Monday, July 31, 2017

Ice and Fire together

In every story, there comes a time when the conflicts you've set up and become comfortable with have to be resolved. In epics like Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire, they're likely going to be resolved in stages, if only to give the audience (and the writers and actors) some opportunity to revel in that resolution. This is the payoff to years of work. Tonight's episode was one step in that progression for a number of storylines. It took years for the Unsullied to come to grips with Westerosi soldiers. The taking of Casterly Rock was one example of why their reputation is as grand as it is. Many people in Westeros and all of the audience has known that Cersei and Jaime have been a bit more than fraternal since the first episode. Now it's common gossip throughout the city and soon beyond. And, of course, everyone has been waiting for the meeting of Jon and Daenerys (nephew and aunt) for quite some time now, although there's still a lot of that story left to tell. As Melisandre said: "I've done my part. I brought ice and fire together."; thus referencing the title that George RR Martin uses for the whole sprawling project, even if HBO has stuck with the single element that drives everything: the game of thrones.

Because there were so many moments that all of us had been waiting for, it was appropriate that Benioff and Weiss were back on the writing duties. I suppose neither of them would have passed up the chance to finally pen the scene where the woman whose life is embodied by the quest for the throne meets the one man who holds a throne and really doesn't want it. Now the question is: Was the wait worth it? A great deal of expectation gets built up over such a long period of time and there were obvious attempts to defuse the grandiloquence of the situation (the comparison of titles, etc.) so that the two of them could engage as the people that they are, rather than the roles that the audience has so long wanted them to fill. As the writer(s), you have to be able to fill those long-desired moments sufficiently, without letting the progression of the story come to a halt. You've indeed reached the payoff point, but the reward is that events keep going to the real resolution. As Sam discovered tonight, there often is no reward for being right. The reward is the work itself and its successful completion.

But, with all of that said, I'm left wondering if the payoff was worth it. I found myself largely uninspired in writing about the show this week. I thought the scene with Dany and Jon ran a bit long. Just how much royal jousting can one do when one participant isn't interested at all? Likewise, for all that the episode proved that Cersei was, once again, two steps ahead of everyone else (most pointedly her brother, Tyrion), the culmination of the some of her plans was less than expected when it came to production.  Highgarden, the seat of House Tyrell and one of the oldest structures in Westeros was reduced to a pretty simple matte painting and one plain room where Olenna awaited her fate. The "battle" to take this crucial locale was a couple scenes of Lannister troops marching and then one moment of obvious siege clean-up... except that there was no siege. The Lannisters didn't even have a back door like the Unsullied used to take the Rock. The seat of the house with the largest army in Westeros just went away like an unwanted subplot. Clearly, the discussion between Jaime and Randyll Tarly likely involved the latter keeping that huge army away from Highgarden, but it still seems rather stunningly anti-climactic. We always have to keep in mind production limits, since there's often not room in the budget for the huge battles and sets that we'd like to see. But this season is also only seven episodes. Couldn't something have been spared for one of those seven kingdoms?

I'm not trying to say that the episode was poor, like a couple from season 5 (Dorne!) were. After all, with events like Bran's return to Winterfell. the show remains interesting to watch and it's clear that D&D have found their footing in the post-GRRM world and are steering their ship to its eventual port, regardless of what the books might say in the future. It's also clear that the actors continue to inhabit their characters splendidly; most notably the Lannisters. Tyrion, like Jon, never wanted to be part of the game. He got his first taste while working as Hand for his detestable nephew and has latched on in that same role for the only person that he finds sufficiently ethical to be in a position of power. Even in that turmoil of emotion and responsibility, neither the writers nor Peter Dinklage have lost track of who Tyrion is: a southern lord who makes little jabs at the "dreary" north and a dwarf who knows that he's still considered to be one of the "broken things", no matter which monarch he serves. Similarly, Lena Headey's performance as Cersei has been spectacular from the start, but the end of season 6 and the first three episodes of this season have been remarkable. Just watching her eyes almost literally glow with malice as she described to Ellaria how she was going to watch Tyene suffer, die, and decompose was excellent. Having achieved the lifelong goals of sitting on the throne and semi-publicly acknowledging her love for her twin, Headey is filling every corner of the role with the indulgence that Cersei would be feeling as queen of the realm. How many people get turned on by condemning someone to brutal torture and deprivation? The, uh, satisfaction was obvious.

But Jaime and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau remains the most fascinating of the three. I've seen many comments on Jaime that indicate that people are still often confused about how and why he's acting the way he does. After many were convinced that he was a "good guy" following his lengthy sojourn with Brienne, they were roundly disenchanted when he began acting like a Lannister again upon his return to Cersei and King's Landing. One still sees elements of that morality when he's confronted with the more outlandish of Cersei's actions or even when he's brooding on his role in the game and she comes in to the room trying to get some after torturing an enemy. Where before he was the one acting out of passion, now he's the one pulling away because he can't hide from the truth: this isn't what he wanted. From Tywin Lannister's perspective, Jaime lacks the one thing that all successful rulers have: ambition. Neither of his sons had it, although both are willing to embrace their roles out of necessity. His daughter has it in spades. That became one of her prime frustrations, when her father failed to see that she was the one who could lead the family when he was gone. Jaime never matured in that manner, despite being a capable commander and, eventually, a genuinely ethical person in some ways. But why does he follow Cersei's orders and display some of the old Lannister ruthlessness whenever he's interacting with the outside world? Because he knows it's a game of survival now. Cersei wants to wipe out all of their enemies to show how strong she is. Jaime wants to do so because he knows if they're left in power and the Lannisters somehow lose the struggle, he and Cersei are dead. At this point, it's simply a matter of getting them before they get him. In the meantime, he finds that he still loves the woman that he fears and is repelled by and he still loves swinging a sword, even though he's a long way from what he used to be in that respect, as well. Coster-Waldau has many fine lines to wobble off of and then find a way to return to, like any good tightrope walker, and that's what has made Jaime the most fascinating character to watch for some time, even when the plot becomes a little pro forma.

Similarly, Sansa has been left in a role that requires her to use the knowledge and awareness that life in King's Landing and with Littlefinger have groomed her for. She excels at that until long lost brother Bran finally returns to Winterfell. His inability to be human any longer becomes the element that reveals her continuing to be all too human, which is a vulnerability that Littlefinger can continue to exploit, even when (or especially when) Jon returns. It's that struggle which may turn out to be more interesting than all of the rest.

Technical stuff:

The production limits are really showing. Again, the "battle" for Highgarden was a real disappointment. The Tyrells have always been a bit of a McGuffin in the story, but when you keep lauding them as the house with the most food, now the most money, and as a consequence of both, the largest army, and then see the hereditary seat wiped out as an afterthought, it's pretty disappointing. By the same token, even though they've glossed over the question of how Euron could find both lumber and men to create the other Iron Fleet (i.e. the one that Asha and Theon didn't have), they now have Euron jetting from one side of the continent to the other in minutes to be the lever by which Cersei keeps her plans rolling two steps ahead of everyone else's. Time compression is a thing in a story this large and sometimes you just have to deal with that, but he's treading (floating) a lot closer to a deus ex machina device than I'd like to see.

Similarly, Olenna Tyrell had been floating around like a ghost, standing in for the Tyrells wherever they were needed in order to hold their place in the story. Why wasn't she meeting with her most powerful bannerman, Randyll Tarly and putting their army in the field on behalf of the Dragon Queen? Again, the reduction to seven episodes this season is having a real impact in some respects and I think this is one of them. Thankfully, Dianna Rigg got one last chance to twist the knife in the way she has since she entered the series, even if it was to reveal something that most of us already knew.

There's a certain amount of resignation in the acknowledgement that, when it comes to wars, the real winners are usually the bankers. The crown is out of money. The Lannisters are out of money. Now the Tyrells are out of money. So the Seven Kingdoms will have been laid waste and the Iron Bank will be richer than ever.

One wonders how D&D decided to handle the Dany and Jon scene from the perspective of revealing the "real" war that's coming. After all, this is a woman who rides dragons and walks through infernos unhurt. Is it really that difficult to believe in an army of zombies led by ice aliens? Certainly, there's relatively recent historical precedent for the presence of dragons, since the Targaryens conquered Westeros with some only 300 years before and no one has seen the Others in thousands of years. One can also understand a dismissal of something one has never seen, either. After all, the dragons are right outside and she's lived through the fact that fire doesn't hurt her. But she's also lived through the effects of the clear sorcery of people like Pyat Pree in Qarth. Having seen that kind of power, again, is it really that difficult to believe that there might be something just as "not normal" and threatening that a 700-foot tall wall was built to keep it out? Certainly, the threat of Cersei is both real and present and that's going to occupy one's mind more than tales from the far off North, which is why Tyrion convinces her with "Give him something by giving him nothing."

Lines of the week:

"It's been a long road, but we're both still here." True 'dat.

"A sham marriage. And unconsummated."
"I didn't ask."
"Well, it was. Wasn't. Whatever."
How to say "I didn't sleep with your sister." in Westerosi noblespeak.

"I am the last Targaryen." she says to the other last Targaryen.

"Does she like it gentle or rough? Or with a finger in the bum? Not now. We'll talk later."
There are moments when the essential chauvinism of Westerosi society breaks through. Jaime losing his hand essentially makes him a eunuch among those that fill the role of warrior and it's been interesting seeing him struggle with that.

"Sometimes tragedies are necessary to restore order." Spoken like a true fasci-, uh, banker.

"You must allow them their flights of fancy. It's dreary in the north." Tyrion being Tyrion.

"Don't know anything about that. I just started feeling better." I got better!

"Give me ten good men and I'll impregnate the bitch." Bronn, season 1, episode 3. He forgot to mention the climbing spikes, though.

"He enjoys talking."
"We all enjoy what we're good at."
"I don't."
That's Jon.

"She's a disease. I regret my role in spreading it. You will, too." Olenna with one last turn of the knife.

And the winner:

"I know it's a good question. I'm looking for an answer." I think that would be "42".

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