Game of Thrones
(SPOILERS FOR THE SEASON AND POSSIBLY BEYOND) At this point, it seems much of the Game of Thrones discussion relates to its divergences from George R R Martin’s novels. These have increased gradually throughout the latest season, and there is a general furrowing of brows and clutching at straws in attempts to working out just where it is the series will go from here. It has hit many of the books’ most acclaimed events, the ones spoken of in hushed tones so as not to spoil it for the unsullied. I haven’t made much headway with the novels, and as such I’m rather enjoying not knowing what is or isn’t true to the page. On the downside, I can’t present my case for what has been improved, but on the up I can avoid the disappointment of what looks to be the increasing expurgation of favourite characters in order to stick to a path the producers have laid out. I viewed this run in two halves, as I’ve find the series’ momentum is easily broken on a weekly basis. I think at this point it’s very evident that what works reallyworks, and what doesn’t is unlikely to improve any time soon. But as a whole this is another peerless block of unmissable television.
It seems that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have been given the lowdown by Martin on how things come out in the wash. Presumably the later isn’t too concerned about these young pups stealing his thunder, since he has shown no sign of finishing off the novels and is quite prone to getting caught up in prequels and other projects. Much of the debate this season has focussed on whether the undead Catelyn Stark, better known as Lady Stoneheart, will show her hand. And the conclusion is generally probably not, unless the writers are stuck for material next season. They got by without the wight Coldhands (who saved Sam from a White Walker in the books, but not on TV) and seem to be making a concerted decision to restrict the whos, whats and whys of their magical realms. It’s been suggested this may be in part to add impact to the eventual demise and resurrection of another well-loved character, although since his status in the books in both respects is unclear this may be adding 2 and 2 and getting 22.
Not that Benioff and Weiss seem shy of the supernatural elements elsewhere. The climax of the season, The Children, is a smorgasbord of eccentric fantasy exotica, from the fire throwing Children to the Ray Harryhausen skeletal wights, bursting forth from the frozen ground and attacking Bran and his companions, to the Three-eyed Raven, who appears to be Game of Thrones’ Yoda. Then there is the White Walker-making White Walker, who transforms Crastor’s son at the end of Oathkeeper. It’s an interesting dance to see these elements held in check; the initial spectacle of the dragons has moved into a place of near-mundanity, such that they are now responsible for scorching sheep and children and need chaining up.
One thing Season Four has mostly overcome – which makes me a little concerned that it may have frontloaded all the series’ future happenings – is the inertia of characters doing the same thing for long stretches. Or if they do, it’s more likely a case of interesting repetition. The journey of Bran Stark, in danger of spiralling into tedium after the flurry of excitement at Crastor’s Keep, reaches its end, and the promise that, although he will not walk again, he will fly leads to the natural conclusion that he’s going to become chummy with Daenerys’ missing dragon. His trick of possessing Hodor, who becomes a brutal puppet killing machine, is used for maximum effectiveness (the exit of Locke, played by Noah Taylor, is surprisingly sudden, but by the end of the season such occurrences will be par for the course).
Many of the characters are off somewhere; after all, the journey is one of the fundamental storylines as it provides for literal progression. Martin probably has a little too much of said trekking, since it cumulatively suggests limitations of possibilities. By far the best is the grudging double act of Arya and the Hound; she gradually hardening her heart and honing her abilities to inflict harm on those who cross her, while he, not that he’d ever admit it, develops a soft spot for her. It’s not as if they actually achieve anything very much, which makes them a symptom of the problem in some ways, but they’re such a strong double act it’s vaguely disappointing when we see the Hound (most likely) breathing his last after being bested by Brienne in the finale. This is one of the best qualities of the show; the manipulation of the viewer. Benioff and Weiss and Martin are able to make a despicable character, if not someone we root for, one whose demise is not welcomed.
Brienne and Podrick are on their own journey to locate Sansa, and their developing rapport is also of the season’s greatest flourishes of characterisation. It’s particularly gratifying to see Brienne, who might be my favourite character next to Tyrion, besting the fearsome Hound after he observes a complete absence of duelling etiquette. The engineered near misses of the Starks have become a little silly, however. First there is Jon Snow missing Bran, then Arya opting not to set foot in the Eyrie on learning of loopy Lysa Arran’s death, then again refusing to go with Brienne. For the latter, it’s clearly a necessity to ensure her character has sufficient mettle and her laughter on learning of Lysa’s death might be a means for the writers to highlight the convention they are playing with. Still, do this too many times and it becomes farcical. The departure of Arya across the sea, and that of Tyrion too, promises a whole new range of stories and possibilities, just so long as they are more interesting than those found so far in the character across the sea.
No, I’m still not finding the travails of Daenerys remotely involving. All that pomp and trial and error in ruling. Again and again and again. Only the discovery of Jorah’s previous form briefly galvanised this plotline. Jorah may not have been the most exciting of characters, what with his tiresome devotion to his queen, but now he has exited her company there’s no one left to provide engaging conflict or vaguely sparky characterisation. His teaming with Tyrion could be productive plot-wise, but it still leaves the problem of Daenerys.
The Sansa thread, which had the danger of a frying pan-fire of weepy misery, is one of the few that managed a genuinely surprising turn around. Petyr’s murder of Lysa is another that felt like it came too soon, as if the writers are giving us too much of a good thing and will have nothing left for later. I haven’t been overly convinced by Aiden Gillen as Petyr, not because I don’t think he’s suitably weasely and duplicitous but I have this lurking sense that another actor could have made much, much, more of a potentially all-time great cad and rotter. He underplays a role I suspect would have worked better with someone giving it a bit of welly. While Maisie Williams has had consistently good material to work with as Arya, Sophie Turner has been less fortunate with the perpetually frightened and tearful Sansa. So the scene in The Mountain and the Viper where she gets sells her version of the death of her aunt to the investigating council, in so doing exonerating Littlefinger in spite of his unwanted attentions, and then her reinvention all in black, is a revelatory sequence. It turns around the potential for her storyline completely.
The cock-lopper himself, Ramsay Snow, becomes a Bolton, and Iwan Rheon has more than established himself as the most despicable character in Game of Thrones. This is just as well, as the ranks of true villains have rapidly dwindled during Season Four. Theon/Reek continues to be a character of abject desolation, reaching his nadir when sister Yara arrives to rescue him; he refuses, kicks up a stink and she has to beat a hasty retreat. It’s a rather Python-esque move to have Yara, after all the talk about how she would fetch him back, be seen off and say that her brother is dead.
Others don’t have it so good. Stannis continues to be a complete bore, with only Melisandre’s seductive poise to stir a bit of interest in Dragonstone. His arrival out of nowhere in the final episode made me wonder if I’d nodded off during a vital piece of exposition, as the last time we saw him Mark Gatiss was having a chat. It says something that this is the first time Stannis has become even vaguely interesting, showing sufficient judgment to listen to Jon Snow’s advice.
It feels that, although I haven’t timed it, the main juice of the season is reserved for Jon Snow’s and the King’s Landing plotlines. Jon gets a whole episode, of course, with Neil Marshall returning to direct The Watchers on the Wall. It’s a much more accomplished affair than Season Two’s budget-conscious Blackwater. Setting up Jon as the right-thinking good guy in all situations rather puts him at odds with just about every other character in the show, so you have to wonder if things can possibly end well for him (how could it be Game of Thronesif it did?) The loss of Ygritte is well staged, shot in the back by the boy Sam only just told to fight. The spectacle here, with huge swords swinging down the wall and giants and mammoths giving and receiving beatings, is impressive. And perhaps Mance Ryder will be finally used effectively next season. It’s a crime to have Ciaran Hinds and not make great use of him.
Which leaves King’s Landing. Season Four manages to keep the memorable events flowing, but honestly it peaks with The Lion and the Rose, the second episode, penned by Martin, as odious Joffrey gets poisoned and ever lucky Tyrion gets accused of the crime. I’m not sure how King’s Landing will fare without either Tyrion or Tywin. Jaime Lannister has been a dead loss this run, and has the dubious honour of raping his sister next to their son’s corpse in Breaker of Chains. This event has sparked much controversy, not least as it seems director Alex Graves has claimed it “becomes consensual by the end” (if so, he failed to get that across). Where it leaves Jaime, who clawed back, one-handed, much of the respect he never had in the first place in Season Three, is questionable. All his energy and bravado appears to have been displaced onto Oberyn, out for vengeance, Inigo Montoya-like, on those who raped and killed his sister. Pedro Pascal steals every scene he’s in, and his duel with the Mountain is a marvellously realised sequence where uncertain confidence turns to sure victory and is then snatched away at the last moment. Best of all is the “I can’t believe this” twitch of a smile as Tryion thinks he will be emerge victorious. Of course, it’s too good to be true.
Tryion’s journey this season is mostly confined to a dungeon, after a very unhappy wedding feast where he is continually derided by his nephew. He does his sister an enormous favour by killing the daddy who wanted to force her in an arranged marriage. It’s season of crushing defeat, particularly when Shae turns evidence against him; his strangling of her in the finale lacks any sense of victory. Unlike the murder of his father on the crapper, expounding that he really is his father’s son and proving it by following through. His best moment, though, comes during The Laws of Gods and Men where, thoroughly exasperated with the farce of a trial, he lets loose a much deserved tirade against his sister (“Watching your vicious bastard die gave me more relief than a thousand lying whores”). There’s also the great, inconclusive, dungeon scene with Jaime, as he reflects on Orson Lannister’s predilection for stamping on beetles.
It’s a shame we wont be seeing any more of Charles Dance as Tywin, and I could have done with more of Diana Rigg than we got this year. As for Cersei, she continues to be difficult to love, but her emblazoned reveal to Tywin that all those rumours about her and Jaime he refused to believe were true represents an exemplary pay back for his plans to wed her off for the good of the family. She’s going to have to find someone else to hate now her father and one of her brothers have departed.
Game of Thrones is now past the halfway mark, and must resist the natural tendency of series at this point to waiver and diminish even if ever so slightly. Having less of Martin to rely on puts it in even more untested territory, which could either make or break it. How many series have maintained a consistent quality throughout their runs, even HBO ones (The Wire stumbled at the last furlong)? Still, I suppose faith is called for. Weiss and Benioff surely wouldn’t have accelerated these elements to an explosion of incident in Season Four if they didn’t think they could match themselves in Season Five. And it should be a positive for everyone that we are in unknown territory. If the number of pay-offs this year is representative, it may mean the future holds more instant gratification and fewer slow burn, embedded, storylines; it’s ironic that I was concerned about the absence of this element at the end of Season Three. But there are still three seasons left to unveil themselves, and I cant believe the writers aren’t aware of the ingredients needed to make Game of Thrones reign supreme.