Monday, June 15, 2015

For the Watch. And the fans?

After last week's tirade, I'm in an interesting spot as a reviewer. Once you enter The Snark, it's difficult to leave it. As anyone who's ever written criticism of any kind (both constructive and non-) will tell you, it's far easier to be negative than it is to be positive. Knocking things down is much easier than building it in the first place, so I can go ahead and continue to be dismissive of a couple of the storylines in the season 5 finale, "Mother's Mercy" and I will be. At the same time, I think I still have room to say that there were a number of great scenes that both brought us back to the usual level of quality that GoT is associated with and also did a rather amazing job of bringing most of the storylines and characters around to where they are at the conclusion of A Dance with Dragons, the fifth book. So, let's be pedantic and get the sorest spot out of the way first.

In Jerkoff Motion Land, we finally see the buddy cop sequence drawing to a close as Jaime, Bronn, and Myrcella leave behind the ephemeral Doran, the directionless Tyene, and the not-even-named-in-the-show Areo Hotah. At this point, I'm not sure where Dorne fits into the overall picture, as there's a sizable element of the plot in the books that's been left out of the show. Furthermore, Ellaria and the Snakes seem to have just initiated the war that Doran went out of his way to prevent by essentially placing the Snakes under house arrest in the books. Thus, in the show, the rebellion against the crown is on. And, in the books, the rebellion against the crown is also on, but in a less venomous form. It still wasn't worth an entire season of slaphand in a Dornish dungeon.

That said, the scene between Jaime and Myrcella did nothing to damage my impression of Nikolai Coster-Waldau as one of the best performers on the show. The serially changing emotions on his face when Myrcella told him that she knew he was her father were great. That kind of revelation isn't an easy thing to sell without dialogue.

Across the sea in Sitcom, we had the expected commiserating about the loss of the queen and the hashing out of the "what do we do now?" moment. While it wasn't overly surprising to see Daario being the voice of reason, since he's the least burdened by alcohol and emotion among the group and also the most likely to look at things in a linear fashion (straight, like the edge of a (sell)sword), the conclusion that he came to was stock Hollywood. We just ended season 5's buddy cop excursion and now we start another as Daario and Jorah venture off in search of each episode's swordplay scene and, ostensibly, the queen and her largest dragon. It's like D&D have decided that they can't get through a season without a Hollywood trope. This is example A of what has concerned me about much of this season: the episodes were formulaic. You needed X amount of dramatic conversation and Y amount of swordswinging and Z amount of shocking event(!!!) and every episode had those. Sure, there's such a thing as dramatic structure and you do have to apply yourself to the terms of the medium (story told in 10 separate parts) that doesn't lend itself well to a sprawling epic. But when that structure becomes rote and obvious, you have issues. I'm just hoping that they can loosen things up a bit when they start filming this summer, since the screenplays are already written.

Even though it's not canon, I was pretty pleased to see Varys return. He's not in Meereen in the books, but the exchanges between him and Tyrion on the show have been excellent and they picked up last night right where they had left off in Volantis. Watching the two of them try to run Meereen for much of next season should be pretty entertaining. Meanwhile, out on the plains with the queen, we're right in stride with the books, although the perspective was a bit off. Why would an entire khalassar demonstrate in front of one small woman whom they could easily pick off the Dothraki Sea at a whim? I had always assumed that what kept them from immediately claiming her as chattel at the end of Dance was the massive black reptile sitting next to her. Effects shots do cost money, so it was probably cheaper to leave Drogon out, but if they were already doing the CGI for the riders...

The Braavos scenes... bugged me. Arya finally taking vengeance on Meryn Trant seemed wasteful and stupid, probably because it was intended to be that way. Stabbing a victim's eyes out and then basically parading around him isn't quite the conduct of a Faceless Man or any of the other assassination cults of the world (She, clearly, was not sorry at all.) But we already knew that she wasn't willing to be "no one" simply by her conduct from last episode and even from the beginning of the season, since she hid Needle, rather than discarding it. So we really didn't need to see her doing the bloodspatter thing. Even killing Trant with the water and then retreating to the temple would have been enough to get her in trouble, since the took the wrong life. The over-the-top murder scene kind of made it difficult for me to take the blinding scene well. Having someone go blind in an (ahem) visual medium, especially that quickly, is a difficult thing to convey, so I don't have a problem with the technical merits. It just ended up being an evening of too many Arya shrieks and not quite enough of the subtlety that she'd been developing. Either that or I'm just impatient for her to get to the next steps of her development, as she ended up somewhat behind the pace of the other stories.

And so we come to the momentous events of the evening, beginning with Stannis. Carice van Houten really shone here. She had her usual self-satisfied look when the coincidence of the thaw signaled the approval of the Lord of Light (somehow, coincidence always serves religion...) but looked genuinely surprised when Stannis physically brushed her off in the tent and then clearly shaken when the desertions where announced. Going from her usual ic(y hot) queen image to someone who finds her own faith shaken for the first time was a great moment. Stannis, realizing that he's been left with no alternative and no longer a believer in R'hllor, goes all in, anyway. However, I was immediately irked when we see Stannis, supposedly military commander par excellence, leading a disorganized mob toward Winterfell. This is not how sieges are laid, especially when you're leading only those troops that are blood loyal to you and you know the enemy is expecting your approach (yes, I'm totally anal about these things.)

The CGI of the closing battlelines was a great shot and redolent of other double envelopments throughout history like Cannae (the harvest of gold senatorial rings, etc.; yes, I'm a total history nerd. Shut up.) That said, it was aggravating that, once again, the scene ended up being a complete driveby on the battle itself (reminiscent of Tyrion's first martial encounter that he slept through in season 1.) Once again, we have a season full of build-up for... this? We get two minutes of Stannis fighting the rearguard? Epic fail. The sequence was partially saved by the fairly exciting confrontation of Brienne and Stannis. Unlike the Arya/Meryn moment, this one felt wholly justified and Stannis even reinforced that with his typically stalwart acceptance of his fate ("Go on. Do your duty.") Of course, since they didn't show his actual execution, I have my doubts that it actually occurred, since Brienne is wise enough to know that having yet another ally in rescuing Sansa is better than fulfilling her thirst for vengeance.

Speaking of which, Sansa's scenes should have been among the less controversial of the finale except for one thing that the producers and actor did right. So, the whole season we've been watching Reek continue in his servile manner, knowing that no matter what happened (a childhood friend being raped in front of him; said childhood friend pleading for the smallest of favors; etc.), he was Ramsay's, body and soul. Thus, when the confrontation with Miranda occurs, it somehow seems even less likely that Theon would use that moment to reemerge. Alfie Allen had been so good in his role that it was simply accepted fact: he was Reek. By the same token, he had shown a fair amount of struggle in that identity over the latter half of the season, so it's not unbelievable that he chose that moment to finally save his friend, but it did lead to some degree of question. One would suppose that as surely as the arrogant, self-assured Theon can be turned into the mewling sycophant that refuses to leave his dog cage, that same self-assurance can break back through for just a moment. Thus are unusual character studies made, I guess. It's the same route that took place in the books, after all; just not with Sansa.

And then there was Jon. This was the last moment for book-readers to have the one-up on show-watchers, since there's precious little left to know that hasn't been written out of the TV series at this point. I think D&D took the unfortunate route of playing up Olly's discomfort with the inclusion of the Wildlings for the entire season. While the dissent was a factor in the books, it was presented as an undercurrent, such that the final event was a bit of a surprise (yes, even jaded book readers can be taken in once in a while; despite the reputation for Martin killing anyone and everyone, it really doesn't happen that often.) Here it was obvious from about midseason onward, mostly because of Olly. All things considered, they played the scene extremely well. Thorne didn't show any particular glee when he contributed to the removal of his rival and no one else showed much emotion other than some wisps of the dismay that was all over Olly's face. If you're going to mutiny and assassinate your sworn commander, you might as well show some degree of regret or concern over the size of the crime when you commit it, because there's supposedly going to be no one left to call you on the carpet for it. Kit Harrington has been cited in a couple sources stating that his character is dead and he hasn't been asked back. There's at least one link being cited that shows the contract extensions through season 7 for the "A tier" cast, which includes Harrington, but that extension doesn't matter if their character is written out.

Of course, killing off a character far more central than Eddard or Robb ever were, given the theories about his parentage and him being the only other perspective character at the Wall now that Sam is gone, is pretty unlikely. Given Jon's ability to warg (into his direwolf, Ghost... Remember Ghost? Remember when we had direwolves in this show?) and the presence of Melisandre at Castle Black, most fan theories since the publication of Dance have centered around how he's going to return, which suggests that the actor is just engaged in some hardcore trolling.

One interesting note about the scenes at the Wall is the discussion about Sam's voyage to Oldtown to become a maester. In the books, it's Jon who tells Sam to do it, using the same arguments (he's suited, Castle Black needs a replacement for Aemon, etc.), but in the show they decided to reverse it, leaving Jon feeling vulnerable without his friend rather than Sam feeling guilty for abandoning his. It's an interesting statement on where the respective writers see the central character. It also makes me wonder just how much of Sam's activity in Oldtown we'll see, as there are some important details that occur there, but it's also another huge expenditure of sets and locations (although they can probably just use a different angle in Jerkoff Land since it's at the same latitude... snarking, sorry) Since they decided to completely reverse the scene, I wonder if Sam will sail down the west coast of Westeros, rather than the east, since the presence of Ironborn piracy hasn't been nearly as prominent in the show?

And, finally, the Walk of Shame. I have a long-time friend who is also a book-reader who has always been disappointed in the selection of Lena Headey for the role of Cersei, as the actress doesn't fit her image of the character. As I've mentioned before, my opinion is the direct opposite: I think she's been fantastic and has shown aspects of the character as a whole being, rather than the cardboard wicked witch that she sometimes appears to be at certain points in the story. Grasping, vain, ruthless, devoted, spiteful, cunning, arrogant, deluded; Headey has done it all and done it well. The Walk scene last night was easily the best of the entire season and one of the best directed scenes of the series as a whole. Walking revealed and accused as a common criminal through the city that she ruled with iron (no matter who was sitting on the throne), you could see that arrogance trying to shield her from all of the abuse, physical and verbal, but finally failing. It makes up for a lot of things that have gone wrong in season 5 and perhaps gives some hope for season 6. As I said, in the end, they did a lot of good work in wrapping everything back to where most of the book fans think they should be. I still think they need to inject a new writer or two to escape the formula trap and perhaps lessen the obviousness of the short cuts they're taking to condense parts of the books. But now that the books are no longer a framework, I guess we'll see how well they do entirely on their own.

Lines of the week:

"Long may they sneer."
Sam and Jon; spoken like two high school-aged outcasts.

"I'm glad the end of the world's working out well for someone."
Jon's despondency doesn't completely extinguish the sense of humor that all Night's Watchmen require. Look at Edd.

"Bolton has women fighting for him?"
This just struck me as a funny expression of the limits Stannis had pushed himself to in the face of obvious futility. 'After all that and now I have to put up with women from the Dreadfort?'

"You want a good girl, but you need a bad pussy."
Don't we all?

"Have you ever known your mother to like anyone aside from her children?"
"She likes you."
"I'm not so sure about that."
Like Jon, Jaime's wry humor rarely abandons him. That's part of what makes Coster-Waldau so good.

"My Valyrian is a bit nostril."
Mine, too.

"So, mainly you talk?"
"And drink."
Don't count out drinking as a solution, especially in a sitcom. (I'll stop. Really.)

"He's the toughest man with no balls I've ever met."
Ha. Daario has no idea. He just rode away from the world's toughest in Varys.

(What should have been a line from Drogon with that annoying queen-thing on his back: "Go 'way. I'm sleepin'.")

And the winner:

"A grand old city, choking on violence and deceit. Who could possibly have any experience managing such an ungainly beast?"
"I did miss you."
"Oh, I know."
Seriously, the two of them next season just might be awesome.

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