Tuesday, October 30, 2018

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




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 S4 premiere heralded the arrival of a new swinging dick in King's Landing, Oberyn “The Red Viper” Martell.  In short order, a single sequence establishes his suave, omnivorous sexuality, his exorbitant wealth, his unparalleled badass credentials, and his righteous, Inigo-Montoya-esque quest for revenge (and we haven’t even gotten to his mastery of poisons and poetry yet).  Pedro Pascal deploys some superhuman charisma to make him seem almost plausible as a person, and of course GRR Martin knew exactly what he was setting us up for when he created this ridiculous Mary Sue character.  And he knew that in this brutal milieu he had created, we would be desperate enough for someone to serve justice to the Mountains and Tywins of this world that we would embrace such an idealized characterization even less critically than we might in other circumstances.  Which we did.  

It should have been obvious from the start that Oberyn was going to love us and leave us.  But it was also clear from the start that he was going to show us a really, really good time before he left.



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Even before the long-overdue comeuppance of perhaps the most loathsome character in all of fictional history, this sequence is a literal feast.  It’s impossible to pick the best small moment from the festivities.  Jaime birddogging Loras?  Oberyn/Ellaria and Tywin/Cersei?  Varys’s face when the dwarf performer bops the back of his head?  Brienne and Cersei?  Joffrey sputtering wine all over himself, laughing at his own joke?  The Dornish checking out Loras and the contortionist?

For the broad sweep of the show, and its dozens of schemers, warriors, ladies, monsters, and fools, we rarely get to see so many of them come together in one place outside a battlefield. The Small Council scenes are microcosmic versions of it, but it’s not until the big parlay in the Dragonpit in the S7 finale that we get so many different factions bouncing off each other in a single sequence.  It’s a rare treat, even before we get to the delicious dessert.



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I love Cersei, obviously.  Which is what allows this scene to edge out the many other contenders from Oberyn. His powwows with Varys, with Tywin, with the Small Council, with Tyrion in jail, these are all great scenes that others may prefer. The quieter, more reactive mode he is in here does not showcase the roguish charm that defined the character, but the fact that he can be thoughtful and reserved when it suits his purposes does a lot to establish him as a GOT triple threat - not just a famous name and a sharp spear, but a keen mind that can spar with the schemers as nimbly as he can outdance the Mountain.

Headey is so great in scenes like this.  You know that she is playing an angle.  Oberyn does too, for that matter, since he tells Tyrion as much later on.  But her ploy is simple and not even particularly devious; just to show him the genuinely grieving mother that Joffrey’s murder has left behind.  It’s the closest she can get to a charm offensive, and it’s pretty damn glum for all that.  But it would be one thing if she were just feeding him a line. None of the sentiment she expresses here is anything but true.  She is suppressing her distaste for the Martells, certainly, but she has to do that.  Not just because she wants the judge at the upcoming trial to look favorably upon her case, but also because her beloved daughter remains in their power.  And while Oberyn means it when he says that they (currently) intend her no harm, Cersei is correct that there is no such thing as a place where girls are truly safe from harm.  And events will prove that Dorne is absolutely not excluded from that.




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Game Of Thrones is not a funny show.  Sure, any story that has the slightest sense for how humans behave is going to strike upon the occasional amusing moment, but on the whole it is defined by its singularly grim and gritty approach to the fantasy milieu. This means that that a few of the dozens and dozens of characters really pop against the unremittingly grim tone just for having a discernible sense of humor - Tyrion, Bronn, Tormund, Olenna, Davos, and of course Arya.  Lysa Arryn’s death represented a rather momentous shift in the power dynamics of the kingdoms, but she was such an infrequent and one-dimensional a character that we didn’t really feel it as a huge deal the way we did with various, less politically significant deaths.  And the show doesn’t ask us to, but rather leans right into the bleak joke of the Hound spending all season dragging Arya across the country to ransom her to another relative that turns up dead at the last second.  And Maisie Williams’ laughter is just the right shade of black; it’s the only way they could have played it, but no less perfect for that.  




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Shocking. Exciting. Graphic. Satisfying, then even more horrifying in turn. This is the quintessential Game Of Thrones sequence, delivering an action sequence as visceral and exhilarating as any in the series, with enormous stakes for Tyrion as well as the combatants themselves, and then delivering a sucker-punch every bit as vicious as Ned’s execution.  And it is a plot turn that has repercussions throughout the ensuing seasons, sending Tyrion, the entire kingdom of Dorne, and the Mountain in very different directions than I was expecting.  How many subsequent “Previously On” segments feature Ellaria’s horrified scream?

It’s everything, and along with the Red Wedding and the birth of the dragons, one of the indelible moments that people think of immediately when the show comes up in conversation.  



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Grenn was never a major character, but he was a likeable and loyal friend to Jon.  And in a show where many more central heroes die frequently and badly, he went out like a bigger boss than any of them, facing down a goddamn giant, and rallying his less seasoned comrades with a forceful recitation of their vows.  We don’t get to see the fight itself, but in the aftermath it is clear that both Mag the Mighty and Grenn of A Farm acquitted themselves heroically.

Season 4 really upped the show’s game in terms of action. I have 2 big fight scenes on this shortlist, and the attack on the mutineers at Crasters probably would have made it if I hadn’t just talked about a similar near miss/warging action sequence with Jon and Bran in the last entry.  The entirety of “Watchers On The Wall” set a new standard for spectacle.  There are many great moments – the watchman getting speared by the giant arrow, Edd taking the Wall and dropping the Scythe, Thorne showing genuine chops, Jon dueling the Magnar of Thenn and Ygritte’s death - but this is the one that stands out most in my memory.  



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Gwendoline Christie has been perhaps the show’s greatest find, bringing soul and grit to the very difficult character of Brienne.  Each year she gets a big showcase fight - Loras and then Stark men in S2, Jaime in S3, the Hound in S4, Littlefinger’s men in S5, Bolton search party in S6, Arya in S7.  This one is the best. A full blown slobberknocker with an opponent that has been established as at least as deadly a fighter as her, and a prominent enough character in his own right that it felt entirely plausible that he could kill her – particularly fresh off the (ahem) crushing turnout of the Mountain vs Viper.  But even when the suspense of the outcome is removed, the choreography remains as good as any fight in the series, or about any other cinematic swordfight I can think of.  And the scenery painfully gorgeous.  But it’s also just important to savor when the good guys (even if our feelings about the Hound are as conflicted as Arya’s at this point, we’re certainly not rooting for him) win a round.  Even if Brienne doesn’t recover a Stark girl as she intended, her walking away alive and with a world-class notch on her belt was a welcome relief after the knee to the balls that ended 4.08. 

Bonus points for how good Maisie Williams is in the lead up to the fight, and the aftermath with the dying Hound.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

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




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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It takes very little time, and no words at all, for the new order in the capital to become clear with Tywin’s return.  Small Council meetings are always highlights, regardless of the current state of the always-fluctuating roster.  This one is the funniest of the lot, even as Tywin brings a heavier, more serious hand to the proceedings.  





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How Varys became a eunuch was one of the more minor mysteries in the first couple seasons.  And the reveal is not something that has stunning plot implications.  It isn’t tied to the identity of Jon Snow’s mother or crucial to the outcome of a war; it simply gives us some insight into why he hates sorcery and thus why he would support even the Lannisters against Stannis and his witch.  The offhand way he launches into the story backfoots both us and Tyrion, but his nonchalance only underscores the horror of it.  And the cold-blooded resolution reminds us that the Spider, for all the chumminess he has shown our favored characters over the last season, is still a dangerous player in his own right. 

But in addition to informing us about Varys, the scene is also, in a roundabout way, preparing us for the Red Wedding.  Not that it is foreshadowing the event directly, but it is telling us how justice works in this world, which is slowly but brutally.  If we stick it out long enough, Varys promises, the survivors will receive their revenge.  But it will take patience and a very strong stomach (note that Varys endures even more horrors after the cut, before he begins to attain the influence he will need to enact his vengeance) to get there. What he is saying is, fundamentally, not far of from that quote about the arc of the moral universe being long, but tending toward justice.  I try to believe that is true of our world, but it certainly applies to the moral universe created for this show.



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For my money, the show never topped this twist.  And it’s not even an actual plot twist, it’s a character twist, if there is such a thing.  And I say there is, because like any good twist, it turns our conceptions on their head without actually contradicting anything we’ve been told before.  I’ve been beating this horse since Schwartzblog’s inception.  But I remain of the same mind; a good twist doesn’t rewrite the story that has already been told, it adds new information that completely rewires our outlook on what we already know.  The best ones add information that we didn’t even realize was missing.  It’s easy to surprise the audience by doing that. It’s why I hate the much-lauded reveal in The Usual Suspects; of course could can fool the audience by just showing them one thing and then going “PSYCH!! Actually what happened was something completely different.”  

Jaime’s retelling of the death of the Mad King is brilliant not just because it’s emotionally wrenching, but because it does that without refuting the previous accounts of Ned or anyone else, at least on any factual basis.  It doesn’t tell us that what we thought we knew was wrong, at least not exactly.  It just tells us more about it, and the added context changes our perception of events utterly.  

Jaime Lannister is such a mess of contradictory motivations that he arguably shouldn't work at all as a character.  But in an odd way, that makes him the best audience identification figure in the show at a certain point (it's doubly odd wen you think back to his entirely villainous introduction).  As the show goes on, even the characters for which we feel more straightforward sympathy, like Dany and the Starks, retain a more blinkered view and straightforward goals that become increasingly divorced from our more omniscient perspective.  But especially in the later seasons, Jaime is not even sure he wants his own house to win half the time, and that ambivalence becomes more akin to how we feel about these increasingly byzantine conflicts, where our love and hate for various characters refuse to align directly with the battle lines.  

In the hands of clumsier writers or a less gifted actor, Jaime's characterization would be a schizoid mess.  But Coster-Waldau grounds it with utter believability as the only sane reaction of a man who loves his brother as much as he respects the father that wants to murder him, can never acknowledge the love of his life or their children, whose life is defined by service to monarchs he loathes (even his own son turns out to be no better), and whose greatest act of heroism led the world at large to brand him a dishonest scumbag.  How could he be anything but a house divided against himself?



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As a dork for fantasy claptrap, a pet peeve of mine is when the supernatural trappings that make things heightened and exotic also have the incidental effect of solving the greatest mysteries of human existence, and no one seems to notice.  Like how the Ghostbusters prove the existence of life after death, and remain focused on what it means for their small business prospects, or how Lord Of The Rings is so occupied with who will control Rohan or whatever, while ignoring that everyone fighting over it lives in a world where if you sail to a particular, actual island you will literally live forever. 

I am also, by nature, a skeptic and so my love of magical trappings in fiction can make for an uneasy pairing with natural affinity for characters that are non-believers and antipathy for magical thinking or supernatural solutions to any problem of substance.  But at least for most of its run, Game Of Thrones thread this very particular needle of mine very nimbly.  It keeps its  magical elements mostly in the shadows, their workings unclear and largely wielded by the baddies.  The story of Thoros renewing his faith through the miraculous resurrection of his friend is ostensibly an inspiring and triumphant one, but then neither of them seem all that happy about it. It could understandably have made wide-eyed evangelists of them both, but while it has made them crusaders, the grizzled British character actors keep them grounded as soldiers first and proselytizers second.  And decidedly fallible ones at that.  

Thoros and Berric have seen for a fact that the Red God is real, and wields power over life and death.  But Berric’s shut down of Melisandre’s question about the Other Side makes it clear just how little this miraculous power does to actually solve the deeper questions of existence.  Becoming functionally immortal should be a comforting thing.  But what have these men learned? That there definitely is a God. That He is highly uncommunicative about what he wants. But He absolutely takes sides in the squabbles of his creations.  That idea is scarier to me than zombies and warlocks and Ramsay Bolton combined.  



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This is a small moment in a season full of very big ones, but it always stuck with me.  Rose Leslie’s Ygritte brought spirited life to the Night’s Watch storyline that had been defined by dourness.  For a full season she had been Jon’s mocking tutor, schooling him in the wilder ways of the true North.  But once on the other side of the Wall, she is the one who knows nothing.  About the difference between a palace and a windmill, about the last six Kings Beyond The Wall, or about how seriously her lover takes his old oaths.  And while he is actually somewhat flexible in his willingness to learn from his enemies, her side's adamance that there could be nothing useful worth learning about the men and ways that stacked stones so high will wind up costing them.


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Bran’s storyline has never been my favorite. But every once in a great while, it gets suddenly, severely awesome. This scene manages to be both one in a frustrating series of near-misses among the scattered Starks, and one of the pseudo-crossover events I talked about in the last post. Bran using his warg abilities in an action context for the first time has been a very slowly burning payoff, and his “upgrading” it to Hodor manages to feel momentous even though it's just a slightly different variation on the same arbitrary fantasy nonsense. The wolves bailing Jon out of a hopeless situation would feel like a complete deus ex machina if we had been following just his own story. But because we’ve seen how far Bran and Co. had come to reach this point, it feels more like an earned payoff than the enormous stroke of good luck that it is.  And we need to see the good guys make some progress, because, well...


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      This is both the peak and the nadir of Game Of Thrones. It is the thing that people will bring up first when discussing the show with someone new. It is notorious for its cruelty, which is certainly extreme, don’t get me wrong. It is probably the most surprising development in the series, but even if it is more heavily foreshadowed than certain other developments (the deaths of Robert or Drogo are certainly not built up to at such length), the cruelty definitely has a hand in making it the most shocking, but that is only part of it. 

      Because hand in hand with the cruelty is the sheer scope of it. You could make the argument that Shireen's death is an even meaner turn for the story, but it's not as sharp of one; it changes how we view a particular character perhaps, but does not upend the established narrative in such a seismic way. I'd known the series had a mean streak that was severe enough to kill its Stark heroes since Ned lost his head. But with some distance, that had became easier to rationalize, to place in a more familiar context. Ned was the Obi-Wan Kenobi, the Mufasa character, who had to die in the first act to propel the real heroes into the rest of the story. It was a one-time thing, a jarring opening blow so that the series could fool people into thinking that it was actually telling a different kind of story where “anyone can die!”, when it was in fact a very traditional fantasy narrative.

These sentiments became more popular over time, but remain mostly poppycock in my own opinion. It ignores that neither Mufasa nor Obi-Wan were positioned as the main protagonist of their respective stories, as Ned most definitely was in the first season/book. And I guess to some the only way to prove that “anyone can die” is for everyone to actually die, but that’s not what those words mean to me. It became fairly obvious early on that with the exception of Rickon, the Stark kids would have fairly long stories to tell, and after a bit it became clear that Jon Snow would not be killed (even though he eventually was). Really though, the only character who has felt consistently Too Big Too Fail from the start, in spite of the maelstrom that consumed so many Baratheons, Lannisters, Khals, Starks, Nights Watchmen, Martells, and so on has been Dany. That is largely due to her being so removed from the greater scrum of Westeros, and also the fact that she is a House unto herself. Whereas at least in theory, Jon could die and the White Walkers would still be marching on the Wall, it’s not like the dragons would fly to Westeros on their own if Dany bit the dust, and so offing her would render the entire Essos storyline moot. 

All this is by way of saying that three seasons in, I knew that GOT was mean enough to kill Robb, or Cat. But I had grown accustomed enough to the War Of Five Kings as the status quo that I thought it was too big of a leg to take out from under the story right in the middle of its projected run.  I believed that basic narrative necessities would provide some protection, even if sentimentality would not.  Even moreso than being mean, ending the war so suddenly felt reckless in a way I was not prepared for.

But there is also the cruelty. Ye gods, the cruelty.