Monday, May 4, 2015

The names live on

The past is always with us and that was never more evident in the context of the Game of Thrones series than in this episode, when stories about the past and the people that made it important abounded. From questions about Jon's parentage to Lyanna Stark to Shireen's grayscale to Singing Rhaegar to more recent events like the Red Wedding, the Iron Bank debt, and the death of Oberyn Martell. The vast majority of the cast were waxing rhapsodic this week about people that are no longer present but still live on in hearts, minds, myths, and suspicions. Alongside them were people like the Faith Militant (the Sparrows, also known as the Stars for their rather obvious symbol) and the Sons of the Harpy who are trying to resurrect the past in the face of massive change.

In a culture built upon the idea of tradition and heredity, the past assumes an even greater level of importance than in even our own tradition-mired world. As Orwell noted: "Those who control the past control the future. Those who control the present control the past." People will always look to the past for guidance ("How have they always done it?") If you can convince them that the past was different, you can guide the agenda. People telling their stories about the past and using them as justification for current action was this episode's prevailing theme.

The only mild exception to this theme was in the first scene, where Jorah is completing his kidnapping of Tyrion in the hope that Daenerys will be so thrilled to have the Imp that she'll welcome back the man who spied on her, in spite of his professed love. Like his former sellsword, Bronn, Tyrion later fairly delights in flaying this vain hope and Jorah ends the discussion promptly. This was really the only scene that dwelt on the now and the future, as it's about the one person truly trying to bring about societal change and a few others rushing to catch up with her.

Everything else was about exploring the roots of characters' motivations, whether personal, like the exploration of Shireen's grayscale, or broad, like the question of Jon's parentage. FOREWARNING: THIS IS NOT A SPOILER BUT IT IS A THEORY PUT FORTH BY FANS OF THE BOOKS. IF YOU WANT YOUR BOOK EXPERIENCE TO REMAIN INVIOLATE, YOU MAY WANT TO SKIP THIS SECTION.

Melisandre is approaching Jon because she senses power. That power would be the "blood of kings" that she's always lusting after. It's why she's with Stannis. It's why she found Gendry and gave him the sex leech treatment. It's also very likely why she tries to get Jon to test his grip and take her pulse. That interesting parentage is alluded to by Stannis, when he responds to Selyse's dismissal of Jon as the "son of a whore" with: "Perhaps, but that wasn't Ned Stark's way." This is, as I recall, the first mention in the show that Jon could be anything but Ned Stark's bastard. Littlefinger doubles down on this speculation when he mentions the tournament at Harrenhal to Sansa when he finds her in the Winterfell crypts. In that tournament, Rhaegar Targaryen, as the victor, was supposed to crown a "Queen of Love and Beauty" with roses. Instead of crowning his wife, Elia Martell, he crowned Lyanna Stark. When Sansa states the popular story about how he then kidnapped and raped her, resulting in her death, Petyr smirks a little, as he's probably stumbled onto the reality of the situation, as well.

Multiple clues in the story have led many readers to speculate that Jon is, in fact, a Stark bastard, but not of Ned Stark and some nameless war wife, but instead Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen. His royal blood is the link to the past that Melisandre wants. It also gives him a claim, albeit shaky, to not only the lordship of the North but also to the Iron Throne itself. As Littlefinger avers to, this event is the root cause of the deaths of thousands, not only in Robert's Rebellion, but also in the subsequent War of the Five Kings. Ned returned with him to Winterfell, claiming that Jon was his bastard in order to protect him from Robert, who was eager to exterminate the name "Targaryen" which still holds much sway in Westeros and especially did immediately after he had assumed the throne. The whole story is driven, in part, by that event and the sequence that it put in motion, since Lyanna's abduction caused Ned's father and older brother to approach the Mad King about the insult, whereupon he burned them alive, and Robert and Ned and Jon Arryn began leading the revolt against the king. From there the rolling snowball picks up speed and here we are.

Of course, in the midst of Melisandre attempting to "show you what you're fighting for" (which, it has to be said, a lot of people would probably fight for...), Jon also reaches to the past and stops her by claiming that his dead lover is the one he's still devoted to. The name lives on. Melisandre counters by delivering Ygritte's famous line, leaving Jon wondering exactly what he might be missing out on (OK. Not really wondering, since he'll probably be dreaming of it.)

Likewise, the High Sparrow and his followers are attempting to reach back to the past in the name of correcting the present. Interestingly, in the books, it's the High Sparrow who approaches Cersei with the idea of the rebirth of the Faith Militant (both the Stars, who are common people, and the Sons, who are knights or nobility.) Maegor the Cruel had ruthlessly suppressed both orders until his successor could finally convince the High Septon that the Targaryens were willing to follow the faith of the Andals. Cersei of the books, preoccupied, essentially waves a hand and agrees to revoke Maegor's law. In the show, she actively pursues their recreation as a means of staying in power and ridding herself of the Tyrells, to the extent that she can confine Margaery. It has the convenient side effect of indefinitely delaying her wedding to Loras (which likely wasn't happening, anyway, now that Tywin is dead.) Anyone should be able to see just how big a pool of gasoline has been lit with her match and it doesn't take the cowing of the timid King Tommen (by his wife, his mother, and the Stars) to display it. This is, of course, a radical departure from the books, as well, since Tommen is twice the age of his book character. It does serve to present a different look at how ineffectual he is as the king (from a boy only worried about his kitten to a teenager lacking the strength of personality to do the job.)

Left to right: Tyene, Obara, Nymeria
And, finally, the girls aka the Sand Snakes, daughters of Oberyn Martell (three of them, anyway) who are also eager to perpetuate his name (and desires) along with his paramour, Indira. These characters are among the fan favorites, even though they tend to fill the same role that Oberyn did, which was essentially to be a badass without a huge impact on the story. That, of course, may change in the show. Despite the buildup, their scene was relatively boilerplate (Dad was killed, the Lannisters should pay with war, etc.) In the books, the Snakes have relatively different personalities, even if they share the same motivation of vengeance. In this introductory scene, they all basically had Obara's personality: we will solve everything with the spear. It also strikes me as somewhat incongruous that they were concerned about the fact that Jaime was in Dorne or were using that as motivation to pursue their goals. As Bronn pointed out, the fact that he's among the most recognizable people in Westeros and happens to be in the middle of Dorne, where very few people resemble him (i.e. low chance of blending in) AND the majority of the population detests his family, makes it highly unlikely that he's going to accomplish anything other than his own suicide. Let's just say I'm dubious about this plotline at the moment.

We finished with Meereen's counter-revolutionaries shrouding Barristan Selmy's story adding to the "Jon's blood might be OK" picture by highlighting Rhaegar's more enlightened attitude toward the people he was destined to rule until Robert caved his chest in at the Trident. This both shines a light on the idea that not all Targaryens were bad (and, thus, Jon may still be someone worth rooting for) and also gives a moment for Dany to appreciate the members of her departed family instead of connecting them all to the contemptible Viserys and making herself feel like an iconoclast. Occasionally the past really is worth fighting for. However, watching Selmy breathe his last on the show was kind of unexpected (and another departure from the books; the death toll in the show is catastrophically higher, believe it or not.) I doubt that Grey Worm will follow him, given the efforts they were making to connect him and Missandei, but I guess it really depends on the salary budget in the end. Nevertheless, the names will live on.

Bits and pieces:

Why in the world was the city of Sunspear listed as "Dorne" in the opening credits? That'd be like calling Winterfell "North" or Meereen "Slaver's Bay". Dorne is the whole peninsula. No other city in the credit sequence ever had to be named after a region and Sunspear has already been mentioned in previous episodes so it's not like people should be really confused. Or, if they were, they shouldn't have been after seeing the, once again, brilliant imagery of the clockwork mechanism and the serpent coiling around the high tower that gives the city its name.

Bronn and Jaime have turned into one of the better pairings in the show's run; almost as good as the Hound and Arya last season. Their equally wry senses of humor and the great timing between the two actors have made their scenes a joy to watch.

On that note, their arrival in Dorne and the Unsullied vs. the Sons of the Harpy were the first extended battle scenes this season. I was reminded again how slow-paced the first two episodes were until last week's heightening of the tension and now this week's physical activity. Is it possible that D&D are trying toohard to lay out the reasoning for their changes to the storyline to the book-reading audience, thus creating stretches of exposition (the number of which does seem higher this season, even without the sex) that increase the contrast to the moments when things are really happening?

That said, I have to say that the interaction between Stannis and Shireen was really well done on both actors' parts. Kerry Ingram has been really excellent in that part with a much larger role than in the books. The whole grayscale story was created for the show and it spotlights an aspect of Stannis that, despite his assertions about honor, actually makes him more human.

Likewise, Sophie Turner continues to kill it as Sansa-in-the-Game. When Petyr leaves her in the crypt and she assumes the cold, Game-playing face, it's a transformation greater than most of the other actors in the show, to date. D&D have spoken before about her ability to turn emotion on and off at will and she's certainly showing it this season.

Lines of the week:

"If you ever see the wee fucker, give him my regards."
Bronn's version of sentimentality.

"The Small Council grows smaller and smaller."
"Not small enough."
It's good to be the Queen... mother.

"Wars teach people to obey the sword, not the gods."
The High Sparrow is good with the aphorisms; even the obvious ones.

"There was no way to free Ser Loras without violence."
King Tommen, OTOH, doesn't quite see the truth of the matter just yet.

"I don't think Stannis would like that very much."
"Well, then, we shouldn't tell him."
Melisandre getting pushy in her efforts to get some. It's tough being out in the frozen North.

"I know mother didn't want to bring me."
"Why do you say that?"
"She told me: 'I don't want to bring you.'"

"You'll take this Bolton boy and make him yours."
Oh, wait, Petyr. You're kidding, right?
Of course, looking at that face that Sansa makes... Should I be scared for Ramsay?

"That would have been a shit way to die."
"As far as I've seen, they're all shit ways to die."

"I've had an exciting life. I want my death to be boring."

"Nice move!"
"You had a wonderful teacher."
Again, Jaime and Bronn are excellent together.

And the winner:

"There's nothing like a good fight to get you in the mood for fucking. But there's nothing like a fuck-mad Dornish girl to clear your head for the next fight."
 Seriously. They're excellent.

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