Wednesday, 6 July 2016

It always seems a bit abstract, doesn’t it? Other people dying.

Game of Thrones
Season Six

(SPOILERS) The most distracting thing about Season Six of Game of Thrones (and I’ve begun writing this at the end of the seventh episode, The Broken Man) is how breakneck its pace is, and how worryingly – only relatively, mind – upbeat it’s become. Suddenly, characters are meeting and joining forces, not necessarily mired in pits of despair but actually moving towards positive, attainable goals, even if those goals are ultimately doomed (depending on the party concerned). It feels, in a sense, that liberated from George R R Martin’s text, producers are going full-throttle, and you half-wonder if they’re using up too much plot and revelation too quickly, and will run out before the next two seasons are up. Then, I’m naturally wary of these things, well remembering how Babylon 5 suffered from packing all its goods into Season Four and was then given an ultimately wasted final season reprieve.


I’ve started this paragraph at the end of the eighth episode, No One (there’ll only be four paragraphs in this review), which might have been the least dynamic of the run while still being wholly engaging. On the surface level, I’d say this might be the most charged, consistent season of the lot, and that’s even with Tyrion taking a most pronounced back seat. Perhaps it’s the sapping dullness of Meeren that does for everyone, and it wasn’t just Daenerys being dull.


I think the key is probably that everyone here is doing something, rather than dawdling (okay, Tyrion is dawdling) so it seems as if, no sooner have we cut away, that we’ve scarcely had time to notice how, two episodes from the end, Jon Snow has done bugger-all but come back to life. And hang out with his once, and still a wee bit, snooty sis, which is not to be under-estimated for reunion cachet. Sansa certainly needed to be there narratively, as no sooner is Jon back from the beyond than he’s being a right whinger, and rightly needs mentally slapping about a bit (“A monster has taken over our home and our brother”).


Gwendoline Christie has a series of great scenes, charging to the rescue of Sansa, restraining herself in the presence of the Red Woman, being hilariously nonplussed by the attentions of Tormund, meeting up once again with Jamie. The only slight reservation I have in respect of Brienne is bringing back the Hound. For all that it’s interesting to see him with a new mission and reconstituted resolve, it slightly detracts from what was a well-deserved victory on her part. In addition to which, how many characters are they going to (effectively) bring back from the dead? Part of the series’ appeal was its sudden finality in losing, if not loved, then impactful characters, and now we have two resurrections in one season.


The Hound: If the gods are real, why haven’t they punished me.
Brother Ray: They have.

If the Hound’s a “good” guy now (and how jolly to see Dennis Pennis again), there’s absolutely no rehabilitating evil Ramsay Bolton, slaying pappy in a manner that resoundingly puts Tyrion in his place and then feeding his baby brother to the dogs (“I prefer being an only child”). Whoever finishes him off, it’s really just a matter of how unsavoury it can be made (written before my comments below, obviously). For all that Ramsay is a one-note monster, we are nevertheless granted a complete picture of just how monstrous he is, in all its unedited-yet-malajustedly-motivated minutiae. Whereas, with Arya and the Waif, the latter exists only to be a venomous instrument of malice. Perhaps that’s why we don’t see her demise; it’s too easy.


There are occasions where it feels as if David Benioff and D B Weiss just dispose of a character to do something, anything. How else to explain the pointless exit of Blackfish, particularly as he’s thrown the most clichéd of reasonings (I did like his intransigence when faced with an ultimatum over Edmure Tully, however; “Go on then. Cut his throat”).


In contrast, what could be more pointed, and horrifically so, than the temporal loop of the mind suffered by poor Hodor? That fifth episode, The Door, purely for dramatic and emotional potency, has to be the standout of the season (okay, The Battle of the Bastards takes it, but I hadn’t got there yet), delivered by Lost stalwart Jack Bender to nerve-shredding effect (although, “He touched you. He knows you’re here” is very Eye of Sauron). It forms an interesting counterweight to Jon Snow’s dreams of a meaningless non-corporeal eternity (“Nothing. There was nothing at all”), that Bran can travel hither and thither across the Akashic record, or GOT’s equivalent.


We don’t see him visit the future, but since Hodor’s death is predicated on his younger self being profoundly afflicted by it, it stands to reason it’s feasible. Of course, this doesn’t testify to the universe believing in such things, particularly given the dubious success rate of the self-professed priestess of the Lord of Light (memorably revealed as an old crone in The Red Woman), since all we ever see are individuals acting rather than potent forces beyond (as is Martin’s design).


Just occasionally, the supernatural elements do strain credulity a touch; if it wasn’t Max von Sydow stuck in that tree, it would be a lot more difficult to suspend disbelief, and mirth. And, to be honest, the reveal of the genesis of the White Walkers felt like too much too soon. And, well, maybe a little anticlimactic too? They were created by some pixie wood elves and got a bit out of hand?


Permanently indisposed Theon and his sister, thoroughly denounced by the guy from Borgen (doing a pretty good accent, it must be said), another nasty fellow with a penchant inter-familial bloodshed, are mostly set up for what’s to come here, but even their functionality as pieces on a chess board has a sense of trail-blazing, rather than the kind of aimless wandering that might previously have continued for another two of three seasons.



Cersei: Please tell his holiness he’s always welcome to visit.

And back in King’s Landing. Well, the best way to make someone decidedly undeserving of sympathy sympathetic is to square them against someone even worse. Jonathan Pryce’s outwardly reasonable, or at least rational, puritan the High Sparrow is very much GOT doing the medieval Catholic Church’s sway over the crown – or at least the strictest and least permissive version thereof – washing over those who have had it up to here with the profligacy of the nobility. And, while you can spot Margaery’s long game a mile off (that one was unceremoniously truncated, wasn’t it?), the unleashing of the Mountain, winningly played across the reactions of Sparrow zealots, constitutes a rather impressive piece of cutting down to size. But it’s also a reminder that Cersei’s unceasingly impressionable son will bend any which way in the breeze (even if that is to be ultimately a downward trajectory).


It’s interesting to see the players in Braavos playing and replaying Cersei’s promise of vengeance on Tyrion, of all the things to choose, and that at least is a reminder of a reckoning to come. Jamie, another reasonable man, who may not be quite, the monster Edmyr wants to believe he is, but is neither a man who flinches unless the conundrum affects those closest, possesses a very immediate grasp of morality. So it’s surely likely that whatever transpires between the Lannisters will involve all three, and the loyalty of Jamie, caught betwixt his other siblings, will be tested. His Season Six has been a bit of a backburner, and even Bronn’s return hasn’t spiced things up, so he’s due a more galvanised role next year.


GOT has got so large that the unending array of Brit old dames now has the likes of Reg and
Lovejoy in minor league one-episode guest spots and out. In Grant’s case it was hardly worth it, but McShane at least made an impression (a man whose Grecian 2000 keeps his walnut complexion impossibly unsullied, even more so than the unsullied themselves).


The Hound: Lots of horrible shit gets done in this world for something larger than ourselves.

And so to the last two episodes of the season. Which flip-flopped from “Where have they got left to go after killing off the most ruthless bastard whoever did walk the seven kingdoms?” to “But of course; really, he’s no more than a hissable villain, and there’s actually a whole raft of potential opening up” in the tenth, The Winds of Winter. It may have been short-sighted, and it did occur to me that the series would be positioning shades of grey against each other to more morally ambiguous ends as a result, but I couldn’t help feeling some measure of agreement with The Guardian piece in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of the Bastids (as it should have been called).


As has been common this season, there was a heady dose of catharsis meted out, with expertly unpleasant staking out of crimes that must be punished. It wasn’t enough simply to recall the terrible things Ramsay has done, we had to see him top another Stark, in the form of the one no one cares about (well, I didn’t much care for Robb, but because he wasn’t especially sympathetic rather than being a non-entity).


Nine’s wasn’t just a superlative piece of battle direction from Miguel Sapochnik (has any movie in recent memory achieved the marvel of Jon Snow standing before the oncoming hoard, and then the almighty crash of his own forces sweeping past him into the enemy?), with masterful coordination of place and positon amid the confusion, it was narratively that best means of portraying action, through clear placement and motivation. We see Ramsay as the master strategist, knowing just how to manoeuvre his foe onto a losing foot in spite of Sansa warning Jon, but we also see the satisfaction of the compromised leader walking unstoppably into oncoming arrows, like some kind of superhero, the sort who could come back from the dead, and then restraining himself, giving his sister the final justice to wield.


Of whom, the whispering worm Littlefinger has ensured that seeds of discord will grow in Sansa’s mind, after a brief, placatory interlude with Jon. It’s an interesting set-up, and we might expect Jon, with his weakness for forgiveness and unrealistic amelioration (he even delivers restrained justice to the Melisandre), to come out the loser against a combination of Oirish’s weasely tongue and his sister’s newfound flintiness. But he has just come back from the dead, and we have just found – probably – that he’s a different kind of bastard altogether, one of Stark-Targaryen heritage, and fit to ride a dragon and lock horns with a forthright auntie if necessary.


Talking of whom, it’s interesting to set the moderation of Daenerys’ adviser against the renewed hauteur of his sister. As noted, Tyrion’s been less crucial to the season, to the extent that the writers need to qualify his docility by making him say he’s embarrassed to admit his devotion to his queen (either clever, or an apology for his becoming slightly toothless, depending on how you look at it). He advises against burning the slavers’ cities in the eighth, and instead Daenerys burns a few ships, in scenes that resemble a thousand wet dreams of fantasy novel cover devotees come to life.


Of course, Cersei has no such qualms, and her unleashing wildfire on the High Sparrow, killing two birds (ahem) with one stone when Margaery is sent up too, but unfortunately losing Little Lord Fauntleroy in the process (Tommen’s rather smooth stepping out the window is by far the most elegant act of his short reign), sets her up as a character even more merciless, vindictive, scorned, hateful and poisonous than ever for the final acts, if that were possible. And seeing as how there hadn’t been any rape for a few episodes, we now see Cersei unleash the Mountain on her former tormentor, Septa Unella. This is an episode full of unholy behaviour at her behest, including devil children getting all stabby on the one time Scaroth, last of the Jagaroth.


For a season that has been so pell-mell, it’s a refreshing reminder of how luxuriant (or slow, depending on your take) GOT could be at times that Samwise Gamgee has only now reached the library of Alexandria Citadel at Oldtown (but that said, he only lingers at his unwelcoming pater’s place for about 10 minutes, which is tantamount to decisive action). The return to Bran, and his three-eyed-ravening, makes for a hugely significant, revelatory cliffhanger, certainly a better one than the rather ungainly reintegration of Dorne into the proceedings (an alliance not to be trusted if there was one, but fun to see Diana Rigg’s Olenna Tyrell in utterly unchastened form, batting away the cubs in the lion’s den). Dorne smacks a bit of “Oh, we remembered”, even if it is strategically sensible (much as with The Greyjoys, it’s a case of pushing chess pieces into position).


Amidst all this there’s Arya Stark, reborn as a one-woman justice league, taking out Walder as almost an afterthought. In its own dramatic way this was as much a surprise as the closing reveal, since I’d half expected Jamie to have decided he’d had enough of the old sod.


A hugely satisfying season, then, and on first viewing I’d be hard-pressed to say it wasn’t the best, although that verdict can only truly come in retrospect. I’m aware of getting too invested in these shows on a cusp of conclusion, though, since I was never more so than with Lost in seasons 4 and 5, before the rug was pulled. But, with 14 or 15 episodes left of Game of Thrones, one senses Benioff and Weiss mostly probably have shrewdly mapped out what’s required. One thing I think is certain; Six will be seen as the high water mark for pay-offs and the potential of characters to root for. After this, things will get exceedingly messy.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

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