Monday, June 1, 2015

Snowball


For the last two episodes, the greater amount of action has taken place in the North, perhaps to remind the audience that the basis of the story is a Song of Ice and Fire. The real threat is what the Starks have been saying for generations: Winter is coming. Leading the way just happens to be The Others, who have their first significant and lasting presence on-screen since the end of season 2, when Sam witnessed their advance on the Fist of the First Men at the head of a horde of undead (The nomenclature is about to become very difficult, since the dead are "walkers" in The Walking Dead and The Others have become the "White Walkers" in the GoT series.) Here our horde of undead is present, but so are not only the seeming priests or mages of the Others who raise the dead of Hardhome in front of Jon and Co., but also one badass warrior who moves in a way that icy guys generally don't in most fantasy tropes. Of course, neither do the undead. But we'll get to that.

In covering a fair amount of ground, Michael Sapochnik's direction is fairly clipped. Not only do we sprint around the globe while checking in on the various storylines, but we also do so in repeated snippets. While we could have easily done Cersei's scenes in one sequence (Qyburn comes in, followed by nun with the Ladle of Confession, Cersei laps the floor.) Instead, he broke that story into two scenes, along with the extended conversation between Tyrion and Dany. I think that technique is normally put to good use and, in fact, Martin does it regularly in the books and it frequently produces the same sensation that I got here: that of mild frustration that a Tyrion moment was ending and someone else was taking his place. I guess that's what keeps the reader reading and the viewers viewing, but this time it felt like no one was getting the space they really needed to tell their story, except for Jon and Tormund, which turned out to be the one extended scene of the episode and its close.


The one I especially wanted to see more of was, of course, Dany and Tyrion. Not only has this event not happened in the books, but it's been a long-awaited one and I think the two of them lived up to the occasion. Combining Dany's emotional impulsiveness but obvious intelligence with Tyrion's overflowing common sense about politics but neo-nihilism was bound to be a good mix. Now comes the time where two of the most obvious "good guys" end up facing the depredations of their respective authors (Martin and D&D.) Given the caterwauling over the way Sansa and the rest of the Starks have been treated, one can only imagine how loud it's going to get once the Imp and the Dragon Queen run into serious trouble on their quest to help the common people. Remember, we have two whole seasons to fill after this one.

In truth, as both a book reader and viewer who was relatively disappointed through the first half of this season, I've noticed in the past two weeks that my interest has hopped around in the same way this episode did. When I watch the Cersei scenes, they seem rote. Everything is proceeding in the same fashion as in the books and I'm OK shrugging my shoulders at it (in addition to the fact that those scenes are taking place inside a cell with a wholly predictable response by the character leading them.) OTOH, when events take place that weren't in the books, I'm kind of fascinated in a way that exceeds previous seasons. Before this, they were deviations, albeit ones that struck me as allowing the actors to really spread their wings. Now, they're new material that may be glimpses into what's developing in Winds of Winter (Yes. The Sansa rape scene may be in WoW. How many fans will give in to their outrage and stop reading the books as a consequence?) and/or are giving us insight that wasn't otherwise apparent, as with Hardhome.


In the books, the collecting of the Wildlings from Hardhome hasn't taken place, although Jon knows of the dire situation there (far moreso than what appears on camera.) Tormund is sent to retrieve them and that's the last we know to date. Tonight, we discover not only the presence of different kinds of Others, but also that there's another substance other than dragonglass that they're vulnerable to: Valyrian steel. In truth, this seems obvious. If the steel comes from the place where dragons once roamed the countryside ("Fire") then it makes sense that it has an effect on the opposite number ("Ice") and is more than just a version of Damascus steel in the world of Martin. All the same, I admit to being surprised when Jon's confrontation with the warrior Other ended the way it did, as I've had dragonglass stuck in my brain as the only effective thing for nigh-on 20 years now.


All that said, the sisters Stark also had fine moments, with Arya finally assuming her role as Oyster Girl (a kind of mashup of how her sequence played out in both Feast and Dance) and Sansa getting vicious with Reek and finally learning that she may not be the last surviving Stark, after all. In both cases, new worlds were opened to the sisters, albeit in drastically different ways. It feels as if they're setting up one of the epic moments of Feast in the way they're introducing Arya's progression, which can only be a good thing. By the same token, I have a hard time knowing what they're going to do with Sansa, since they've spent the latter half of the season kind of reinforcing the "there is no hope" mantra. Again, with Stannis on his way, things could change rapidly or, in some ways, veer back to the way things developed in Dance. As much as I said there aren't ways to spoil the story any longer, there really are, so I'll wait out the rest of the season to see if the snowball grows in the way I expect it to.

Side notes:

Iain Glen played his scene in the throne room with a very light touch, which I think is to his credit, as he could have emoted all over the floor at being cast out once again. Instead, he showed that Mormont resolution, took the Long Walk, and just found a way to get back in the queen's presence one more time. What he's going to do once he gets there is open to question. Meanwhile, the greyscale thing is still utterly superfluous to the story.

It's fair to say that Ramsay's seemingly rash decision to do a commando raid on Stannis in the snow is both exemplary of the character's nature in the books (and in the show) and also a pretty easy out for Sansa if things go poorly. In that respect, I find it hard to believe that they will, so the Helen Lovejoys may have to wait yet another season for the Boltons to get theirs.


All things considered, given the momentous happenings elsewhere, one of the best scenes of the night was the conversation between Sam and Olly about how to make your enemies your friends. It was an extremely heartfelt moment and there was a good rhythm with the way both Brenock O'Connor (Olly) and John Bradley (Sam) played it. I think it continues to add to Sam's character and prepares him for some of his upcoming changes.

Despite the thrilling events at Hardhome, I was a little perturbed at the appearance of the undead. First off, they were moving a lot faster than we've seen before. The shambling masses of the end scene of season 2 is the usual, despite the swiftness of the one creature that Jon waylaid at Mormont's door in season 1. Also, despite their ability to throw themselves off a cliff and resist grievous wounds and multiple arrows (as you'd expect from most things no longer animated by respiration), they did react in typical zombie fashion from time out of mind every time they were shot in the head (i.e. falling over like the magic bullseye had been hit.) I really, really hope that D&D haven't surrendered to that trope. Granted, not having an Achilles' forehead may make them ridiculously difficult to kill, having to do the Wunwun Stomp (new dance meme: Go!) or basically dismember them, but The Walking Dead has already (ahem) killed the "shoot them in the head" thing for basically all time.

Lines of the week:

"How can a man tell a girl this? If he knew what she would see, there would be no reason to send her."
This is both a reproving comment and a demonstration to Arya that she is now a key cog in the machine.

 "Hit first, hit hard, and leave a feast for the crows."
Title check!

"Men brawl from time to time. It's only natural."
When lies are the truth.

"Gather the elders and let's talk."
There's nothing particularly memorable about this except for the extreme beatdown of the Lord of Bones that accompanied it.


"My ancestors would spit on me if I broke bread with a Crow."

"So would mine, but fuck'em. They're dead."
Pragmatism, but if she only knew at that point...

Peter Dinklage and Emilia Clarke had excellent chemistry. As with the Varys and Littlefinger scenes, I could have watched the two of them volleying for another half hour. There were a number of great dialogue moments:

"Killing and politics aren't always the same thing."
and
"Someday, if you decide not to have me killed, I'll tell you all about why I killed my father. On that day, should it ever come, you'll need more wine than this."
and
"Why did you travel all this way to meet someone terrible?"
"To see if you were the right kind of terrible."
and
"If I want jokes, I'll get myself a proper fool."
If that last one was a sly reference to some of his scenes in the books, then well done.

But the winner had to be:

"Belief is so often the death of reason."
This man speaketh truth. The odd thing, of course, is that Qyburn was banished by the masters of reason in Westeros: the maesters.

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