the same time, you could see the earnestness that had driven her to break away from Joe and attempt to restore some sanity, not just to the world, but her own worldview. My only regret in all of that is that I felt like the character of Furiosa didn't allow Theron to display the kind of fire that she brought to roles in films like Monster and North Country, since most of her interaction with opponents was about disposing of them as efficiently as possible, rather than meeting their rage with some of her own. Only one moment in the film gives her the opportunity to channel that rage into something other than another deathgrip with her bionic arm.

There are many style points you can laud or dispute about the film. Miller was obviously enamored of the whole skull motif approach, as they appear everywhere it's possible to put one, whether carved or real. As a long-time fan of Games Workshop's 40K and Old World settings, I have no problem with this cranial obsession but it, like the flaming guitar player, can bend things from grim to more of a circus-like atmosphere. Whether that detracts or adds to the film depends on whether you're (ahem) willing to go along for the ride. But I appreciated a lot of the other little touches that Miller and his co-writers (Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris) brought to the screenplay and, especially, the dialogue. When Max asks Nux if he's a "blackthumb", they don't stop to explain what that is, but instead just leave it to the audience to figure out that it's their phrase for "mechanic" when Max tells him that he's to take care of engine #1. Likewise, their phrase for exalted action is "going chrome", like the spray paint they inhale before doing something daring/brave/insane/suicidal. I've long been fond of writers that simply dropped you into their world and let you figure it out while their characters continued living in their world as they typically would, without stopping to explain basic facts of life to people who already know them.

There were also a lot of little touches scattered throughout the film that were Easter eggs for those who'd seen the previous movies, like the fact that Hugh Keays-Byrne played lead villain, Immortan Joe, 36 years after playing lead villain, The Toecutter, in Mad Max. Or seeing Toast the Knowing (Zoë Kravitz) playing with a broken music box in the war rig, a device which virtually matched the one that so excited the Feral Boy in The Road Warrior. After seeing at least one reviewer refer to the film as a "reboot" of the Mad Max series, I was kind of thrilled to see not only the far more beaten down V8 Interceptor at the start of the film, but also the knee brace still present on Max's left leg from injuries he sustained in the first film. If the story and Max's continual flashbacks to his family didn't make it clear that this was a continuation, then those details surely did.

In the end, I can say that Fury Road is certainly worth seeing in the theater whether you're a fan of either well-done action movies or post-apocalyptic scenarios (I'm kinda the former but definitely the latter) or simply want to drive screaming across the desert into a dust hurricane for an evening. I guess time will tell whether the underlying themes of the story become more prominent in the response to it by much of the audience and, for that matter, whether Miller will be continuing that train of thought in the next two in the franchise that he's supposedly working on. You can't kill Max. You can only hope to contain him.

So, about that rape scene

We’ve been here before , of course, since I wrote one of these last season after the Cersei/Jaime rather awkward moments next to the corpse of their son that no one is supposed to know is their son (Can you imagine the Thanksgivings? “So, what have you two been doing lately...?”) But we’re back here again because of the most obvious scene that everyone in the world knew was coming: Sansa’s wedding night to Ramsay Bolton.

Now, I say everyone knew it was coming because unless you just started watching the show this year, you know that neither George R. R. Martin nor David Benioff and Dan Weiss shy away from the brutality that is often the existence of women in Westeros. Even moreso, no one who wasn’t just introduced to the show can be ignorant of the activities and predilections of one Ramsay Bolton, heir to the Dreadfort and Winterfell. Furthermore, it’d be really hard to have missed all of the times where Sansa’s virtue might have been besmirched but which she just narrowly escaped, thanks to Joffrey being distracted or the Hound not willing to see one more crime of the system (known in the books as the “Little Bird” storyline) or Tyrion deciding that he’s not going to play the game that his father has set before him. In all honesty, if Reek had decided to become Theon again and bashed Ramsay’s head in and saved Sansa, I would have felt kind of cheated. That would have been way too Hollywood for the story as it’s been built over the last 20 years, which has been anything but. (This is putting aside the fact that Reek returning to being Theon would not exactly be the best thing for most women in a compromised position, ifyaknowwhatImean.)

“Mind if I help you with your saltwife, landlubber?!”
So, no. There was never going to be a Hollywood moment. Sansa was doomed to this treatment from the moment she agreed to Petyr’s plan. You knew it. I knew it. Everyone with any sense of the story knew it.

All of that said, there’s no denying that the scene was both powerful and disturbing. First off, it was rape. Secondly, it was the rape of a character who has become a byword for virtue and gentleness in a world largely devoid of both. Thirdly, it was used for dramatic effect not just to show the audience what Sansa had signed up for, but also to further pave Theon’s road to hell. As I said yesterday, Alfie Allen’s performance has been remarkable and watching him twist in the wind while a girl he had grown up with was being violated right in front of him was a profoundly dramatic thing, which is precisely the point. The counter-argument, of course, is that it feeds the idea of objectification of women not just in the story, but in a deeper dramatic sense, since the point of that last close-up was to use Sansa’s pain and anguish as a tool to develop Reek’s character. Not Sansa, but Reek. She was off-screen. The impact that was focused on was to him, even though the actual assault was happening to her. So the questions become: 1. Was it gratuitous and, thus, unnecessary? and 2. Would it have been better to show the assault, rather than view it through the eyes of a male witness?

On #1: I don’t think so. No one has suggested that D&D do anything just for zazz. Even the fabled sexposition tended to serve a dual purpose: both to show conversation and to display the fact that, uh, sex happens in life; something that GRRM has been fully in favor of because it’s true and a lot of sex does happen in the books, as well. So anyone suggesting that D&D are engaging in gratuitous brutality is someone who hasn’t really paid attention. Now, no one needs to be reminded on a regular basis that rape also happens, but in a show where the Stark role has essentially been to be ground to a nub (if they survive), endure, and come through the other size without the deus ex machina of the prince riding in on his white horse, this scene was perfectly in line with what has come before.

On #2: I do think that they dropped the ball somewhat by allowing that focus to move to Reek, rather than keeping it on Sansa. Speculating on a motive leaves me thinking that their intent may have been to soften the blow, in that people knew (or should have known) she was going to be assaulted and, in an effort to temper a scene that was going to be awful for most of the audience, they decided to move it off-camera. That, of course, only made it worse for a number of people who feel that it’s not bad enough that Sansa was raped, but that her reaction to the violation wasn’t even good enough to be shown and, instead, we got Theon. There can be no 'right' way to show rape, so it was going to be questioned and complained about, regardless.

It was mentioned on the board that at least one person has given up on the show, in part because of that scene but also because she was frustrated that Ramsay has continued on his merry way with essentially no repercussions. Putting aside the fact that that kind of thing happens all the time in Westeros and in our own world (Goldman Sachs, anyone? How about a little national service?), there typically aren’t dramatic stories without some kind of karmic payback for characters like Ramsay. In that sense, the whole scene could be a little bit of the long con, as it were. In other words, Sansa knows that this is what was going to happen and has prepared herself for it in order to lay the groundwork for the re-taking of Winterfell and the North. The fact that she has to endure it is just another day in life as a Stark.

That being said, there's also nothing that says that fans (or former fans) of the show need to watch what's no longer entertaining to them. However, I'm willing to bet that most of them know that Ramsay will likely get his at some point ("The North remembers.") But I think the more important topic is whether it's important for the writers/showrunners/directors to be true to their vision of the story, regardless of how offensive it might be to the audience.

I wrote a story for a class when I was at Michigan that was, shall we say, highly racially charged. I wanted the lead character to be a racist and be easily recognized as such. I wanted to make him despicable in that respect to see if it was possible to make him seem redeemable by the end of it. That point, of course, was lost in the chorus of dismay from most of my classmates who objected to the theme of the story to begin with. They didn't even stop to consider why this character might be worthwhile if he was able to pierce the veneer of that racism or whether that was such an essential part of his being that he wasn't worth the effort. The overt language of the story was enough to put most of them past the point of even trying to finish it. The TA asked if I wanted to reconsider and I said "No.", because that was my story and I felt it was worth consideration, not just for the writing, but for the idea that I thought was important to assess.

This is where D&D are now with Sansa. Clearly, the assault was important to the ideas and plot that they're trying to convey to the audience. There's plenty that's already fairly shocking about Game of Thrones, such that tossing this extra log on the fire would be gratuitous if that was their intent. But I feel pretty safe in assuming that it's not and the point that they're trying to get across with that scene is not shock value or the role of women in Westeros or the fact that Ramsay is P for 'psycho'. Instead, I think there's something integral to Sansa's experience and future that that scene is establishing, even if it's something as simple as finally giving her the taste of fire that she's narrowly escaped so many times before that will finally forge her into the steel that's needed to retake the North. If people are repelled by it, well, good. They should be. But it doesn't mean that the scene was unnecessary or casually dismissive about the act and its ramifications. On the contrary, it just might be essential to bring that wing of the story home, as much as people (especially the professional offense-takers) may not want to see it.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The lies come easily

When I read that this week's episode was entitled "Unbowed. Unbent. Unbroken.", which are the words of House Martell, I was excited, as I'm fond of that storyline in the books and it meant more time with Alexander Siddiq on camera (as well as Bronn and Jaime.) Then, when I saw the credits and noticed that it was going to be another Cogman screenplay, I rolled my eyes. As I mentioned last time, I've rapidly become disenchanted with his approach to the story. However, I may have changed my opinion with this latest offering as there were several momentous events and advancements of both character and storyline that played quite well, even if the overall theme of the episode had basically nothing to do with the Dornish slogan which screams open defiance. Instead, the theme was how easy it is for lies to propel the social interactions that we accommodate every day and how small lies become larger ones until we become different people, just as Jaqen explained to Arya.

Arya has always been one of the more forthright characters of the story. She thinks a thought and she explains it to you, usually without varnish or nuance. It's that kind of linear approach that leaves her completely unsuitable for playing the game of thrones and something which she recognized and internalized a long time ago when it was clear that she wasn't interested in sewing or any of the "ladylike" endeavors that embodied the lives of young, noble women. The fact that she has left that game and is on the path to becoming a Faceless Man is just the most obvious manifestation of that life choice made at a very young age. However, as Jaqen attempted to point out, even though she's left the game that involves the lives of thousands, she still plays the human game; the game of faces, in which information is shaded or exaggerated to produce a result that is good for the speaker but is also often good for the listener. In the case of the House of Black and White, it's a matter of providing a comforting story for those whose lives are about to end. Out in the world, it's a matter of convincing people that they're getting what they want so that the speaker also gets what he or she wants.

Nowhere was that more evident than in Jorah and Tyrion's exchange with the slavers who were convinced not to discard the dwarf as mere trash, at least in part based on verifying whether he was hung like a horse. Convincing them that Jorah was a worthy warrior for the pits isn't too much of a stretch. Convincing them to take you as a slave because you need to be present to confirm the magical powers of your johnson to the first eager buyer is a bit more fanciful. Still, that's the game you play sometime to save your as- uh, cock. Or neck, really. The amusing thing in Tyrion's case is that he's spent his entire life using his brain to convince people that he was more than his stature might imply. This is probably the first time he's had to use it to convince others that his being a dwarf was a thing of value (literally) and that's why they shouldn't discard him as worth less than the usual human would bring on the slave block. As an aside, the early scene with the two of them, where Jorah learns of the death of his father, was probably the best moment that Iain Glen has had in many episodes because it shifted his tragic course for just a moment back to remembering what he'd lost in Westeros, rather than the doomed endeavor in Essos. The cascade of emotion across his face (as much as he still tried to play the game by pretending to be less affected than he truly was) was very poignant and a good reminder about how events in this world continue to have ramifications long after they occur.

Oh, man. Was that a segué or was that a segué? Wait... what do you mean loosing an army of religious fanatics might have unintended consequences? Everything's going according to plan, with Cersei removing not only her intended husband but also his sister, the Queen Rival, and putting one over on Olenna Tyrell, of all people. No one plays the game of obvious lies better than Cersei Lannister and yet, it's often pointless to try to confront her with them because of the power she's managed to still maintain over the boy kings. Joffrey escaped her control while she told lies for him. Tommen remains under her thumb while she tells lies to him. In the end, the results are the same and will likely remain so until they're not just happy, open lies anymore. As we've all seen, the High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce, who is killing it in his simple, straightforward way) doesn't take kindly to those who lie to the gods, even queens (Mothers or otherwise.)

Again, in contrast to last week, there were a number of good scenes with high tension attached:

- Petyr's confrontation with Lancel in the streets. It's never been more evident that Littlefinger rolls with the punches better than anyone. In his case, it's often because he delivers the simple truths even better than the lies.

- Arya's first experience as the comfort giver in the House. Given the stick thrashing she'd been given in the previous scene for lying, there was some question as to whether Jaqen or the girl would emerge to tell her she'd violated yet another custom and played the game poorly. Instead, she took the next step toward assuming the face of another.

- The test of wills between Olenna and Cersei. Most of us were probably waiting for the other shoe to drop when the Queen of Thorns would let Cersei paint herself into a corner and then show her that there was no way out. Instead, Cersei kept control the entire time and Olenna had to leave, completely neutered.

- And, of course, the wedding scene in the godswood of Winterfell and the subsequent consummation. Sansa played the game in the bathtub, turning the tables on Miranda even though she was fairly terrified by what was being said. Once she got into the bedroom, the game was gone and she and Reek had to confront the reality of Ramsay's game, which goes well beyond social interaction and into savagery, lies or no lies. (As another aside: Has there been a better performance over the last season-and-a-half than Alfie Allen? Tonight's final closeup of his anguished face while he watched the rape of Sansa was masterful.)

All of which makes the Dorne material pretty subpar, to say the least. Again, their house words were the title of this episode, but the far more interesting events took place outside of it. The few seconds we spent with Doran were boilerplate and the "moment of action" (which now seems requisite in every episode in the same way sexposition used to be; we need a better phrase for it, though) was kind of dreadfully obvious. The editing of the bullwhip scenes was choppy, as they maintained the same shot but simply cut from the whip wrapping to it doing something else (for the safety of the performers involved, of course, but change perspective if you're doing that) and it was clear from the beginning that the actors playing the Sand Snakes didn't have nearly as much time in battle choreography as people like Jerome Flynn (Bronn) and Nikolas Coster-Waldau (Jaime.) The shots were very staged, with little motion happening in the background, and the movements were quite stiff and lacked the fluidity that has been seen in many of the battles (such as those in Meereen this season.) That's not the fault of the actors, of course, and there's often only so much you can do with the limited shooting time, but after ignoring Dorne for a couple weeks, we finally return only to get next to nothing from any of the performers involved, including Areo Hotah, who assures Doran in one moment that he hasn't forgotten how to use his axe and then takes another moment to look like he's swinging a two-by-four at Jaime's neck that he can barely control. Did the director play the game with us?

Side notes:

I thought the opening scene was very effective, as the view of the simple work of preparing the corpses kind of set the tone for how things normally function in the House of Black and White. It was well-paced and brought a very realistic tone to what is happening in Braavos. In many ways, that location is easily the most interesting of any of the cities in the story, given the mass conglomeration of cultures that the original slaves brought to the city and continue to encourage. It reminds me of many similar places that have produced great stories, like Cynosure and Lankhmar.

The question of the show's use of rape will probably come up again. It was very pointed in the Jaime/Cersei scene last season because of the nature of the changes that Jaime had undergone (he'd actually gathered a fan following) and the fact that they still associated with each other after that. In this case, Ramsay and Sansa are going to associate with each other (much to her chagrin) but the circumstances are different because their wedding night turned out exactly as most in the audience could have predicted. The fact that it finally happened to the show's eternal victim is both emblematic of the fact that women remain property in most of Westeros and demonstrative of how no amount of game-playing can change certain social factors. You usually need a different kind of violence for that.

Again, several moments took place that were not true to the books (among them Olenna's confrontation with Cersei, Sansa's wedding night, even Arya's trip into the crypts, although we're still playing up to the point where she's progressed in Dance with Dragons.) But, other than the Olenna scene, we're also looking at stuff that will probably occur in Winds. As opposed to earlier stuff this season, I think all of those "new" scenes were actually quite effective and seemed to fit well into Martin's overall scheme.

Lines of the week:

"I'm not playing this stupid game anymore!"
"We never stop playing."
There's truth for both Faceless Men and people, in general.

"A girl is not ready to become no one. But she is ready to become someone else."
I think that's been true for a while.

"You ever heard baby dragons singing?"
"It's hard to be a cynic after that."
Magic is not proof of religion, nor vice-versa.

"The Targaryens are famously insane."
"So a woman who hasn't spent a single moment of her adult life in Westeros becomes the ruler of Westeros? That's justice?"
Tyrion breaking down Jorah's perspective on how Dany was supposed to take over was excellent and made one wonder why he hasn't said this before. It was more reminiscent of the Hound's take on the system as a whole than anything else. Of course, you can ask the same things about our blinded-by-tradition government, as well. Living in the past...

"You can't just hand a dried cock to a merchant and expect him to pay for it! He has to know it came from a dwarf!"
This is bargaining to the nth degree. The lies come easily.

Petyr with a host this time:
With Lancel: "We both have our fantasies, Brother Lancel. Mine just happen to be entertaining."
 With Cersei: "One's choice of companion is a curious thing." Ahem.
"As I said: I live to serve." (As my girlfriend noted: "Yeah. Serve himself.")

"Why are you still a virgin? Afraid of dwarves?"
There's a Snow White porn softball floating right over the plate...

And the winner:

"It'll be a dwarf-sized cock!"
"Think again!"

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Killing the sho-, um, boy

Throughout the show's 5 seasons, the writing has remained pretty consistent. There have been ups and downs, of course, but all of the screenplays seemed to proceed from the same perspective and a couple of the writers who weren't D&D admitted that the latter two often came in and altered things or moved scenes around between episodes so that said consistency remained (and likely altered the pace of some episodes for rhythm reasons; novel writers do this, too.) Consequently, most of the time it was easier to tell when there was a different director than when there was a different writer. Visual pace becomes far more obvious than writing pace in a visual medium (surprise!)

Bryan Cogman is the lone exception to that trend. Over the course of the show, it's become blatantly obvious when Cogman is the writer because more characters tend to voice relatively superfluous sentiments that don't advance their character so much as reinforce it. Did we need to know that Sansa still misses her family in the scene with Miranda? Did we need the old woman to come in and essentially restate "The North remembers" but in several more words? Or Stannis' goodbye to Jon? Or Dany's moment with Missandei? Or reminding us that Ramsay like to torture Reek with anticipation? No, no, no, no, and no (5 "no"s for 5 seasons.) It's not to say that those scenes were completely worthless, but in a series that's trying to condense what is likely to be a 7000+ page story into 10 episodes a season, you'd hope to not have to retread the same ground that often. They do give highlights of "what has gone before" pertinent to each episode, after all.

Admittedly, the job is not easy, but Cogman seems to like to revel in the existence of the characters as they are, rather than move them about and make them do something. That's the perspective of a fan, not a writer. In a show with a schedule this tight, you need writers.

The overall theme of the episode "Kill the boy and let the man be born.", cited by Maester Aemon, is right in theme with that criticism. How many of these characters needed to do that at this point? Jon and Dany have been making tough choices for the past couple seasons. Sansa did so last week. Sam grew up a long time ago when he stabbed a White Walker and took a Wildling girl into his care. The first of those he re-stated to Stannis this episode. Again, isn't this something that's been spread around Castle Black before? Do we really need to talk about Randyll Tarly to get this fact through to the ever-pragmatic Stannis who has doubtlessly been thinking about the coming war and the one he's fighting now?

The only useful scene in theme was Jon's confrontation with Tormund, which played out exactly what they're facing from both sides and how their maturation as persons and as representatives of their two peoples is shown in stark (ahem) relief. I have to say, I think that was one of Kit Harrington's best scenes in the series and the whole sequence, from the cell to the hall to his office with Ollie was excellent. He truly made the most of what were actual changes and moments of impact, as opposed to everyone else kind of dithering around, and I say this as someone who hasn't been overly impressed with Harrington's acting in comparison to the rest of the superlative cast.

I've seen other critics mention that they feel that this season is the best so far out of the five. Halfway through it, I have to say that so far it feels like the worst to me. I'm less excited for Sunday nights than I was 5 weeks ago because most of what I've seen to date has been fairly underwhelming. Now, admittedly, I'm a book reader so I have a more critical eye than many who've only seen the show. But I'm quite interested in some of the changes they're making, so it's not all about the fact that they're sharply abandoning canon, at this point. As I've said several times, they have little choice. But I'm not sure that all of their deviations are, in fact, the wisest of paths. There was pretty sharp outrage last week, including from GRRM's editor, about the death of Barristan Selmy, who plays a huge role in Dance with Dragons, because the death seemed pointless. The fact that Dany may make some decisions that Selmy would have argued against (like marrying Hizdahr zo Loraq) doesn't mean that the character had to be eliminated. By the same token, Jorah Mormont acquiring greyscale instead of another character in the books (who shall remains nameless to avoid book spoilers) doesn't serve the character. The character who has it in the book is racing to accomplish a larger goal before the disease kills him. The essence of Jorah's character is the personal tragedy. It's not about whether he can regain his queen's friendship and possible love before he dies. It's about the fact that he betrayed her and now has to live with himself and try hare-brained stunts like bringing her Tyrion Lannister in a vain hope to rescue himself. The audience knows it's futile, but he doesn't. That's his identity: an empowered individual laid low by his own mistakes and now possibly making more in order to try to make up for them. There's nothing that needs to be added there, but now he's going into this doomed situation with another layer of doom on top of him? What's the point?

I've long had an unusual opinion on Game of Thrones, in that as much as I've enjoyed it and found most of the performances to be brilliant and the show overall to be excellent, when people ask me what the best show I've ever seen is, the first things that spring to mind are series like The Wire and Breaking Bad. I have a hard time separating GoT, the show, from being just an adaptation of some excellent novels. It's not a show to me. It's an adaptation of books that I love. But prior to this season, I've been as geeked about it every week as anything else I've ever watched. Through the last five weeks, that excitement is fading quickly. Here's hoping the next five brings it back.

Bits and pieces:

It was encouraging to see Viserion and Rhaegal again, since so far the dragon effects have been few and far between. It's a little odd to see just how much smaller they're presenting them to be in comparison with Drogon. The latter is supposed to be the largest, but I thought the appearance of the other two seemed a little short. Perhaps it was just the perspective.

We also had the first scene this season with genuine sexposition during Ramsay and Miranda's argument by the window. Admittedly, that scene did present Ramsay with a slightly more vulnerable side that he later exacerbated in the discussion with Roose about being replaced by a trueblood heir. I can see them setting up possible points of exploitation by Sansa, but I'm wondering if that would be better served by shock value. Ramsay is more of a force of nature in the books, as opposed to a developed character, so I know there are different steps that have to be taken here to round him out. It's interesting, at least.

Back on the rant: The Sansa and Miranda scene, besides being superfluous (No, we really don't need to be reminded that Sansa misses her family), also seemed to be setting up another Margaery/Cersei relationship. We already have one of those and with a far more dynamic setting. I don't get it.

Clearly, the confrontation with the Stone Men was meant to be the action-based moment in an episode of conversation. Honestly, I'm fine with just conversation if it advances the story... Thus, in an episode of retreading the same ground, tossing in the "action scene" at the end was more than a little anti-climactic. It did have a solid moment of showing off the soaring Drogon while they were in Valyria, of all places, since no one approaches Valyria in the books, as it's a place of death. Jorah's assertion that the pirates are also afraid of it is certainly a solid point, however.

Lines of the week: Few of them, for obvious reasons.

"Don't want to overfeed them. Tomorrow, perhaps."
Hizdahr's face at hearing this line is priceless.

"We can learn to live with the Wildlings or we can add them to the army of the dead."
Pragmatism in a fantasy world isn't that different from ours.

"This isn't a strange place. It's my home. It's the people who are strange."
"You're right. Very strange."
Truth has many layers.

"I'm not scared."
"Well, I am. And when the battle comes, promise you'll protect me?"
Davos remains one of the wisest men in Westeros.

"Long, sullen silences and an occasional punch in the face. The Mormont way."
At least the former Lord Commander was a bit more eloquent.

And the winner:
"The day I ask my people to fight with the Crows is the day they cut my guts from my belly and make me eat them."
Unless they're Thenns. No sense in them missing out on the best(?) part of dinner.