Tuesday, June 17, 2014



I’ve made a few references in the past to “Blackwater” being the best episode Game Of Thrones was ever likely to produce, but it’s possible that “The Children” may have surpassed it as my favorite.  It’s not as focused and cohesive as the big battle episode, but then I maintain that the series’ appeal actually derives in large part from its lack of such attributes.  In seasons past, the major fireworks went down in the penultimate episode, with the finale being a rapid reworking of the board that felt more like a traditional premiere.  But while “Watchers On The Wall” delivered the major spectacle, it has nothing approaching the far-reaching consequences of the series of climaxes that fill “The Children”.  And, it must be said, a lot of my love for the episode flows from the immense sense of relief that Tyrion, Brienne, and all of the other sympathetic characters had made it out alive.  I’m sure that Season 5 will contain its share of horrors (not least of which seems to be some sort of FrankenMountain), but it is also poised to offer us Tyrion, Varys, Arya and Jorah in a single scene.  Never did I dare to dream of such a treasure.

But let’s focus on things that have actually happened first.  At the Wall, Stannis rides in to save the day, as anticipated.  Stannis has never been my favorite, but an influx of fresh blood is precisely what the Wall needs to stay at the level it has spent the past season clawing its way up to (which would be “better than Dragonstone or the Dreadfort, not as good as anything else,” if we’re getting technical).  And I do like that the Boltons are now sitting between him and the rest of the nation he intends to rule.  I mean, he must have ships that could just sail around to King’s Landing, but he’s not exactly known for picking his battles based on expedience.

The face of a man who wipes exactly three times, no matter the circumstances or consistency
This is the face of a man who allows himself exactly three 
wipes, no matter the circumstances or consistency at issue
But the character stuff trumps the plot developments up North, which is surprising since it’s focused on Jon Snow.  Jon has developed into one of my favored, if not favorite, characters throughout the year.  He has really come into his own, demonstrated by the way he coolly gives orders to “One True King” Stannis, his thoughtful talks with Tormund and Mance about the finer points of mourning and kneeling, and my favorite exchange of the episode, in regards to the fallen giant:

“He was their king. The last of a bloodline that stretches back before the First Men.”
“Gren came from a farm.”

I know Gren didn’t make much of an impression on most people, but I’ve been surprisingly moved by his sacrifice, once again this week when even Mance honored it with a toast.  What can I say? I’m very much a second son, and always more drawn to sidekicks and simple men stepping up to huge plates that they didn’t have to, rather than the protagonists with the stink of destiny all over them.

Destiny and a lilac emulsifying conditioner
Destiny and a lilac emulsifying conditioner
So it would stand to reason that I was also moved by Jojen Reed’s death, but…nope.  I don’t know what the deal was there.  He wasn’t an unsympathetic character, but I had him marked for redundancy and death from his introduction, and I never got a sense of who he was beyond the guy who knew the basics of warging.  Which is a fairly simple concept anyway.  But even if I don’t mourn Jojen, I did enjoy the sequence that offed him.  It marked Bran officially wandering into a D&D module, complete with giants and wolves battling skeleton warriors (that move with a frightening speed compared to the shambling White Walker zombies, though I assume both get marching orders from the same place), wizened sages spouting cryptic prophecy, and an elf child who apparently studied Prodigal Sorcery under Tim The Enchanter.

If that paragraph made perfect sense to you, you have fully and objectively wasted your life
If that last sentence made perfect sense to you, 
you have fully and objectively wasted your life
This is fun stuff, and all but confirms that Bran is going to warg his way into one of Dany’s dragons in the end.  Possibly the big one, as it has gone rogue, roasting kids and prompting the khaleesi to lock up the other two in the catacombs of Mereen.  This is not the most dramatic development of the week, but I do wonder if maybe the episode should’ve ended on this note instead of where it did?  I’m a much bigger fan of Arya than Dany in general, but her standing on a ship deck is not the most striking image on which to close such an explosive finale.  Whereas there is a tradition to be upheld in having seasons end on shots of dragons or White Walkers, and they really outdid themselves with the sound design of the beasts keening after their mother.  I dunno, I just felt like something more fantastical than a sailboat was called for.
But I don’t want to begrudge Arya or Maisie Williams their big moments.  While I was disappointed that she did not take up Brienne as her new mentor, having her ship off to Braavos (the most badass, underexplored corner of the map) is a fine alternative, and the brawl between the Hound and Brienne was somehow even more brutal and awesome than the Mountain vs. the Viper or any other action the show has ever done.  This is exactly the sort of showdown that I’ve talked about in prior weeks, where we have 2 evenly matched opponents who both feel like they could plausibly get the upper hand on the other at any point, and despite audience loyalty to both, and it most definitely did not end in a draw.  And so I was a nervous wreck throughout, waiting for Pod to interfere and get himself killed giving Brienne the opening she needed to prevail.  Which made it all the sweeter when that didn’t happen, of course.  I mean, I liked the Hound as a character, but guy was an unrepentant murderer of children.  It would’ve been a much bigger bummer to see Brienne take the loss.  And that last scene between Rory McCann and Maisie Williams was worth just about anything.  Arya has become a truly cold customer, as she decides to ignore the dog’s lesson about where the heart is, while honoring the one about the dead not needing silver.  I suppose the TV dictum is that if we don’t watch him actually expire, we should assume the Hound will be back, but I hope they don’t cheapen that scene in that way. Not that I’m overly worried about it.

If he doesn't get to come back, no one does
If he doesn’t get to come back, no one does
 But Tyrion will be back!  I know the circumstances of his fleeing Westeros were sad, but I was so convinced that offing him would be Martin’s piece de resistance of misery that I was in cold sweats throughout the back half of the episode. Needless to say, I am very, very relieved that this was not the case.  And I never expected him to take out the old man on his way (whereas killing Shae, while I did not see it coming specifically, feels more like the type of awfulness that would accompany a last minute escape in Martin’s world).  But her character had run its course, and I’d be lying if I said any sadness I felt about her death wasn’t more than offset by the giddiness of realizing that Varys was going to accompany the Imp across the Narrow Sea.

But the main event is of course the toilet-murder of Lord Tywin.  We all know that Lannisters pay their debts, and in hindsight much of this season can be seen as being about just how deep Tywin in particular had sunk them to keep the Iron Throne in the family.  The season opened with a sequence showing him in total triumph, but it was immediately followed by a scene were he was defied by his eldest son, and by the finale, his daughter had also rebelled, disabusing him of his convenient, strategic ignorance as to their incestuous practices.  And of course it closes with his being shot to death on the crapper by the son he has spent years abusing and trying with decreasing subtlety to get killed.

This is obviously both traumatic and cathartic for Tyrion.  But Tywin was similar to the Hound in that I recognize them as bad guys in the abstract, but enjoyed the performances and dynamics they brought to the table so much that I wasn’t eager to see them go.  So it comes down to the manner they are taken out, and for those of us who have endured Red Weddings and Greyjoy geldings and Viper manglings over the years, it feels good to see someone we like strike back at their tormentor. Is it justice?  Not exactly, but it’s a lot closer than what would’ve happened if the old man had his way.  In hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have been so worried; I think Martin is savvier than he is generally given credit for when it comes to what degree of tragedy the audience can take before needed a little respite, and while I can see the complaint that Oberyn was introduced solely to raise our hopes for the crushing, following that directly with killing the most beloved character would be too much for a book that also contained last season’s massacre in its second half.  And the MO of the show has consistently been to bump off the wiser, steadier hands at any particular wheel while the rejects and marginal figures find ways to keep swimming.  But I wasn’t thinking that clearly, because this show has fucked with me so consistently and effectively for so many years that I never know what to think in the moment, no matter how many words I write about it after the fact.

On an unrelated note, I tend to down at least a bottle of wine before each episode ends.  It's...don't question my methods, okay internet?
On an unrelated note, I tend to down at least a bottle
 of wine before each episode ends. It’s…
don’t question my methods, okay internet?
Anyway, with Tywin gone, the consequences for Westeros as a whole will probably be dire.  Cersei and Jaime are poised to be the primary movers in King’s Landing, but how long will House Lannister stand with their credit cards maxed out, their king and Hand murdered in quick succession in their very seats of power, and lacking the brainpower of Tywin, Tyrion or Varys to smooth things over?  With the Tyrells, Martells, Littlefingers, and eventually Baratheons scheming to depose them?

Is it 2015 yet? Oh, come on!


Tuesday, June 10, 2014



“Watchers On The Wall” is set up to be Blackwater 2: Black Waterer.  And it’s a noble effort, but ultimately it can’t match the intensity of the show’s finest hour, even with Neil Marshal outdoing his own direction.  Castle Black, when you get down to brass tacks, simply lacks the depth of interesting characters that King’s Landing is packed with.  Also there is a more straightforward good guys vs bad guys dynamic at play here, whereas I imagine there were a good many people rooting for Stannis to take the throne, if only to remove Joffrey.  But what it lacks in the series trademark emotional complexity, it makes up for in spectacle and execution.

This is, handily, the best action the series has ever done, and it is delivered on a scale that dwarfs even the battles at Astapor (where the dragons and Unsullied tore through a handful of unarmed opponents) and Blackwater (which featured a clash of larger forces but basically confined it to small groups on one stretch of dirt).  It’s got a better sense of geography, of shifting tactics, and also a cathartic sense of paying off a storyline that has been slooooowly building for 4 years.  Plus it has giants riding mammoths and its big surprise tactic, the giant anchor sweeping the Wildlings off the Wall, is even cooler and more surprising than the Wildfire maneuver.

"Come men!  Follow my silky, voluminous curls to victory!!!"
“Come men! Follow my silky, voluminous curls TO VICTORY!!!”

Unfortunately, that sense of climax is undercut by the indecisiveness of the battle’s outcome.  I’ve talked before about how the show mines tension from not having a clear-cut “power rankings” (much as we like to amuse ourselves with them on the message board) so that we know going in that say, Ser Allister doesn’t stand a chance against Tormund or the head Thenn.  But the other thing that gives the periodic clashes between different characters or factions such a charge is that Martin is unflinching about providing them with definite winners and losers.  Sure, you have the occasional dust up like Jaime’s with Ned or Brienne that ends in a draw, but I’ve never had a sense that these skirmishes were being contrived to provide the audience with chances to see their fan favorites in action without committing to any real consequences.

This of course applies to more than just duels.  Just ask the Starks, or Greyjoys, or Martells, and they’ll tell you that the big overarching conflicts are just as susceptible to major, definitive swings of fortune as any individual swordfight.  Not that I don’t expect all of those families (with the possible exception of the Greyjoys – they’ve lost all the ground they gained in the second season and there’s still a fire leech out there with Balon’s name on it) to come back in some major ways, but it’s been clear for years that Martin doesn’t get bogged down trying to ensure that the primary conflicts remain at a familiar equilibrium, to better keep the audience oriented.  That’s a concern for a syndicated TV show, not so much a series of fantasy epics.  It also gives the series, for as slooooowly as some of its storylines can develop, a consistent sense of forward momentum.  Having source material, particularly one so ruthless with the audience’s desires, means that from the very first episode this series was going places.  Dany's storyline aside, I’ve never had a sense that certain characters or dynamics are being kept in stasis for the sake of padding out a 20-some episode season or to flatter the ego of a particular breakout star, as will happen with a traditional network series.

Or else we all know who would've been getting top billing the last 3 years
Or else we all know who would’ve been getting top billing the last 3 years

Which is all a roundabout way of getting back to the point that if “Watchers On The Wall” feels a little lightweight, it is because Game Of Thrones is generally not a show that ends its conflicts in a draw.  Take Stannis, for example. There’s no denying that his story has been frustratingly stalled since Blackwater, but that in turn allows Blackwater to still feel important in hindsight, despite the lack of major character deaths it produced – the defeat was significant, and not just for those people that prefer Stannis to the Lannisters.  The battle for Castle Black mainly functions at this point to serve up a second cliffhanger on top of last week’s (cruelly ignored altogether).  The Watch still holds the Wall, Mance’s army still hopelessly outnumbers them, and the only real development is that the marauders south of The Wall have been eliminated.  You could have replaced this whole battle with Jon leading another sortie against Tormund and the Thenns when they were camped outside Mole’s Town and end up in the exact same place, narratively.

"Before I die...tell me...(ack)...one time...how you get such bounce and volume from your bangs?"
“Before I die…tell me…(ack)…one time…
how your bangs maintain such bounce and volume?”
That being said, the battle does deliver on the fantasy spectacle level, and result in some surprisingly effective character deaths.  Ygritte dies in Jon’s arms, in a moment that was nicely acted but had been such a foregone conclusion for so long that I didn’t get too misty over it.  On the other hand, I was surprisingly moved by poor Pip’s bloody death, and Grenn going out like an ABSOLUTE BOSS.  I know some people are disappointed that we didn’t see more of the actual fight with the giant, but I wouldn’t change a single thing about how that was presented.  We didn’t know those guys all that well, but they’ve been familiar long enough that their deaths managed to resonate.

There were also good character and action bits to spare.  Thorne acknowledging (without apologizing) that he was wrong about the tunnel, then proving himself to be a legit badass rather than the Dwayne T. Johnson (edit:  Robinson.  Oof.  Geek credentials revoked) of Westeros.  Tormund’s restless, grunting berserker rage (I swear, Kristofer Hivju looked more feral than Ghost as he relentlessly prowled the castle).  The swooping, 360 degree shot of the carnage within the walls.  The absurdly awesome giant arrow sending some poor bastard halfway to the moon before crashing down into the courtyard.  Sam’s quickdraw on the crossbow (and even better, his delivery of “is it over, then?” to Pip).  Jon embedding a hammer in the main cannibal’s skull.

Early frontrunner for the 2014 "Image Most Likely To Provoke A Led Zeppelin Reunion" Emmy
 The only thing the battle was missing was Tyri-…..ohshitohshitohshit, guys, I just remembered what happened with Tyrion and Oberyn last week! Oh fuckme, they’re gonna kill him I just know it I know it ah fuck fuckfuckfuck…..


Is it Sunday yet? Oh, come on!


Thursday, June 5, 2014



Sorry about the hold up, folks.  I’m out of the country this week, and it took me a couple days to find a way to watch the episode on an iffy internet connection.  It also means no pictures and probably more typos this week.  I know, I know, life on the internet is almost as harsh as it is in Westeros.  At least the episode wasn’t the least bit eventful or anything.

So things had been going good for too long in Westeros. This is a relative measure, obviously, as there has been slaughter and mutilation to spare throughout this 4th season, but we also hadn’t seen the death of really sympathetic character since the Red Wedding.  I’ve talked previously about how an inordinate amount of the damage this year was being taken by the outright heels (Joffrey, the slave masters, Arya’s tormentors, crazy aunt Lysa, the Watch mutineers, hell, you can go ahead and throw the grimy faux-Bonham Carter whore that menaces Gilly in there too), and expressed trepidation about things swinging back against the “good guys” before too long.  And with the closing sequence of “The Mountain And The Viper”, that pendulum shifts sharply.

But first there are other goings on in the world.  In Essos, Dany finally learns of Jorah’s previous occupation spying on her, and reacts poorly.  She notes that it was his reporting about her pregnancy that prompted the Westerosi’s assassination attempt, but ignores his protests that he also foiled the attempt – and has risked his life for her many times over since. She had to react somehow, but losing Jorah is more of a blow than I think she realizes.  She may not need his swordarm with Daario and Selmy and Grey Worm knocking about, but none of those guys seem interested in tempering her fiery-er instincts, as has already become necessary to rule even a single city.  Oddly enough, I am heartened by this turn of events; I had been thinking that Jorah’s increasing redundancy in the khaleesi’s service and generally likeable nature spelled doom for him all season, but I enjoy Ian Glenn’s performance so much that I’m glad that he will be spinning off into another part of the narrative instead of leaving it in a bloody mist of head trauma.

But we’re not there yet.  In other parts, Gilly and Sam Jr. also get a reprieve from what seems like certain death at the hands of the marauding Wildlings.  Good thing Ygritte is an ol’ softy (we’ll ignore for the moment the four other people she murdered in the sequence).  The rest of the Wall stuff is just the guys reacting to the attack.  I’m sure there will be a lot more to say about this story after next week’s coming Wallstravaganza, so let’s  just move on to the Boltons.

Theon’s life of misery continues apace, as he’s forced to impersonate (I guess?) himself to help the Boltons reclaim a muddy castle that will solidify their hold on the North.  Names were prominent this week, with Ramsay getting his father’s bestowed upon him at last, a new name to match the one he took from Theon.  This is bad news for those of us who find the relentless sadism of his scenes wearying, but at least it means that there will be a really hiss-worthy villain waiting for Bran Stark to root out of Winterfell when he and Hodor return triumphantly riding a mastodon or whatever.

Or perhaps his sister will beat him to the punch.  Sansa makes major strides towards becoming a legitimate political power this week, reclaiming her own name so she can pull Littlefinger from the fire.  Her reasoning seems simple enough, as he is the devil she knows, but it’s unclear just how deep she’s thrown in with him.  Did she give him “what he wants” after that cutaway?  Does she know exactly what the plan is for little Lord Arryn?  All of a sudden Lady Stark has secrets from us as the audience, and I’m more intrigued by her than I’ve ever been.

Something else occurred to me as she was descending the steps of the Eyrie, looking regal and sinister in a way we’ve never seen.  We’ve talked about Arya cycling through various tutors in the deadly arts, learning to survive the storm of swords that has covered Westeros, but Sansa has been going through her own education, as people like Cersei, Olenna, Tyrion, and now Littlefinger show her, sometimes unwittingly, how to play the game of thrones.  Oddly enough, the Stark girls now seem poised to grow into the positions of their hated enemies, the Lannisters – Arya is becoming Jaime, a deadly, charismatic killer with little interest in the titles and ruling that come with her name, while Sansa is poised to be the next Cersei, an ostensible trophy wife who is ruthless in leveraging her beauty and family name to get what she wants.

But that’s in the future.  This week, the main even is, obviously, the trial by combat that ends as brutally as it possibly could for all parties, including us viewers.  I should’ve known Oberyn was doomed from the moment I named him as a new favorite character a few weeks back.  I’m sorry to see him go, as Pedro Pascal’s performance was a real live wire, bringing an intelligence to the portrayal that tempered both his righteousness and hedonism into something that felt lived in and real, instead of simplistic, inconsistent notes.  But note that what gets him killed is his insistence on hearing the Mountain name names – both his sister’s and Tywin Lannister’s.

His death is brutal physically, but also emotionally, because it dooms Tyrion along with him.  As ever, Tyrion’s fate is sealed because even his champion puts him second to his real objective.  The Imp is a second son to the last.  And one of the more interesting facets of “The Mountain And The Viper” is how it addresses the grimness of the GOT universe head-on. Tyrion and Jaime, after musing over how many different forms of homicide have names of their own (except murder of a cousin, as cousin-killer Jaime notes), remember another cousin with highly allegorical brain damage.  Beetles or people, why do we return to watch them get ground so relentlessly to dust?  Are we foolish to think there is a point to be mined from witnessing such nonstop misery?  Is it enough to cheer the donkey when it randomly kicks the life out of the crusher?

It’s not just Tyrion who has noticed the harshness of this world; just look at all the people that use that phrasing within the episode.  Littlefinger: “My lady was not meant for a world as brutal as ours.”  Illyria: “Don’t leave me alone in this world.” Ranger Who Looks Kind Of Like Bronn: “When I’m done with this world, I don’t want to come back.”  Or just note Arya’s (perfect) black laugh at the news of her aunt’s death.  These people know that this world is unforgiving, and that there are far more beetles in it than there are crushers.  How they handle that knowledge is one of the more interesting aspects of human nature to examine, in my opinion, and that is part of the appeal of a dark series such as this.

Or maybe I’m just a perverse simpleton who can’t look away from a pair of naked breasts or a skull being popped like a grape, no matter how much I liked the guy it was attached to.  Either way, it looks like there will be more crushings on the way next week when the Wildlings finally reach the Wall.

Is it Sunday yet? Oh, come on!