Monday, July 17, 2017

Shall we begin?

There's a point in most people's lives, perhaps several points, where one confronts the reality of who they are and what they're about. Whether it's a self-realization of something deeply personal that you've been blinding yourself to or a final acceptance of a situation that's too far gone to be acknowledged as anything else but the simple truth of what it is, they're akin to what alcoholics often refer to as a "moment of clarity." They don't always have to be traumatic or wrenching, either. Sometimes it's a matter of good fortune that one stumbles into this realization and is now prepared to take advantage of it. The first episode of season 7 was rife with these moments of confronting reality. In that respect, it was probably appropriate that the show had its first cold open in some time. After all, winter is here.

Probably the most crucial of these experience takes place in the early part of the episode, among the people most exposed to the most important of these realities: the approach of the Others. Jon Snow is attempting to organize his new bannermen, now that he's assumed the mantle of House Stark. Sansa, now firmly in control of her own direction after a long tutelage under Cersei, Ramsay Bolton, and Littlefinger, attempts to educate Jon on the consequences of one's own actions and the importance of loyalty and the need for people to understand the penalties one pays for betrayal. It's not just the way of the hardbitten North. It's the way of The Game. She now knows how it's played and how to be sure that no one crosses the line again.

But Jon has long since passed that moment of self-realization. He knows who he is and he's not the person to turn defenseless people out into the winter because someone else made a bad choice. Blood ties are what protect people, but blood ties can curse them if people decide to let it. He won't and he's more conscious of those blood ties than anyone else in the room. Sansa's cautions about both Rob and Ned Stark are well taken, but Jon's role as a new element (bastard, former Night's Watch, risen from the dead, and, um, Targaryen) is what defines him. This is a confrontation between two people that are sure of what they think; Sansa from lengthy and brutal experience and Jon from a powerful sense of self. He's been betrayed, as well, and still believes that the policy of the open hand will outdo that of the closed fist. Needing literally every warm body to try to stem the tide of the Others only (ahem) crystallizes that perspective.

That kind of long-term thinking is also evident during the autopsy scene at Oldtown. Sam keeps insisting about the magnitude of the threat that he's personally witnessed and which he knows is crashing down on the heads of everyone that he loves, as well as the rest of the Seven Kingdoms. But the archmaester reminds him that these disasters come in cycles and yet civilization has endured through all of them; at least in part because Oldtown and the maesters have endured. Of course, it's the very knowledge stored in Oldtown that the archmaester speaks of so highly that Sam wants to access in order to ensure that their civilization continues. Which one is ignoring reality here: the one who thinks this crisis has to be dealt with directly or the one who thinks that patience and refusing to act rashly will eventually win the day? (And there's one key spoiler from Oldtown in this vein that has been revealed in a tiny scene in the books that hasn't appeared in the show, but I'm pretty sure it will become pertinent as we move along.)

We see the impact of this simple reality in the short scene with Arya and the band of Lannister soldiers, as well. The High Sparrow reactivated the Faith Militant as a direct response to the thousands of common people being caught up in The Game and losing their lives as a consequence. Here, again, was a perfect example of that: These soldiers know they're fighting someone else's war for someone else's benefit and that the only real reward they'll receive is if they come home alive and hopefully not maimed. This is the plight of the common soldier from wars throughout history and I think it was a poignant reminder of the fact that war has all kinds of victims, even when it's those who are seen as part of the machine that creates the violence. The fact that these were Lannister soldiers, among Arya's avowed enemies that she was probably considering killing when she came upon them, just made her awareness of the impact the war has had on far more than just her family that much more obvious.

But the real confrontation with the world around him comes in the presence of my still-favorite character, Sandor Clegane (although Jaime is a close second now and New Sansa is growing on me quickly.) The Hound is the ultimate cynic. He believes in neither gods nor men and detests the social order that elevates him, even as he uses his natural power to take what he wants from others. Given all of that, it's fascinating to see him confront not only the mortal consequences of his actions as he broods over the corpses of the farmer and daughter who took him in and offered what little they have, but also when Thoros gets him to witness the visions in the fire and he realizes that there may, in fact, be greater powers out there that impact him personally. It's a nice carryover from the lessons that the septon (Al Swearingen!) tried to convey to him last season, as the cynic becomes the penitent. I don't want to say that the Hound has found religion, but perhaps that he's discovered that empathy with others is a path toward a deeper understanding of his place in the world, which is exactly the point that Jon was making by suggesting mercy towards the children of the Umbers and Karstarks, rather than continuing to play The Game that has led to nothing but death and misery for everyone. "Be the change you want to be in the world" a very wise man once said. It's been the message of Daenerys since she took control of her own destiny and Jon and Sandor are now making it happen, as well.

Technical stuff:

I realize that a lot of people are going to be thrilled by the cold open that was Arya depopulating the Twins with a Jonestown massacre. I wasn't one of them. That struck me as way too much fan service, in that everyone still hates the Freys even with Walder having been given a second smile last season. It also struck me as remarkably easy in terms of execution. It's a plan that should have taken a lot more time, effort, and luck, none of which would have been appropriate in a ten episode season, of course. But that just makes the shortcut stand out even more. We already know that Arya's deadly. We don't need the casual murder of the entire Frey line to prove that yet again. As always, I realize that some shortcuts are going to be necessary for the sake of story size, pacing, and the medium itself. Benioff and Weiss have been doing it since the series started. But it seems like the number of shortcuts surrounding Arya's storyline has become greater in the last couple seasons. Her tragedy is one of the most powerful messages of the series and it would be great if her more prominent scenes didn't come cheaply, as this one seemed to. Yes, in a show about fire gods, ice zombies, and dragons, I still need some reality to maintain my suspension of disbelief. Sue me.

In complete contrast, it was kind of nice to see them not spend too long on Sam getting access to the restricted area that we all knew he was going to obtain. By the same token, the coincidental nature of him discovering the trove of dragonglass on Dragonstone was a bit too "main character stumbles across key plot element!" for me. It's always difficult to figure out how to introduce those key details without seeming like you're spoon feeding them to the audience. You don't want to drag things out too long to the point where people either lose interest or lose trust with the storyteller (see: The Killing) but you also don't want to make it completely linear, either, especially in a series that's already famed for its complexity.

It was kind of a treat to see the automation for Oldtown in the opening credits for the first time. Given the amount of time spent displaying Dany's return to her birthplace, I'm assuming that they'll have to bring Dragonstone back in the next few episodes. Speaking of which, I've seen a couple notes of irritation about the amount of time spent reintroducing the castle from the beach on up, but I think that scene was played brilliantly. The time it took and the number of long shots really played up both the ancient presence of the fortress and the historical significance of its continued presence. This was the first landing point of Aegon the Conqueror and the base from which he put all of Westeros under his thumb, before moving to Kings Landing. This was the last remnant of old Valyria and the creator of the Iron Throne. This is Danerys's direct ancestor and the reason that she feels entitled to return and stake her claim to that throne.

One side note: Now that we know that the Others are the equivalent of the human nobility, since they all ride horses alongside the (ahem) walking dead, they can't really be called "White Walkers" anymore, can they? D&D created that as a more memorable and menacing label for people unfamiliar with the story, but it seems kinda out of place at this stage.

Cersei repainting the world on the floor of the Red Keep was a pretty deft reference to the later scene in the Dragonstone table room. All rulers like to see the world at their feet (sometimes literally) and both moments were a measure of two women about to come to grips with each other over a vast territory that, of course, will mean absolutely nothing in the face of the encroaching threat from beyond the Wall. It's little things like that that made this screenplay and the direction of it really stand out. This is easily one of the better first episodes of the series.

That scene also continues the steady drumbeat of female empowerment that the series has blossomed into. Dany is the master of a huge fleet, army, and the world's only three dragons. Cersei has finally achieved the pinnacle of power that she's always desired. Arya is the deadliest person walking the kingdoms right now. Sansa, despite being taunted by Littlefinger as a second-ringer behind Jon, is clearly in total control of whatever situation she gets dropped into. The brief confrontation with Baelish on the battlements was a highlight of the episode for me. For a series (both book and TV) that has often been castigated for presumed misogyny, it was great to see that in most of the moments of this episode, the people who truly had command were women. And, of course, Bella Ramsey is still killing it as Lyanna Mormont.

Lines of the week:

"Leave one wolf alive and the sheep are never safe." That's a little too "slippery slope" for me, but I get the intent.

"Looks like we're the Night's Watch now." Tormund is never one to let a cheap shot pass him by.

"Father used to say: Everything before the word 'but' is horseshit." Lessons in communication.

"Everyone who's ever crossed her, she's found a way to murder." Um, so, yeah. About your sister...

"The people I was cutting down were your own kin!" "Place was getting crowded."
"So here I am. With 1000 ships. And two good hands." (That deserves a Kelso.)
"You murdered your own brother." "You should try it some time. It feels glorious."
I wasn't sold on Pilou Asbæk as Euron in any way last season, but his scene in the throne room felt far more like the Euron from the books. He's still missing that air of menace, though (and, of course, the eyepatch.)

"Everyone in the Citadel doubts everything. It's their job." This felt like an appeal for science in these, our times, dominated by a five-year-old as president.

"Mother always told me: Be kind to strangers, strangers'll be kind to you." Yeah, but what about The Stranger? He doesn't care! And what about the Faceless assassin? Oh. I guess she cares.

"If he's so all-powerful, why doesn't he just tell you what the fuck he wants?" This question has bedeviled believers down through the ages.
"It's my fucking luck I end up with a band of fire worshipers." Yeah, it kinda is.

And the winner:

"No need to seize the last word, lord Baelish. I'll assume it was something clever." Smack. Down.

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