Sunday, October 21, 2018


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...

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There are several reasons why season 2 is my favorite of them all.  The War of Five Kings in full swing, Jon’s story finally getting going, the simultaneously straightforward and spooky depiction of the warlocks of Qarth, the best material for Theon.  But also the best character on the show was at his best when he was acting  Hand Of The King, mixing it up with all the schemers in the capital.   And this was his masterstroke, flushing out a mole on the Small Council with a fiendishly simple, snappily-edited trap.  Especially this early on, the show rarely went in for any fancy cinematics (later seasons would go in for a bit more indulgent cinematography in their bigger-budget battle scenes), and so this bit especially stood out.  Often as not, Game Of Thrones can feel like more like a horror movie than high fantasy, but in this bit it evoked a heist movie. And especially since we weren’t especially sympathetic for any of Tyrion’s patsies, the relatively low stakes gave it a very unusual flavor.  GOT was, however briefly, a romp.

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If this scene suffers, it’s only in direct comparison to Tywin's similar introduction, dressing down his son. Balon is not nearly as interesting a character as his Lannister counterpart, but we have been more sympathetic to Theon, who has always been kind of crappy, but is at least trying to be on the side of the Good Guys.  He’s a snide little jerk, but you could empathize with his awkward position being raised as a (relatively pampered) hostage.  You empathize with him more when the father that gave him away berates him for having been given away.  This is also the best example I can think of how ruthlessly efficient the series plotting can be.  In the course of a single scene, it establishes an entire new family dynamic that fleshes out Theon’s character and changes his course drastically but believably in just a few minutes, while also introducing a new antagonist in his father and antihero with his badass sister Yara.  And then with Balon’s kiss off line, it drops a great plot twist, that changes the entire direction of Theon’s plotline for the rest of the season and, once again, makes things much, much worse for our Stark heroes.  

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If there is a single scene to sum up the thematic preoccupations of Game Of Thrones, this is it.  Varys congratulates Tyrion on a well played round of the titular game, and poses the skeptical dwarf a riddle without an answer.  When a priest, a king, and a rich man all command a swordsman to kill the others, who does he obey?  Tyrion tries gamely to outthink the question, saying the sword is the real source of the power, but the Spider points out that the world doesn’t behave as if that’s true. 

“Power is a trick.  A shadow on the wall. And a very small man can cast a very large shadow.” 

What does that mean?  Is it even an answer?  It is not clear.  Which is something the series does not get enough credit for, in my opinion.  I’ve seen many and more takes that talk about Game Of Thrones as being distinct from conventional fantasy because it presents a world where honor and morality are punished rather than rewarded.  That is not true across the board, though.  An inverted form of the Disney version where things always work out for the heroes would be just as simplistic, if infinitely more cynical.  The reason why Westeros is a more mature fantasy realm than most is not because the violence is more graphic.  It’s because it is not a place where there are simple answers.  Honor gets you killed (sometimes).  Wanton cruelty is punished (eventually).  Speed beats strength (except when it doesn’t).  The faithless prosper (to an extent).  But loyalty is rewarded (usually). 
How do you navigate those waters? There’s no direct roadmap.  Simple answers, and simple morals, are a trick.  And Varys knows from tricks.  

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GOT’s sprawling scope is such that it can feel less like a single show than several loosely-knit spin-offs. Especially in the early going, the Dany Show didn’t feel too much closer to the Night’s Watch Show or the King’s Landing Boogaloo than, say, Ant-Man does to Guardians Of The Galaxy.  But especially starting in season two, you could see the potential for that scope pay off in how it allows for what are basically crossover episodes.  So when Bran or Stannis show up in the Night’s Watch show, it produces what I imagine is the same jolt of excitement that my grandma feels when Jack Hydrant from Chicago Fire makes a cameo on a Very Special Episode of Chicago Animal Control

Conversely, when Arya’s solo spin off in Braavos sputters out after two seasons, or the backdoor pilot for Snakes Of Sand doesn’t catch on, you can see the less appealing elements of the Shared Universe at work.  But this post is focused on the positive, and the first and probably still my favorite “crossover” is when Tywin Lannister unwittingly appointed Arya Stark to be his servant at Harrenhall.  One of the show’s most inspired bits of adaptation, it gives us more Tywin (and Charles Dance) than we get on the page, which is a great thing in itself, as he muses about his family and martial legacies.  It also raises the stakes immensely when Arya is in the room with the main villain of the entire show rather than the third tier dirtbags she is forced to serve in the books.  We also get more history of the Kingdoms with his stories about Harrenhall, and more of the sort of strategizing that I geek out over, as he berates his underlings and, in a roundabout way, builds up Robb as a rival worthy of his respect.  And each scene also doubles as a suspense sequence, as he casually unravels that his servant is hiding her true identity, and it is only his disinterest in the whole truth that impedes him from dragging it all out of her.   

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The tension is thick when “Blackwater” opens with all of King’s Landing bracing for siege.  They only get more so when the Hound shows up to sour the atmosphere in the ale hall where Bronn is holding court with a bunch of soldiers and prostitutes.  Sandor Clegane’s always been a violent, surly character, so his willingness to kill an ally on the eve of battle out of pure cussedness doesn’t feel as false as this quick standoff should (given that Bronn is a beloved, but not exactly central, figure).  But upon rewatch, it’s easier to see the self-loathing eating at the heart of the character driving his dislike for the cutthroat. His little soliloquy about how they are both killers at heart is on one level the hoary old “we aren’t so different, you and I” bit, but since it is two bad(ish) guys instead of a villain razzing a hero, it feels dangerous rather than stale.  It’s also the start of a thought the Hound won’t finish until the end of the hour, when he talks to Sansa about getting used to looking at men like him.  But in the meantime, the confrontation only avoids a bloody result because the larger conflict comes to a boil just before the smaller one. 

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“Blackwater”, my favorite episode of the show, is sometimes remembered for being one big action sequence.  It’s not really, though the collapse down to a single setting provides increased urgency to even the plentiful scenes of “downtime”.   Even with the majority of the characters set aside for the episode, it still manages to convey much of the sweep of the diverse cast by showing us not just the perspectives of the attacking side and the defenders, but a swath of both those on the walls and those holed up waiting to see which way things fall.  And the quiet scenes are some of the best, as I always enjoy getting drunk with Cersei, even when she’s stewing in her most rancid juices and harassing Sansa. 

Except that it’s also an example of how astutely the show understands its “villains”, such that, especially upon revisiting, you can see Cersei’s antagonism with Sansa (like Jaime’s with Ned or Brienne, and the Hound with Bronn or Arya) as a perverse form of reaching out.  That  “we aren’t so different, you and I” hokum that corny villains spout?  Game Of Thrones understands better than just about any work I’ve encountered the basic truth underlying those platitudes that bad writing has to insist upon.  It works it into the bones of the characterization, so that especially after we have seen what rotten relations she has with her own family, we can recognize the twisted maternalism working through her sadism toward Sansa.  She is really trying to impart lessons, in what she imagines to be the pitiless manner of her own father, about court politics, about religion (love that line about how Tywin “believes in the gods, he just doesn’t like them very much”), and about war.  And she’s tormenting an enemy, the only member of the opposing side she can lay hands on directly.  And she’s trying to keep a potential rival and usurper of her place at court cowed and subjugated.  And she’s lashing out at the one person that she knows, in spite of all that, might be in the best position to actually understand the perfumed cage that has driven her to such depths of bitterness.  As I said in the S1 post, she is long past hoping to be accepted for what she is.  But to be understood, even by an enemy, is both something her hardened heart can’t help longing for and the absolute most it will allow her to maybe sort of hope at.

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The entire season had been building up to this climax, exploring up the multifaceted nature of the war in such a way that we had allegiances on all sides going into this decisive showdown.  The series’ commitment to providing every side with depth and nuance* makes the conflicts more compelling, as they move inexorably towards confrontations whose outcomes we can’t predict but are sure to evoke some measure of both triumph and tragedy, given our divided loyalties.  I truly wasn’t sure going into the battle who would win; I think I leaned toward Stannis, because I had a nascent, inaccurate theory that each season/book would see a new claimant take the Iron Throne.  Moreover, I wasn’t entirely sure who I wanted to win. Stannis was not nearly as likeable as Tyrion.  But if he won, it would mean taking down the execrable Joffrey.  But also probably the amiable Podrick…

At its best, Game Of Thrones has multiple conflicts of this nature churning along.  It doesn’t mean we don’t still pick our side, but we feel conflicted about it. We want the Starks to take back Winterfell, but feel for Theon in spite of that.  We want the Watch to hold the Wall, even though we’re not wishing death upon Ygritte or Mance.  And we want the Lannisters to lose the war(s), but we dread seeing them take our favorite character down with them.  The tension this builds is potent, but it wasn’t until my latest rewatch that I noticed how deftly “Blackwater” shifts the field of play to position me for this rousing moment. 

When the bells start ringing to signal the start of the battle, I still don’t know quite who I’m rooting for.  But when Tyrion’s wildfire trick quickly sweeps Davos off the board, and especially when Joffrey (of course) cowardly flees from the walls, you no longer have the most sympathetic character to root for on one side or the most horrible one on the other to root against.  And so the scales have subtly been tipped and I’ve been primed to unequivocally root for the Lannisters to triumph (in this instance).  Tyrion’s speech is itself a great piece of writing, and thoroughly in character, as he eschews lofty proclamations about glory or moralism while still managing to stir the spirits of his audience.  It manages the tricky feat of being rousingly pragmatic, and I actually stood up from my seat the first time I was watching it.  The seventh or eighth time, it remains the high water mark for the character, and the series as a whole.

*Okay, not the White Walkers. And the Boltons and Freys are rather “pure” villains.  But there are at least 11 major factions (the main houses of 7 kingdoms + Riverlands + Night’s Watch + Wildlings + Targaryens-In-Exile) who are presented in such a way that you can’t really write them off as just The Bad Guys.  That’s a lot.

Thursday, October 11, 2018


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...

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The show introduces what will be two of its primary heroes in the pilot episode, and it uses the opportunity to deliver some rather bald exposition about their background and the insecurities that drive them.  But while the rest of the premiere can be a bit clunky in how it sets the board for the series (a result of the enormously intricate board as well as, no doubt, being shot, partially recast and reshot and edited together independently of the rest of the production), it is already so dialed in on Tyrion’s character that he is able to look Jon in the eye and say “look, here’s the thing that makes you tick, and here’s how it relates to the thing that makes me tick.”  And it somehow doesn’t feel like it is being done for the audience’s benefit. 

It’s not a lengthy exchange, but it imparts an important lesson to Jon: know your own deficiencies, because if you deny the obvious it will only make it that much clearer to your enemies. But if you own them, they will not be such soft targets.  Not a complicated concept, but Dinklage sells the basics of self-deprecation as the hard-bitten wisdom of a survivor, and his sardonice  

This is also the show playing a very, very long game.  It is about to set these characters on extremely divergent paths for a full 6 years, but the rapport between them will be vital when they do finally reconnect.  And the show does not tip its hand in that regard; while they develop a cordial respect over the next few episodes, you do not get the sense that it is setting them up as best buds.  Especially in this first interaction, they make no real attempt to be nice to each other, and when their families go to war, there’s nothing like an assumption that their bond will transcend that conflict. 

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Sean Bean was the heart of the first season and granted the series its initial credibility.  NicolajCoster-Waldau was an unknown at the time (at least to American audiences), but Jaime Lannister would gradually be revealed to be the much darker, more damaged heart of the show it would become.  He started out as a “pure” villain, and this confrontation promised a more simplistic clash between good guys and bad guys. Which was still plenty compelling in its own right; show me great actors facing off in grand, intricate settings and costumes, gravely intoning about bloody conflicts, and I'm a happy camper.  And the show would deliver that, but also so much more, and its the layering that becomes evident upon a rewatch.  The dialogue is great, not showy but effective in delivering both backstory and character, and the disparity between Jaime’s pragmatism and Ned’s unflinching principles is evident even the first time through. 

We have of course been primed to hate Jaime by his attempt on Bran’s life, but what is striking on a return visit, when we have become privy to his secrets and regrets, is that he does genuinely admire Ned.  He both envies and scorns the ideals of simple, unyielding honesty and honor that Ned embodies, precisely because he makes them looks so easy while Jaime's experience has proven them to be anything but easy or simple to hold to.  If he could somehow win, if not the friendship, then at least the respect of this rival who has exactly the reputation he craves, it would mean the world to him.  And so this exchange, antagonistic though it may be, is actually Jaime reaching out in his own guarded way.  But Ned has nothing to give him in response except for a burn that is even more solid because it is also, even when we know more about the Kingslayer's complicated history with the Mad King, still fundamentally true.

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Robert Baratheon’s role in the first season was basically to die suddenly, setting off the wars of succession that would fuel the story of the next several years/books/seasons.  We could have learned everything we needed to about him for the plot to function (that he is Ned’s BFF and an inattentive husband/king) in the span of a single dialogue scene. So this scene serves no lode-bearing plot function.  That is a real rarity* for a show whose primary draw is its plot, which is dynamic and byzantine and truly epic, but also as truly overstuffed, as any series I can think of.  And since HBO is not, for example, FX – where you are apt to find midseason episodes of Sons Of Anarchy running 96 minutes long for no discernible reason – the non-finale episodes tend to stick pretty close to 55 tightly-packed minutes.  There just isn’t a ton of space for scenes of characters sitting around and shooting the shit if it isn't setting up something specific down the line.  

But this is one of the best scenes of the series.  It starts with some discussion of the need for a king’s steward, and shifts to how even medieval warfare was as much a battle for hearts and minds as for castles and crowns.  Already this demonstrates the attention to realpoltitik concerns that separates Game Of Thrones from conventional fantasy narratives, and I’m always rapt with geeky attention whenever people with beards and/or vaguely British accents are gravely discussing military strategy.  The more elaborately rendered the maps they are hunched over, and intricately carved the little troop markers, the further I’m leaning in.  But again, none of this is strictly necessary for the plot.  We already know that he loves and trust Ned and despises Jaime, and vice versa for her.  And the invasion they are anticipating won’t actually come to pass.  Which is also part of the series’ knack for misdirection.  It’s willingness to devote time to living with the characters’ concerns in the moment, even when it “knows” that those characters won’t be seeing those plans or fears realized, means that it doesn’t tip its hand about the outcome of a particular conflict or storyline. 

But all that is preamble to when the king and queen discuss their stillborn marriage with weary candor.  The writers and actors bring such resigned and authentic emotion to the scene that these characters feel real in a way that transcends their positions as pieces to move the plot forward.  The stakes of the titular game are elevated by the feeling that there are actual people caught up in it, and this scene (one of the few in the first season that was wholly invented for TV) makes sure we know that even the Wicked Queen and King Inciting Incident The First are actual people.  It’s the best work Mark Addy did on the show, but the real revelation is Lena Headey showing a bit – just a bit – of the brittle, wounded heart beneath the cold exterior that the other characters see.  Cersei is the wicked queen in most respects, but this scene allows us to glimpse the foundations of what led her to embrace that role. She long ago gave up on being loved or accepted for who she is, and decided that to be hated was preferable to being ignored.  Cersei is not just the show’s longest-serving antagonist, she is its richest, and this scene (and Headey) is a big reason why.

*or at least it would be until the writers introduced Ramsay Bolton and decided they needed to devote 12 minutes every week to reiterating that he was a wily sadist and also a wily sadist

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This may seem like an odd choice as the only major death from the season, while leaving bigger fish like Ned and Khal Drogo on the board.  But I will always recall this as the moment when Game Of Thrones really, truly grabbed me.  It was the first big surprise of series for me, not because it was hard to see what in general was coming for Dany’s shitheel brother, but because it happened so much faster than I thought it would.  I watch a lot of TV, and like to think I’ve cultivated a knack for identifying the contours of a plot as it develops.  After getting my bearings in Westeros, I had started assuming that I had a pretty good sketch of where the storylines were heading.  I didn’t have all the particulars sussed out, but I had a good idea that the season would end with the Starks and Lannisters going to war in the west, and Dany stepping out of her useless, jealous brother’s shadow in the east, probably with him dying horribly.  I had been mildly surprised to see Ned and Jaime already fighting in the streets at the end of episode 5, but the “convenient” way that duel ended non-fatally felt familiar from any number of shows that want to have their protagonist and antagonist clash frequently, but not commit to the consequences of a real fight to the death. When episode 6 opened with King Robert restoring Ned to his position as Hand and all but telling him “damn it, keep it in your pants until the season finale” it lulled me back into a sense of complacency.  This was, at its base, a TV show.  And the most natural thing in the world is for a TV show to have a safe, familiar status quo that it wants to revert to after teasing major, lasting changes.

So when we returned to Essos, I knew that Dany’s story was destined to be much larger than her brother’s frustrated ambitions. But I was fairly content to settle in and watch the plotline tread water for a few more weeks until their rift came to a head in the finale.  In the broad strokes, my instincts about where the Targaryen arcs were heading were correct; indeed, Dany won’t be showing up much on these lists because her story has had by far the heaviest sense of inevitability hanging over it and it’s only the relatively minor details that can surprise you.  But when this plotline jumped forward to what I’d marked out as the climax of the season just as it passed the halfway point, I stood up and took notice.  It was made all the more satisfying because Viserys was a sniveling jerkass, and the show yet to provide us with a proper murdering for any of its plentiful jerkasses yet.  The details were inventively brutal, with Drogo showing a surprisingly droll streak in how he concedes to Viserys’s titular request.  And it made the entire Essos storyline feel, at least briefly, as exciting and unpredictable as what was going on in Westeros. 

The best part is actually what came after, though, as over the next few weeks I continued to recalibrate where I thought the season would end, and the show continued to blow right past that point in each new episode.  The first handful of episodes were intriguing, but this was the point where it first proved itself to be several steps ahead of my expectations, and that’s what made it properly addicting. 

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So much of this series hinges on the character of Tywin Lannister.  His children need to be simultaneously formidable antagonists for the Starks in their own right, but it’s also crucial that we understand how they are collectively cowed by their father, in order to sympathize with them in the quasi-protagonist capacities they will take on in later seasons.  Luckily, Charles Dance is on hand to immediately establish Tywin as exactly the sort of immovable object that he needs to be. 

There is a dumbed down version of this scene that would be simpler but still effective in getting the point across.  One where Jaime immediately reverts to being a frightened little boy in his father’s presence. What we get is richer and more truthful, as Jaime is a grown man and accomplished warrior, who has enough self-respect to go in with a gameplan for not giving his father the satisfaction.  But Tywin doesn’t simply bark down his son.  He heads off Jaime’s practiced indifference at every turn, grinding it away as methodically and efficiently as he dresses the dead stag (which just so happens to be the sigil of the dead ruler whose kingdom he is plotting to carve up).

We have heard about what a fearsome force Tywin Lannister is for 6 hours before this scene.  In the span of a few short minutes, Dance cuts a figure that lives up to the hype, but is also instantly believable as an actual man, and a father to the characters we have already come to know.   

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The twist that closed out “You Win Or You Die” upped the stakes as it kicked off the season’s third act, but the real punch didn’t land until the opening of “The Pointy End”.   Syrio Forell did not have much screentime, but in the course of 3 scenes he secured a spot as one of the most memorable bit parts in a series packed to the gills with colorful supporting roles.  Most of that is down to his dramatic exit scene, as a group of armored soldiers interrupt Arya’s lesson with her “dancing master”.  But the two of them smell a rat, and the First Blade Of Braavos does not run, even when outnumbered 5 to 1.  But while his balls may be brass, his sword is a wooden practice stick. Thanks to his l33t skillz, Arya escapes with a mantra for the god of Death and the first name on her list of people to kill.  It would be several seasons before she could belatedly, gruesomely cross it off, but this scene was memorable enough that we didn’t need much of a reminder of just who and what she was avenging four years later, on the other side of the world.

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Ned Stark’s execution is the most well-remembered part of the first book/season, if not the entire series. It would probably make more sense for me to pick that scene, but especially upon revisiting, it’s the talkier, character-driven stuff that remains more compelling.  In particular, this scene gives us get Sean Bean at his most Sean Bean – beat down, resigned but retaining an edge of steely nobility even in defeat.  There is no actor on earth better suited to tell us “I learned how to die a long time ago.”

I don’t even cite that meme to be facetious. Ned Stark could be a frustrating character in his refusal to accept what kind of show he was on, and I did feel some of the impatience with his decisions the first time around.  This was because I felt that some of those decisions were being made to justify an otherwise-unlikely plot twist rather than flowing from an authentic character trait.  But an actor of Bean’s pedigree only needs a single line to sell even stretches like that, and when he asks “You think my life is some precious thing to me? That I would trade my honor for it?” with just the right amount of genuine scorn, I bought in retroactively. 

This also gives us our first real glimpse of the depths of Varys, the Spider.  Conleth Hill is also great in the role, but until now we have seen him as only one of the many schemers in King’s Landing.  The most shifty of them all, since his motives and background had been kept opaque as we got to know a little more about the Littlefingers and Renlys and Cerseis.  When he proclaims that he seeks to serve the Realm, it creates a layer of intrigue on top of the pathos and despair of lovable Ned’s predicament.   And later on, when you know that he actually means it, it adds poignancy to the exchange even when the shock of Ned’s death has long since worn off.