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

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.

Sorry I’m late. I was taking a crap.

The Sting (1973)
(SPOILERS) In any given list of the best things – not just movies – ever, Mark Kermode would include The Exorcist, so it wasn’t a surprise when William Friedkin’s film made an appearance in his Nine films that should have won Best Picture at the Oscars list last month. Of the nominees that year, I suspect he’s correct in his assessment (I don’t think I’ve seen A Touch of Class, so it would be unfair of me to dismiss it outright; if we’re simply talking best film of that year, though, The Exorcist isn’t even 1973’s best horror, that would be Don’t Look Now). He’s certainly not wrong that The Exorcistremains a superior work” to The Sting; the latter’s one of those films, like The Return of the King and The Departed, where the Academy rewarded the cast and crew too late. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is the masterpiece from George Roy Hill, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, not this flaccid trifle.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

You had to grab every single dollar you could get your hands on, didn't you?

Triple Frontier (2019)
(SPOILERS) Triple Frontier must have seemed like a no-brainer for Netflix, even by their standards of indiscriminately greenlighting projects whenever anyone who can’t get a job at a proper studio asks. It had, after all, been a hot property – nearly a decade ago now – with Kathryn Bigelow attached as director (she retains a producing credit) and subsequently JC Chandor, who has seen it through to completion. Netflix may not have attracted quite the same level of prospective stars – Johnny Depp, Tom Hanks, Will Smith, Tom Hardy and Channing Tatum were all involved at various points – but as ever, they haven’t stinted on the production. To what end, though? Well, Bigelow’s involvement is a reliable indicator; this is a movie about very male men doing very masculine things and suffering stoically for it.

Our "Bullshit!" team has unearthed spectacular new evidence, which suggests, that Jack the Ripper was, in fact, the Loch Ness Monster.

Amazon Women on the Moon (1987)
Cheeseburger Film Sandwich. Apparently, that’s what the French call Amazon Women on the Moon. Except that it probably sounds a little more elegant, since they’d be saying it in French (I hope so, anyway). Given the title, it should be no surprise that it is regarded as a sequel to Kentucky Fried Movie. Which, in some respects, it is. John Landis originally planned to direct the whole of Amazon Women himself, but brought in other directors due to scheduling issues. The finished film is as much of a mess as Kentucky Fried Movie, arrayed with more miss sketches than hit ones, although it’s decidedly less crude and haphazard than the earlier picture. Some have attempted to reclaim Amazon Women as a dazzling satire on TV’s takeover of our lives, but that’s stretching it. There is a fair bit of satire in there, but the filmmakers were just trying to be funny; there’s no polemic or express commentary. But even on such moderate terms, it only sporadically fulfils…

Everything has its price, Avon.

Blake's 7 4.1: Rescue

Season Four, the season they didn’t expect to make. Which means there’s a certain amount of getting up to speed required in order for “status quo” stories to be told. If they choose to go that route. There’s no Liberator anymore as a starting point for stories; a situation the show hasn’t found itself in since Space Fall. So where do they go from here? Behind the scenes there’s no David Maloney either. Nor Terry Nation (I’d say that by this point that’s slightly less of an issue, but his three scripts for Season Three were among his best).

What lit the fire that set off our Mr Reaper?

Death Wish (2018)
(SPOILERS) I haven’t seen the original Death Wish, the odd clip aside, and I don’t especially plan to remedy that, owing to an aversion to Charles Bronson when he isn’t in Once Upon a Time in the West and an aversion to Michael Winner when he wasn’t making ‘60s comedies or Peter Ustinov Hercule Poirots. I also have an aversion to Eli Roth, though (this is the first of his oeuvre I’ve seen, again the odd clip aside, as I have a general distaste for his oeuvre), and mildly to Bruce when he’s on autopilot (most of the last twenty years), so really, I probably shouldn’t have checked this one out. It was duly slated as a fascistic, right-wing rallying cry, even though the same slaters consider such behaviour mostly okay if the protagonist is super-powered and wearing a mask when taking justice into his (or her) own hands, but the truth is this remake is a quite serviceable, occasionally amusing little revenger, one that even has sufficient courage in its skewed convictions …

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).