Wednesday, February 6, 2019


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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