June 16, 2013

And Now My Watch Has Ended, And Now My Withdrawal Begins

Filed under: TV — DB @ 9:45 pm
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This post is intended for those who are up-to-date on Game of Thrones. If you have yet to start watching the series or are not caught up, fly from here like a raven, fast as you can.

I’m not a doctor, but I might be able to diagnose that emptiness you’re feeling. It’s the absence of Game of Thrones from this weekend’s HBO schedule. In what seems the blink of an eye, another season of the best show currently on TV has come and gone. Maybe that’s not a fair thing to say, since I don’t watch every show on TV…and we are clearly living through a fantastic period for dramatic television. But at the moment, what’s better? Breaking Bad, maybe. Perhaps Mad Men. Beyond that, I doubt anything else can compete, because I’m not aware of anything else that breaks the rules and takes the dramatic chances that this show does. It’s the most ambitious production on television, yet the narrative remains nimble even under the weight of the show’s scale, with an ability to surprise that is second to none. In fact, as I see ads in magazines and online touting the return of shows like Falling Skies and True Blood, I feel a little sad for them. Cause it must kinda suck to be any show other than Game of Thrones right now and know that no matter what you do, it just won’t be as good.

Game of Thrones‘ latest run consisted of ten terrific hours of television, but it was about ten minutes during the ninth hour that defined the season. Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have been talking about this scene since season one, referring to it only by its initials, RW. The event looms so large in the Song of Ice and Fire universe that HBO.com, in addition to providing their usual weekly Inside the Episode featurette, created a special behind the scenes piece dedicated specifically to the Red Wedding.

In the episode’s aftermath, Game of Thrones was all over the web, as fans expressed their shock and sadness. It was a predictably hot topic on Twitter; io9 compiled their 100 favorite tweets about what went down. Other outlets collected online reactions as well. Many fans took to Facebook to share their devastation. My contribution:

When I logged back in the next day—after a notably poor night of sleep—the top several posts in my feed were about what had unspooled the previous evening. Many people who had read the books and knew what was coming had the foresight to film the reactions of their unsuspecting friends, resulting in a lot of hilarious and relatable YouTube posts, some of which were compiled here.

EW.com was at the ready, posting interviews with the key players involved, starting with George R.R. Martin on why he wrote such an unexpected plot twist in the first place. A few days after the episode aired, Martin was a guest on Conan, and I loved how he talked about meeting certain cast members at the premiere party for the third season, knowing that eventually their counterparts would be killed.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves by worrying which of our favorite characters will be offered up to the Red God next. We’re still in mourning, both for the recently departed characters and for another completed season that leaves us wanting until April 2014 rolls around. Even though I knew heading into this season that a large-scale tragedy was in store, and went into the fateful episode having deduced what was likely to happen, watching it unfold was no less upsetting or stunning. Sure, I wish I had gone into it totally unprepared, but still my reaction looked pretty much like the ones in that video above. It was heartbreaking, but also exhilarating. Not because it was violent, but because it was so against the rules of what we’ve been conditioned to expect from stories of good and evil, heroes and villains, right and wrong. Martin talks in those interviews about wanting to keep his audience in suspense, and with this event, he’s doubled down on that commitment. And that’s exciting. The boldness of the Red Wedding is something to be admired. Like many of the show’s diehard fans, I’m amused by the people who say they’re walking away from it permanently because of what happened, as if they’ve been personally betrayed. Maybe some of them really will, but if anything, the attention that Thrones garnered online as a result of the Red Wedding is likely to bring new viewers to the show. People said they were giving up on it after Ned Stark was beheaded (hell, some said they were giving up on it after the second episode concluded with Ned reluctantly killing Sansa’s direwolf, Lady). But the ratings have shown that Thrones is thriving, and the audience keeps growing. The show’s increasing popularity can be partly attributed to the kind of narrative boldness encapsulated by the Red Wedding. It’s thrilling storytelling, pure and simple. I both hate and love that it happened.

On a purely emotional level, I’m infuriated by the indignity of Joffrey continuing to draw breath while House Stark has just been decimated. (Yeah, the younger kids are still alive, but how long before any of them are able to take the reins in any meaningful way?) And Arya…God, poor Arya. SO close. Wallowing in my post-episode funk, my dream was for Arya to turn in her Braavosi coin (“Valar morghulis”), find Jaqen H’ghar and paraphrase Luke Skywalker: “I want to come with you to Braavos. There’s nothing for me here now. I want to learn the ways of the Faceless Men and become a badass assassin like you.” Then she disappears. She’s totally off the show for a season or two. Then she comes back, older, steeled, and just finds them one by one and brings the fucking pain. Joffrey, Cersei, Tywin, Walder Frey, Roose Bolton (if they’re still alive), even those deserting Karstark fuckers. If they hadn’t ditched, Robb never would have had to approach Walder Frey in the first place. (Based on what happened in the final episode, some version of this Arya fantasy may be just what happens.)

Of course, it’s pointless to play “what if” games. A reckoning with Walder Frey was inevitable, and in hindsight, the groundwork for the Red Wedding was being laid long before the knives were drawn and crossbows loaded. Before Robb beheaded him, Rickard Karstark told him that he’d lost the war the moment he married Talisa. And at Sansa and Tyrion’s wedding, Cersei recounted to Margaery the story behind the song “The Rains of Castamere,” foreshadowing the performance of the song that so unnerved Catelyn in Walder Frey’s hall. Observant fans recognized the song from season two’s battle episode Blackwater, when it was sung by Bronn and the Lannister soldiers, and then played again over the end credits (performed by The National). The most blatant (and chilling) foreshadowing of the Red Wedding never made it to the screen. As my friend Ryan reminded me earlier this week, it came in the second book, when Daenerys visits the House of the Undying to retrieve her dragons. On the show, Dany’s wanderings in the strange tower of the warlocks revealed the ruined throne room in the Red Keep, and a tent where Khal Drogo and her son await her. In the book, Dany’s experience in the House of the Undying is more elaborate, and includes this haunting image:

Farther on she came upon a feast of corpses. Savagely slaughtered, the feasters lay strewn across overturned chairs and hacked trestle tables, asprawl in pools of congealing blood. Some had lost limbs, even heads. Savaged limbs clutched bloody cups, wooden spoons, roast fowl, heels of bread. On a throne above them sat a dead man with the head of a wolf. He wore an iron crown and held a leg of lamb in one hand as a king might hold a sceptre, and his eyes followed Dany with mute appeal. (A Clash of Kings, Page 700)
A dead man with the head of a wolf. And indeed, the sting of the Red Wedding lingered as the final hour of the season began with the continuing slaughter of the Stark army and Arya bearing witness to Robb’s body being paraded around with Grey Wolf’s decapitated head in place of his own. Oh, and for what it’s worth, Dany’s trip through the House of the Undying in Martin’s original text includes other intriguing visions, suggesting battles, betrayals and other happenings that have not yet come to pass…and one that has, it seems:
Ten thousand slaves lifted bloodstained hands as she raced by on her silver, riding like the wind. “Mother!” they cried. “Mother, mother!” They were touching her, tugging at her cloak, the hem of her skirt, her foot her leg, her breast. They wanted her, needed her, the fire, the life, and Dany gasped and opened her arms to give herself to them… (A Clash of Kings, Page 707)

Did we not see a version of that in the final moment of the season?

While we’re talking about the books, it’s nice to know that readers who have been anticipating the Red Wedding ever since reading about it as far back as 13 years ago seem to be satisfied with how it was depicted on film. Vulture assembled a panel of Westerosi experts—a.k.a. the webmasters from four Ice and Fire fan sites—to discuss the sequence (beware of book spoilers – there are some differences in what happened), and the consensus seems to be that while the book more successfully captured the building sense of dread (something a friend also told me), the show’s depiction was not a disappointment to the readership that had so long been anticipating it. They even conceded that the scene held some shock value for readers too, given the changes made to the story around Robb’s wife. (Talisa is a creation of the show; in the books, Robb’s wife is another woman altogether, and she is not present at Edmure’s wedding.) Her particularly brutal and cruel death gave readers a jolt during an otherwise familiar event. Without having read book three or beyond, but knowing a little about who Robb’s wife is on the page, my guess is that changing her to the new character of Talisa was a way for Benioff and Weiss to streamline a story thread that would have taken on additional complications had they left it alone. With so many characters and stories to juggle, the need to abridge for the TV show is understandable. Had the show followed the books more closely regarding Robb’s wife, the character and story would probably have endured for a few seasons to come, at least. Now the showrunners can lay the Red Wedding to rest and move on more efficiently. But again, I’m just speculating.

As I said at the start, the Red Wedding may be the defining event of season three, but let’s not forget everything that preceded it. The shocking fall of the House of Stark should not render Jaime’s behanding or the Night’s Watch revolt at Craster’s—resulting in Lord Commander Mormont’s death—any less significant. How about the cowardly Samwell Tarly stepping up to successfully protect Gilly (so far) and do the seemingly impossible: take down a friggin’ White Walker!! There was Jon and the wildlings’ harrowing climb up the Wall.  Tyrion and Bronn learning that Tyrion’s squire Podrick is apparently the most impressive lover in King’s Landing, perhaps even the whole of the kingdoms. And of course, the ass-kicking finale of the fourth episode, in which Dany unleashed her mad tactical skills on the chump slavers of Astapor, was one of the series’ most brilliantly executed sequences to date. Some of the season’s highlights came in quieter scenes as well, most notably Jaime’s monologue to Brienne about the day he killed the Mad King Aerys. It was backstory I’d been craving from day one, without ever knowing if it would come.

The show had a lot of weight to carry this season, with dozens of characters and many splintered storylines. Moments of extremity like the Red Wedding would be meaningless if the show failed to engage us with the more mundane goings on. Game of Thrones consistently offers scenes of simple character interactions that are as charged, powerful and memorable as any action scene or unexpected plot twist. Think of Varys recounting the story of his castration to Tyrion, culminating with the reveal that the man who cut him is trapped in a crate in Varys’ chambers; Joffrey gleefully showing Margaery around the Sept of Baelor, telling stories of torture and death, while she in turn learns how to manipulate him; Stannis visiting Davos in the dungeons, playing out the struggle between his ambition and his conscience; or almost any scene with Arya, who continues to demonstrate strength in the face of adults who repeatedly let her down one action at a time as the world kills her innocence.

Another example: the season was bookended by two thrilling, loaded exchanges between Tywin and Tyrion, with the Lannister patriarch making it painfully clear what little regard he has for the “ill-made, spiteful little creature” he is forced to call his son. Like Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion, Charles Dance’s Tywin has become one of those characters who rocks it every time he appears onscreen. I can’t get enough of him. Ditto to new addition Diana Rigg as Lady Olenna Tyrell, who also anchored some of the season’s best dialogue-driven scenes, whether sizing up Sansa, trading barbs with Varys or bartering with Tywin. I hope there’s more of her next season. Other new characters to whom I took a shine were Thoros of Myr, the Brotherhood Without Banners’ kindly priest; badass wildling Tormund Giantsbane; and Jojen Reed, Bran’s eerily calm ally and guide in the mysterious art of warging. One of my few issues with the season was that Bran’s storyline was so scarcely visited. The Reed siblings showed up out of nowhere, and beyond learning that their father was fiercely loyal to Ned Stark, we didn’t learn much else about them. I suspect this bothers readers even more, since the Reed’s introduction into the show was delayed to begin with. They were initially introduced in the second novel, when they arrive at Winterfell to attend a feast and stay on afterwards, befriending Bran and sharing stories of Jojen’s prophetic visions in exchange for Bran talking about his own unusual dreams. I thought we could have spent a little less time on Theon this season, since his storyline is somewhat stagnant, in exchange for more time with Bran and company. (Interestingly, Theon’s post-Winterfell fate isn’t revealed until the fifth book, but Benioff and Weiss moved it into this season because they wanted to continue working with actor Alfie Allen, who did such great work during season two. I think it was the right decision to keep his story going, but since it’s kind of stuck in one place for the foreseeable future—both in terms of location and momentum—I would have preferred some of that time been devoted to Bran’s path. (Based on where things are after the season finale, I’d guess that both stories will be a big part of season four.)

And what does the next season hold in store? It will continue the adaptation of book three, A Storm of Swords (while likely drawing from other books as well, as it did with Theon), so I’m curious if we’ll have the usual influx of fresh characters that a new season of any show typically brings. Not that Thrones doesn’t have a full slate of characters to serve. Even with the departures of Robb, Catelyn, Talisa and Mormont, as well as supporting characters Craster, Orell the wildling and Ros—whose spying on Littlefinger for Varys earned her an unfortunate end at the hands of Joffrey and his crossbow (too bad — she was a great character, worthy of further development)—the show is still dealing with a huge number of people to serve. Considering that, I think the writers do a stellar job of moving between stories and serving the full roster. Some, like Bran and his entourage, may get the short end of the stick from one season to the next, but given the challenges of this adaptation, Benioff, Weiss and their writing team are performing admirably. It was nice to see expanded roles for Roose Bolton (even if he revealed himself to be a treacherous asshole) and Gendry, and I hope their parts will continue to grow in the season to come (I’d hate to think we’re done with Gendry now that he has escaped from Dragonstone). I also have to say that I was thrilled by the return of Ser Barristan Selmy, one of my favorite supporting characters from the first season.

So where will season four take us? For those interested in teases and possible directions, articles from Vulture and The Atlantic Wire offer some speculation (I haven’t read them, hoping to avoid spoilers). One thing I did hear is that we may soon be paying our first visit to Dorne, one of the southernmost regions in Westeros. The non-readers among us may recall that Dorne is where Tyrion sent Princess Myrcella last season, brokering a marriage with that kingdom’s prince and, in the process, incurring Cersei’s wrath for sending away her daughter.

This season’s end leaves me with plenty of questions. Will Arya indeed reconnect with Jaqen H’ghar for Stealthy Assassinations 101? Will Jon recover from the three arrow hits he took from Ygritte? Will we see more from the Brotherhood Without Banners? How will Littlefinger react to the death of his beloved Catelyn? Will Joffrey’s marriage to Margaery reveal the perversions or sexual hang-ups that have been strongly hinted at but not yet made clear? Will Dany get it on with her chiseled new warrior, Dario Naharis? And how in the seven hells is she ever going to get to Westeros if she keeps liberating the slave populations of huge cities along the way? How will a newly humbled Jaime be welcomed back to King’s Landing? He only shared a brief moment with Cersei in the season finale, and it was tough to read her reaction to seeing his stump. Will Tywin think less of him now? What will happen to Brienne? And what of Cersei’s marriage to Loras Tyrell? In the finale, during an excellent scene with Tyrion, she said with curious certainty that she would not be marrying Loras. What does she have up her sleeve that makes her so sure? How will Tyrion’s marriage to Sansa progress, and where will Shae fit it? Will Stannis put his quest for the Iron Throne completely on hold to deal with the looming threat of the White Walkers? Will the concern over that danger extend as far south as King’s Landing? Could Tywin and Stannis have to temporarily unite in the face of it? What about Mance Rayder’s army of wildlings, the other force amassing north of the Wall? Will we find out what happens to Rickon and Osha after they split from Bran, or is Rickon’s story irrelevant? Will someone please, please, pretty please slap Joffrey across the face again? (I’d love to see Tywin do it, but he’s probably too buttoned-down, even if there’s no way he’d be punished for it. Then again, I’m not sure how much longer Joffrey will submit to Tywin’s authority before he tries to assert himself…and I am dying for a moment where the tension between those two runneth over.

Answers to these questions and more are ten months away. I wonder if, in the meantime, the attention earned this year will translate into awards and accolades. If the series ever has a shot at winning the Emmy for Best Drama Series, this year might be the one. Plenty of shows have had major watercooler moments before; that doesn’t guarantee an award. But the show has been good enough to win from day one; if the violence, sex and general “fantasy” factor isn’t a put-off to voters, the sheer audacity of the Red Wedding and the way it permeated the cultural conversation could push it over the top. I would hope for some writing and directing nominations, and there are certainly actors worthy of attention. With Emmy nominations for acting being based on single episodes rather than entire seasons, a show like Thrones—lacking a lead character and doling out its story in small pieces—can be at a disadvantage. Peter Dinklage did earn a win after the first season, and a nomination for the second. Can he make the cut again? Others are deserving too. Charles Dance would be a welcome addition, and Jaime’s arc this season—bolstered by his aforementioned confessional monologue—could put Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in the conversation (he was recently nominated for a Critics Choice Award by the Broadcast Television Journalist’s Association, and the show itself tied with Breaking Bad for the Best Drama Series win. It’s also been nominated by the Television Critics Association). Diana Rigg could be among the Emmy nominees for Best Guest Actress in a Drama, and Michelle Fairley is a possible Supporting Actress nominee on the strength of her devastating moments during the Red Wedding (Catelyn’s role was small this season overall, but she did have some meaty moments throughout, from her story about Jon Snow to the scene with her uncle Brynden when she mourns her father’s death and breaks down over the presumed death of Bran and Rickon). I’m not betting it will happen, but a nomination for Fairley would be a nice, earned surprise. When the Screen Actor’s Guild awards come around next winter, it would be nice to see a Best Ensemble nomination as well. The show inexplicably missed out on that recognition after season two, which was kinda preposterous. The talent pool on Thrones runs deep. Large roles and small, I can’t think of a weak link in the chain. An exceptional ensemble of actors that demands to be recognized.

Okay, winding down….I’ve gotten used to including some random “Fun with Game of Thrones” links and embeds in these pre and post season write-ups, so here are a few more. This site displays the work of an artist who makes small, polymer clay caricatures based on Thrones. Cool stuff. And then there’s this fake demo for an old school Game of Thrones video game, courtesy of College Humor. I love this.

Here are some menus from a Brooklyn pizzeria that is obviously run by some serious Thrones fans, resulting in such offerings as the Lanni-Stir-Fry and the Cheddard Stark. For any music fans out there who are as impressed with the show’s score as I am, here’s an interview from The Hollywood Reporter with the composer, Ramin Djawadi. And as a known devotee of the Harry Potter series, I enjoyed this picture of Sansa Stark and Neville Longbottom (a.k.a. Sophie Turner and Matthew Lewis) that was making the rounds on Twitter recently.

I also liked these post-Red Wedding selections from Someecards, the latest additions to their line of Thrones-themed cards.

And finally, here’s the song that played in the first trailer for this season of the show. As I mentioned in my pre-season piece, it’s called “Bones” and is performed by MS MR. It has a haunting quality that really does capture this season for me. Dark twisted fantasy indeed…

See you next year, Westeros.

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