Monday, May 2, 2016

Portrait of contrasts

The strange interweaving of the stories of A Feast for Crows and A Dance of Dragons led to some weird timelines for the readers, in which events that were supposed to be happening simultaneously or even sequentially, were shown out of order. Part of the problem was that what was supposed to be one book was split into two. The other problem was that the two volumes that made up that formerly one book were written, re-written, and finally published almost six years apart. But that was all just part of digesting the story as a whole, so most shouldn't have been too concerned with it. Now, of course, we add in the timeline of the TV show, which also has had to jump around to satisfy the vagaries of production schedules and the limitation of 10 episodes per season.

What makes that interesting in this, the Age of Past the Books, is that the show storyline is now, essentially, the dominant one (uWoWid) and yet they've had to do the largest leap backward in this latest episode to date. The funny part is that they did so with a scene that wasn't actually in Feast: the assassination of Balon Greyjoy. In the books, no one is actually certain if Balon was pitched over the side of one of the inter-island bridges or if he simply fell. It's strongly implied that he was killed by his brother, Euron, but no one can prove it. So, not only do we have a case of uncharted territory in material that isn't yet published, but we also have it in a book that's 11(!) years old. This isn't taking a different turn or moving into new territory. It's just confirming what everyone already assumed and making a fairly dramatic moment out of it. Was this a scene that Martin had written and then eliminated to just cut to the chase (aka the Kingsmoot)? Or was this just Benioff and Weiss deciding that it was a far more dramatic way to introduce the menacing character of Euron? If it was the latter, wouldn't it have been prudent for the non-readers to know that Balon's brother's name was, in fact, Euron, since neither man says it during the whole confrontation?

But never mind that. The theme of the episode was clearly a study in contrasts. Bran, trapped in the utter north, is still able to travel farther than anyone, both in terms of distance and time. (Just like the Balon/Euron scene, we traveled back in time. Meta!) The fact that he's now accompanied on his journeys by the redoubtable Max von Sydow makes it all the better. Melisandre has lost faith in the Lord of Light, but is being asked to commit an act that requires an ultimate test of that faith. Tommen is trying to assert himself, not to gain control, but to protect his mother, the repeated loss of whom to the church would probably break him and the throne. Meanwhile, Cersei can't force the hand of her pliable son, but is now joined by the most implacable member of the Kingsguard to ever exist and whom is willing to fulfill every whim of the queen mother (a terrifying prospect in and of itself for most of the population of King's Landing, one would think), even down to hunting down the exhibitionists from the Walk of Shame (Ding!)

Nowhere is this study in contrasts more evident than in the confrontation between the High Sparrow and Jaime; one of the best scenes of the episode. As the Sparrow repeatedly points out, he may be the head of the church but he fears many things, including death, as even his faith isn't strong enough to assure himself that there is a next world after death. Jaime, used to resolving problems with the little people in the most direct manner possible, attempts to wield the intimidation of the armed and armored warrior, face to face with the peasant in his simple robes. But the implication of what his actions may do stays his hand. No matter how powerful the one, the many will eventually win out. It doesn't take faith to make that a reality.

That said, it may have been Melisandre's personal struggle that sent the most powerful message. Here is the arrogant, imperious priestess reduced to confessing to the lies that carried her to her station in life alongside the pretender, Stannis. But the priestess with the lapsed faith is begged to perform a "miracle" by one who lacks faith of any kind in the first place (Davos). In order to complete this act for a bunch of non-believers (including the man she aspires to return to life), she must overcome not only her own disenchantment with R'hllor but also the lack of faith in herself to perform any action on behalf of the Lord of Light, much less one that she states should be impossible by those whose results she has seen. This pairs up nicely with the question of magic in most fantasy presentations. ASoIaF has been called "the Middle Ages, but with dragons" because of Martin's insistence on sparing his audience nothing in terms of how Hobbesian (nasty, brutish, short) life can be, even if one is among the societal elite. But even though magic and the dragons exist, both are regarded as something essentially mythical. In the same way that JRR Tolkien's stories largely kept magic (or "lore") firmly in the background, as an element of history that could easily be myth, GRR Martin's stories do the same. The contrast there is that the wonderful escapes that the concept of magic (or flying away on a dragon) present are extremely rare, as opposed to the rough end that so many of our cast have met and will continue to meet. The limited amount of fireworks means that those moments that involve something otherworldly continue to be special for the audience and for the characters involved.

Despite all of that, the conclusion of the episode was the most expected moment in the series, to date, I think. My girlfriend even said: "And Jon Snow wakes up and... credits." even before Ghost knew what was happening. The big question had always been not whether Jon would return but how (Melisandre, warging into Ghost, etc.) I don't know that that diminishes said "magical" moment because it was so obvious, but I still have a bit of "OK, get on with it." puttering around my head. Some of that may have come from the way the scene was initiated, with Davos, the man lacking faith, asking for an impossible task from the sorceress who's given no indication that such a thing is possible. Plot hole? Another small stumble was the scene with Tyrion and the dragons.

While I understand the motivation behind the scene, as it will be much easier for the World's Most Unlikely Ruling Council (2 former slaves, a eunuch, and a foreign dwarf) to rule the city of Meereen backed up by Rhaegal and Viserion (if they're going to be "intelligent" characters in the story, we might as well refer to them by their names, rather than "the dragons", yes?) than it would be otherwise. But that scene had me arching an eyebrow or two. Tyrion isn't given to flights of fancy, outside his choice of women. He's a careful planner who is willing to use his considerable knowledge as an advantage, but usually to avoid getting killed. The idea that he'd be willing to take this considerable gamble without an equally considerable amount of time thinking about it and/or consulting with others seems off to me. In fact, it kind of seems like D&D took my previous advice ("get on with it") and left out some time in Meereen where Tyrion would have made this discovery. Yes, he did something similarly brave in the Battle of the Mud Gate, but that was in a moment of crisis where he knew it was do or die. This was a plan with even higher prospects of "die". So there's my own personal contrast: Yes, more magic and dragons is fine, especially this late in the game. But keep it real, man.

Side notes:

The return of Bran was welcome and the time travel back to the point of the ably intelligent Willas (nèe Hodor) was interesting, although why they decided to call him "Willas" instead of his name in the books (Walder) is open to question. Too close to the name of Walder Frey? And did they make a return to Iceland for that scene? It seemed a bit more studio-ish than previous sets in the utter north.

Speaking of unnecessary name changes, one of the best parts of the episode for me was the reappearance of the Greyjoys, including Asha (no more of this "Yara" business, please; it's Asha. Not Osha. Asha.) While the interaction between her and Balon was pretty pro forma, the appearance of Euron is exciting, as he's one of the most intriguing characters of the later books. Also, the Kingsmoot scene in the next episode or two should be pretty fascinating. Also also, was the grey-haired man in the water, reminding Asha of the rules of the 'Moot, supposed to be a stand-in for Aeron Damphair? While I wouldn't mind it if it were so, as I like the character (as I like most of the Greyjoy stuff), he was a bit too sane to be the priest of the Drowned God. And that's still the best fireplace in that or any other world.

There was a certain amount of symmetry in a couple of the casualties tonight. The giant smashing one of the Watch against a wall only to toss him to the ground, creating a line of blood and gore in front of Thorne's men that he was clearly daring them to cross, was an excellent bit of violence. It was mimicked a few minutes later when Ser Robert Strong decided to avenge the queen mother's honor on one of her taunters from the Walk. Clearly, they'll put your head out.

In a similar vein (ahem), we finally see Roose Bolton meet the sad end of having played with fire (aka Ramsay) for so long. That was a bit of a disappointment, as I thought he might hold out a bit longer until the changes in the North finally cracked a bit of his ultra-cool facade. But it was inevitable and Ramsay clearly has more political savvy than Roose expected, since the former knew what strings to pull to get the Karstarks on his side. Now they seem to think that the Umbers will fall right in line. Good luck with that.

Even more interesting was the impact of Ramsay's actions on Ramsay. I'm sure there will be people that will begin the wailing and the gnashing of teeth about Ramsay having fed Walda and the Bolton heir to the dogs, as it was a pretty brutal scene. But the interesting part was seeing the flicker of emotion on Ramsay's face, as if he was uncomfortable with the atrocity he'd just committed (as opposed to all the rest.) Don't go Helen Lovejoy on me now, Ramsay. On second thought, go for it. It certainly adds another, to date unknown, dimension to the character.

Despite all of that interesting stuff, perhaps the most heartfelt scene was one of the shortest, as Theon plans to leave Sansa in the hands of Brienne while he goes off to rediscover himself and perhaps atone for some of what he's done. Alfie Allen and Sophie Turner have really been among the best performers of the show and too often overlooked.

Lines of the week:

Tormund Giantsbane, admiring Jon Snow's corpse: "Took a lot of knives." That's a Wildling compliment if I've ever heard one.

"You would spill blood in this holy place?"
"The gods won't mind. They spill more blood than the both of us combined."
Jaime and the High Sparrow debating perspective.


"Every one of us is poor and powerless. And, yet, together we can overthrow an empire."
He's just singing to my Marxist heart.

"If I lost my cock, I'd drink all the time." As opposed to now... when he drinks all the time.

"That's what I do. I drink. And I know things." And that's why he remains one of the best characters in the show.

"I'm not asking the Lord of Light for help. I'm asking the woman who showed me that miracles exist." The confrontation between the disbelief in what you can't see and the belief in what you've seen but still don't want to believe.

And the winner:

"I don't mock the Drowned God. I am the Drowned God. From Oldtown to the Rock, when men see my sails, they pray." Euron. Always Euron.

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