June 16, 2013

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

Filed under: TV — DB @ 9:45 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

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.

March 31, 2013

Game Day

Filed under: Books,TV — DB @ 10:00 am
Tags: , , , , ,

The game is again afoot. After a 10 month gap gap—standard practice for a TV series these days, but torturous even though we’ve grown accustomed to it—Game of Thrones returns for its third season on HBO tonight. Game is my favorite current show, and as there has been a lot on my mind about what this season will bring, I thought I’d share a few of my curiosities with others who are also traveling the Kingsroad. Those who haven’t read the books may have some of the same questions I do, while those who have are most likely laughing at us because they know what’s about to happen. For those totally uninitiated into the books or the show, you should stop reading now, because things are about to get spoiled.

When we last left the Seven Kingdoms (and beyond), Stannis Baratheon’s invasion of King’s Landing had been thwarted by the well-timed arrival of reinforcements led by Tywin Lannister and Loras Tyrell. Stannis somehow (I’m not sure how) made it back to Dragonstone and the swirling red cape of Melisandre, who assured him that his victory was still destined. The alliance between the Lannisters and Tyrells, brokered by Littlefinger, was set to grow even stronger as Joffrey agreed to cast aside Sansa and marry Margaery Tyrell. Tyrion was left with a massive scar along his face after nearly being murdered during the battle by one of his own men, on instructions from Cersei. Shae urged him to run away with her, leaving the kingdoms and his god awful family behind, but he couldn’t bring himself to go. She remained with him, and is still serving as a maiden to Sansa. Bronn was removed as head of the Gold Cloaks, but we don’t know much more than that about his status. Varys reached out to Ros with a vague proposition that seems to involve informing on Littlefinger…but to what end?

Elsewhere in Westeros, Robb secretly married Talisa, while Arya, Gendry and Hot Pie escaped servitude at Harrenhal thanks to help from supercool mystery man Jaqen H’ghar. Winterfell was left burned and deserted after an ill-advised invasion by Theon, who betrayed Robb after being shamed by his asshole father and sister. He was knocked unconscious by his own men after the castle was surrounded by loyal northmen, but that was the last we saw of him. Bran, Rickon, Osha and Hodor left the ruined Winterfell to head north toward The Wall, on the instructions of the dying Maester Luwin. Beyond the Wall, Jon Snow and Qhorin Halfhand were taken prisoner by wildlings after Jon couldn’t bring himself to kill the captive redhead Ygritte. Quorin sacrificed himself by loudly accusing Jon of being a traitor and dueling with him until Jon killed him—a ploy to gain the trust of wildling leader Mance Rayder and infiltrate his camp. Samwell had the bad luck of coming across a massive army of White Walkers, though they seemed unconcerned with him as he hid in terror behind a rock. And across the Narrow Sea, Daenerys ventured into the House of the Undying and reclaimed her kidnapped dragons from the über-creepy warlock Pyat Pree.

Let’s see, what else…Catelyn released Jaime and entrusted Brienne with escorting him back to King’s Landing in the hopes of trading him for Sansa and Arya, after Littlefinger lied and told her that both girls were there. For going behind Robb’s back, Catelyn is being held under guard. Stannis’ advisor Davos Seaworth was blown off his ship and into the waters of Blackwater Bay when the wildfire attack was unleashed by Tyrion. Whether he lived or died, we don’t know. The Hound walked away from the battle and told Joffrey he could go fuck himself. He then suggested to Sansa that he was headed north, though she declined his offer to take her back to Winterfell.

That covers most of the main characters, I think. And since the second season ended last June, there had been little buzz or activity to whet our appetite for what’s next. Casting additions for the third season were announced last summer as they came in, and a video introduction with most of the new actors was presented in July at Comic-Con. It didn’t offer a lot, and meant less to people like me who haven’t read the books ahead of the show than it likely did to those who have, but hey, it was something.

Most of those actors are unfamiliar to me, but there are a few I recognize. Mackenzie Crook (Orell) appeared in the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, and of course starred as Gareth on the British version of The Office (Gareth = Dwight). Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Jojen Reed) was the lovesick little drummer boy from Love Actually who suggested that he and his stepdad (Liam Neeson) go “get the shit kicked out of us by love.” And there’s Dame Diana Rigg, best known to some as Emma Peel, heroine of 1960’s British spy series The Avengers, or perhaps as Tracy, the woman who wins James Bond’s love (as opposed to the normal Bond girl romp in the sack) in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. To me, though, Rigg will always be Lady Holiday from The Great Muppet Caper.

One character who had not yet been cast at the time of that video was Mance Rayder, but soon enough we learned the part would be played by the great Ciarán Hinds, who comes with the solid HBO experience of having played Julius Caesar on Rome. Another alumni of that underseen HBO series also joined the cast: Tobias Menzies, who played Brutus to Hinds’ Caesar, will be on hand as Catelyn’s brother Edmure Tully. Rigg and Hinds, in particular, are impressive additions to an ensemble of actors that’s as strong as it is large, and Benioff and Weiss shared their thoughts on landing the veteran performers with EW.com

Other than these casting announcements, we didn’t have much to quench our thirst during the hiatus. All’s been quiet on the Westeros front, save for a couple of brief behind the scenes glimpses and teaser spots on HBO with voiceover but no new footage. The first true teaser—with actual scenes!—didn’t premiere until last month on Jimmy Kimmel Live. (This is actually an extended version of the one that first appeared.)

The featured song got immediately stuck in my head, and I mistook it for another Florence + The Machine track, as their song “Seven Devils” was used for one of season two’s previews. Turns out it’s by a group called MS MR, and is called “Bones.”

Anyway, the late February premiere of that preview marked the end of an unusually long wait to see any new material. Usually HBO begins hyping new seasons of its shows with actual trailers a couple of months before they premiere, but this time they dragged their feet like Dany’s khalasar dragged that poor wine vendor behind her horse. Ever since then, however, the hype machine has gone into overdrive. It seemed there was a new spot every day. I was especially partial to this one…

Lions and dragons and bears, oh my…

As evidenced by those trailers, there’s been a lot of tantalizing footage. The word is that this season is going to be pretty amazing…and devastating. Apparently there are some particularly shocking events ahead. In their cover story, Entertainment Weekly described A Storm of Swords—the third book in George R.R. Martin’s series—as GoT‘s Empire Strikes Back…a promising comparison in that Empire is the best of the Star Wars movies, and a worrisome one in that the good guys kinda get their asses kicked in Empire. The series proved early on that it wasn’t afraid to eliminate major characters, dispatching Ned, Robert, Viserys and Drogo all in the first season. Last year’s run was lighter on major character deaths, with Renly and Maester Luwin being the only substantial characters to meet their maker. And some might say Ser Rodrik Cassel. I don’t think Davos is dead, so I’m not including him. But as season two began, I expected fewer major characters to survive. I thought that between Joffrey, Robb, Jaime and Cersei, at least one would die. I now feel like Cersei is safe for a while, but the other three remain vulnerable…along with nearly every other character. And if I’m correctly interpreting the pre-season vibe, this year’s run of episodes will claim a few more significant figures.

Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have said from the beginning that their goal was to reach season three. If the show lasted long enough that they could get to events that will occur this season, they would be happy. No problem there. The show’s huge ratings left little doubt that they would make it to this point, and over the next 10 weeks, we’ll see what they’ve been so excited about. They referred early on to an event which they called only the RW scene, saying that to use the actual words instead of just the initials would constitute a spoiler. I accidentally found out what RW stands for, but I’m not sure how much of a spoiler it is, since at this point I still have no idea what it means or suggests. In my naive eyes, the words could be interpreted in a variety of ways. But given how eager Benioff and Weiss have been to depict it on the show, it’s gotta be major. They’ve also hinted about at least one upcoming scene so hard to take that even the crew choked up during filming. Is it this RW scene they’re referring to? In the aforementioned Entertainment Weeky cover story, they won’t even use the initials anymore to describe it. (They must have forgotten that they already used them in past interviews…unless there’s another infamous scene coming up that can be abbreviated for non-spoiler conversations). Whatever this mystery event is, if everyone is being so protective of it and the crew is getting teary-eyed while filming, it probably forebodes death for at least one favorite character.

A Storm of Swords is so densely plotted that this season of the show will only cover roughly half of the book. Benioff and Weiss have said before that they see the show as an adaptation of Martin’s entire A Song of Ice and Fire series rather than a book-by-book take, so the seasons do not perfectly match the books. They do sync up pretty well, but for example, the scenes late in season two involving Brienne transporting Jaime to King’s Landing don’t occur in the second book. When we last see Jaime in the novel, he’s still in his cell, and Catelyn is standing over him and asking Brienne for a sword. Tackling the third book over the course of two seasons will not only allow Benioff and Weiss to take their time and give the rich plot the attention it deserves, but it increases the chances that the show won’t catch up to the books before Martin finishes them. He has two more entries in the series to deliver, and just this week he expressed confidence that he’ll finish the books before the show gets ahead of him. And he’s right that if the timing doesn’t quite pan out, the show can always take a longer-than-usual hiatus. The Sopranos, Mad Men and Breaking Bad have all done it. Sure, fans will be pulling their hair out in anticipation, but we’ve survived such droughts before. Of course, Martin does have to buckle down and stay focused on finishing the series. When HBO announced in February that they had signed a deal with him to develop additional programming, I know I wasn’t the only fan who thought, “Well that’s nice and all….but George, you need to keep your priorities straight and finish these damn books.” One rumored possibility is that Martin and HBO will adapt a series of prequel novellas he’s written. We’ll see if anything comes of it. Deals like this are signed all the time, but they don’t necessarily yield anything, and HBO orders plenty of promising pilots that they then decide not to produce further.

I’m running a bit wild here, so let me bring it back around to the season at hand and what we can expect. I’m of course wondering what will become of Theon. He seems primed to be one of the first casualties, but how will it happen, if it does? The previews above show a quick glimpse of his sister Yara, but there’s been no sign of Theon in any of the commercials. Will he be brought back to Robb, and will Robb be able to go through with killing him?

What about Davos? Where and how will he resurface? I’m also excited to see what unfolds for The Hound. Walking out on Joffrey was an unexpected move, and I’ve noticed that for a minor-major character, he’s been a prominent part of season three’s marketing campaign. His appearance in this teaser, and the fact that he got his own character poster—the kind of privileged exposure usually reserved for the major characters—suggests to me that his story will be an important one this season.

What lies in store for Tyrion? When his father sent him to King’s Landing to fill in as Hand of the King, it seemed to mark a possible new appreciation for the dwarf’s intelligence and skill for strategy. Will that appreciation continue to blossom, or will Tywin resume treating him like the “lowest of the Lannisters”?  Halfman or not, Tyrion stood tall during the Battle of Blackwater, and he deserves credit for keeping the fight against Stannis going as long as it did. What are the chances Tywin will recognize that? And speaking of Tywin, why is he assuming his duties as Hand instead of continuing the fight against Robb? Who will be leading the Lannister forces now, with Jaime still captive and Tywin in King’s Landing?

The previews have shown that Daenerys finally gets hold of an army, and a ship. Will she actually get to Westeros this season and begin integrating into those storylines, or is that still a ways off? And here’s something I’ve been wondering about, though I doubt we’ll get an answer (and it probably isn’t even important): remember that masked woman in Qarth who knew Jorah by name and warned him to protect Daenerys from those who would want her dragons? Yeah…who was that chick, and what’s her story? She seems to correspond to a character from the book name Quaithe, but who is she? How does she know Jorah? Will she eventually play a more important role, or is she a minor character who, like others in Qarth, just seems to know shit?

And what of Robb’s vow to marry one of Walder Frey’s daughters? I can’t blame the guy for choosing Talisa over any of the Frey girls, but it’s been stressed that the promise is not to be thrown off lightly. The Stark/Frey marriage wasn’t supposed to take place until the war was over, but will the repercussions of Robb’s union with Talisa be seen this season?

There was also a scene last year in which Samwell, Grenn and Edd discovered a care package buried in the snow: rare arrowheads made of obsidian, wrapped in a Knight’s Watch cloak beneath a shield. There’s got to be something up with that, yeah?

Soon I’ll know the answers to most of these questions, and I’m sure that this season will fly by as fast as the previous two have. There are only 10 episodes per season, which Benioff and Weiss say is the most they can handle per year for a series that has such demanding scope, with its feature film-quality production design, costumes, visual effects and complicated shooting schedule that spans multiple countries and features such an enormous cast. The episodes will each run a few minutes longer this year than in the past, so by the end of the season we’ll have had almost an extra episode’s worth of material. It ain’t much, but I’ll take it.

In these final hours before the premiere, you can amuse yourself with this Game of Thrones death generator (completely random—it doesn’t require your middle name or the street you grew up on to determine your doom—but still worth a chuckle). Then there’s this video that dares to replace the show’s excellent opening credits sequence with the version that might have been used if it were on network TV in the mid 80’s. (The clip says 1995, but I think this is more 80’s than 90’s).

And it was only a matter of time: a Game of Thrones/Princess Bride mash-up.

Last but not least, there’s this. Because lightsabers make everything cooler.

With that, please join me in praying to the old gods and the new, and even to the Lord of Light, that Joffrey will soon die a slow, excruciatingly painful death, and that Tyrion will bitchslap him at least one more time before it happens.

June 11, 2012

Game Over…For Now

Filed under: Books,TV — DB @ 2:01 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

I turned on HBO last night, ready for yet another exciting installment of Game of Thrones. Unfortunately, it was an act fueled by wishful thinking. Game of Thrones ended the previous week. It was quite a blow…and it totally blows. That was much too fast. It seems like the show had barely been back on the air. Ten episodes just isn’t enough. Producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have said that ten is probably the most they could do, given how ambitious the scale is, but I’m sure that if HBO ponied up the cash for a normal 13-episode run, and gave Benioff and Weiss the additional time to produce three more episodes per season, they would gladly take up the challenge. (Hollywood Reporter TV critic Tim Goodman makes his case for a longer season here.) Still, they packed a lot into those ten episodes, and with about a dozen plot threads currently unfolding, there’s plenty to look forward to in Season Three.

There isn’t a lot of intel out there yet about what Season Three promises. Benioff and Weiss have said that the third book, A Storm of Swords, is too dense to adapt in one season, so the events of the story will likely be told over the course of two years. Benioff said at last year’s Comic-Con that the third book contains a scene they can’t wait to get on film, referring to it only as the “RW” scene. But whether it will come in Season Three or Season Four of the show, I don’t know. Those of you who’ve read the book probably have a better sense, based on how early or late in the volume this mystery scene falls. As for what we do know about Season Three, Benioff and Weiss recently revealed names and brief descriptions of new characters we’ll be meeting. One friend of mine who has read the books said there were two characters who were introduced in the second book and continue to play major roles going forward, but who have been totally absent from the show. Perhaps they’re on this list? (A couple of these characters – the two Tully’s – first appeared in Book One, but were likewise omitted from the show. At least, I think they were both in Book One. I can’t recall if Edmure appeared or not, but Ser Brynden was definitely around.)

If you enjoy hearing from Benioff and Weiss, here is an interview they gave to Entertainment Weekly about the making of the epic episode “Blackwater”, including their thoughts on needing to ask HBO for more money and still not getting enough to do everything they would have liked. Without being able to compare it to what happened on the page, the scale of “Blackwater” definitely impressed me. And as Steven Spielberg and the crew of Jaws can forever attest, sometimes money shortages result in more creative thinking and solutions. Still, HBO really should fork over some more money to these guys. After two seasons, effusive reviews, award booty (including a Peabody) and huge ratings, Benioff and Weiss have clearly shown they deserve it.

Anyway…now the wait begins. Season Three won’t arrive until April 2013. That’s a depressing thought. I’m going to stick to my plan of not reading book two, A Clash of Kings, until early next year, as the hype for Season Three is ramping up and I really need something to hold me over. In the meantime, there will surely be Emmy nominations and casting news to offer brief spurts of appeasement. And of course, I give you this blog post, for what follows is a Game of Thrones potpourri – some links and videos – that can provide a quick fix anytime you need a small hit over the next ten months. Just speak the words “Valar Morghulis,” and this post will appear on your computer. *

To begin with: on the strength and popularity of Season One, the show achieved pop culture saturation this year. I previously linked to the opening credits homage offered up by The Simpsons (here it is again), but South ParkParks and Recreation and Saturday Night Live (couldn’t embed it, sorry – click here) all paid tribute as well.


Ben Wyatt speaks the truth.

HBO has provided a site called Cast a Large Shadow as a venue for fans to submit paintings and other artwork depicting the show and its characters. There’s some really impressive stuff in this ever-growing gallery, including the pictures I used at the top of the post. Definitely worth checking out. On the more humorous side, a friend of mine created this site that imagines what the people of Westeros might have done with Instagram. (No pressure Ryan, but you gotta get some more stuff up there!)

This made the rounds on Facebook and the like a while back, but it’s still good for a laugh, and provides a nice snapshot in time:

Here’s a cool video, made during Season One, showcasing the work of the series’ lead visual effects house. It’s amazing how frequently – and seamlessly – effects are utilized to create Westeros and beyond. (If for some reason you’re looking at this but have yet to read the books or watch the show, be warned that a Season One spoiler is revealed just after the 2:40 mark.)

Winding down, let’s give it up for show MVP Peter Dinklage, already the winner of an Emmy and a Golden Globe, with more awards likely on the way. Here he is in a vintage Daily Show appearance from 2003, promoting The Station Agent.

And if you just can’t get enough of Dinklage, well…you could go out and watch his other movies (or track down his guest appearance on 30 Rock‘s third season episode, “Señor Macho Solo”, which is a classic). For more immediate gratification, here’s a profile from The New York Times that came out a few months ago as GoT Season Two was starting.

And finally, because it never gets old, here are three choice moments of that little fucker Joffrey getting slapped across his stupid face.

If you really like that last one, you can see it repeated for about ten minutes, set to Led Zeppelin’s “Achilles Last Stand.” No joke.

And with that, I now move on to other pop culture offerings. True Blood is back, which is cool. Soon enough, The Dark Knight Rises will be here. Not long after that, Homeland returns, and then we’re into the fall movie season (Paul Thomas Anderson!) and then holiday movies (The Hobbit! Lincoln! Django Unchained! The Hobbit!), Oscar season…see, it’s practically April 2013 already!


* The “Valar Morghulis” method is untested, so you might be better off bookmarking the page.

March 20, 2012

Spring Is Here…But Winter Is Coming

Filed under: Books,TV — DB @ 5:24 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

Today is the first day of Spring. But the cold winds are rising.

Many of you know that I was one of countless people around the globe who was deeply invested in the show Lost. You need only glide your cursor over to the categories dropdown to see that this very site includes 59 archived posts dedicated to the series. That’s three seasons worth of commentary. And ever since Lost ended in May 2010, people have been asking me if I’ve found a show to replace it. The answer is no, not exactly. Lost was unique in the way it invited, for me at least, ongoing speculation and commentary. It was a multifaceted puzzle that demanded obsessive analysis. I haven’t come across anything since that has inspired the like. Which is sort of okay with me, as it was a bitch to write those things every week. A fun bitch, but a bitch nonetheless. Besides, it’s been less than two years since the show ended. Maybe something will come along eventually that occupies the same terrain.

However, none of this is to say that I haven’t found new shows to love in the last couple of years. The Walking Dead just wrapped up its second season on Sunday night, and goddamn if they didn’t hit a hell of stride in the final few installments. I’ve been enjoying that show immensely, and look forward to season three this fall. Homeland had a superb first season last year, centered around a truly outstanding performance by Claire Danes that won her a Golden Globe in January and will probably win her an Emmy later this year, just in time for the second season to begin. I have no idea how they’re going to move forward with the two main characters from this point, and I can’t wait to see.

But the best new show I’ve taken up in the last couple of years, and the one which most closely matches Lost in terms of how much time I spend thinking about it and how eager I am for it to start up again, is Game of Thrones. When the show debuted on HBO last spring, I had never heard of the book series it was based on – A Song of Ice and Fire – or its author, George R.R. Martin, though I quickly learned that both Martin and his series were quite well known and popular. The fifth book was released last summer, and I think two more are planned. Season one of the show just hit DVD last week. Season two premieres on April 1, and the hype machine is in full swing with a number of commercials and behind the scenes material available online and running on HBO. It’s also currently on the cover of Entertainment Weekly, as seen above.

I started watching the show in a vacuum, but slowly began to discover that other friends were caught up as well. Some were longtime readers of Martin’s books, others were initiated by the series as I was, and then ran for the books and began plowing through them. I’m attempting a more disciplined approach. Having been so wrapped up in the show and stunned by some of its plot developments, I decided not to read ahead, but rather to continue letting the show be my first exposure to the developing story. But I wanted to dive deeper into Martin’s world, so I started reading the first book last month, figuring it would be a good way to quench my thirst when the marketing campaign for season two was forging ahead and my excitement would be hitting fever pitch. I’m about 150 pages from the end, and have found the books to be a great way of helping me gain a better foothold of the dense world Martin created. While there are of course differences between the book and the show, I’ve been surprised and impressed at how closely the series has held to the written word. Season one of the show covers the first book, also called Game of Thrones (or to be precise, A Game of Thrones – 807 pages). From what I understand, season two will follow suit, covering the second book, A Clash of Kings (969 pages). I will try to stick with my process as well, waiting until early 2013 to read that book. The show creators D.B. Weiss and David Benioff have suggested that the third book, A Storm of Swords (1,128 pages), might prove too much to handle in a single season of ten episodes, requiring them to adapt it over the course of two seasons. My reading the books at such a measured pace is already testing my fortitude. I don’t know how I’ll handle having to divide reading A Storm of Swords over a two year span…or just waiting two years until the full adaptation has aired to even begin the book. And then there will still be more to go. What’s a devoted fan to do?

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Friends who don’t have cable or watch current TV but instead catch up with series via Netflix sometimes ask me to recommend a new show worth watching. Right now, my advice is easily Game of Thrones. Provided, of course, that you have the stomach for a little violence. Nothing too graphic…the occasional decapitation (usually of men, but even a horse gets the broadsword),  or one character slicing another’s throat and then ripping out his tongue through the wound….you know…mild stuff like that. You can’t be a prude about sex either, cause there’s lots of that. One notable scene in season one finds a key supporting character – who is, among other things, the proprietor of a whorehouse – explaining his backstory to a pair of new prostitutes while watching them show off their skills by going down on each other. Someone, somewhere at some point coined the term “sexposition” to describe this tactic. I don’t mean to imply that Game of Thrones is a constant orgy of sex and violence, but be prepared for full frontal (men and women) and the occasional slicing off of a head or spike to the throat. It’s all in the service of great storytelling.

For the uninitiated, I should probably give a brief description, though this is not a series that lends itself to succinct summarization. It’s fantasy, but realistic, gritty fantasy. Magic exists, but on the periphery, at least in the first season and book. It starts to show itself more toward the end, and given the final image of season one, I imagine we’ll be seeing more of it moving forward. The setting is a land known as Westeros, comprised of Seven Kingdoms but united under one ruler. As the series begins, that ruler is Robert Baratheon, who led a rebellion against the previous king, Aerys Targaryen. There is a rich backstory that gets parsed out as the series progresses, but to keep things simple: Robert’s second-in-command dies mysteriously, and so the king seeks out his old friend and dear comrade Lord Eddard “Ned” Stark….yeah, okay, this isn’t gonna work. Way too much explanation required to set the scene adequately. But don’t be intimidated by that. It’s fun to keep all the pieces straight, and there are plenty of resources online – some on HBO.com – to help you familiarize yourself with the many characters and the history of Westeros. Just trust me when I say, the show kicks ass. Kings, knights, lords, warrior princesses, bastards, wolves, zombies (sort of), lust, incest, power plays, betrayal, secrets, lies, battles, assassination attempts, honor, brotherhood. The plotting is richly detailed and imaginative, full of intrigue and excitement. And there’s a fantastic ensemble of actors embodying characters you love to love and others that you love to hate. Sean Bean as Ned Stark, honorable to a fault. Iain Glen as Ser Jorah Mormont, a disgraced knight living in exile and protecting the daughter of the murdered Targaryen king. Jack Gleeson as Prince Joffrey Baratheon, heir to the Iron Throne, and an unimaginable little asshole. Charles Dance as Tywin Lannister, the richest man in the Seven Kingdoms. Kit Harrington as Jon Snow, Ned’s bastard son seeking a life of honor as a brother of the Night’s Watch, which protects the realm from their base along a massive, towering wall of ice. Conleth Hill as Lord Varys, a member of the king’s council who has spies everywhere and trades in secrets. And so many more, though probably none as enjoyable to watch as Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister, Tywin’s dwarf son, brother of the queen, ever reliant on his intelligence and good humor to keep him alive in a tall man’s world. Dinklage has already won an Emmy and Golden Globe for the role. You don’t need more than the first two episodes to see why.

Since the show defies easy encapsulation, here’s one of the first season’s trailers to give you a taste.

(Oh, and if you watch The Simpsons but didn’t get this couch gag a few weeks ago, see the opening credits for Game of Thrones.)

What really elevated the show for me, by the end of season one, was the creative risks it took with its characters: namely the fact that it wasn’t afraid to kill them. Before the first season ends, characters I expected to be following for quite some time had been eliminated. This follows what Martin does in his books, of course, which is risky enough, but it seems even more of a danger in a TV show, where viewers identify not just with characters but also with the actors playing them. The end of season one left all the players extremely well positioned heading into the next set of episodes, and the several commercials promoting this impending season show that the story only stands to get better.

So why am I writing this? I’m not sure. I think I just wanted another outlet for my anticipation. Or I felt the post title was too good to go to waste. Or simply because it gives me the opportunity to recommend the show to those not already hooked. If you’re looking to begin a new series, my advice is to make it Game of Thrones. You’ll probably have no luck getting it on Netflix at the moment, but find another way. Buy it, or subscribe to HBO, or find a friend with HBO to watch with, or steal a friend’s HBO GO password, or get an illegal cable hook up or do something else. Just get yourself to Westeros. You’ll never be so grateful for a long winter.

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