Friday, June 20, 2014

Game of Thrones Season 4 – Part 1: Domestic Affairs (Figurative and Literal)

So I know I generally tend to stick to film here, but, as I said in a previous review, sometimes I watch other things (and let's face it, nothing wrong with discussing other material from time to time, no?) In this case, I initially hadn't even planned to do this review, but after watching some of the responses to the season on the internet, most notably its penultimate episode, I figured why not just look back and sum up.

Which brings us to now.

Before we go into this further, I'm going to warn now – there will be spoilers here. I'll try to keep book spoilers to a minimum, but given it's a full season write-up, I'm going to assume if you're reading this you're all caught up on the series anyway.

You've been warned. Simon Pegg image. Don't blame me from here out.

Now then, overall, Game of Thrones continues to prove an interesting experiment in adaptation. In particular, the fact that each season seems to make its textual fidelity flexible on its own terms. The first and third seasons – the first moreso – kept very close to the source material, with the changes largely in the interests of tightening up plots for series length or avoiding some serious legal problems (cause a thirteen-year-old Daenerys would have put the kibosh on this show REAL quick.) Even some of the more pronounced differences in season three had their basis in the text, most notably with regards to the storyline for Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) who is a no-show in A Storm of Swords. Instead, the series built on his flashbacks featured in A Dance With Dragons. By comparison, seasons two and four have been subject to a higher amount of creative liberty. In season two's case, I can't say I was a fan, given it was often done at the expense of book material that was then cut to make room for new show-only scenes (and to this day I continue to ask: did we REALLY need the scene of Joffrey ordering the two whores to beat each other?)

In the case of this season, I find myself a bit more forgiving for some of the new content. Not because it's great – some of it is good, but some parts (which I'll get to) really don't add a whole lot – but rather because the source material here made putting new material in something of a necessary evil.

The decision to divide A Storm of Swords, a novel over a thousand pages in length, into two seasons made a LOT of sense when it was first announced. Unfortunately, the big problem with this is, for as many events as the book covers, it's still paced as a single straight arc. More to the point, it's an arc that begins kicking off its various climaxes around the infamous Red Wedding – an event the showrunners decided to use as the climax of the third season. While this made for a strong note to close three on, it also meant that season four was in a bit of a tough spot – several stories would still have climactic points, but ultimately the big turning point had already been passed: the war was over. By comparison to the absolute 'floor dropping out from under you' feeling, none of the subsequent climaxes (and there are many) have quite the same impact on readers that the Red Wedding did.

This problem was further complicated by the fact that several of the story arcs after that fateful event don't have a lot of material to unravel over the course of a full season. So, in order to keep cast members relevant, several storylines are padded out so the characters don't fall out of collective audience memory.

How did they do? Well...that's the tricky part.

Before going any further, I'm going to say now – overall, I liked this season. It's not the best season of the show so far, but at the same time, I also would not consider it their weakest (a distinction I still bestow onto the second season, despite it giving us arguably the show's best episode to date with Blackwater.) That said, it still has many flaws that bear discussion, some of which have been discussed by others over the course of this season (one rather infamously, and yes, we'll get to that one.) The strengths will also be discussed, but I just want it clear here: though I will be going into several flaws, this isn't intended to be a slam piece for the season.

Probably the best way to tackle something of this extent is going to be to break things down story by story. Let's face it – there's a LOT to discuss here. We're on ten episodes of a season for a show that's been running on four years now with a lot built up. Given how often I tend to overload on looking at the inner workings, I'm splitting this into two parts - for the sake of your sanity. This first part you're reading now, as the title suggests, will concern itself with the stories set within the land of Westeros proper, and, let's be honest, where the bulk of this season is focused. In part two, we'll take a look at the situations of those north of the Wall and across the seas – and though they're technically on the mainland now, this will be where House Greyjoy gets discussed, both to balance topics and because their origins are being used to loophole. Humor me.

So, let's review:

Eddard Stark – Still as dead as my hopes for DC's Justice League movie being good.

Catelyn Stark – Likewise, still dead.
Given that death leads to some repercussions those who've read the books are familiar with, I'll be keeping those hidden here. As is standard internet procedure, highlight this block to read: Like a lot of people this season, I'm a bit surprised at the decision to omit the semi-infamous Lady Stoneheart reveal. Given the show baited that hook back at the start of the season by deciding to discuss the fate of Cat's corpse this season rather than right after the Wedding itself, this felt like an odd choice. Especially since, if you're not bringing her out yet, the line really means nothing to anyone who's just following the series. As a result, the moment felt like an unfired Chekhov rifle. I was disappointed even more upon reading subsequent interviews that suggested the showrunners still aren't sure how to handle this storyline.

You know what's funny?
She's implicated in regicide, she;s fleeing the capital with a conniving pervert, and she's seen two people murdered in the past twenty-four hours.
...and yet, this is still a surprisingly good day as the life of Sansa Stark goes.

Sansa Stark - I have to say, for the amount of things her character gets put through, Sophie Turner has been an absolute trooper here. For a role that has seen a lot of scenes of the universe finding new and myriad ways of tormenting her, and given her character's overall powerlessness in the setting, Turner has found ways to convey a lot with a little. For one strong example - the choked back pain she shows during Joffrey's wedding, when the murders of her mother and brother are made light of is probably one of the most uncomfortable scenes in this season that doesn't involve House Bolton.
Additionally, this season finally gives her an opportunity to step up and take back some agency for herself, care of becoming the initially unwilling accomplice to the Machiavellian Littlefinger (Aiden Gillen.) I'm not sure just how much of what happened in the later part of this season is meant hints of what's to come in the books still being written, but the decision of the showrunners at this point to have Sansa start taking some of his lessons to heart could provide some interesting challenges for both writing and acting from here. Especially given the two main players in it so far are two that the show has had mixed results in conveying so far thanks to their altogether introspective natures. Both very well acted, but the writing has been left at something of a loss for them. Hopefully the fact actions are now moving a bit more openly will give them a bit of an easier time trying to get a fresh handle on the characters again.

Part of me wants to make a reference to Leon here, but another part of me REALLY isn't comfortable with the implications that connection would make.

Since we're moving through the Stark clan, let's go to the other Stark daughter and fan favorite Arya (Maisie Williams.)
Last we saw her, she was continuing the Westeros Murder Tour riding side car with fugitive knight Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann.) This season has continued that arc – and is probably one of the more pronounced cases of the showrunners having to play for time to keep people relevant. The fact is, if they stayed purely faithful to the text here, this season for Arya could be largely resolved in a single episode, maybe two, without having to alter anything. The fact is, however, she is a fan favorite, and just having her appear only once or twice this season before buggering off to Braavos would probably NOT sit well with show-only viewers. As a result, we've had several new stops, often involving characters having to die as she questions the necessity of the kills while Sandor drives home one of the big points of the show to date – the world is an unforgiving place, and when you get down to it, it's a question of whether you will be the killer or killed. It's a nice theme to explore, albeit one that can get a bit repetitive. Fortunately, the casting does help make up for the shortcoming in the writing on this point. The two have developed a strong dynamic that has made their debates over the ethics of the kills rather enjoyable in their own rights.
One other interesting turn I have to give this part compared to the books is how it's handling Arya's development along the lines of this theme. While the story has always had her as a more proactive character compared to her sister – and this a big part of why she's the more popular of the two - it's also had the theme that being immersed in this 'kill or be killed' setting is slowly causing her to become more and more cold-blooded and ruthless. She criticizes Sandor for his actions while failing to see that she's been little better. The season opener put that into even more perspective, revisiting a scene from the books when she confronts an old tormentor. Originally, when she takes her revenge on the man, it's an unleashed torrent of rage: repeatedly stabbing him and ultimately taunting him. Here, she simply and coldly dispatches of him in much the same way she saw him kill another previously. It's a pretty damn effective moment, though one that leaves me wondering how fans will receive her arc from here. Will she continue to be revered as the show's little ass kicker, or will people become more aware of the fact she's actually begun to lose herself in the carnage? Of course, that will also depend how the show handles the next arc, so we'll have to wait and see.

"Oh, COME ON! Four seasons and I'm STILL only getting entered as Supporting Actor?!"

That's enough of what's left of the Starks for now, so let's move on to the Lannisters. There's no real point in breaking this one down by individual character, seeing as they're all in one place now and all tied into one another plotwise. If there's any story that seems to have the favor of the showrunners this season, it's the Lannister family and their intrigues. To their credit, they are one of the few story threads that, post-Red Wedding, still has things to do in this installment. Even then, they get a lot more drama built in to pass the time. Some bits, I have to admit, are interesting touches, such as a new plotline suggesting that Westeros's most affluent family may have actually been bled dry by the war over the last few seasons. Whether George R.R. Martin intends this to come up in later books or not I don't know, but it's a development that could have gone places. Further, like the other storylines to this point, this one continues to deliver top notch performances from its cast. It almost feels redundant to talk about people getting it right acting-wise in this series, honestly. Even when the writers fumble the ball, the actors have been delivering.
In terms of individual shout-outs, however, this season left me with the feeling of a double-edged sword for this story.

"...I know you've been through a lot, and this season is almost over, but I don't suppose maybe this confrontation could wait another five minutes?"

On the one hand, Peter Dinklage's now highly praised lashing out at people at his trial has made him the likely contender from this show for an Emmy. On the other, it also means my hope that, in his last season, Charles Dance would finally get a nomination for his work as the manipulative and ruthless patriarch Tywin. I don't begruge Dinklage's good work, but after the last two seasons, I was really hoping Dance would be able to show a nomination for his work on the show.

Actually, one more mention while on the topic of 'they will be missed' performances: I'd like to extend a salute to Jack Gleason. For the past four years, he's given probably one of the best and underrated turns of the series, playing a character so visibly detestable as to gain hate from ALL the fans. In a culture where villains often gain some degree of admiration and fan support almost in spite of their cruelty, for Gleason to actually convincingly portray someone so incredibly monstrous as to gain the ire of EVERYONE is a rare gift, and one that will be missed. Best of luck in your future studies, Jack. Let no one say you didn't leave acting on a high note.

In hindsight, maybe not the best memorial image, but easily the most gratifying for the character.

Now then, back to the rest of the clan. This season really marked a turning point for a lot of the Lannister family members. After the last triumph of appalling behavior from the late King Joffrey, the show got a chance to get back into the rest of the family politics with his death as a catalyst. In particular, we have how it affects his two parents – with Cersei (Lena Headey) becoming increasingly more protective of her remaining son and Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) taking a long hard look at how he's conducted himself as a knight in his life as well as just where his family loyalties lie. The latter makes for some particularly nice bits of acting and writing, especially as the lines are drawn between the rest of the family and Tyrion, with Jaime as the only other family member who has ever really felt that close to him. His numerous attempts to argue with Tywin on his brother's behalf are arguably some of Waldau's best scenes to date. As for Tywin, I'm really not kidding when I say I was holding out for Dance on his final season. For another character that, in the books is fairly limited in terms of perspective - only ever seen through the eyes of his children - the show has done a lot of fleshing out for him to date. Especially here, as we watch a man trying to keep control of a family that's tearing itself apart all around him. As his children all look inward and find either uncertainty, anger, or fear, he has kept his eye on the ball and eschewed anything resembling sentiment or emotion in favor of what he believes to be the overall well-being of the family. It's a cold-blooded stance, but the show navigates it well. It's a stance we've known him to have from the beginning, so this is just right in line with what he's been doing all along, and it also helps make the reveal of his act of hypocrisy in the finale maintain its shock despite lacking the limited perspective that somewhat justified its coming out of nowhere in print.

This isn't to say that the Lannisters plotline has been completely flawless. There are two particular areas I took issue with in terms of how this season handled their story. The first of these is one that actually gained a LOT of controversy at the time it happened, so chances are people already know where this is going. That's right – it's the now infamous decision to change Jaime and Cersei's sex scene after Joffrey's death into a rape scene. This was a REALLY out of character decision under the circumstances – most notably with regards to the fact that, as many people have pointed out before this point, Jaime has already demonstrated several times that he really doesn't approve of rape at all. It's worth remembering in particular the main reason he lost his hand in the first place was because he decided to speak out on the behalf of Brienne when she was at risk of being assaulted. For him to decide at that point to sexually assault one of the few people we know he has any genuine emotional attachment to just felt incredibly forced. The fact even George R.R. Martin himself spoke out on the issue – and apparently was not aware of the decision until the episode had aired – should say something about how poorly thought out a call that was actually supposed to be this significant was (later statements from the episode's director certainly didn't help things either.) The other problem of this season, less overt but more pervasive, was with regards to the show's handling of Tyrion. Now, I just want to go on record as saying: I don't dislike Tyrion. In fact he's been part of my top five favorite characters in the story consistently to date, even through his rough patch in A Dance With Dragons. However, part of what makes him fascinating is the fact that he's a flawed character and even he acknowledges it. It's what's allowed him to carry out sometimes ruthless actions (this IS a character who had someone murdered to protect his secret trysts, after all) while also doing the decent thing at other times. In this case, the show has either downplayed many of his more ruthless actions, or made them a bit more black and white in his favor. It finally came to a head at the end of this season with the infamous death of Shae.

This is a moment that, as the book sets it up, is meant to be major fall from grace. Tyrion's murder of his father, while bad, at least feels somewhat merited. His viciously strangling Shae, on the other hand, is a moment that's supposed to be pretty unambiguously dark for him. It's meant to mark a turning point for the character, as from there out, he's effectively hit rock bottom (and considering before this he was framed for regicide, that's saying something.) Suffice it to say, this is meant to be a pretty sizable piece of character development for him – and even starting this season, I had concerns that the showrunners were going to soften up the scene in the interests of maintaining a beloved character – even though Martin himself recognized the risk and still knocked the little man to the ground. So while I'm disappointed in this decision, I can't say I was completely surprised by it. It's ultimately the culmination of a problem the show's been having off and on for a while now. It's certainly not enough to break the series, but I do feel like it's robbing Dinklage of some interesting opportunities to play into Tyrion's more ambiguous sides.

And while I'm already nitpicking here, I have to join in with the number of people who are a bit stumped at the exclusion of the revelation about Tysha. Yes, I know, the show hasn't really touched on that since season one, given it's a very internal story, but it's a pretty major piece of this entire last act. It's what sends Tyrion looking for his father in the first place (as it's shown in the episode, he just sort of ambles in to find Shae in Tywin's room, which feels like a rather forced coincidence,) it's what leads him to drop some information that effects Jaime's loyalties, and it becomes one of the few things Tyrion has left to hang on to in the future. Further, the argument about it being too far back was rendered defused by the fact this season opened with the melting down of Eddard's sword, which hasn't seen screentime since the first season finale. If an inanimate object can be covered by a 'previously on' clip just before it's turned into another plot item, it stands to reason the same could be done for a person.

Outside of the Lannisters, this season also saw two other major houses being dealt into the game. With the now infamous Purple Wedding, House Tyrell have now made their stakes official. In particular this comes in the form of three major characters, Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rigg continuing to remind why she received a nomination for her work last season), Margery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer, continuing to further reveal how the likable storybook princess persona is a front for one of Olenna's shrewder students,) and patriarch-in-name-only Mace. Not a whole lot to say for Mace as a character – even the show takes its share of opportunities to lampoon his relative uselessness in the family, and how the real power is ultimately in Olenna's hands. Well, okay, there's also Loras, but outside of occasionally getting a look on his that says “the milk just went bad” he hasn't really been particularly relevant again since Renly got taken out. Even his big moment to come is one he doesn't even have to be around for, so...I can't entirely hold this against the actor. He's just making the most of a character who the show doesn't really have a place for right now.

About the only way this scene could have been done better for me would have been if they went for broke and set it to the Star Trek fight music from 'Amok Time'.

Rounding out the power players, and laying the groundwork for one of next season's major stories, we finally get our first introduction proper to members of House Martell. Having only previously been brought up in the series as marginalia care of Tyrion's power plays, representatives for their family finally arrived this season care of Prince Oberyn, AKA the Red Viper of Dorne. In terms of new casting this season, this was arguably the breakout role, and actually rather surprising given sentiments when he was first announced. When fans first saw images of Pedro Pascal as he is normally, there was a LOT of mixed feelings about him, both in terms of questions of white-washing and whether or not he'd be able to properly play the smooth talking, yet vengeful prince who's come calling to King's Landing with a score to settle. Finally seen in character, he actually dispelled much of the criticism pretty quickly, and quickly went on to establish himself as a favorite to those familiar with him through the show. Which, to be fair, is kind of the point. Like with his character in the books, Benioff and Weiss had to invest audiences in this character in order to maintain the impact of his ultimately brutal trial by combat against Ser Gregor Clegane. I will admit here, I am one of those jerks who gets a certain sick joy out of watching the internet after certain episodes to see the reactions of people just following the show to some of these events. This isn't really meant to be in a gloating way (cause if that were the case, I'd just spoiler bomb the events on the night of the episode aired,) it's more just fascinating watching other people all hit those moments en masse that I find interesting – especially given how varied the reactions tend to be. ...Okay, it's also because I enjoy the groans and winces when I crack macabre jokes at the expense of the dead characters afterward (I KNOW I'm not alone here.)
Anyway, got a bit off track there. Point is, for a character that the books largely kept secondary thanks to the limited perspectives, the show did well at helping build him up and giving viewers the impression that he was going to be a major figure in events to come. In that regard, I imagine it actually might have hit them even harder than it did people reading the books when he met his rather graphic ending.
Of course, he's really the only representative of the house this season, but for setting the stage for things to come (and they have confirmed the Martell storyline is happening) his stint made a good impression on things.

"Okay, so you can't fight, cook, or prep dead animals.
...well, that stint with the whores last season might prove useful to us, though I wouldn't count on it.
I guess what I'm saying is, keep your personal expectations low here."

At the end of this first part, we come to Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie.) I'm gonna be honest, there's really not a whole lot I can say for Brienne this season, simply because she doesn't get the opportunity to do a whole lot by this point. She acts as a sort of conscience for Jaime for a bit before he sends her, with Tyrion's former aid in tow, to find the Stark girls and protect them. Like a lot of stories this season, it's well acted and has some nice exchanges of dialogue, but ultimately it's a lot of treading water. Brienne and Podrick have the mix of 'skilled outsider' and 'clueless rookie' that we get reminded of at several points before they are somewhat inexplicably brought into Arya's storyline for the finish. It's enjoyable to watch at the time, but in the overall story, these scenes unfortunately drag compared to Brienne's earlier trip with Jaime.

Well, that concludes the first part of this. I can see several of you have either already nodded off, walked off, or are taking pulls on flasks to see if I'll stop talking. We're coming up on it.

This covers the mainland storyline at any rate. As I said above, the rest of the cast will be discussed in part two, which, given their more limited material shouldn't be quite as long as this one. After which, it's that overall look at how this season has panned out.

Expect the conclusion in the next day or so.

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