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!"

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