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.)


Popular posts from this blog

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

If I do nothing else, I will convince them that Herbert Stempel knows what won the goddam Academy Award for Best goddam Picture of 1955. That’s what I’m going to accomplish.

Quiz Show (1994) (SPOILERS) Quiz Show perfectly encapsulates a certain brand of Best Picture nominee: the staid, respectable, diligent historical episode, a morality tale in response to which the Academy can nod their heads approvingly and discerningly, feeding as it does their own vainglorious self-image about how times and attitudes have changed, in part thanks to their own virtuousness. Robert Redford’s film about the 1950s Twenty-One quiz show scandals is immaculately made, boasts a notable cast and is guided by a strong screenplay from Paul Attanasio (who, on television, had just created the seminal Homicide: Life on the Streets ), but it lacks that something extra that pushes it into truly memorable territory.

Other monks will meet their deaths here. And they too will have blackened fingers. And blackened tongues.

The Name of the Rose (1986) (SPOILERS) Umberto Eco wasn’t awfully impressed by Jean Jacques-Annaud’s adaptation of his novel – or “ palimpsest of Umberto Eco’s novel ” as the opening titles announce – to the extent that he nixed further movie versions of his work. Later, he amended that view, calling it “ a nice movie ”. He also, for balance, labelled The Name of the Rose his worst novel – “ I hate this book and I hope you hate it too ”. Essentially, he was begrudging its renown at the expense of his later “ superior ” novels. I didn’t hate the novel, although I do prefer the movie, probably because I saw it first and it was everything I wanted from a medieval Sherlock Holmes movie set in a monastery and devoted to forbidden books, knowledge and opinions.

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013) (SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight ; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.

Say hello to the Scream Extractor.

Monsters, Inc. (2001) (SPOILERS) I was never the greatest fan of Monsters, Inc. , even before charges began to be levelled regarding its “true” subtext. I didn’t much care for the characters, and I particularly didn’t like the way Pixar’s directors injected their own parenting/ childhood nostalgia into their plots. Something that just seems to go on with their fare ad infinitum. Which means the Pixars I preferred tended to be the Brad Bird ones. You know, the alleged objectivist. Now, though, we learn Pixar has always been about the adrenochrome, so there’s no going back…

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

In a few moments, you will have an experience that will seem completely real. It will be the result of your subconscious fears transformed into your conscious awareness.

Brainstorm (1983) (SPOILERS) Might Brainstorm have been the next big thing – a ground-breaking, game-changing cinematic spectacle that had as far reaching consequences as Star Wars (special effects) or Avatar (3D) – if only Douglas Trumbull had been allowed to persevere with his patented “Showscan” process (70mm film photographed and projected at 60 frames per second)? I suspect not; one only has to look at the not-so-far-removed experiment of Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk , and how that went down like a bag of cold sick, to doubt that any innovation will necessarily catch on (although Trumbull at least had a narrative hinge on which to turn his “more real than real” imagery, whereas Lee’s pretty much boiled down to “because it was there”). Brainstorm ’s story is, though, like its title, possibly too cerebral, too much concerned with the consciousness and touting too little of the cloyingly affirmative that Bruce Rubin inevitably brings to his screenplays. T

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.