Monday, March 27, 2017

Game of Thrones Rewatch 5.2: "The House of Black and White"

Read the previous entry in this series here.
Read the next entry in this series here.

5.2 “The House of Black and White”
Written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss
Directed by Michael Slovis

This episode has a lot of new beginnings or attempts at new beginnings. Arya starts her training as a Faceless Man, Jaime and Bronn head off to Dorne, Tyrion heads to Meereen, Brienne finds Sansa, Cersei tries to rule, and Dany struggles to be a just ruler.

Arya sails into Braavos under the legs of the Titan, which would be more impressive if we hadn’t seen it already (still angry that Stannis stole her thunder here). The captain takes her directly to the House of Black and White, which is way bigger and more intimidating than I imagined from the books, and also more all-by-itself (it’s surrounded by other temples in the books). For a temple dedicated to death, where a cadre of secretive assassins is trained, this version is equal parts very noticeable and not very welcoming (despite the number of people who come here to seek death as a surcease from pain).

The not-very-welcoming continues when Arya tries to go in; an older man steps out, glares at her, tells her there’s no Jaqen H’ghar here, and slams the door in her face. She spends a long time (days, probably) sitting on the stairs waiting (and saying her prayers), then finally gets up, throws the iron coin in the water, and leaves. It’s probably a day or so later that she’s catching pigeons on the streets of Braavos—a callback to when she had to do so in King’s Landing—and ends up confronted by a bunch of bravos and rescued by the man from the House of Black and White. He gives her the iron coin back and changes his face back to Jaqen, telling her that he’s not Jaqen, but no one, and she must also learn to be no one.

I think what the showrunners were going for here was to ramp up the tension by suggesting that Arya might be at a dead end; she has nowhere else to go, as she tells the man who isn’t Jaqen, despite his reply that she has everywhere else to go. But again, the House of Black and White isn’t supposed to be barred to anyone—in the books she just walks in. Anyone seeking death, or considering seeking death, is welcome to come, sit for awhile, pray, leave a gift, and even drink from the poison well if that’s what they want. Or just pray and leave. Getting in isn’t the hard part. Getting them to accept her as an acolyte is. If their issue was (as it is with so many things) that it wasn’t cinematic enough, I humbly submit the description of the Kindly Man’s disguise meant to scare Arya: “Beneath the cowl, he had no face; only a yellowed skull with a few scraps of skin still clinging to the cheeks, and a white worm wriggling from one empty eye socket” (A Feast for Crows 6, Arya I). I understand why they swapped out the Kindly Man for not-Jaqen (though it makes it pretty clear that they’re abandoning a chunk of the Oldtown/Citadel subplot), but they could have directly adapted this part of the story and had the skull turn into not-Jaqen. Like a lot of changes through these next two seasons, they seem to be made because Benioff and Weiss can, not because it’s actually necessary for story, budget, or casting reasons.

The entire “Dorne” storyline is another one of those. The adaptation of Dorne was an utter travesty from beginning to end. With no other storyline did Benioff and Weiss drop the ball as hard as they did with Dorne. There’s no logical consistency, it suffers from serious trope-ism, the writing is terrible, and if they wanted to get Jaime out of King’s Landing, there’s an entire Riverlands storyline they could have been doing instead.

The whole thing kicks off with a threat from “Dorne”: Cersei’s been sent a viper (stuffed or a statue, I’m not quite sure) with Myrcella’s necklace in its mouth. Jaime says he’ll take care of it, and Cersei shoots back that he’s never fixed anything in his life and what is a one-handed man going to do? He’s going to go find a friend, that’s what. Because when we get a wisecracking character, we can’t let go of him.

Bronn’s walking along the beach with Lollys, who seems kind of silly but not actually disabled, as she is in the books. Bronn seems genuinely fond of Lollys, if a bit ambitious still (he all but promises her that he’ll take care of her sister Falyse who’s apparently a jerk), but all that gets yoinked out from under him when Jaime brings him a writ that says Lollys is going to marry Wyllas Bracken instead. So, we introduce Lollys (finally) as a reason that Bronn won’t defend Tyrion, actually bring her in for five minutes, and then boot her out of the narrative when we need Bronn to defend Jaime? That seems like really sloppy writing to me, not to mention that it takes Bronn’s entire storyline away from him, as well. Sure, it all occurs off-page, but it’s way more interesting than this whole “Dorne” thing. (And yes, I will continue to use scare-quotes, thank you.)

Meanwhile, actually in “Dorne,” Ellaria glares daggers at Trystane and Myrcella, who are walking in the gardens. She tries to go talk to Doran, but Aero Hotah stops her because Aero Hotah is a badass and I absolutely hate how this altered narrative treats him. Ellaria wants to know what Doran’s doing to avenge Oberyn, and Doran points out that death in a trial by combat is not murder, not like Elia and her children’s deaths were. She wants to torture and dismember Myrcella, then send the pieces back to Cersei, because that’s totally what Oberyn “we don’t hurt little girls in Dorne” Martell would have wanted. I hate that they replaced Arianne with Ellaria and then turned Ellaria into this cliché, because while the Dorne storyline in the books is kind of a slow burn, it’s such a great surprise when we find out just why Doran is waiting. He’s smart. He’s playing a long game. He’s good at politics and (one more time for the people in the back) Benioff and Weiss are bad at writing politics.

In the Riverlands, Brienne and Pod have come to an inn, where incidentally Petyr and Sansa are also staying, or at least stopping for a meal. Brienne repeats her heavy-handed offer of her service to a similarly distrustful young woman and is again rejected. Now, Sansa’s reasoning—that she can’t trust Brienne because she saw Brienne bow to Joffrey (because she was supposed to not bow and risk being shot on the spot?)—is utterly ridiculous. Brienne then runs out, frees all the horses, randomly murders a dude, and I’m a) continuing to be irritated by Brienne’s careless use of violence; and b) really confused as to what it is she’s trying to accomplish here. She and Pod get chased, kill a couple more men, and eventually regroup. Pod suggests that maybe being rejected by Arya and Sansa means she’s released from her vow; Brienne says Sansa’s in no way safe with Petyr, and she plans on following them.

Tyrion and Varys are on the road to Volantis, from where they’ll take the road to Meereen. Tyrion continues to be morose and drunk, and Varys clearly thinks he’s just feeling sorry for himself. The way they’ve treated Tyrion’s drop into drunken lechery is kind of disturbing, because frankly, Tyrion’s an alcoholic. He used to drink just to take the edge off the constant pain he’s in because of his disability, but now he’s also depressed and drinking to try to take the edge off of that. The show seems to give it this spin of “oh boo hoo I had to kill my lover and my father woe is me” instead of the deeply psychological pain he’s in. They’ve also removed most of his bad behavior and kept only the drinking, so we don’t get to see just how terrible Tyrion really becomes at this point. There’s a whole sexual harassment sequence with a slave-but-not-slave in Ilyrio’s house that they skipped right over, and they’ll skip over another bout of sexual assault in a later episode. Tyrion is clearly a fan- and showrunner-favorite, but unlike Martin, who also likes Tyrion, they don’t have the guts to show him at his absolute worst. It’s amazing how frequently they undo Martin’s anti-trope writing; Martin wrote A Song of Ice and Fire very specifically to challenge fantasy tropes and try to be more “realistic” (whether he succeeded and what his idea of “realism” is is a topic for a whole other blog), but Benioff and Weiss frequently hard-turn the narrative back to fantasy tropes, but with more sex and violence. Tyrion is an example of that; Martin wrote “grey” characters with lots of internal conflict and sometimes some serious self-awareness, and Benioff and Weiss have done a lot of black-and-whiting in response. Tyrion doesn’t have much internal conflict; sure, he’s going through a bad patch right now, but he’s awesome and he knows it, and the writers never let him go to the truly dark place that might put the viewers off of his character (Tyrion doesn’t get to rape a sex slave in a Volantene brothel, but Sansa totally gets to be raped in a storyline that doesn’t even belong to her).

Tyrion wants to get out and walk, but Varys says he can’t because Cersei wants his head. Tyrion thinks that’s ridiculous—how is anyone going to know he’s him? Is Cersei just going to kill every dwarf in the world?

Apparently, the answer is yes, because when she’s presented with a dwarf head that isn’t Tyrion’s, she chooses not to punish the killer because it might dissuade other people looking for Tyrion and “mistakes will be made.” She heads into the Small Council chamber, where she takes Tywin’s seat and begins arranging things to her liking, which Kevan doesn’t appreciate at all. She assigns Mace as Master of Ships and Master of Coin, Qyburn as Master of Whispers, herself as acting Hand of the King (until Tommen is old enough to choose one himself), and tries to offer Kevan the position of Master of War, but he refuses. He says he doesn’t recognize her authority to make these decisions; she’s “just” the Queen Mother.

Cersei has a lot working against her in her desire for power. She’s a woman in a man’s world, constantly fighting the patriarchal forces that push back against her. She’s internalized that misogyny to the point that she doesn’t believe that women should rule, just that she should have been born a man because she’s not like other women; she’s smart and savvy and driven and yet people won’t listen to her because all they see is a woman (in her mind, anyway). She’s also not nearly as smart as she thinks she is, as Petyr points out in the books, and manages to get caught in her own machinations. I think the show dropped some of this; the only really clearly bad decision she makes is with the Faith Militant, which backfires on her, but not as hard as it could because (as previously mentioned) the show cut out all the people she had sexually manipulated and a good chunk of the people she had “disappeared” into the black cells and Qyburn’s experiments.

Speaking of women rulers, Stannis is having a deadpan hissy fit about a letter he got from Lyanna Mormont claiming that the people of Bear Island only recognize the King in the North, whose name is Stark. He again pushes Jon to allow him to legitimize him and put him in charge of Winterfell, and Jon looks constipated. He discusses this possibility with Sam as the men are gathering to vote for Lord Commander, admitting that he’s torn between his long-held desire to be a real Stark and his vows as a member of the Night’s Watch. Sam responds by deciding to throw Jon in as a nominee for Lord Commander, touting him as the best thing to happen to this generation of the Night’s Watch. This scene, again, accelerates Jon’s timeline, as in the books they go through dozens of votes without a clear victor emerging, until Sam finally gathers his courage and goes to the most respected of the men to suggest that Jon would do a good job and isn’t the guy that the person he’s talking to doesn’t want as Lord Commander. Sam puts Jon up as a compromise candidate, but the thing that wins him the vote is Mormont’s raven showing up and yelling “snow” at everyone, suggesting that Jon is Mormont’s own choice for Lord Commander. Some of that comes through a tad in the show; Jon doesn’t win by a landslide, but by one vote—Maester Aemon’s. He doesn’t have a mandate, or even the support of most of the Night’s Watch. But here, it’s spun as those men are Stupid, Stubborn, and Racist, not that they have honest concerns about how Jon ends up running the Night’s Watch.

Also at the Wall, Shireen is teaching Gilly to read, and the writers get in what feels like a subtle dig at the viewers who have also read the books when Selyse tells Shireen that hanging around a Wildling is dangerous, because “you have no idea what people will do. All your books and you still don’t know.” Well, no, Benioff and Weiss, because your characters don’t act in logical and understandable ways, they just hop from plot point to plot point and then fight huge impressive battles. And book readers don’t know what the characters will do because what you’re doing here is barely adapting anymore and is more like fan-fiction. (Sorry, was that a bit snarky?)

Daario finds one of the Harpies and gives Grey Worm a lesson in subterfuge, and they haul the man back to Daenerys. She and Mossador both want to kill him immediately, Barristan urges restraint, and Hizdahr doesn’t understand why a poor man like this would want to be a Harpy—he couldn’t have owned slaves and therefore couldn’t have lost any, after all. Dany suggests that having slaves around made him feel better about himself, because he might be poor, but at least he’s not a slave. Mossador retorts that the man would have been paid to be a Harpy. The advisors argue over what to do, and Dany kicks them all out except Barristan, who gives her another lecture about not becoming her father. She agrees to hold a fair trial for the man, but Mossador has other ideas. He breaks into his cell, kills him, and nails him up to a wall with “kill the masters” painted beside him, probably in his own blood. Mossador thinks he’s done Dany a favor by releasing her from her dilemma, and doesn’t understand why she has him arrested for murder. She then hauls him out in front of everyone and has him beheaded, which starts a riot. So, she’s not willing to extend the same courtesy—a fair and public trial—to one of her own advisors that she was going to extend to the Harpy? Sure, Mossador confessed, but only to her and her people. The rest of the city only has her word for it.

Again, we see some really simplified and bad politics. The problem with Dany’s rule in the books is she keeps compromising her core values to try to make all of the people happy, eventually losing sight of who she is and what her purpose truly is. She even dresses like the Meereenese—which she very pointedly doesn’t do in the show—and refers to it as “wearing her floppy ears” from Brown Ben Plumm (Sir Not Appearing in this Picture) saying that if someone wants to be king of the rabbits, he has to wear some floppy ears. She ultimately does forge peace by marrying Hizdahr and opening the fighting pits, but that’s so far from who she is as a liberator that she strips off her tokar—which she explicitly refers to as her “floppy ears” in that moment—then rides away on Drogon and spends several weeks in the wilderness remembering who she is and what she has to do before encountering the Dothraki again.

Drogon shows up at the end of this episode, and he’s massive. She tries to pet him, but he doesn’t want to be touched, and he flies off out over the city. This both reminds us that Drogon’s out there and that he’s growing, and gives Dany a brief glimpse back at who she’s supposed to be after the bad decisions she’s made today.

Next week: Another royal wedding. Margaery is gross. Sansa learns Petyr’s plans. A girl tries to become no one. The Sparrows make their presence felt. The return of Jorah.

Unnamed dwarf
Unnamed Son of the Harpy

Monday, March 20, 2017

Game of Thrones Rewatch 5.1: "The Wars to Come"

Read the previous entry in this series here.
Read the next entry in this series here.
5.1 “The Wars to Come”
Written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss
Directed by Michael Slovis
Commentary by Michael Slovis, David Franco (DP), and Ciaran Hinds (Mance Rayder)

So here we are in season five. The first season that doesn’t have a Martin-penned episode, which I’ve felt have sort of anchored the seasons—at least until season four, when half of his scenes ended up in “his” episode and half in a different episode, and “his” episode was full of Theon-torture that even Martin seemed super disturbed by. Season five overall was kind of a mess, as they move past the books or further away from the books, depending on the storyline.

We start with a flashback, which the show has never done before, though they might have been useful before now for a lot of backstory. It’s odd to me that, having avoided flashbacks in a series that rests so heavily on a massive history, they’d a) start now; and b) start with Cersei’s visit to Maggy the Frog. If we didn’t need Ned’s fever dream about the Tower of Joy, or Petyr’s duel with Brandon Stark, or the Battle of the Trident where Rhaegar died, we don’t need this. Cersei could very easily have just told this story, as she does later in the season. Also, it’s weird that they did it now, as the only reason we don’t see it until this point in the books is that Cersei isn’t a POV character until now. But the memory suddenly illuminates a lot of Cersei’s behavior, and maybe she could have been a touch more sympathetic in the show if we’d known about this from the start.

Not only is it unnecessary, it’s incomplete. They leave out a third of Maggy’s prophecy for Cersei, which in the books is: “Queen you shall be, until there comes another, younger and more beautiful, to cast you down and take all that you hold dear. [. . .] Six-and-ten [children] for [the king] and three for you. Gold shall be their crowns and gold their shrouds, [. . .] and when your tears have drowned you, the valonqar shall wrap his hands about your pale white throat and choke the life from you” (A Feast for Crows, Chapter 12, Cersei III). The show only handles the part about the more beautiful queen and the children; it leaves out the valonqar, which has generally been translated as “little brother.” The trouble is, leaving out this piece ruins yet another reason Cersei has for hating Tyrion so much. She assumes Maggy meant Tyrion would kill her, though there’s lots of fan theories about this prophecy, as well as which “another” is meant—Margaery and Daenerys are the leading contenders, though Sansa is also a possibility. (Cersei clearly thinks it’s Margaery, and it could be a case of there being many possibilities and Cersei’s choice cements it, kind of like Voldemort picking Harry instead of Neville.)

Not only that, but it’s entirely possible that the valonqar is actually Jaime and this piece could have foreshadowed Jaime killing Cersei. Now, if they don’t plan to have Cersei killed (because seriously, Cersei’s going to die before the end of this series) by anyone who could possibly be considered her little brother (and it doesn’t say your little brother, just the little brother), then fine, leave it out. But it could still have been used as justification for her hatred of Tyrion beyond “you killed my mother,” which is, frankly, a terrible reason for hating a sibling for the amount of time and with the ferocity she does.

At the Sept of Baelor, where Tywin lays in state, Cersei and Jaime argue about Jaime’s part in Tywin’s death—releasing Tyrion from his cell—and Jaime tries to argue that they’re all they have left now, and they need to stick together. Jaime doesn’t seem to be overly guilty about it, and they’ve once again hacked a good chunk of introspection out of the story; rather than Jaime standing vigil over the body for three days and thinking about everything (especially what Tyrion told him about Cersei), they have a five-minute scene with Tywin’s body and move right along. I get the need to streamline, I really do, but when “streamlining” turns into “hacking huge chunks out of the personality and character development of some of the main characters,” I tend to get cranky. (This show makes me very cranky.)

At Tywin’s wake, Loras tries to connect with Cersei again and she’s having none of it. Tommen and Margaery have a sympathetic moment and Cersei glares. She brushes off Pycelle and is stopped by Lancel, who’s here to set up the Sparrows since Brienne’s off-mission and doesn’t get to interact much with the smallfolk. He tries to apologize for his sins—seducing Cersei, killing Robert—but Cersei denies any knowledge of what he’s talking about. He offers to pray for Tywin’s soul, and Cersei says Tywin’s soul doesn’t need his help. These scenes really help to cement how bad Cersei is at making friends and influencing people, which is why in the books she needs Qyburn to help her stay in power. Here she just needs plot convenience.

At the Wall, Jon’s training Olly, who’s not doing so well, while everyone else sits out in the courtyard doing some sort of work (except Sam, who’s just kind of hovering over Gilly). Gilly asks if Sam shouldn’t be training, as well, and he gives Jon a horrified look before boasting that anyone who killed a White Walker and a Thenn doesn’t need training. I wish I could tell you this was the last time Sam brags about this, but it’s really, really not. Gilly remarks that her situation here is tenuous, and that the new lord commander, whoever that is, might send her away, and she recognizes the position that would put Sam in, since he promised not to leave her, but if he goes with her, he becomes a deserter.

Melisandre pops up to bring Jon to see Stannis, and on the way there she gets right to the good stuff, asking him if he’s a virgin, because Melisandre has no boundaries. Stannis wants Jon to use his influence with Mance to get him to put together a Wildling army to help him retake Winterfell. Davos gets to play devil’s advocate by pushing Jon about his feelings regarding the Wildlings; apparently some of the men didn’t like it much that he took Ygritte’s body north to burn her. This, unfortunately, becomes the core of Jon’s storyline—he sees the Wildlings as people, everyone else in the Watch is racist, and thus they hate Jon. It’s part of his storyline in the books, too, but there’s so much more to it (isn’t there always), and this simplified version is really black-and-white for the “world full of greys” we’re supposed to be given.

Stannis gives Jon until nightfall to convince Mance to convince the Wildlings to join him, or he’ll kill Mance. Because, what? Why? What? The reason given in the books—that Mance is a Night’s Watch deserter (and, not incidentally, calls himself a king and thus Melisandre wants his blood)—at least makes sense. Here, Stannis wants Mance to convince his people (who, it has already been established, are really bad at unifying and following) to follow Stannis, or he’ll kill him, which will totally get the Wildlings to follow him. The logic here does not compute. It also doesn’t compute that Mance, whose entire rasion d’etre was to rescue his people from the White Walkers, refuses to take this opportunity to rescue his people because it means accepting a southern king. Which, what did he expect when he brought his people south? Did he think they could just settle on lands technically ruled by a king and not acknowledge the king? Because that’s, frankly, stupid. The smart thing to do at this point would be to start to assimilate (which, spoiler alert, they totally do in the books). Instead we get a whole bunch of pseudo-philosophy about freedom and Mance is hauled off to be burned to death. The Wildlings all have trouble watching; Selyse is disturbingly happy; Jon actually leaves (earning him a disapproving look from Olly because, remember, Olly Hates Wildlings and that is the extent of his characterization), then comes back and shoots Mance so he doesn’t actually burn to death.

Over in the Vale, we’re abandoning Sansa’s book-storyline entirely and shoving her into the storyline of a minor, non-POV character. This turns into a major problem, and I’ll try to talk about how each step is a problem rather than blasting you with my whole what-even-are-they-doing-with-Sansa rant all at once. Right now, Sansa (with her hair very brown) and Petyr leave Robin with Robar Royce to learn to fight (he can barely lift a sword right now, and frankly, the way he’s being trained isn’t likely to make that any better). Petyr tells him they’re taking Sansa to the Fingers and they head in the complete opposite direction, passing Brienne and Pod on the way.

Brienne’s still upset about Arya, and Pod tries to comfort her, but Brienne refuses to be comforted. She again tries to send Pod away, and he again refuses to leave her. She’s completely disaffected about the whole nobility thing at this point, declaring that all the good lords are dead and the ones who are left are monsters. This is more about her own self-doubt and failure than anything else—failure to protect Renly, failure to return Jaime to King’s Landing unscathed, failure to protect Catelyn, failure to protect Arya. But it’s still a massive change from book-Brienne, who still had a lot of idealistic attitudes and really believes in Jaime, at least (though she doesn’t follow him so much as work with him). She’s aware that some lords are awful—she had several run-ins with Randyll Tarly, after all—but overall she believes in duty, honor, and chivalry in much the same way Sansa does.

Across the Narrow Sea, Tyrion has arrived in Pentos, and Varys liberates him from his crate with a crowbar. Now, by rights, this should be Ilyrio Mopatis, because Varys is hiding in one of his alter egos back in King’s Landing, but I’m kind of willing to give them this one because a) Conleth Hill disappearing for a season would be awful; and b) Varys is just hiding, not doing anything important (until he kills Kevan), so there’s no reason why he can’t replace Ilyrio for this part of the plot (it’s later that his presence in this storyline becomes a major problem). Tyrion is piss drunk and sloppy, perfectly willing and ready to drink himself to death. Varys bullies him a bit, telling him self-pity isn’t a good look for him and he’s smart and savvy enough to make a real difference in Westeros, if he can just find the right person to back. Varys thinks that person is Daenerys. Tyrion agrees to go, but not to completely let go of his self-pity or the bottle.

Meanwhile, Daenerys has an uprising on her hands as the Sons of the Harpy make themselves known by murdering one of her Unsullied. First, though, we need the obligatory gratuitous nudity; despite having had White Rat (the Unsullied in question) as a client before, and knowing that all he wants is to cuddle, the Son-of-the-Harpy prostitute strips completely naked and then is like “oh, right” and puts her skirt back on. Once he’s all comfy and relaxed, she slits his throat.

Daenerys orders White Rat buried with full honor in the Temple of the Graces, which I think is the only time we hear anything about the Temple because they’ve ditched so much of the politics of Meereen, including the indomitable Galazza Galare, who I really miss. Instead of a full complement of advisors—Meereenese, sellsword captains, former slaves, the Green Grace, Barristan, etc.—who all have their own perspectives and needs and ideas about how the city should be run, Dany’s down to like five advisors: Mossador, a former Meereenese slave; Barristan; Grey Worm; Daario; and Hizdahr zo Loraq for some reason. This contributes to the overall simplifying of Dany’s storyline and continues to make her look way too easily led by her (all male) advisors.

Daario, for his part, pushes her toward violence, because that’s how he deals with things. He thinks she should grant Hizdahr’s request to open the fighting pits, which she’s already refused (emphatically), and he thinks she should release her dragons as a show of strength. As discussed earlier, the dragons are in many ways a symbol of the Targaryen madness as well as weapons of mass destruction, so he wants her to literally unleash her beast and essentially burn Meereen to the ground. She goes to visit the caged dragons soon after, and is clearly afraid of them, even running away when one snaps at her. This is the only semblance of the struggle for balance we see in Dany’s storyline; she understands that her power comes from the dragons, but the dragons are a really big and dangerous power that she doesn’t entirely trust herself to be able to wield, let alone be able to wield wisely. She wants to be a good queen, not just a conqueror, and the dragons are a conquering force that have nothing to do with being a good queen, despite Daario’s assertion that a dragon queen without a dragon isn’t a queen. I don’t feel that this came through clearly in the show; it feels more like they’re just slowly paring down her support system in preparation both for Tyrion showing up and becoming the shining star of her council and for the choice she has to make in the fighting pit at the end of the season.

White Rat
Mance Rayder

Next week: Arya reaches Braavos. Brienne is rejected again. The faux-Dorne plot thickens. Daenerys does whatever her councilors tell her to.

All images from

Monday, March 13, 2017

Game of Thrones Rewatch 4.10: "The Children"

Read the previous entry in this series here.
Read the next entry in this series here.

4.10 “The Children”
Written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
Directed by Alex Graves
Commentary by Rory McCann (Sandor Clegane), Gwendolyn Christie (Brienne), and Alex Graves

At last we have an episode with an overarching theme. Here, it’s loss and abandonment; nearly everyone makes a choice that causes them to lose something or give up hope for something they love or have desperately wanted.

This post is pretty long, so I’m putting it under a jump:

Monday, March 6, 2017

Game of Thrones Rewatch 4.9: "The Watchers on the Wall"

Read the previous entry in this series here.
Read the next entry in this series here.
4.9 “The Watchers on the Wall”
Written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
Directed by Neil Marshall

This is one of those rare episodes where the entire thing takes place in a single locale; I think only this one and “Blackwater” did that so far. Here, the battle the Night’s Watch have been either dreading or thinking won’t be a big deal (depending on how stupid they’re written) descends on Castle Black. Interestingly, this choice makes it so the really big shocks at the end of the season actually happen in the finale instead of just before it, which I don’t think has been the case yet. Ned lost his head in 1.9, the Battle of the Blackwater was 2.9, and the Red Wedding was 3.9. That doesn’t mean that there haven’t been big moments in the season finales, just that the really big oh my god moments have tended to happen in episode 9. Here, only the Wall gets its oh my god moments while the rest of the kingdoms have to wait.

Tensions are high at both Castle Black and the wildling camp south of the Wall. Jon and Sam discuss Ygritte and Gilly, and Jon is really especially bad at talking about his feelings. Sam assures him (and himself) that while the vows say they’re not supposed to marry and have children, there’s nothing in them about activities that don’t involve marriage and children. Both are despondent about losing their loves; Jon because he got shot and Sam because he still thinks Gilly’s dead.

Jon sends Sam to bed, but of course Sam doesn’t go; instead, he heads to the library and reads until Maester Aemon finds him and gives him a very similar “love is the death of duty” speech he gave Jon way back in “Baelor.” I suppose the writers either a) forgot they already did this; or b) thought we needed a reminder, because a good part of this episode also deals with love and duty conflicting, and love wins every time.

After a reminder that Aemon was a young man in love once, Sam heads down to the courtyard, where Gilly is at the gate, but Pyp won’t let her in. Pyp does his duty; Sam lets love cause him to shirk his duty and open the gates while they’re right on the cusp of battle and it’s entirely possible the rest of the wildlings are waiting for this moment to charge. He also swears that he’ll never abandon Gilly again, putting his vows to the Night’s Watch in direct conflict with his promises to Gilly.

At the southern wildling camp, Ygritte is still fletching; she has enough arrows to outfit the entire war band at this point. Tormund tries to tell them his story about the time he had sex with a bear (it’s done better in the book when he tells it to Jon early in their relationship), and Ygritte yells at him that nobody wants to hear this stupid story again. Styr doesn’t think she’ll be able to fight the Night’s Watch, and she yells at him that she’s killed just as many northern villagers as him and she’ll kill any crow she sees. Styr points out that none of those northern villagers were Jon and if she sees him, she’ll probably just have sex with him again. Ygritte gets right up in his face and yells that if anyone else kills Jon, she’ll kill them, because Jon is hers.

A horn blows at the Wall, and everything is poised on a knife edge. Sam hides Gilly in the larder; she gets mad that he’s leaving her already and I hate this moment because it makes Gilly so needy/whiny and completely unreasonable. Sam’s got to go fight, she’s got a baby and no training, what does she expect him to do? Hide in the larder with her? She makes him promise not to die, which he does, and then he heads out.

Jon and Alliser look at the “biggest fire the north has ever seen”—the entire Haunted Forest on fire. Now that Alliser sees the Wildling army, he admits to Jon that he should have sealed the tunnel on Jon’s advice, but says that leadership means never second-guessing yourself because that gets people killed. Not changing your mind or tactics when you get new information will also get people killed, but whatever. Note that in the books, Alliser isn’t here until late in the battle, and Donal Noye, who’s more-or-less running things, isn’t nearly as incompetent as Alliser.

Ygritte comes back from scouting (which, why, if they have a warg?) and tells the warband that it’s time to go.

From this point, the episode is pretty much solid, wall-to-wall action. Alliser turns out to not be a terrible leader in the heat of battle; Janos continues to be the cowardly idiot he always is. At one point, Alliser leaves Janos in charge of the Wall while he goes to help defend the Castle; Grenn manages to lure him away before he does any more damage than he already has, and Jon ends up in charge of the Wall for a good chunk of the battle. Janos, of course, goes and hides in the larder with Gilly.

The fighting is worst down at Castle Black, where Pyp takes one of Ygritte’s arrows through the neck and dies in Sam’s arms. Alliser fights Tormund and is wounded, but dragged away before Tormund can kill him. Sam shoots a Thenn in the face with Pyp’s crossbow and we will never hear the end of this. Olly’s out in the courtyard for some reason, completely freaking out, and Sam yells at him to find a weapon and fight. Sam gets Jon down from the Wall and they let Ghost out of his cage. Jon kills Styr, then spots Ygritte, who hesitates in shooting Jon and ends up being shot by Olly instead, who has no idea what he’s just done, of course.

Up on top of the Wall, Jon gives a few orders before leaving Edd in charge to go down with Sam. A few Wildlings are actually climbing the Wall, but having done it himself, Jon knows they won’t make it before dawn and are seriously the very least of the Watch’s problems right now. The real problem is the mammoth and pair of giants who are working to pry the gate out of the tunnel, so Jon sends Grenn down with a group of men to deal with that. Before they get down there, the men on top of the Wall manage to set everything on fire and then spear one of the giants with a ballista. The other one—we find out later his name is Mag Mar Tun Doh Weg—freaks out and starts manually separating the gate from the ice, so by the time Grenn and the others make it, he’s already through the first gate and headed for the second. Grenn and the others stand and fight, taking out Mag Mar but also all dying in the process.

The Wildlings north of the Wall retreat after the giants are taken out and Edd orders “the scythe” dropped, which sweeps all the climbers off the Wall. The fight at Castle Black ends with Styr dead and Tormund captured. Sam retrieves Gilly from the larder and almost takes a ham to the face (and spots Janos).

Jon decides that there’s only one way to keep the northern Wildlings from attacking over and over until they get all the way through the Wall, and that’s to go parley with Mance. So he gives Sam his sword and heads out the gates.

If there’s one thing this team does very well, it’s huge action sequences. “Blackwater,” “Watchers on the Wall,” and “Hardhome” are all visually stunning episodes (“The Battle of the Bastards” has too many tactical issues for me to add it to this list). The narrative problems here are pretty much continuances of problems they’ve already set up and aren’t quite to a head yet, so I won’t discuss many of them here. The one major one is removing Donal Noye as acting commander, who then gets killed in the tunnel under the Wall (instead of Grenn), leaving a power vacuum that the upcoming vote for Lord Commander is meant to fill. Having an incumbent—Alliser—still in place after the battle (rather than grabbing power after the battle) skews the politics all to heck, and as I’ve already said, Benioff and Weiss are remarkably bad at writing politics, so leaving out a lot of Martin’s foundation makes Jon’s ascent to Lord Commander an entirely different animal than it is in the books.

Olly’s existence is also just starting to become a problem. In the books, Jon doesn’t know who killed Ygritte, only that it wasn’t him (the fletching on the arrow is wrong). While he does get to hold her while she dies, that happens after the battle, not during when he could still totally wind up stabbed in the back or something. While it might add more drama for Jon to actually witness Ygritte’s death, I think giving Jon concrete knowledge of who killed Ygritte rather than just “she died in battle” makes for some really weird dynamics later, especially when he takes Olly on as his steward. The whole Olly thing gets weird and then bad later, but we’ll get there.

Jon choosing to go talk to Mance also plays into the skewing of the political climate of the Night’s Watch, as in the books Jon is sent out by Janos (who’s assumed command of the Watch) in hopes that Mance kills him—not to parley, but to kill Mance. But in the books, Jon hadn’t stood trial for his time with the Wildlings; he explained to Donal Noye what happened and Donal accepted his story. Janos didn’t find out about any of it until after the battle, so his decision to send Jon was a heat-of-the-moment one, a prove-your-loyalty order, not a carefully calculated attempt to get him killed like the trip back to Craster’s Keep was in the show. In the books, Jon doesn’t take leadership upon himself or even challenge the leadership of the Watch very strenuously.

Some of the issue here comes from pacing; they accelerated Jon’s time with the Wildlings in season three, then stretched the lead-up to the fight in season four, then threw the whole days-long, two-front battle into a single fight in this episode. So rather than running away from the Wildlings in one chapter, arriving at the Wall and warning them in the next, finding out about Mole’s Town and fighting the southern front in the next, and then fighting the northern front for the next two—bam, bam, bam—we get a whole lot of sitting around and arguing about who’s in charge of what and which brothers are With Jon and which are Against. There isn’t time for all this petty jockeying for power before the battle in the books; all of that happens after Stannis rescues them, when the stakes are momentarily lower.

Like most changes to the plot and pacing for the show, these pile up until it’s an avalanche of changes that force the plot and characterization into a track that no longer entirely makes sense.

Mag Mar Tun Doh Weg

Next week: Stannis to the rescue. Dany makes a choice. Bran finds the Children. Clegane vs. Tarth.

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