Monday, June 10, 2013



Game of Thrones, for all the unpredictability of its plot, follows a pattern with its seasons.  The penultimate episode is where the big fireworks (decapitation, Blackwater, now the Red Wedding) go down, and the finale is much more what you would expect from a typical premiere, setting various folks on various roads to various places they probably won’t arrive at until well into the next year.  There was a bit of a question whether this year, which unlike the first two concluded in the middle of a source book, would follow suit, but it certainly did in the end.  Arya hits the road again, in much the same position (but worse) as she was in the last two finales.  Bran heads north of the Wall with a small party to protect him, much like Jon did at the end the first season.  Sansa remains a caged, miserable bird at King’s Landing as a new set of meager hopes are cruelly dashed by the horrific murder of her elder relations.  Yara sets out to rescue her brother, Stannis refocuses on the threat of the Walkers, and Dany, having decided that walking over everyone and everything in Essos is too much work, is now crowdsurfing her way to Westeros (at the same leisurely pace).

What previous finales had, and what I think largely prevented people from complaining about them as anticlimaxes following the episode where Shit Goes Down, was truly striking closing images that promised major changes to come.  Dany rising from the fire with her dragons is the signature image of the series thus far, and the army of the dead marching through the snow was unexpectedly epic in scale and gave us a nice jolt to end on, even if this year ultimately did remarkably little to follow through on its promise.  The Walkers are aptly named, it would seem, having spent all year shuffling through the off-screen snow without reaching anywhere we might recognize.  One of them appeared for exactly one scene between the pre-credits sequence of the premiere and the finale where they remained an unseen threat even as they drew the attention of more important characters.

 Characters packing serious weapons
 Characters packing serious weapons

The eponymous sequence of “Mhysa,” however, packs less of a punch, because it neither surprises nor promises anything new.  Dany’s been on this messianic path all year, and the actual conquest of Yunkai took place last week, so I’m not sure what the tension of the scene was supposed to be, or whether it was supposed to feel like more of a game-changer than it did.  She already had some freed slaves as followers, now she has some more.  Bully for Danaerys Stormborn, The Unburnt, The Breaker of Chains and Addendumer of Superfluous Titles, but given that this was her only scene of the finale, this fell a bit flat for me.

Indeed, I think the last two episodes may have benefited from rearranging.  If you move all of the Yunkai material to the finale, and pack as much of the Jon and Bran scenes as possible into last week, I think “Rains Of Castamere” could’ve been a counterpoint to last year’s “Blackwater,”  with the focus squarely on the Starks and their hangers-on rather than the Lannisters.  It may not have worked as well, since it still would’ve had to remain more geographically diffuse compared to the King’s Landing-bound “Blackwater,” but I think having the closing sequence immediately follow the taking of Yunkai would’ve given it more kick, and made it feel like a resolution rather than a postscript.

 Also, I'm getting tired of every single "edgy" cable show going for the big Jazz Hands ending

But enough about the ending, how about the opening?  The initial shot of Bolton surveying the devastation of the Stark bannermen was gorgeously composed, and the chaos of the massacre as brutal as we’ve come to expect from this show.  And seeing Robb’s body defiled and paraded through the camp was a kick in the gut even after last week’s elaborate atrocities.  It was good to see Arya enact a little antipasto of revenge on some Frey goons later, but it’s a very small, very cold comfort after having to witness that on top of every other horror she’s endured.  With no home left to go to, one wonders if the Hound could be convinced to escort her all the way to Braavos?  The idea of Arya meeting up with Dany in Essos and returning for her main course on the back of a dragon is certainly enticing, but then when was the last time the show gave a sympathetic character that satisfying a triumph?

Anyhow, the other big rousing moment of the night came from the long-absent, mostly-asshole Greyjoys.  Well, actually just Yara.  And sure, she’s a remorseless killer, and we haven’t seen her or her father all year, and she’s closing the barn door after the cock has left the building, but darn it, I like her and anyone who can potentially do some damage to the Boltons is in my good books for the time being.  

 And in local news: at the Dreadfort today, a human-shaped dick ate a dick-shaped sausage
 In local news: at the Dreadfort today, a 
human-shaped dick ate a dick-shaped sausage

And while I can’t say the Theon material was fully worth all the time spent on it throughout the year, I am glad to at least have a positive ID on his tormentor.  He is, as suspected, Bolton’s bastard, and his cheeky letter to go with the present for Balon was a new level of theatrical villainy for the show, not to mention how he ostentatiously chows down on a sausage in front of the newly-gelded Theon.  If we’re going to have him around awhile – and I assume we are, as apparently at some point in the third book, Martin did a survey of the terrain and decided “hmmm, what this story really need is less sympathetic heroes and more leering, elfin sadists” – it’s better to know a little about him, particularly since it’s not like his identity is significant enough to warrant building up any more “mystery” around.

So go Yara, and go Arya!  Also go Hodor!  Bran may still be trekking vaguely north as he was at the beginning of the year, but at least we got the best “Hodor!” of the series when he was playing in the well.  Maybe next year, once Bran starts mixing it up with the White Walkers or Mance (or at least meets up with his uncle Benjen), I’ll start looking forward to his bits the way I do the stuff in King’s Landing.

Which, surprise surprise, is where the best parts of the episodes are set once again.  Joffrey’s giddiness at the news of the Starks’ deaths and plan to serve Sansa her brother’s head at his wedding are horribly in character, and the entire Small Council gainsaying him to the extent that they dare was queasily funny.  Tyrion goes so far as to make an overt, albeit vague, threat, but it’s Tywin who of course scores the knockout blow.  “A king who has to say ‘I am the king!’ is no true king.”  Boss. And then Jack Gleeson’s petulant delivery of “I…am not…tired!” was one of his best, if broadest, acting moments.

But he can’t help but be outshined by the rest of the Lannisters.  Dance and Dinklage as always shine brightest bouncing off each other, where both characters can speak the most plainly.  Tywin’s declaration that he wanted to kill Tyrion as a child could be seen as a retread of their meeting in the premiere, and indeed the Imp jokingly said as much to Jon Snow way back in the second episode of the series, but it strikes me as a true character beat that hearing it from the old man’s mouth would draw blood all over again.  

But if anyone walked away with the acting award for tonight it’s Lena Heady, who is unfailingly great at making the prickly Cersei human, but has been increasingly marginalized over the course of the year.  Her reaction to Jaime’s return broke my heart a little, which it probably shouldn’t have, all things considered.  But her monologue about Joffrey as a cute little inbred baby (all sixth fingers and webbed toes) was her finest work in a long time.  

 Ahh, wookit da widdle shwithead...
 Ahh, wookit da widdle shwithead...

Also knocking it out of the park was Liam Cunningham as Davos, who is increasingly the conscience of the show.  The framing of him as the angel on Stannis’s shoulder opposite Melisandre’s devil certainly suggest it, which of course is cemented by his freeing of Gendry simply because no one deserves to be sacrificed, no matter the potential gain.  And Stannis needs that conscience, as he is not the warmest of guys despite being cozy with a Fire God, and it looks like he is the realm’s best hope at turning back the White Walkers.  I’ve never been Team Stannis in that I think he’d make an atrocious king, but am I eager to see how he goes about bringing the fight to an army of dead men?  Fuck yeah, I am.  Almost as eager as I am to see how Jaime reacclimates to the capitol, and how Brienne reacts to finding out another of her sworn lords has been murdered, or what mischief Littlefinger gets up to in the Veil, or what happens when Joffrey finally decides to push back against his overbearing grandfather…

Is it next April yet?  Oh, god damn it.   I guess I know what I have to do to pass the time…

 "Being drunk all the time isn't easy.  If it were, everyone would do it."  -  Hail to the Half-Man
It's not easy, but if it were, everyone would do it

Monday, June 3, 2013



Okay.  Okay.  Okay. 

Jesus, it’s not okay.  Nothing will ever be okay and no one will ever smile again.  God damn.
So, anyway, for the first time ever that I recall we have an entire episode with no time at all spent in King’s Landing, and it’s…oh, fucking hell

 Come on, man, you can do this
 Come on man, you can do this

But so things are really moving in the Jon Snow storyline now, with his loyalties revealed and Gareth gutted and coming this close to reuniting with Bran.  Bran, who it turns out is not just a warg but some sort of wereHodor, and, andandand ohfuckme that was just, just brutal…

 Oh man oh man oh man
 Keep it together, man, keep it together

Ahem.  Arya also comes within a hair’s breadth of…of reuniting with her…ah Jesus, that poor girl…
The goddamn wolf too?  Ugh.

 Come on, Schwartz, you just gotta hack it
 Come on, Schwartz, you just gotta hack it

And, uh, Dany freed some more slaves!  That’s nice, right?  Sure, the parts of your brain that process positive feelings are currently offline, but slavery is bad, you definitely remember that being a thing.  So Dany making less slavery must be good. Well, she didn’t do it so much as sit back and let her trio of admirers do the actual work, but there was some…ah Christ…some pretty nifty action, even if it’s not on the level of Blackwater, or…or…

 Fuck it.  Fuck all of it.
 Fuck it.  Fuck all of it.

Yeah, you know what, fuck it.  It was probably a waste to even spend the money to choreograph the action scene we got in Yunkai, because it could have depicted the conquest of the city on twice the scale of Blackwater and no one would remember this episode for anything but the sickeningly, viciously dark Red Wedding sequence.  

I’m a guy who appreciates darkness in my fiction, particularly in genre fare that constantly has to contend with the inherent goofiness of most sci-fi/fantasy worlds.  I also highly value (too highly, folks annoyed by my anti-spoiler pathologies might say) the ability of a work to genuinely surprise, to upend its status quo and commit to following through with serious repercussions to its world.  To that end, I also generally celebrate creators who are ruthless with their own creations, and are willing to hurt them or kill them off in unusual places or ways (and indeed, this has been a consistent source of my praise for the show in the past).  I’ve never understood fans who criticize folks like Joss Whedon or Ron Moore for raining misery upon their heroes at every turn.  Drama does not spring naturally from happy coincidences or stable relationships, and to some extent I wonder what the point of even creating fictional characters is if you are not going to push them to their absolute breaking points.

But this episode, man, was a rare case where the abuse of fictional characters felt tantamount to actual sadism.  It wasn’t shock or outrage, really; part of the reason I love being surprised by TV shows so much is that I spend so much time watching, reading about, talking about and otherwise analyzing shows that I can usually see at least the general shape of a season or episode from the early going.  Most of the people I talked to seemed convinced that Robb was going to meet a bad end soon (to the point where my pathological parts started to wonder if some of the ostensibly unspoiled ones didn’t know more than they were letting on), so it wasn’t like it caught me completely off guard.  I definitely knew that something bad was going to go down at that wedding, as Frey appeared way too eager to accept uncle Edmure as a consolation prize.  So I was sitting there on the couch, joking with my friend at the 32 minute mark that we had about 15 minutes left until something really, truly awful happened.

So I should have been ready for this, but holy sloppy shit, I was not.  I knew it was a trap, but had predicted that Talisa would get it before Robb (cue friend: “Well, technically…”), and figured that he might be captured or Catelyn killed, but I did not think the entire war for the North could come crashing down in one fell swoop like that.  I’m not sure what the primary conflict of the show will be now that the war is done.  I’d be more excited by that question if I wasn’t so emotionally drained right now.  Stannis doesn’t seem ready to mount a full comeback and the Greyjoys don’t seem like they’re up to the challenge of conquering more than a town or two. I doubt Blackfish could rally the whole of the North in his grand-nephew’s name, and Bran needs to complete his spirit quest beyond the Wall before he can muster any sort of resurgence. I guess Dany or Mance (or both) need to hurry along their plans in order to give things more of a focus now that there’s such a gaping hole in the center of the plot.

But man, those Starks.  When they lose, it is not in a squeaker.  No coach’s challenge necessary to review the call on the field for this one. They are decimated in truly, utterly horrendous fashion.  Even being sure that something bad was looming did not prepare me for just how many little twists of the knife they packed in to the massacre sequence. The talk about baby Ned, the lingering on Cat’s dawning realization when “The Rains Of Castamere” started playing, Bolton’s kiss off line, shooting the wolf, Arya being so close to reuniting with her family before it is snatched away from her forever…

In fact, things may have veered a little too close to repeating Ned’s demise beat for beat.  It’s episode 9, the head of the Stark family humbles himself before an adversary who repays it by murdering him in front of a loved one, Arya is right there before being dragged off by a hard-edged protector, even the smash cut to black on the snipping of the neck.  This was all very familiar, which made it even more maddening.

But the cruelest thing the episode does is something Game Of Thrones has proven particularly adept at; it offers a sliver of hope, an escape hatch that seems just plausible enough to fool you for a moment into thinking that it might be a viable way for the story to continue without the worst happening, right before it does.  I’m thinking of things big and small, like how Ned and Theon both had the possibility of joining the Watch dangled in front of them as a way of escaping execution, or Lord Mormont seemed like he might shrug off the backstab for a minute before realizing he was dead, or the alternative Robb’s advisors concocted for dealing with Lord Karstark that he declined to accept, or how it looked like Jaime might have saved Brienne from violation without paying a price, or even down to the moment where it looked like the price might be an eye, the loss of which a great swordsman could more easily recover from than a hand. 

Cat’s desperate play to stop the massacre was never going to work once you gave it the slightest bit of thought (Michelle Fairley acts the living shit out of it, though), but in the moment you so want to believe that she and her son could recover from their seemingly non-fatal wounds that you almost do, mere moments after you almost believed that Arya could release Robb’s wolf and that would make some sort of difference.  This sort of thing is the real strength of Martin’s writing, from what I can tell.  I’ve heard his prose style is not the most impressive, but he clearly puts thought into all the roads that could potentially be traveled, and doesn’t tip his hand by only bothering to examine the one that will be taken.  Which feeds into the two greatest strengths of the series; the way that there is no one protagonist that we are manipulated to sympathize with above all others, and the genuine unpredictability that comes along with that.

On the micro scale, this amounts to managing red herrings that keep us off balance from moment to moment.  In a larger sense, allowing each character the time and attention to weigh their long term options, regardless of which route they will take or even whether they will be around to take any of them, keeps us from intuiting who is going to be more important than who.  When a new character pops up a couple years in to the show’s run, we don’t know whether they will be dead by the end of the episode like the Titan’s Bastard, or stick around for a multi-year arc like Ygritte, because the show does not treat one as more immediately disposable than the other. 

A more “focused” show might not spend the time on scenes outlining Sallador Sahn’s plans for the queen, or Stannis’s intention to make the low-born Davos the Hand of the King, knowing that those plans will not come to fruition.  Such scenes are not strictly necessary to the plot, but including them makes it harder for us to dismiss Stannis’s chances, since we expect everything we are shown to matter.  Or to bring it back to this (miserable) episode, we have spent enough time on Robb’s grand plan to take Casterly Rock that it does make it subtly harder to accept that his rebellion could really end this ignobly. 

But Jesus, ignoble doesn’t even cover it, does it?  It would be one thing if any of the Starks had been allowed a slightly heroic death.  But it’s that they’ve all been so thoroughly defeated, and died with utter despair in their hearts, that pushes things into the sadistic territory.  I was genuinely left feeling like these characters’ creator somehow despised them.  And it’s a complete fucking bummer.  I genuinely did not sleep well after this episode. 

So, congratulations, Martin/Benioff/Weiss?  You shitheads.


Is it next week yet?  That’s…okay, actually.  I could use a little break right now.