Monday, August 7, 2017

Fire as change

Come get some.
The halfway point in most series or even episodes of regular series is usually where the conflict introduced in the first half reaches its peak and the protagonist must really settle in and figure out how to solve it. Think of your average Star Trek episode, regardless of series. The situation would be introduced by the first commercial break; it would ramp up to a crisis point by the second; by the third it would seem to be on the verge of either solution or disaster; and then the day would be won by the time the credits rolled. This is Storytelling 101 (context, conflict, climax, closure, conclusion) but it can become a bit formulaic if the model is hewed to without variation. HBO, of course, has the luxury of not having to time things via commercial breaks. Modern TV has also done away with the self-contained episodes that anyone can step into and have a grasp of, no matter if they've seen any episode of the series before. Today's best shows are extended stories that tend to draw their arcs over the whole season, if not the entire length of the series, so reaching the aforementioned crisis point may take a few episodes before our heroes dig in, as it were. Solving the problem at hand, of course, doesn't always mean victory. Sometimes it means accepting what changes have occurred and learning to turn them to your advantage. This, the midpoint of our seven-episode season, has the beginnings of a new reality for multiple characters.

The most notable, of course, is Dany's dismissal of the "clever plans" in favor of the direct approach of using a dragon to solve problems. This was probably greeted with a huge sigh of "Finally!" by much of the audience, but you can see the broader question that Benioff and Weiss have weaved in. It's one of the oldest political premises of the modern world: absolute power corrupts absolutely. Tyrion and Co. are leery of letting Dany believe that the only way to see her agenda enacted is to slaughter thousands on the way to the top. As Jon notes in this very episode, if you do that, you're just more of the same; another tyrant. The common people that you've held at the forefront of your efforts don't benefit (in fact, many of them die) and you rule by the terror embodied by three giant lizards. The premise is that doing it Tyrion's way may be slower and more frustrating, but it also builds a more solid foundation for a modern world that isn't simply waiting to descend into chaos again (ladder or not) once said giant lizards die off. In a modern context, it's not too dissimilar from current circumstances in the US. If progressives do manage to take control of the government, should all of the ignorant Trumpanzees, economically frustrated and unrepentant racists alike, simply be slaughtered or might there be some benefit to examining why their views have become so (ahem) colored and how they might mirror the frustration of others who aren't so enamored with our own world's version of Joffrey?

O RLY?
Staying with Dany, we have the growing presence of an attraction between her and Jon. I struggle with this and not just because it'd be a hookup between aunt and nephew (that would be largely in keeping with set Targaryen tradition, after all.) It seems not unusual at all for the two of them to have some mutual interest, since Jon is one of the few people with a distinct moral center that Dany has discovered and, likewise, he hasn't missed the fact that she's attempting to keep her own ethical compact as the root of her quest to take the throne. People of like mind will often have more to talk about on a personal level. OTOH, I find myself recoiling at the premise because a) it feels too obvious (the closest thing to "good guys" in the story happen to pair up) and b) that feels like fan service. People have been 'shipping (is that a term, anymore?) on Jon and Dany since season 2 or 3 and I'm generally not in favor of anything in a story that feels artificially inevitable and this is precisely that. Here we have two characters that are at cross purposes because one is on the cusp of fulfilling a goal that she's redesigned an entire culture to enact and the other is trying to forestall the destruction of their civilization. They're going to sideline all of that in order to answer the call of the loins? Hmph.

Feels just like old times. Really.
From there we move north, where the Starks, in the process of getting reacquainted with each other after years of separation, are slowly discovering how much each other has changed. Bran was never again going to be the happy-go-lucky kid after his fall in the first episode of the series, but now it's not just Sansa being trepidatious about what's actually happened to him. Arya's return to Winterfell highlighted just how much what she's so longed to see has actually changed and, likewise, how much she's changed in the interim. She spent years becoming "No one" and then has to deal with the reality of finally returning home only to truly be "no one", since nobody still alive recognizes Arya Stark. The gulf between the sisters is still present ("It suits you, Lady Stark."), as one remains the high-falutin' lady and the other is still the scrappy outsider, but they're both unnerved by the fact that their brother is no longer human and only too willing to casually declare that. On top of that, Sansa's slow realization that Arya's list and her ability to complete it are no longer just the fantasies of childhood is both a measure of how that gulf will remain and a small indicator about how the new, Game-playing Sansa might be willing to exploit it. She has to process the relatively terrifying fact that her sister is a killer but, man, it's really convenient to have one of those that you know is loyal to you and your clan's cause, amirite? This is the new reality of House Stark and it's one, not-as-big, happy(?) family.

Did I just hear what I think I've never heard in my life?
And, finally, Jaime. Always Jaime. This is a situation not too dissimilar from where we left off last episode, in that Public Face Jaime is pursuing his sister's agenda not because he feels good about it, but because it's the only way the two of them remain alive. But Inner Being Jaime just feels miserable about it, not least because his children have become casualties to that agenda, but also because he's traversed as long a personal and moral distance as the Starks have and has become in some ways much like the Hound. He no longer enjoys the game and plays only because he has to. This is never so evident than when he has to watch his men get disintegrated by a horde of horse archers and one of the aforementioned giant lizards, while his mercenary ally carps at him about not benefiting enough from the fight that Jaime no longer really feels any interest in, except base survival. Bronn lives to be a warrior. Jaime used to, but now is clearly yearning for something else. Having to deal with the resolutely harsh and militaristic Randyll Tarly on top of that makes the situation that much worse. One can view Jaime's last-ditch charge at the distracted Dragon Queen as perhaps the battle- or even war-winning moment of heroism that old Jaime would have reveled in. Or one can look at it as a casual attempt at suicide that new Jaime might even welcome in a small way. This is the crux point of the season for him and it would be a shame (albeit mildly appropriate) for plate mail to be the deciding factor in whether the decision of his future is made for him.

Technical stuff:

Yeah. I think we lost.
OK. Right off the top: No horse would willingly charge into an inferno. Full stop. The battle scene was great. It was fun to finally see both Dothraki and Drogon in a full assault upon Westeros, but I got taken entirely out of the scene by watching this giant monster douse the field in flames and then seeing a full cavalry charge right through it. Arakh-wielding warriors might be that crazy. Horses simply aren't. This was as much of a disconnect for me as the full charge through dense forest in Gladiator. Not feasible. Nope. And I don't care if there's a fire-breathing lizard on the screen at the same time (Fantasy show!) But, again, dragons in combat and a mild reference to the Field of Fire of Aegon's initial conquest, when House Gardener was destroyed on the plains of the Reach just like this Lannister force, was pretty cool. One wonders why Dany was so intent on destroying the supply train when her own forces likely could have used what was in those wagons (like, say, the Unsullied trapped at the Rock.) Similarly, one wonders how the ethical Dragon Queen is going to keep her Dothraki from pillaging the countryside, both because it's something they're accustomed to doing and because they'll probably need to do so. Armies eat a lot and "living off the countryside" is an age-old euphemism for "laying waste to it in search of something- anything -to eat (in addition to whatever valuables can be obtained.)" In that instance, it sure would have been nice to have the grain in those wagons.

Oh, and you can call it a "scorpion" if you like because it sounds cooler, but that there is a ballista. A scorpion (scorpio, actually) was for rapid fire, not hurling small trees into the sky.

I thought the scene in the crypts between Sansa and Arya was well done for a number of reasons, but not least because of the presence of Ned Stark. It's easy to forget how devoted the Stark family was, not only to each other but to the patriarch. The girls' reunion was a demonstration of that fealty, but also an acknowledgment that there's a still a large hole in their world that had been filled by their father and he remains a key element of the overall story, long after his death. Sean Bean still around, yo.

It's the little fing- ahem - things that have real meaning.
I'm less enthusiastic about the role of Littlefinger this season. While it's obvious that he's out of his element, since he holds no sway with virtually anyone around him and the one that he could have a bit of influence with (Sansa) treats him with deserved venom, I still feel like his maneuvers to get back into the thick of things are a bit ham-handed for the Lord of Harrenhal. The direct appeal to the potential vengeful side of Bran was one of those moments. It was funny because Bran is no longer capable of feeling a need for revenge and it was enlightening as to how much Bran knows about Baelish's involvement in everything that's happened (Littlefinger's realization of that possibility was well played by Aidan Gillen), but it still felt fairly clumsy for an acknowledged master of intrigue.

Is it history or a screenplay crutch?
While I appreciate the "this is the long march of history" moment in the dragonglass cavern, the transition in art styles also felt a little too convenient. We go from pictograms, where the Children of the Forest inscribed symbols that had meaning to their society, irrespective of who else would see them, to flat out illustrations of the Night King and the Others. Even the depictions of the First Men were crude representations that perhaps identified them as an alien presence in the otherwise runic, spiral-symboled language of the Children. And then there's a detailed image of the enemy that Dany has to see to understand. I mean, the Others were a creation of the Children to combat the First Men. You would think that they'd have something in their language that identifies the weapon/creation gone awry and/or that they wouldn't need a full body shot of the Night King to leave a message, presumably to other Children, about what was taking place. That whole sequence simply smacked of: "OK. Dany needs to be convinced of what Jon is saying here.", but when you get down to it, just seeing images on a cave wall of something that Jon says he's seen shouldn't have been any more convincing to a skeptical audience than his stories about the army of zombies. I would have been happier with a Vulcan mind meld than this chance discovery of precisely the information needed to convey how dire the situation is.

Not many Lines of the week:

"It's well being is a matter of arithmetic, not sentiment."
Spoken like any banker, ever.

"I didn't run. You need better guards."
Kinda true.

"He's not a generous man. He wouldn't give you anything unless he thought he was getting something back."
Also true.

"What kind of a queen am I if I'm not willing to risk my life to fight for them?"
"A smart one."
Tyrion, ever the voice of reason.

"We don't have marriage in Naath, so the concept of a bastard doesn't exist."
"That sounds... liberating."
This is free love in Westeros/Essos/Sothyros (GRRM really need to give us a world name.)

There's a fighting style argument to be made here, but I'll spare you.
"I won't cut you. Don't worry."
"I'll try not to."
Says the giant warrior woman in full armor to the pixie with a letter opener.

And the winner:

"I'm sure Queen Cersei's reign will be quiet and peaceful."
"Eh. Stranger things have happened."
Bronn and Jaime remain the perfect odd couple.

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