Monday, June 27, 2016

Back to reality


Much of this season has been dominated by an overarching theme: the search for truth. Whether it be a personal search like Arya's, wherein she came to terms with the reality of who she was and would always be, or a broader truth like Cersei's, wherein she slowly constructed answers to everything that plagued her in her quest for control of her own life and, subsequently, the kingdom, the confrontation with reality has been dominant. I look back on my offhand titles for posts in season 6 and see: "Sometimes it's out of your (cold)hands", "Stuff you don't like to do", and "You can't escape who you are." These are all examples of confrontation with the circumstances around the sprawling cast that they either overcame or simply expected (sometimes both.) Fittingly, the season finale would be one long testament to all of that.


In most of the cases presented, the reality confronted would be a political one. From Dany severing her relationship with Daario (and still lying to him about how no one tells her what to do, when he was right that it was Tyrion's idea) for the sake of Westerosi allies to Lyanna Mormont grilling every other lord in the room for forsaking their oaths to House Stark, the truths in question were all about who rules or will rule and how. That is, of course, the great game that Tyrion spoke of and the reason for the show in the first place. Establishing that not only does a reality exist but that people had best be ready to deal with it was never more apparent than when Margaery finally dropped the facade and told the High Sparrow just where he could get off if he knew what was good for him. In the end, there's some validity to the idea that his expression said everything that he thought about that reality. While he feared death as he stated a couple episodes ago, he feared returning to subservience to the noble masters moreso. Why not go down and take as many of them with you as you can? Unfortunately for him, all he really did was exterminate the line of House Tyrell (in the show, anyway) but it was a nice example of someone refusing to accept the hand that fate had dealt them and instead shaping their loss in the game to something that was at least palatable for the few seconds prior to incineration. (Tangent: Did you notice that he finally put on a clean robe for the ceremony of the trial? Money and station lead to vanity for everyone, at some point.) Similarly, the Late Lord Frey received his comeuppance in two ways, with Jaime putting him in his place as nothing more than a tool of the greater houses and Arya's final stroke of vengeance for the Red Wedding. Unfortunately for Lord Frey (and the brilliant David Bradley), sometimes you get out of life what you've put into it and Walder Frey was usually nothing more than bitter.


Interestingly, the greatest political realist of them all, Littlefinger, not only laid bare his primary motivation to Sansa but also spent much of the episode (until the last few minutes) in one of the worst situations he'd been in since Cersei demonstrated to him the true meaning of power. One got the impression that he'd played all of his cards and was expecting his arrival with the Knights of the Vale to be the masterstroke in sweeping Catelyn's daughter into his arms and securing his hold on both the North and the Vale and, with the chaos sweeping the south, finally the Iron Throne. But it could never be that simple and Sansa ensured it, as she continued to demonstrate how sure a grasp of the game she now possesses, having learned much at the master's feet (and having noticed his lack of enthusiasm for the new King in the North; that passing glance between the two shows that she's well aware of how much of a threat he still is.) Similarly, the Queen of Thorns, confronted with the loss of her entire line, found herself negotiating with a bastard paramour in Sunspear (Yes. Sunspear. (I'll never forget. (The book readers remember!))) for an alliance that most Tyrells would have considered borderline unholy. Canny political operators or no, at some point you realize when the ground has shifted under your feet (perhaps because of a stockpile of explosives...?) and make adjustments. That, too, is confronting the truth, not of what has been but what is now. In the end, both Petyr Baelish and Olenna Redwyne do the smart thing and roll with the punches.


Likewise, Cersei's adaptation to her reality is a mark of someone both determined to control her own destiny (which is what she's been trying to do since she was young) and someone beginning to embrace the fact that the prophecy about her life was and remains totally beyond her control. Her children are now all dead. If the witch was right, her reign will be short and her brother will be the one who ends it. But since she's finally assumed the role she's felt was hers from birth, master of all she surveys (and the multiple skyline gazes before the destruction of the Sept of Baelor were great touches), it's clear that she's determined to accomplish as much as she can before the witch's prediction comes true. This is one step beyond accepting what's happening around oneself and, instead, being acutely aware of how all of this is going to end and going ahead and doing it, anyway.

The rest of the finale was setup for next season, as we've now not only passed the point where the show has departed the books (excepting Sam's arrival in Oldtown, which seems to be the one storyline that is seriously lagging behind the others; not those Others...) but we're hurtling headlong into the new reality: the great war between the Ice and the Fire. That war will apparently include Bran Stark, who's returning from the far north for reasons unknown. Since he can be anywhere in Westeros (and Westerosi time), is it safer to him to come south? That's one of the questions for next season. Another is how the Queenswar will emerge between Dany and Cersei and to which queen will the major houses become or remain loyal? And, of course, the big question that most book readers have had for almost 20 years: Will Jon's Targaryen heritage become a factor in his role as leader of the North?

Side notes:

A few technical complaints: How exactly does one feed three massive dragons on a long voyage across the sea? When they were a lot smaller, they could dive for fish. At this point, unless they're diving for sperm whales, it's not going to work. Also, Varys' trip to Sunspear (to bring the book plot of his machinations full circle, finally) and back to Meereen for the launch was awfully quick. It also took a lot of the poignancy out of his and Tyrion's goodbye scene just one episode before. Wouldn't it have been more appropriate to have them meet somewhere in Westeros (if at all)? Also also, Benjen's presence in this season was a complete non-factor, other than as a vehicle for the escape of Bran and Meera. I can only imagine Joseph Mawle being told that he's being brought back for the first time in five years so he can get all of five minutes of screen time, while he describes how he'd done all this stuff off-screen before exiting stage left again. They might as well have just done something simpler, like Bran getting rescued by a flock of ravens or something. Finally, I found the apparent conclusion of the High Sparrow's storyline a bit too convenient. Cersei mentions "all of his little soldiers" but it seems unlikely that all of the Faith Militant were present at the trial, which means that there should still be a horde of religious fanatics running around the kingdoms and causing trouble for the other players, but perhaps that was D&D cutting to the chase and leaving the Great War between the two major players (and, thus, discarding the little people to their fate, just as the great houses always have; elitist directors?)


In that respect, while I appreciate the intent behind Arya's appearance at the Twins and the serving of the cold Frey pie to Lord Walder, it struck me as overly convenient and very obvious fan service. Similarly to Littlefinger, it wouldn't have surprised me if Frey had outlasted all the other game players but was finally put back to just ruling his little river crossing by the eventual winners. While I get that most of the fanbase was eager to see some measure of payback for the Red Wedding, that struck me as a bit too tit-for-tat. Also, would Lord Walder Frey really use the nickname that others had applied to his fourth son, "Black Walder"? I suppose it was necessary for the TV audience to not hear him simply described as "Walder", but I'm willing to bet that 95% of the audience wouldn't have been able to identify "Black Walder", either.


Is there anyone in the show more entertaining than Bella Ramsey as Lyanna Mormont? Seriously, that kid is amazing. A close second would be Carice Van Houten as Melisandre. Her inner conflict with her faith has been one of the more fascinating things to watch this season and it played out yet again in the finale, as she continued to insist that, despite her failures and her inability to predict the whims of the Lord of Light, they were in as good a situation as they could expect solely because of the power of her god. This is the true article of faith: to insist that everything, no matter how great or terrible, must have happened because of the blind adherence to the grace of an unknowable being. Children were burned alive to make things better and that didn't make things better, but things are only as good as they are now because children were burned alive. See how easy? Van Houten has made Melisandre's inner struggle and continued devotion evident with every expression.

Similarly, there were a couple great performances tonight in very simple terms, where the actor had to convey deep feeling with nothing more than an expression. Dany's plaintive look at Daario as she turned him away was one of Clarke's best moments of the season, while Tyrion's look of genuine emotion at being named Hand of the Queen was also Dinklage's. Also, credit to the young actors portraying Qyburn's little birds. When I watched them carrying out his plans and waylaying Lancel in the wildfire basement, all I could think of was Village of the Damned. Great stuff.


Did anyone else feel mildly cheated with Lyanna whispering the reality of Jon's parentage to Young Eddard? I mean, we got the message with the baby to man transition shot and perhaps D&D were trying to reduce the potential melodrama of the long-awaited moment... but then why call more attention to it by not letting us hear that she loved Rhaegar and this was his child?

On that note, I've only mentioned Ramin Djawadi's contributions once or twice in all the years I've been doing this, but his choice of score was really excellent tonight. The thoughtful piano solo serving as the backdrop to the entire trial sequence and its consequences was brilliant, from the tense gathering as people filled the Sept to the final moment where Tommen decided that the reins of power were too heavy for him to hold. Finding the right music to represent a scene is an art in and of itself and he's been as much a part of the show's success as anyone else involved.

Lines of the night:

"This is Ser Gregor Clegane. He's quiet, too."
There are few things as entertaining as watching Cersei gloat over a situation that she's in total control of.


"You just sit there, a rich slab of beef, and all the birds come pecking."

and

"Not my type."
"Not blonde enough?"
Bronn, always reliable for a Kelso.

"Can't go killing my son-by-law. Wouldn't be right. Give the family a bad name."
Really, David Bradley has been just great. I'm sorry to see him go.

"I didn't lie. I was wrong."
I'll take 'Words no current GOP congressman would ever utter' for $200, Alex.

"Only a fool would trust Littlefinger."
The wisest thing Sansa's ever said.

"Survival is not what I'm after now."
The Queen of Thorns and the dish served cold.

"So, that's what you want? To be my mistress?"
Hey, I've known a couple guys that would love that role.

"The only people who aren't afraid of failure are madmen like your father."
Insanity can be defined as an overdose of confidence, one supposes.

"Forgive me, my lady, if you're at prayer."
"I'm done with all that."
Illusions left behind, there is now only the game.

And since it's the finale, two winners:

"Winter is here."
"Well, father always promised, didn't he?"
The tagline...


"You'll get that throne you want so badly, I'm sure of it. I hope it makes you happy."
... and the reality.

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