Monday, May 9, 2016

Conversations


As I've mentioned before, there are frequently episodes in continuing series that are defined as "bridge episodes", in which momentous events don't really happen, but a lot of smaller ones do that link together the momentous events of other episodes. In any lengthy story, you need those lower points so that your readers have peaks and valleys and you can maintain a certain rhythm to your story. After all, even car races have pit stops, since you can't be going full bore for the full 500 miles. Characters, if they're going to be real, have downtime that gives them an opportunity to show how they've been affected or grown from the events in those peaks. "The Oathbreaker" was one of those bridge episodes. The difference here is that there are now so many storylines with so many events of impact taking place, that even the supposed bridge episodes are loaded with impressive moments. This was one of those and it made this latest episode into the best of the season, by far.

A frequent technique for bridging segments of a story together is the use of conversations between the major players, as they attempt to sort out what's happening around them. That happened quite a bit tonight, from Sam and Gilly discussing the realities of their situation and reaffirming their pledge to one another to Smalljon Umber stating just how far he was willing to go (not very) in cooperating with the new Warden of the North. Clearly, those are setups for what's to follow, but they're also key storytelling moments in both small ways (Gilly declaring that Sam is the father of her child) and large (the Umbers setting up what has to be a power play; I'll get to this in a moment.) Tyrion, above, was just attempting to make small talk, but the smallest talk often has great ripples, be it in Vaes Dothrak with the only person in the world who commands the beasts of legend, or in Castle Black where average people attempt to comprehend the miraculous while the tide of reality seeps in all around them.


For book readers, of course, one of the best conversations was one that didn't even have to do with the future, but instead the past and everything that has followed from it: young Eddard Stark and Ser Arthur Dayne at the Tower of Joy. By this time, most people should be familiar with the theory about Jon Snow's parentage. The confrontation at the Tower, between Eddard, Howland Reed. Dayne, and two more members of the Kingsguard is intimately involved in that theory. In the books, the scene appears as a fever dream of Eddard's while in the Black Cells beneath the Red Keep. Here we're treated to it as part of Bran's education by the last greenseer. It was the culmination of the trigger event (Rhaegar's "kidnapping" of Lyanna) that precipitated everything in the story except the return of the Others; most notably the fall of House Targaryen. Fittingly, the TV audience finally sees it as we're now on the precipice of witnessing the return of that house. One question that stands out, however, is why the greenseer would have been so concerned about Bran learning what happened inside the Tower. There's nothing that Bran can do to change the past or affect the current situation. Or can he?


Appropriately, one of the simplest conversations, with the least immediate effect on the overall game being played, was one of the most transformative for one character and the best scene of the episode: Arya's training. She's finally reached the goal she's been focused on for years: finding a way to take vengeance on those she feels deserve it. The price is that the reason for that vengeance, her family and the wrongs done to them, will be lost to her as she has become no one but a faceless assassin serving the obscure motivations of the Many-Faced God. Given that she was punished for acting out one step of that vengeance, there's little guarantee that she'll ever be given the opportunity to enact more of it, such that he transformation into one of the Faceless Men becomes little more than a way to channel her aggression which she's not even permitted to embrace in her own interest. Those conflicting agendae seem to guarantee that Arya is engaged in a long-term game of her own, using the Many-Faced God and its servants to empower her own personal crusade. What kind of blowback occurs as a consequence remains to be seen. Maisie Williams' face after drinking the water of life was one of blank ferocity and speaks well of her (and Arya's) ability to play a delicate role.


Speaking of running the long con, I can't see what happened in Winterfell in this episode as anything but. If you know anything about the backstory of the North, you know that the Umbers have always hated the Boltons, since both houses were among those competing to be the next best thing to the Starks (and because many of House Bolton's customs are... quaint.) The Smalljon reinforced that last night by delineating exactly how House Umber would be cooperating with Ramsay Bolton, the new Warden of the North; that is, not at all. Not all conversations are about improved communication, clearly (Tangent: This is putting aside the fact that, in the books, the Smalljon died at the Red Wedding, while the Greatjon is still a captive at The Twins, while in the show, the Greatjon died at the Wedding and the Smalljon is back at The Last Hearth.)

Despite telling the lord of the North to essentially piss off, the Smalljon then delivers a gift: the heir to Winterfell, Rickon Stark. Why? On the one hand, it could be a method of ingratiating House Umber with the new lord, despite the personal antipathy of the Smalljon. OTOH, it could also be a way to get both the people of Winterfell and the rest of the North to rise in revolt, now that they know an heir to the true owners of the castle has returned. In this sense, the Smalljon playing up his disdain for House Bolton is simply playing to form. If he had come in the room making nice, Ramsay and the Karstarks would have known something was up. But acting like a typical Umber and then delivering a way for Bolton to seemingly cement his power is something else.


But the conversation of greatest philosophical impact brings us back where we started. Clearly, the title of the episode was intended to highlight Jon's final words and his departure. Of course, the oath of the Night's Watch has certain limitations, one of them being death ("... and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death.") Since Jon did die, it's an open question as to whether his oath has been fulfilled. Obviously, he intended to carry on until he witnessed the dead, purple face of Ollie a few moments after receiving the venomous glare of the same boy (played excellently by Breneck O'Connor.) I suppose there's only so many mental traumas one can endure in a short time (betrayal, murder, being raised from the dead with wounds still present, and then executing one's sworn brothers) before you simply reject everything and try to escape. Jon has always struggled with the idea of sitting on the sidelines while his family is embroiled in the game (and, it has to be said, mostly losing it.) Having given everything he has to the Watch, this is as a good a moment as any to declare that he's done his bit and decided to move on before he genuinely betrays the principles of that commitment. It's also a convenient stepping stone to his activity (bridge episode, remember?) as he enters the fray for the first time. What gives this moment special impact is the large number of spheres it enters and questions. Jon's been raised from the dead, a miracle in almost any situation and culture, by a priestess who no longer believes in her own god. He's surrounded by people that now regard him as some holy icon, a few of whom were happy to see him die, as they felt he'd betrayed the very identity of their sworn order by allying it with their historical enemies which is, in itself, kind of misaligned thinking, since the real enemies aren't the Wildlings, but the Others, and the Wildlings themselves are common people, beneath the notice of the elite, like most of the Watch. Jon's walking away from his role because he feels like he can't properly lead the order after his betrayal and the necessary justice inflicted on the betrayers, but likely also because he feels like he's better suited at this point to getting involved in the game to the south. Meanwhile, the real threat that diminishes all of the petty human squabbles is still looming and the foremost leader against that threat has just stepped away from it. If that whole thing feels like a great setup for later action, then the writers did their job.

Side notes:

I thought Young Eddard looked a little too young, but then I recalled that, during Robert's Rebellion, both he and Robert were all of 19 years old, so I guess it was appropriate for him to appear that callow. Part of the problem may be that the actor that plays Eddard, Sebastian Croft, lacks the same expressive eyes that Sean Bean has that tend to give him and his various roles a certain degree of emotional depth that simply wasn't in the Tower of Joy scene. Also, Croft's voice doesn't match even a younger version of Bean. That said, the swordplay of the battle, while, uh, highly unconventional on the part of Ser Arthur Dayne, was great to watch. It was also interesting to note that Eddard's oft-noted claim that Howland saved his life at the Tower was a result of the latter stabbing the greatest knight the Kingsguard had ever known in the back. Not exactly the stuff of legend, but those always seem to diminish when you get that close to them, anyway.

Why is the giant Kingsguard suddenly Ser Gregor again? When Qyburn mentions him last episode (and in the books), he's always Ser Robert Strong. Has everyone just openly abandoned the fiction and acknowledged the fact that Qyburn has turned what was a semi-mindless brute into a fully-mindless brute? Why the fiction for one episode?

The last greenseer shepherding Bran through his training is Bloodraven, former Hand of the King during the Blackfyre Rebellion. Upon their return from the Tower of Joy, he makes a comment about being stuck in the tree for 1000 years, which is odd, given that said Rebellion and Bloodraven's taking the black only happened several decades before the present day. Was he speaking as the seer and not Bloodraven? Maybe.


It's hard to include everything that went on in this episode, but I have to drop in a mention for the return of Olenna Tyrell (Dianna Rigg) to the series and the fascinating events in King's Landing. Watching the Lannister twins maneuver around only to be stonewalled by their uncle was interesting, especially since Jaime and Cersei's relationship is more akin to "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" at this point. Watching the High Sparrow use the concept of unknowable faith, despite his personal insight to same, on the finally angry King Tommen was a good eye-rolling moment for me, as well.

Lines of the week (a lot this time; once again, the best episode of the season so far):

"I failed."
"Good. Now go fail again."
Davos, ever the pragmatist, delivers a line that a lot of people (including me) should heed more often.

"I'm not a god."
"I know that. I saw your pecker. What kind of god would have a pecker that small?"
Tormund Giantsbane, always ready to bring giants back to earth.

"Is that still you in there?"
"I think so. Hold off on burning my body for now."
"That's funny! You sure that's still you in there?"
Ben Crompton as Dolorous Edd has only been getting better with each passing season.

"Torture does provide answers, but they're usually the wrong answers. My job is to find the right answers." Most intel people would agree with this sentiment. It's good to see Conleth Hill back in a role of influence. Ethics and intelligence.

"My master, Krasnos, would sometimes make us play games."
"There! That's a start!"
"Only the girls."
"No. Not that."
Tyrion is sometimes outflanked by the realities of slave life.

"You're not the queen. You're not married to the king. I do appreciate these things can get a bit confusing in your family."
The Queen of Thorns with a Kelso.



"It's not what I want. It's what the gods want."
Said every religious leader trying to convince someone that they know best because they have a closer relationship with an unknowable power.

"That's a short list. Are you sure you aren't forgetting someone?"
"Which name would you like a girl to speak?"
Says the assassin. Somewhere, someone in the Lannister family felt a chill.

"Your father was a cunt and that's why you killed him."
Ramsay's hesitation and mild acknowledgement here was priceless.

And the winner because... yeah:

"And now it begins."
"No. Now it ends."

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