Tuesday, April 30, 2019

GAME OF THRONES 8.03 - "THE LONG NIGHT"



Let’s talk battle sequences, shall we?  As it has gone on, Game Of Thrones has gotten both better and worse at the giant battles that have become more regularly scheduled affairs in its later seasons.  The effects and scale have gotten bigger and more impressive as we have gone from “Blackwater” to “The Long Night”, but as the individual beats have dropped jaws lower and lower, the overall believability and integrity of the sequences have taken hits from what I consider unforced errors.  “Blackwater” may not have any especially impressive stunt work or elaborate tracking shots of action heroes wading through intricately-rendered carnage for minutes on end, but it holds up dramatically because the characters’ intentions, the general tactical ebbs and flows of the battle, and especially the stakes are so clear at every point.  “Watchers On The Wall” and “Hardhome” both made leaps and bounds in terms of the presentation of the action, while maintaining a general sense of believable character responses and tactical consequence to the shifts in the battle dynamics. 

Around S6, though, I’ve been noting show abandoning plausibility and character intelligence in favor of bigger and splashier spectacle.  This is a trade-off I’m willing to accept in some instances – a prime example being that the Dothraki charging into battle and their flaming swords slowly winking out at a distance making for such an ominous and evocative visual that I’m willing to pretend that, when facing a siege, sending out one’s entire cavalry force on a blind charge into an overwhelming and literally-impossible-to-intimidate army is a viable opening move.  But for the most part, I have not been convinced that the trades are even necessary to achieve the desired results, and so it just reads as carelessness.  The Battle Of The Bastards nailed the structural and visceral presentation, but in the set up it subjected us to Sansa acting ridiculously stupid with no possible motivation other than to artificially inflate the tension to proceedings that were already plenty tense.  There were other, more believable ways to drive that tension between her and Jon, over essentially the same issue.  My suggestion being that Sansa tells Jon about sending a raven to Littlefinger but not being able to receive a response while on the move, while Jon has no faith in her judgment of that snake’s character and is unwilling to chance a winter storm coming along to neutralize his army while the Boltons’ relaxes in Winterfell. 

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He literally asked you "where are we going to get a larger force?"
and you still tell people he's the stupid one...

The attack on the Roseroad was a phenomenal sequence that caught us completely off-guard, but was marred by contriving to save Jaime from the certain death he had positioned himself for with a last-minute save that was both out-of-character (Bronn was too pragmatic to chance single combat with theMountain for his Lannister benefactor, but heroic enough to leap directly into dragonfire to save another?) and half-baked logistically (Jaime is not just immediately immune to the firestorm raging inches above his head upon touching the water, but able to swim to a safe distance undetected while fully armored and sporting a golden anchor for a hand).   In that case, I think the sequence would have remained plenty compelling and much more believable if they had allowed him a more restrained method of escape, that didn’t require this gritty, grounded world to suddenly shift into the rules of an old-fashioned adventure serial.

Then there is the frozen lake sequence from last season, which is both incredibly cool in the sense of producing dozens of images that could be airbrushed directly onto the bass drum of a Molly Hatchet cover band, and also extremely belabored in terms of how it gets to those images.  The entire basis of the mission was fairly hare-brained to start with, on top of which they could have reached the same results at a considerably lower stupidity quotient had it always been part of the plan to send for the dragons as reinforcements/escape routes, and thus had them lying in wait at the Wall instead of chilling out halfway around the world.  And then they tacked on an additional last minute rescue for Jon that made Jaime’s look plausible, when he just as easily could have gotten out with the implausible last minute rescue that took the rest of the characters to safety.

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"But...but the fans were just clamoring for more Benjen, weren't they?"

Which is all to say, I was nervous as the hour started, not just because I knew it was overwhelmingly likely some of my favorites were not going to make it out of the episode, but also because it was entirely likely that the show was going to botch up something basic that would mar the capstone to their entire arcs in a way that would be infuriating.  I am happy to report that the deaths all worked; it was the survivals where the false notes rang out, and “The Long Night” undermined its own effectiveness with overzealousness and, as strange as it may sound when talking about the zombie apocalypse action spectacular, just too many zombies.

This is especially frustrating because the episode does so much right in the set-up and structuring, to make this zombie apocalypse action spectacular actually work as a payoff to 7 years of storylines and character development, and also a mini-story unto itself.  Winterfell and our familiarity with it is used to its fullest potential, separating our 20 or so characters into seven distinct fields of play (outside the walls, the sky above, on the walls, the crypt, the courtyard, the interior of the castle, and the Godswood), which allows for a feeling of things constantly moving forward, and heroes to be isolated into small clusters with individual goals and threats to face.  It makes time for survival horror sequences of sneaking around enclosed spaces, to break up the endless hacking and slashing. The additional 15 minutes of build-up before the fire and blood got going, after last week’s solid half hour of the same, was masterfully strung together, establishing a thick mood of dread while focusing tightly on one character at a time while also serving up a a final primer on the geography of the battlefield(s) and situating a dozen different heroes throughout.  Most importantly, it creates big, character-defining moments for at least a dozen characters – Arya and Melisandre probably most of all, but Jorah, the Hound, Theon, Berric, Lyanna all get major moments that arise fairly organically from the chaos around them.    

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In the year following Lyanna's death, the North reported a
340% rise in incidents of punk-ass nonsense.

The chaos itself is where the seams start to unravel.  For glaringly obvious starters, the choice to set everything in a dark night with a snowstorm raging rendered half of the action completely unintelligible.  It was a bit better on the HBOGO app, but the HD broadcast was a foggy, murky mess for most of the actual fighting scenes.  The occasional bursts of clarity – such as when the dragons flew into the moonlight above the clouds, or Lyanna Mormont’s fatal showdown with a zombie giant – were magnificent, but far too much of the action involved a single recognizable character wildly swinging at a vague blur of indistinct figures that one just had to assume were foes and not friends.  That was an occasional annoyance, which probably could have been overlooked in my delight at the basic concept of what was going on being something as terrific as every sympathetic character that had survived the last 7 years fighting together against a zombie horde.

But the biggest problem was simply that our heroes were fighting too many zombies at once. That seems like an odd charge to levy against a zombie apocalypse action spectacular, but what it comes down to is that the show did not seem to respect its own visual storytelling. It repeatedly showed us shots of our characters struggling desperately against a couple zombies, with dozens or hundreds more rushing in mere yards away, then cut to another scene, then returned to those same characters in the same place, still hacking away with no indication of why or how they avoided being overrun by the incoming swarm in the seconds after we had left them.  You can sort of get away with fudging these details once or twice, but the episode repeatedly asks us to view swarming zombies as a dire threat, even after demonstrating repeatedly that being swarmed by zombies is a mild but eminently survivable inconvenience. 

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Like, any time a struggle like this took place, I wondered why
there weren't 50 more zombies trampling them both immediately

The most egregious examples of this inconsistency were when Berric magically appeared to stumble through the door with Arya with no explanation for how he had gotten away from the crowd of zombies that had been hacking at his unarmed body as he used it to block a hallway a moment before, and when the attack on the Godswood started off with a shot of literally three archers appearing to have fifteen zombies that were more than close enough to reach them before any of them could possibly notch a second shot.  But it was apparent from the moment when Jorah rode back from relatively unscathed from leading the entire Dothraki horde to a swift death that this episode was going to be content to let the editing be the heroes’ most potent weapon.  It become somewhat laughable when Jon was stranded with literally thousands of freshly risen zombie soldiers surrounding him, or ditto Dany and Jorah slightly later, that it didn’t even register as an actually dangerous situation. Because it was a given at that point that the zombies would act like the ghosts fromthe Mario games in reverse, freezing in place whenever the camera looked away and only attacking when it was focused directly on them.

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The phoniness of this staging really undercut the realism of the scenario, as it became apparent that who the Walkers could kill would hinge entirely on whether the writers felt they had more use for a character rather than how many rampaging, relentless murderbeasts we actually saw crawling all over them.  I know that “realism” is a tricky term to apply to a scenario so rife with dragons and witches and zombies, but what I’m referring to is less about real-world plausibility than internal consistency.  A show can have witches and it can have zombies, and those things can present a threat that is real to the characters within the show, despite those things not existing in the real world.  What it can’t do is tell us that they are a threat, show us that characters can dispatch that threat off-screen with no special explanation as to how, and then ask us to take the same threat seriously again the next time it rears its head. 

It is especially frustrating because all the episode would have to do to avoid the issue would be to slightly dial back the number of extraneous zombies at the margins of the various action scenes, so that their rate of attack seems slightly plausible for the handful of defenders we are following to be slowing down in any meaningful way.  But instead it operates on the principle that more is always better, even when it only serves to highlight the artificiality of the whole scenario.  We see so many shots establishing the sheer unrelenting, unending mass of zombies pressing on every front that it really makes no sense that once they breach the battlements or courtyard gate, they are then invading the Godswood or interior of the castle slowly enough for the sequences there to play out in the more unhurried fashion that they do.

Which is irritating, because the sequences where it embraces the horror over the action elements, like when Arya is sneaking around the library full of shambling dead, work really well. Game Of Thrones has always seemed to belong as much to the horror genre as the high fantasy that its dragons and wizards and quasi-medieval milieu would suggest.  This week, like “Hardhome” before it, leans hard into the zombie movie aesthetic that has always permeated the White Walker material, particularly the siege dynamic that permeates much of that type of film, but the influence has been wider than that.  The presence of Ramsay and Joffrey would often pull the show into torture porn territory, the mystical elements would sometimes dabble in Lynch-ian eeriness, and Qyburn seems like he would be more at home in a Re-Animator sequel than a sword n’ sorcery flick.  Heck, if you look at the presentation of the Freys and the Red Wedding slightly cock-eyed, it could be seen as a medieval riff on the Texas Chainsaw Massacre/Hills Have Eyes/Devils Rejects dynamic of dumb, pretty teenagers getting sadistically slaughtered after stumbling into the den of a family of backwoods grotesques.  

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Of course, the Red Wedding is still a pleasant breeze compared to the nadir of that particular subgenre

With the end of the Night King and White Walkers, it seems like those horror elements are pretty much done for, which brings us to my final gripe about the episode.  The Great War is over, and in contrast to the"petty" wars of succession that filled the last six years with constant bloodshed, it consisted of one major battle (or three total, if you want to stretch it to include Hardhome and the offscreen attack on the Night’s Watch between S2-3).  And the Long Night turned out to last…one night.  Moreover, Cersei’s myopic focus on her own narrow self-interest, far from being the suicidal blunder the show made it out, turns out to have been a genius tactical decision that advanced all her interests perfectly according to plan.  And by positioning her as the final boss to be defeated after the apocalypse has been averted, the show seems to be endorsing, tacitly but inescapably, her perspective that the squabbles over who gets to sit on an ugly chair are actually more important than the struggle for the survival of the human race.  And while I love Cersei's character, that does not sit well with me, for numerous reasons which I suspect to be the main focus of the remaining three recaps.  For now, let’s move on to random notes and prophesies.



RANDOM NOTES

  • Every one of the fireside chat participants that chuckled when Tyrion said “I think we may survive” last week, did survive.  Honestly, that’s a tad too cute for my tastes. 

  • I love that Jon and Dany kind of fuck up their part of the battle, and it falls to Arya to take out the Night King.  I have heard a surprising amount of griping focused on how she managed to sneak past the crowd of Walkers or jump so high in her (thwarted) sneak attack.  These are not areas where I worry about realism, and in any case I don’t have trouble imagining that, being a stealthy gymnast and native of Winterfell, she figured out how to pick her way from a rooftop through the branches of the weirwood tree to get a good vantage for leaping.

  • I also love that while, as noted last week, Sam has sort of developed an action hero resume, he  is still running and crying a lot in the face of the oncoming dead, even getting Edd killed in the process.  And similarly, that this was emphatically not the Hound’s finest hour, and even Arya switches from “fight” entirely to “flight” for a stretch there.  It would be so easy to have everyone acquit themselves entirely nobly in this darkest hour, but having even the big tough guys become overwhelmed and terrified at points makes things feel more dire, while lending the heroism of Theon, the Mormonts, Grey Worm, etc. more gravitas.

  • Arya takes out the NK with the same move – flipping the knife from her dominant to off hand – with which she ended her sparring session withBrienne last season.  And she jumps on him in almost the exact spot where Jon is standing when he turns and wonders how she snuck up on him in the premiere. These are wonderful bits, almost too subtle to fully constitute foreshadowing, and so impossible to give anything away. 

  • Theon tried to go out in a blaze of glory with a handful of Ironborn defending Winterfell from an overwhelming attacking force way back inthe finale of Season 2.  His wish was finally, after being deferred for 6 years, granted.

  • We have reached the end of the Walker storyline, and we never got “ice spiders big as hounds”, which is some hot bullshit.  The least they could have done was easter-egg a shot of a random soldier corpse in the courtyard wrapped in death embrace with his sword through a giant spider’s abdomen and its fangs sunk in his chest.  But nooooo….


Season Morghulis:  Ned Umber, Edd Tollett, Lyanna Mormont, Berric Dondarrion, Alys Karstark, Theon Greyjoy, Jorah Mormont, Melisandre, (Viserion), (The Night King)

Prophesies:   My big swings were based entirely on the assumption that the show had from the very start mixed the apocalyptic threat of the Walkers with the messier political material, and you couldn't just take one dramatic leg out from under the show with half the final season left and putter through as only half the show it had always been.  But since that is exactly what happened, my prophesies are now shot full of holes, though I did predict most of the deaths this episode.  And Sansa and Tyrion renewing their relationship, which I am treating as confirmed after this episode addressed it so directly, even though that will likely create some drama with Dany in the weeks to come.



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Jon – Becomes king, dies defeating Night King, leaving Dany pregnant

Dany – Refuses to step down for Jon, thinks better of it after losing more dragons and advisors in the battle at Winterfell, but winds up back on the throne after he dies heroically, with a proper incestuous Targaryen heir on the way.

Cersei – Gets to little Robin Arryn and lays a trap at the Eyrie before the survivors of Winterfell can reach it, which is mostly foiled by wariness of Sansa/Arya/Tyrion.  King Jon still feels compelled to offer her a pardon to fight with them for realsies this time.  She can’t help but try to backstab them one last time and Jaime mercy-kills her before Queen Dany can burn her alive.

Bran – Dies/leaves human body warging into Drogon as a sacrifice play allowing the living to escape Winterfell.

Sansa/Tyrion – Renew their marriage to rule the North and Westerlands.  

Arya – Provides assist to take out Mountain in Cleganebowl.  Hooks up with Gendry but refuses to be tied down as his wife, last seen hitting the road for more merry adventures, but with an ominous note that a Faceless man is trailing her.

Gendry – High Lord of the Stormlands.

Sam – High Lord of The Reach.

Gilly – Lady Of the Reach.

Jaime – Appointed/Sentenced to reconstitute the Night’s Watch as new Lord Commander.

Brienne – Commander of the Queensguard.

Davos – Small Council, Master Of Ships.

Missandei – Small Council.

Jorah  killed by Walkers.

Tormund – Ruler of new Wildling nation in the Gift.

Yara – Ruler Of Iron Islands.

Theon dies heroically.

Euron – dismembered by Mountain.

The Hound/Mountain – killed together in Cleganebowl.

Drogon/Rhaegal – die in battles with Night King.

Grey Worm – killed by Walkers.

Varys – killed in Cersei’s trap.

Melisandre – killed by Varys.

Robin Arryn – killed in Cersei’s trap.

Yohn Royce – Lord of the Vale.

Berric Dondarrion – killed by Walkers.

Edd – killed by Walkers.

Qyburn – killed by Mountain.

Bronn – refuses to kill Jaime/Tyrion, gets a castle.

Lyanna Mormont – Rules Bear Island.

Podrick  killed by Walkers.

Ghost - killed by Walkers