Wednesday, February 6, 2019

SEVEN BLESSINGS: THE BEST MOMENTS OF GAME OF THRONES, SEASON SEVEN

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In honor of the faith of the Seven, and to pass the interminable wait for the conclusive episodes of Game Of Thrones, and not at all to scratch a compulsive itch that wouldn't go away once the idea occurred to me, I have decided to list my seven favorite moments from each of the first seven seasons.  Videos will be embedded in the headings.  Anyway, without further ado...

1.  We Are Mankind's Memory (7.01 - "Dragonstone")


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Sam has never been a favorite character of mine, but one thing I appreciate about him is that he serves as the vessel for one of the more underappreciated aspects of the show.  Which is that it occasionally, amidst the rivers of blood, sneaks in some surprisingly robust defenses of academics as a pursuit as worthy as swordplay or political power. Sam’s powers of reading are the primary source of the living’s intel on how to actually fight the white walkers, as even the hardheaded Stannis recognizes. But it’s the archmaester that puts it best, when describing what men would be in a world without intellectuals, without readers, without historians. “Little better than dogs. Cant remember any meal but the last, can’t see past any but the next.”

That quote recurs in my head more frequently than I would like, as we live through a time when we decided to put someone with absolutely no grasp of or curiosity about history (or any other type of learning) in charge of the world’s most prominent superpower. When it does, I try to also remember the other part, about how full blown apocalypses come around about once a generation. But ultimately, the world keeps turning, and those fortunate enough to survive find a way to muddle along somehow.


2.  Varys And Melisandre (7.03 - "The Queen's Justice")

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As the latter seasons pared all the multitudinous story strands down to a much simpler face off between two factions, more and more of the conflict revolves around the logistics of defeating zombies and dragons.  And while this is a necessity to pay off all the earlier shit about, y'know, zombies and dragons, it also causes many of the smaller scale conflicts to fall by the wayside.  So there wasn’t any real guarantee that they would find any time to pay off Varys’s longstanding, if fairly one-sided, enmity for Melisandre and the sorcery she represents.  The exchange is brief, but finds both of them in their finest form.  Varys seething with mannered venom, Melisandre full of ominous serenity even as she admits how horrendously astray her past certainty had led her. 


It’s not the most integral scene in the season, but it’s a pure distillation of how the show can still be just as compelling by having two great actors trade barbs as by throwing zombie bears and CGI lizards all over everything.



3.  Why Did You Do That?  (7.03 - "The Queen's Justice")

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As we make our way to these final seasons, many of the scenes we see are versions of things we’ve seen before. I have tried to avoid picking scenes that are direct rehashes of earlier ones,  so stuff like  Bran’s escape from Craster’s fell off for being too close to a prior selection, and Arya’s decimation of the Freys gets left out because the scene of her impersonating Walder is stronger than the one where she killed him, but still loses some power for coming after the other.  But one beat that I seem to keep hitting over and over is that when Cersei gets to monologue at one of her enemies, it automatically takes a slot.  This scene in particular is very similar in set up to the scene in 6.10 where she finally has Septa Unella at her mercy (entirely theoretical though said mercies may be).  And the specter of that scene hangs over the entire opening of this episode; if Cersei arranged such prolonged torture for a woman who rang a bell at her, what horrors will she unleash on the women who murdered her only daughter? 


The show actually threads this needle quite nimbly.  Would it court the thinkpiece whirlwind by depicting graphic (or gods forbid sexualized) violence against female characters in 2017?  Or would it start pulling the types of brutal punches that made it famous now, at the 11th hour?  Given that the situation required the most vicious response possible, or to sell out the established characterization entirely, it seemed like a no-win.  But they deftly sidestepped the whole minefield, with Cersei devising a fate that is fully and appropriately sadistic, but more fiendish than gruesome.

And it also contains a small moment that might be my favorite of Headey’s entire performance, when a single, pained question slips through a crack in her carefully scripted soliloquy of vengeance.  It’s a horribly human moment amidst an overwrought scenario, and again we see that Cersei’s twisted psyche relates most intimately with her sworn enemies.  That seems like a contradictory, and not especially relatable, trait. But it does make some sense that having spent her entire adult life being forced to mask her contempt for the man she was married to, she would find a sort of relief in the honesty of open enmity.  



4.  Casterly Rock/One Last Prick  (7.03 - "The Queen's Justice") 

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This is really stretching the definition of “moment”, as it is arguably two fairly extensive sequences.  But the way the show strings them together in a way that we haven’t quite seem before makes it hard to separate them. It puts us off balance by utilizing elements the show had rarely if ever used (extensive voiceover narration), settings we had never seen (Casterly Rock and Highgarden), and the newly-elastic sense of time that marks the latter seasons, and delivers a rapid flurry of high-stakes twists that upend the balance of the Targaryen/Lannister war. And then gives us one of the very best character exits of a series packed to the gills with memorable death scenes. 

The show basically speeds through the fall of the capitals of two out of the seven kingdoms in a few minutes of screentime, without delivering a full battle sequence at either.  On paper, this should evoke the feeling of budget-conscious scrimping that marked the earlier seasons (I’m thinking of how three men once used the power of a jump cut to conquer the great city of Yunkai here). But they give us just enough spectacle at the Rock that it doesn’t feel like we are being cheated by penny-pinching. Rather, it’s the show realizing that these are both rather one-sided engagements that lack the glut of sympathetic characters that contribute to making the Battle Of The Bastards or siege of Castle Black so compelling.  It quite astutely focuses on surprising us, rather than wowing us with spectacle – though of course, it does also have some much grander spectacle awaiting us in the next episode anyway.

And it definitely doesn’t hurt anything that Olenna gets to call Joffrey a cunt to his father’s face and reveal that she killed him on her way out.  Rarely do the murdered exit the stage feeling as though they have so thoroughly pwned their killers.  But the Queen Of Thorns was a rare woman.



5.  Arya vs Brienne (7.04 - "The Spoils Of War")


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Game Of Thrones is, if not outright sadistic, then definitely a notoriously unsentimental series.  And so a moment of pure fan service like this is an especially rare and savory.  Normally I like to pick moments that highlight the sneaky economy of the show’s writing; bits that present themselves as about one thing or character but are also quietly seeding other ideas or plot points down the line.  This scene serves no other purposes but to show us a fun scene of two fan favorites having fun being badass together.  We get to see just how formidable Arya has become in single combat, and she and Brienne get to bury the hatchet and come to respect each other.  I don’t think we’re going to get a lot more in the way of interactions between them in the final stretch, but maybe that’s okay.  How could they possibly top this anyway?


6.  Loot Train (7.04 - "The Spoils Of War")

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As the series has contracted its scope in the later seasons, and as major antagonists and factions (the Baratheons, Boltons, Sparrows, Freys, Dornish, the bulk of the Night’s Watch and now the Tyrells) have been swept off the board entirely, our rooting interests have become more streamlined.  The show had made its mark by thoroughly dividing our loyalties, but as the White Walkers take over as villains and Dany allies herself with our northern buddies, things become a lot simpler.  The only real complicating factors are Littlefinger still perving up the good guys’ side, and our still having some affection for Jaime and Bronn on the baddies’.  So when Dany finally attacks them, we get some of that vintage GOT dread, where it seems any outcome is going to be bad for us somehow. 

This feeling is heightened by framing the entire attack through the guys’ perspective. And hiding hers’ from us also serves to make her appearance into one of the genuine surprises that are harder to pull off as things contract down to only the major threads that fans have had years to obsess over and suss out the basic contours of their endgame.  But Jaime is one of the most prominent characters left whose ultimate fate is less certain* for not seeming to be all that central to the big mythology beats that remain to be resolved.  And Bronn is a fan favorite, but even less vital to the endgame.  The sequence is certainly elaborate enough to serve as a sendoff for a major character.  The dragon is the biggest and fieriest we have ever seen as it swoops over a cavalry charge bigger than we’ve ever seen, and there are secret weapons and near-misses galore.  It’s a thrilling way to end an episode, and to up the stakes at the middle of the season.  There was more spectacle north of the wall later in the season, but it was both more telegraphed and marred by janky, unforced errors in the execution.  This was a proper successor to “Hardhome”, a major action sequence that seems to whip up out of nowhere when we’re still expecting to be in wheel-spinning mode, and is all the more exciting and unpredictable as a result. 

*my money is he winds up Lord Commander of the Night Watch, for the record



7.  Littlefinger Gets Fingered -  7.07 (7.07 - "The Dragon And The Wolf")

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In its latter seasons, since leaving the overstuffed but extensive blueprints of the published books behind, the show has continued to deliver on its big, cathartic payoffs with aplomb.  But it has also developed a pattern of shakier set-ups for those payoffs, particularly revolving around Sansa’s conflicts with her remaining family.  Her friction with Arya is not as contrived as her pointless concealment of enormously significant military intelligence from her own officers at the Battle Of The Bastards, but it still feels fairly hollow.  The shame of it is that the tension between the girls actually has a solid basis in plotlines running back to the start of the series, and the very divergent arcs they have taken since then.  It’s just that it is too late in the game to buy that it would really put them through all the years and years of horrendous shit to at long last bring them back to their family home, only to have them kill each right before the big overarching plotlines come to a head.   


But even if the result can’t produce the surprise that the show is angling for, and so the drama falls a bit flat on their end, it still represents a highly appropriate end for Littlefinger himself.  He
had been slithering around the show for longer than any of its other villains (except Cersei, and of course this blog has been and remains emphatic pro-Cersei propaganda).  It was going to take a lot of doing to ruin a scene of the Stark girls cutting his throat, which would have been a satisfying scene even if there had been no manufactured conflict between them.  That it came precisely because he taught his protégé/mark Sansa a little too well was so fitting as to be essentially mandatory, and she was also nice enough to point out how he screwed himself by trying to turn a younger generation of sisters against each other as he did the older pair.  It was helpful for the show to hang a lampshade on that particular element, since so much of his scheming in regards to Cat and Lysa was only revealed to us years after it had taken place offscreen, and also to remind us that it was his scheming that kicked off the War Of Five Kings in the first place.

But my favorite aspect was how the show did not go out of its way to belabor the echoes of Littlefinger’s own betrayal of Ned.  It’s included in the list of charges, but since we saw his turn in the throne room ourselves it doesn’t need to highlight the specific ironies for us.  That Littlefinger sneered at Ned for failing to adapt to a new political environment where treachery abounded, only to flounder himself when he failed to adapt to a new political environment where treachery takes no root.  Or how the soldiers lining the chamber, who he thought he commanded, turn on him when the moment of truth arrives.  

And even if the shock value fizzles, it taps into so much else that makes the series what it is:  murder, betrayal, magic visions, the weight of history.  All this factors in to the demise of arguably the overarching villain of the entire story.  



Wednesday, January 16, 2019

SEVEN BLESSINGS: THE BEST MOMENTS OF GAME OF THRONES, SEASON SIX

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In honor of the faith of the Seven, and to pass the interminable wait for the conclusive episodes of Game Of Thrones, and not at all to scratch a compulsive itch that wouldn't go away once the idea occurred to me, I have decided to list my seven favorite moments from each of the first seven seasons.  Videos will be embedded in the headings.  Anyway, without further ado...


1. Tormund Bites Suggestively Into a Ham Hock   (6.04 - "The Book Of The Stranger")


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Tormund’s immediate, childlike crush on Brienne was one of those delightful little surprises that a show this sprawling can spring upon even its most faithful fans.  A thing so small that you don’t give the potential any thought, but feels wholly appropriate, even obvious, when it pops up.  And Kristofer Hivju and Gwendoline Christie play the little, mostly silent bits for all they are worth.      


 2.   Hold The Door (6.05 – “The Door”)

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Bran’s storyline has never been my favorite, because, like Dany’s, it has been constrained by it’s centrality to the mythology guaranteeing that whatever setbacks he experiences can’t be too final. It's not that it has been predictable exactly, but the threat of death that hangs over all the scenes on the show feels more hollow for those two characters than any of the rest.

So if these storylines are to shock or thrill us, it is down to the individual execution of scenes to do it, and for supporting characters to be the targets of any threats we are supposed to take seriously. Bran’s story managed it most wrenchingly with the combination of exit and origin story for the simpleminded giant Hodor.  Due to his supporting status, we had not had much cause to mull over how his impediments might be illuminated by Bran’s mystical abilities. The show had certainly delivered comparably sad deaths before, but the way it diverted into sci-fi territory with the time travel aspect upped the shock factor and made the gutpunch land all the harder. Hodor’s trademark diction was not a mystery we felt really needed to be solved, but that is precisely why it was such a satisfying surprise when it came.  And as other entries in this post will bear out, when the show can find genuinely new things to show us after so long, or ways to show them, it makes a big impression.


3.  I Choose Violence (6.08 – “No One”) 


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This is the second time Ser Gregor Clegane has appeared on one of these lists, specifically for annihilating someone’s head with his bare hands.  So it goes.

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B-b-b-b-b-bonus Smush!
  
We had to wait a full season for the FrankenMountain to shamble his way out of Qyburn’s lab, and the better part of another one to see it properly unleashed. And we had been waiting for longer than that for someone to take the High Sparrow and his band of violent prigs down a peg. Cersei has been waiting as impatiently as the rest of us. And so it’s one of the series’s sneaky tricks of perspective that when this woman, who has been an unabashed villain for the life of the series, emphatically chooses undead violence over continued capitulation to the fanatical mob, we feel the same catharsis she does. 


4.      Now They’re Starving – (6.09 – “Battle Of The Bastards”)

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The titular battle is full of fantastic moments, as intense and well-rendered a medieval battle sequence as I’ve seen on screens of any size. Deciding what moment to highlight from such a bravura sequence was a challenge – Jon facing down a cavalry charge alone? Wun Wun breaking down the gate? Jon nearly getting crushed at the base of the mountain of corpses?  But ultimately, I find that the battle is a strange case, one that works on the micro level of those fantastically executed moments, and the macro level in that I buy the general course of events (Jon rallies a smaller force to challenge the Boltons and triumphs thanks to Sansa calling in the knights of the Vale). But in between the bird’s eye view and the immediacy of the filmmaking - a space where most of the experience of actually watching the show falls - it is marred by the out-of-character stupidity of Sansa hiding the existence of an entire friendly army from her own generals for no discernible reason.

Because I buy the basic set up of the conflict and its resolution, the abject pointlessness of that decision only serves to distract me from the battle itself, and I pretty much snap back to attention for the aftermath. So I chose to highlight Ramsay’s highly appropriate end, as Sansa turns his own dogs, the instruments of so much of his cruelty, into his executioners. A brutal end, but no fictional character has ever deserved it more. And in addition to the satisfaction of seeing Sansa realize her vengeance, there was also simple relief. While I knew that the Starks had to succeed in retaking Winterfell, I'd half expected Ramsay himself to somehow slither away and cause trouble another day. Thankfully, that was not to be, and we got to enter the final stretch without the constant threat of every episode grinding to a halt to watch him play repetitively sadistic games with people who can’t clap back. And Sansa got to have the last word with her most brutal tormentor.

5. The Light Of The Seven – (6.10 – “The Winds Of Winter”)

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For better or worse, the visual style of a television series is generally set by the first episode. And that is usually worse, because the occasional LOST or Walking Dead aside, pilot episodes tend to be unpolished and underfunded compared to what that show can manage after success has afforded them more time and money to put in service of big spectacle. Game Of Thrones is an object lesson in this regard; the first season elided big battle scenes, opting for what could charitably be described as a Shakespearean approach, i.e. having someone enter stage left and inform another character of the outcome rather than actually showing the battle.  Even “Blackwater”, while focused entirely on depicting a battle, confined all its fighting to a small, nondescript patch of dirt and a small, nondescript patch of battlement. That episode makes up with narrative craft what it lacks in filmmaking verve, but the point of this is that GOT early on established a visual palette that was very much not flashy. And that actually does fit in with the overall ethos of a series that is so defined by its deglamorization of standard fantasy settings and tropes; if the filmmaking was consistently hyper-stylized, you would be courting the vague dissonance that permeates Zach Snyder’s Watchmen adaptation (where the director’s high-gloss visual style undermines the story’s focus on deglamorizing superhero fantasy).

But after 6 years, the series has earned the right to showboat a bit, and when it does go for a full Godfather-style montage (with just a dash of Children Of The Corn, for flavor), it really stands out. Ramin Djawadi’s most elaborate musical composition to date, and the years of familiarity we have built up with the multitude of characters, settings and bits of lore that play into the sequence, allow it to carry us through nearly ten minutes and the violent deaths of a half dozen regular or recurring characters with minimal dialogue. Even though all of us obsessives had sussed out Cersei’s plan from the first hint a few weeks prior, the presentation was so strikingly, surprisingly stylish that it blew us away anyhow. This is a standout sequence precisely because it is such a departure from the show’s general MO, but it also wouldn’t work as well if the “regular” version of the show hadn’t grounded us so thoroughly in the contours and cultures of this strange fictional world.

6. Vengeance. Justice. Fire And Blood.  - (6.10 – “The Winds Of Winter”)


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Season 6 was, for the most part, an odd mix of unusually accelerated and thinly-sketched plotting (the abrupt ends of Doran, Balon and Roose, Sam and Jaime and the Greyjoys bopping across the world in a single scene where once people spent entire seasons traveling such distances) and the belaboring of inevitabilities (taking over half a season to get Jon back to life and out of Castle Black, Cersei and the Tyrells remaining imprisoned until the very end, the slavers finally self-owning themselves out of the picture entirely, Arya working her way into and out of the graces of the Faceless again). But it all came together magnificently in the end, with the Battle Of The Bastards, Cersei’s fiery purge of King’s Landing, and Dany finally, finally leaving the tutorial level of Essos to join the fray for realsies.

And while I could have chosen that final image of her at the head of the fleet, I want to highlight this scene instead. For one, it features a vengeful Olenna turning her sharp tongue on the Sand Snakes, and Olenna is awesome. But for another, it highlights how for all the frustrations that the wonkier timelines of the latter seasons cause (don’t get me started on that whole frozen lake sequence), that fuzziness can also be used to disarm the audience to powerful dramatic effect. As we have become more accustomed to the series’s narrative habits and tricks, it becomes harder to drop our jaws as consistently as those early seasons did. But this scene moves us forward so quickly that it took me by surprise even though it represented an entirely logical progression of the story threads. When you think about it, the scene must take place weeks after the destruction of the sept, for Olenna to have made a trip to Dorne to discuss it. The throughline from one event to the other is clear enough that we don’t have any trouble following it, but we are so unused to an episode making that sort of leap forward from scene to scene that we are immediately off balance. And the notable absence of the Dornish women since their coup in the premiere, while wonky in its own right, did also contribute to their sudden reappearance feeling surprising rather than inevitable.

The point is, while it seems logical that Olenna would make common cause with the other sworn enemies of the Lannisters after Cersei literally blew up their alliance, we simply hadn’t yet had enough time to process that event and parse out these implications. And the scene moves along so quickly that we certainly haven’t had time to thread the implications of this new alliance over to Dany’s storyline, so when Varys comes out to drop the mic, it’s even more surprising. And doubly exciting, because while various players have made their way from Westeros over to her in seasons past, this is the first time that her storyline has actively imposed itself onto the primary political arena. I have frequently identified Dany’s storyline as being the source of the most frustration on the show, because it is so clearly treading water. But this one line feels like 6 years of patience is finally paying off.


7. King In The North (Reprise) – (6.10 – “The Winds Of Winter”)


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We’ve seen this scene before, when Robb’s bannermen held an impromptu coronation to hail him King In The North. But at that point we were still novices in the political history of Westeros, and so the full import was a bit lost. Back then I didn’t really understand that this title harkens back to a time before the Iron Throne existed. And while Robb had already lost his father at that point, that’s but a drop in the ocean of suffering we’ve seen the remaining Starks endure since. Which makes it all the more rewarding to see them reclaim their home and avenge their murdered kin so directly. It’s beyond satisfying to see the itinerant lords of the North sincerely acknowledging their mistake in losing faith, all the more so because they are delightfully shamed into it by badass lil’ lady Mormont. When the music swells over the chant proclaiming Jon king, it’s as purely triumphant a moment as the show has ever provided outside of Dany’s storyline. And in contrast to beating up on hapless slavers for years on end, this triumph feels as bitterly and thoroughly earned as any could.

I think about this moment when GOT is referenced as a nihilistic parade of sadism. I don’t think that the series is nihilistic, or even entirely cynical. The wicked in Westeros always seem to get what’s coming to them. Eventually. And the good, at least those that survive, do eventually triumph. There is a moral arc in this world, but it moves slower than its years-long seasons. And to be able to see that requires much more patience, and a much stronger stomach, than about any other narrative I can think of. Fantasy or otherwise. And like another world I can think of, the victories for the good people are so rare and difficult to get to that they must be savored when they come.