Skip to main content

Power resides where men believe it resides. It's a trick. A shadow on the wall.


Game of Thrones 
Season Two

There is something about consistently high quality in a series that elicits limited further discussion, beyond “It’s superb!” At least, that’s generally how I’ve felt about the best of HBO’s output.

In part, this is likely a consequence of the serialised nature of most of their dramas. Episodes may have a defined path, but their structure very much evolves from the whole. There are no “stand alone” episodes. If the arc format has become a standard for seasons of television drama over the last 20 years, it nevertheless continues to subsist on single stories with elements of the larger canvas weaved in. Perhaps because it is adapted from George R R Martin’s novels, Game of Thrones feels even less beholden to the traditional template than the likes of The Wire and Boardwalk Empire. No doubt helped by the sense that, at times, this is closer to a medieval-esque soap than weekly blood-and-mud action. HBO has dipped its toes in these waters before, with the too-soon terminated Rome, and it looks as if Game will more than sustain itself so as to guarantee a natural end (be that end based on published novels or not, given the snail’s pace with which Martin appears to be approaching completion).

Of course, I shall now go back on everything I just said, as there is a clearly defined episode in Season Two; Blackwater. The one where Stannis attacks King’s Landing, directed by Neil Marshall. I have to admit I wasn’t completely blown away by it. Be it the limitations of budget or staging (although, whatever other issues they have, Marshall’s films have shown few problems on that front) the interior, siege drama proves far more impressive than the scraping. Indeed, there are a few moments where Marshall’s decisions translate to the screen as borderline cheesy (Ser Davos being blown from his ship in slow motion).

I’ve watched both seasons of Game on Blu-ray release, so a year behind the majority of viewers. Since the first season I’ve made a start on Martin’s novels, effective page-turners if rather bloated and self-indulgent (and, at times, suggestive of some slightly unsavoury predilections on the part of the author). So I watched Season Two having read half of A Clash of Kings. The first season struck me as being remarkably faithful to the book; I guess as it’s more fresh in my mind I’m more aware of the excisions in relation to the second.

I think Tyrion suffers a little from these cuts as, despite Peter Dinklage’s riveting performance, the extent of his shrewdness in the face of all manner of machinations isn’t quite so involved. That said, much the economising is no doubt to the overall benefit of the storytelling. Even if it has the knock-on of, perversely, exposing how little actually happens in some of the subplots. Daenerys does practically nothing until the final episode which, like the first season, ends with her dragons doing some impressive business (I’m sincerely grateful the even longer wandering about the desert of the book didn’t make it to screen). Jon Snow is trekking the wilds and doesn’t really do much of note (other than getting some fellow Night’s Watchmen killed); it’s left to Samwell to see the really impressive sights (again, in the final episode). And Robb does bugger all, apart from falling in love.

I’m not saying that their storylines aren’t involving, but paring them down to their elements exposes just how much fat there is. Ironically, the most dramatic subplots concern the least engaging characters, with one (maybe two) exception. In contrast to most plotlines in most shows involving kids, Arya has been one of the most consistently engaging characters – helped considerably by a terrific performance from Maisie Williams. Removing the starter pre-amble and advancing her to the main course of waiting on Tywin (Charles Dance, really coming into his own this season) and allowing us to see more of Jaqen H’ghar (Tom Wiaschiha, effortlessly charismatic and leaving you wanting more) creates the sense of plot progression even if, practically, her thread is fixed in one location.

Of the unengaging characters, I’m thinking of the wretched Theon (Alfie Allen, fearlessly delivering a prime slice of egotistical fool) and his desire to curry favour with his disdainful father (the marvellous Patrick Malahide), dispute with his sister Yara (Gemma Whelan, whose mockery of her brother provides a mirror to that of Jon by Rose Leslie’s Ygritte), and bid for glory that goes spectacularly wrong. Then there is Stannis, whom Stephen Dillane personifies with a studied lack of warmth that makes it entirely understandable why Robert did not favour him. Good as he, and Liam Cunningham as Ser Davos, are, it is down to sorceress Melisandre (Carice van Houten) that the scenes concerning the King in the Narrow Sea are involving. I have the same problems with the Theon and Davos chapters in the novel, admittedly.

The scenes with Renly work better (particularly that one scene!), but it’s female warrior knight Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) who makes for the most memorable addition to the series this season. Her scenes with the sniping Jaime are most amusing, although another consequence of the finessing of material is that the similarities of dynamic between characters becomes vaguely repetitive (Brienne has a prisoner giving her gyp, so does Jon Snow). I can’t say I fully buy Catelyn’s decision to release Jamie, at least not in the manner she does. It seems more of a means to get Jaime back into the story than being believable that she’d think it resulted in the remotest extra chance of getting her daughters back.

Despite my misgivings over Tyrion, the scenes at King’s Landing are a consistent high point, and it’s the one area where you do feel the ill-effects of truncation ever so slightly. The scenes between Tyrion and Lord Varys are especially choice. I wasn’t such a big fan of Lena Headey’s Cersei in the first season, but she is able to lend more substance to the mother of King Joffrey this time out.

One of the great pleasures of the series is rediscovering (or just discovering) British actors across a range of generations in roles large and small. It’s been especially nice to see old hands like Donald Sumpter, Julian Glover and James Cosmo. But also Jerome Flynn granted a role he can get his teeth into and banish the memory of his typical British TV heroic types. Iain Glen likewise makes a strong impression (although there seem to be a number of people out there who don’t think much of his thespian skills).

The stronger supernatural/fantasy element in the season is well judged; tantalising but gaining force, as the characters themselves can no longer be confident that what they had dismissed as myth remains so. Although, I have to admit the scenes in the House of the Dead in Qarth did remind me slightly of a Buffy finale.

I’m looking forward to a dose of Ciarán Hinds in Season Three, and the cast list reveals a number of other actors whom it should be a pleasure to watch realising characters in this world. It’s a season that will have to survive with Alan Taylor, of course (off directing Thor 2) but David Benioff and D. B. Wiess appear to have assembled some strong replacements (they even make their co-directing debut!)

So, glorious entertainment as it is, Season Two can’t quite equal the first run for me. In places it feels a bit too much like is creating a holding pattern for what is to come. I can’t in all conscience give it less than the full five stars, however.

(As for the Blu-ray extras, in common with HBO fare generally they are a mixed bag unless you're a fan of interactive guides. The round-table discussion is interesting, but you wish they had a few more acting faces and maybe a couple of directors to give a rounder picture.)


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

You guys sure like watermelon.

The Irishman aka I Heard You Paint Houses (2019)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps, if Martin Scorsese hadn’t been so opposed to the idea of Marvel movies constituting cinema, The Irishman would have been a better film. It’s a decent film, assuredly. A respectable film, definitely. But it’s very far from being classic. And a significant part of that is down to the usually assured director fumbling the execution. Or rather, the realisation. I don’t know what kind of crazy pills the ranks of revered critics have been taking so as to recite as one the mantra that you quickly get used to the de-aging effects so intrinsic to its telling – as Empire magazine put it, “you soon… fuggadaboutit” – but you don’t. There was no point during The Irishman that I was other than entirely, regrettably conscious that a 75-year-old man was playing the title character. Except when he was playing a 75-year-old man.

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

The guy practically lives in a Clue board.

Knives Out (2019)
(SPOILERS) “If Agatha Christie were writing today, she’d have a character who’s an Internet troll.” There’s a slew of ifs and buts in that assertion, but it tells you a lot about where Rian Johnson is coming from with Knives Out. As in, Christie might – I mean, who can really say? – but it’s fair to suggest she wouldn’t be angling her material the way Johnson does, who for all his pronouncement that “This isn’t a message movie” is very clearly making one. He probably warrants a hesitant pass on that statement, though, to the extent that Knives Out’s commentary doesn’t ultimately overpower the whodunnit side of the plot. On the other hand, when Daniel Craig’s eccentrically accented sleuth Benoit Blanc is asked “You’re not much of a detective, are you?” the only fair response is vigorous agreement.

You're skipping Christmas! Isn't that against the law?

Christmas with the Kranks (2004)
Ex-coke dealer Tim Allen’s underwhelming box office career is, like Vince Vaughn’s, regularly in need of a boost from an indiscriminate public willing to see any old turkey posing as a prize Christmas comedy.  He made three Santa Clauses, and here is joined by Jamie Lee Curtis as a couple planning to forgo the usual neighbourhood festivities for a cruise.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

It's their place, Mac. They have a right to make of it what they can. Besides, you can't eat scenery!

Local Hero (1983)
(SPOILERS) With the space of thirty-five years, Bill Forsyth’s gentle eco-parable feels more seductive than ever. Whimsical is a word often applied to Local Hero, but one shouldn’t mistake that description for its being soft in the head, excessively sentimental or nostalgic. Tonally, in terms of painting a Scottish idyll where the locals are no slouches in the face of more cultured foreigners, the film hearkens to both Powell and Pressburger (I Know Where I’m Going!) and Ealing (Whisky Galore!), but it is very much its own beast.

I’m the famous comedian, Arnold Braunschweiger.

Last Action Hero (1993)
(SPOILERS) Make no mistake, Last Action Hero is a mess. But even as a mess, it might be more interesting than any other movie Arnie made during that decade, perhaps even in his entire career. Hellzapoppin’ (after the 1941 picture, itself based on a Broadway revue) has virtually become an adjective to describe films that comment upon their own artifice, break the fourth wall, and generally disrespect the convention of suspending disbelief in the fictions we see parading across the screen. It was fairly audacious, some would say foolish, of Arnie to attempt something of that nature at this point in his career, which was at its peak, rather than playing it safe. That he stumbled profoundly, emphatically so since he went up against the behemoth that is Jurassic Park (slotted in after the fact to open first), should not blind one to the considerable merits of his ultimate, and final, really, attempt to experiment with the limits of his screen persona.

Of course, one m…

You're a dead tissue that won't decompose.

Collateral Beauty (2016)
(SPOILERS) Will Smith’s most recent attempt to take a wrecking ball to his superstardom, Collateral Beauty is one of those high concept emotional journeys that only look like a bad idea all along when they flop (see Regarding Henry). Except that, with a plot as gnarly as this, it’s difficult to see quite how it would ever not have rubbed audiences up the wrong way. A different director might have helped, someone less thuddingly literal than David Frankel. When this kind of misguided picture gets the resounding drubbing it has, I tend to seek out positives. Sometimes, that can be quite easy – A Winter’s Tale, for example, for all its writ-large flaws – but it’s a fool’s errand with Collateral Beauty.

Now we shall keep our mysterious rendezvous.

Ice Station Zebra (1968)
The fourth big screen adaptation of an Alistair MacLean novel, Ice Station Zebra was released in the same year as the more successful Where Eagles Dare. 1968 represents probably the high water mark for interpretations of the author’s work, although The Guns of Navarone remains the biggest hit. As with most movie versions of MacLean novels (or, let’s face it, movie versions of anybody’s novels) fans of the book find much to gripe about; the latter half diverges greatly from the page. Those who complain about the languid pace are onto something too. To be sure, there’s an array of valid criticisms that can be levelled at Ice Station Zebra. But it also has a factor going for it that elevates John Sturges’ movie, and keeps me coming back to it; the über-cool presence of Patrick McGoohan.

The man who played The Prisoner (he filmed Zebra during a break from the TV show, which helps to explain the only truly hopeless episode in the run; Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling, …