Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Dancers at the End of Time

If only I was actually writing about the Michael Moorcock series and not the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Truth be told, I'd be far more inspired to spend the next hour or two recapping one of Moorcock's lesser efforts (in comparison to things like Elric or Jerry Cornelius) than I am in going back through the latest offering of a series that, barring the one serious uptick last week, has pretty rapidly descended from its former heights. Likewise, this episode, barring a couple great acting moments, offered virtually nothing memorable other than the fairly surprising loss of Shireen. The Dorne scenes were, once again, almost completely superfluous. The Braavos scenes were obvious and fairly pedantic. And the stuff in Meereen continued to be a half-assed version of Gladiator which seemed to leave that storyline with even less direction and intrigue than it had before. Why is Jorah already back in the queen's good graces when the character is so much more interesting when he's stewing in frustration? Why is Hizdahr zo Loraq dead, thus robbing the story of his connections to the nobility of Meereen (i.e. the Sons of the Harpy) and the rivalry with Daario? With Daenerys gone, is the rule of Meereen to end up in the hands of a former slave (Missandei), a mercenary (Daario), a disgraced Westerosi knight (Jorah), and the Imp? It sounds like a sitcom. My suspension of disbelief is withering quickly and with it, the wonderful pace and texture that has been the hallmark of this series since it began.

Despite the leading image, I'm not overwrought about the loss of Shireen. I think Kerry Ingram played the role well and brought a lot of humanity to scenes that often lacked it because of the presence of her father. Unlike in the books, she also opened the door for moments with said father that made him more human than he has otherwise been portrayed. As many of you probably know by now, the decision to end her story is one that has been made by GRRM and will be a moment in The Winds of Winter, so giving D&D abuse for deviating from "canon" in this instance is sorely misplaced, as they didn't.

Giving the showrunners grief for their deviations from the books at this point is idiotic; full stop. The show was never going to be in lockstep with the books. It's impossible. Martin specifically wrote the story to be unfilmable because of its size and the number of characters involved. It was his playground to finally be able to do whatever he wanted and logistics be damned. People crying about this or that happening to Sansa or not happening to Jaime really just have to get over it. The books are unfilmable. No set of actors, directors, and producers could do it. Changes have to be made, have been made, and will continue to be made. The show has to be enjoyed on its own merits now, especially given the fact that the next book may not emerge before the show wraps up. This will be the last time I bring this up. /tangent

That said, if you are going to run a show for several years, you kinda have to maintain your audience by giving them something worth watching (This is today's Tautological Lesson™.) Season 5, with few exceptions, has not been a way to maintain that audience because Weiss and Benioff haven't really given us anything to wonder about other than why they're making the choices that they are.

Witness Dorne. The entire excursion into the last of the Seven Kingdoms has been a complete waste of time. Alexander Siddiq, as Prince Doran, has had a grand total of about 10 minutes of screen time for the whole season. What has that told us about him as a character? What has it accomplished other than showing Ellaria's impotent rage over the death of her paramour, Oberyn? We already have that with Cersei. We already have that with Sansa. Hell, we have that with most of the women in the show and would have more of it if they'd included the Lady Coldheart storyline, but that theme has been beaten into the ground. If they were going to introduce Dorne (and I would have been sorely disappointed if they hadn't but, yes, would have recognized the logistical need to sacrifice it), then include the genuine plotting nature of that family and its portrayal in Feast and Dance. If there was anything that could have been cut, it's the Sand Snakes and their (all together now) impotent rage. In a season marked by extended conversations about background events, the ones that really could have whetted our mass appetite for next season are the ones we didn't get from Prince Doran. Yes, show-watchers, there's an assload of story (surprise!) behind the Dorne stuff that has a lot to do with what's going on in Essos and what happened during Robert's Rebellion (even more than what Oberyn referred to last season.) But you're not going to get any of that because, instead, you got Bronn being Bronn and Jaime being Jaime and no one doing anything but running in place, both in terms of character development or plot progression. The one word label for "jerking off motion" in all of its possible connotations (and there are many) is now "Dorne"; even more fitting because they couldn't even be bothered to give the city its actual name ("Sunspear", in case you didn't know or missed it the first time I ranted about it) and not because it's a phallic symbol.

The best moment of the entire episode was watching Thorne's expression from the top of the Wall as Jon and the Wildlings approached. That one moment of acting told us everything about the man, his opinions, his relationship with the new Lord Commander, and everything they'd been through together. It was brilliant and Owen Teale deserves every bit of praise for pulling it off. That moment was the only one of genuine tension in the episode, as we sat there wondering whether Thorne would let them back in or leave them to die at the hands of the Others. He would have been justified in doing so, given most of the Watch's antipathy toward their other hereditary enemies, the Wildlings. It would also have been convenient, given his and Jon's personal distaste for each other and his conviction that Jon's plan for the Watch is a bad one. That's storytelling. That's plot. That's character. That's real conflict. Thorne's acquiescence and commitment to duty was evident as we all crossed that hurdle together. None of that occurred in the entirety of the Dorne material for the season.

The other great moment of the episode was, of course, the subtle goodbye that Davos had with Shireen. In the end, when you're telling stories, whether it's a plot-driven epic like a Song of Ice and Fire or a character-driven tale like Tom Sawyer, the people involved need to be real. "Real" usually means "human", in that they act and feel in ways that the watchers or readers can relate to. It's something I'm hyper-conscious of because I've written a number of things where people acted in ways that were either rote or unnatural and those are always the stories that crash and burn. Watching Davos (Liam Cunningham) be torn between his affection for Shireen and his natural predilection toward doing what's right on the one hand, and the duty imposed on him by his king on the other, was excellent. Shireen's unknowing earnestness about their friendship was the crowning touch. Again: conflict, character, plot, story. It was all there. The rest of the episode largely lacked it and so has most of this season.

I mean, seriously, what was the point of killing Hizdahr here? What did it do for us? There's no longer any question of whether he was tied to the Sons of the Harpy, which is one of the more interesting plot points about the character, because he's dead. There's no longer any question about whether he was attaching himself to Dany for personal ambition or political motives or even genuine affection, because he's dead. Now we have to imagine that a bunch of outsiders, without the force of personality and dragons of their queen, and alongside the increasingly inept Unsullied, will somehow succeed without a single person in Meereen by their side? Good fiction occasionally does take leaps of logic (most people refer to them as "plot twists") but this one is going down a road that seems less likely by the minute. I'm not watching the series to see Daario do a Die Hard in the great pyramid of Meereen. I'm watching for a good story and, right now, I'm not getting it.

That complaint becomes even more acute when considering Arya's storyline, which is one of my favorites in the books and has been so for the last two seasons. Yet this episode's lengthy time in Braavos found her wandering after Meryn Trant and wheeling an oyster cart into one of the most expensive whorehouses in the city. Somehow no one stopped her at the door? Somehow an editor didn't look at this screenplay and say: "Perhaps wandering around with Arya while she wavers between murderous intent toward Trant and concern about that same intent toward the ship insurance guy without actually doing anything might be a little tedious?" It was at that moment that I wondered, with all of the increasingly obvious shortcuts they've been taking to keep the story under control, somehow they thought an episode full of no actual action by Arya was OK? Are we at the point where we have to consider the idea that D&D, largely unmoored from Martin's books, have lost their way? It's certainly starting to look that way.

Side notes:

Along that whole "leap of logic" thing, I found it especially unreasonable that Ramsay and his 20 picked men could have become so familiar with the layout of Stannis' camp that they would have been able to burn the food stores and the siege weapons and escape without being seen. Granted, doing it in the midst of a low-grade blizzard is a sure way to cover your tracks (literally) but trying to scout a camp of 6000, enter it, set enough fires to burn successfully, and leave in the midst of a low-grade blizzard isn't exactly likely.

Was I the only one kind of disappointed in the production value this season? It became pretty obvious that, for all the glory of the Water Gardens in Sunspear, they were essentially shooting the same room from different angles. That's a trick you have to do in order to control costs, but it was getting kind of tired by the end. Of course, that might be just because there was nothing actually happening. But it really hit me when Dany did the Great Drogon Escape at the end. Her riding on his back looked like nothing so much as the kid in the Neverending Story; a movie from 30 years ago with vastly inferior technology.

Lines of the week:

"You have a good heart, Jon Snow. It'll get us all killed."
Alliser Thorne, pragmatist.

"It's always changing. Who we're supposed to love and who we're not. The only thing that stays the same is who we want."
Ellaria making the case for modern sexual politics.

"What great thing has ever been accomplished without death and cruelty?"
"It's easy to confuse what is with what ought to be, especially when what is has worked in your favor."
And Tyrion chiming in with an easy statement about modern America.

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