Saturday, June 21, 2014

Game of Thrones Season 4 - Part 2: George R.R. Martin's Murder Tour Goes International

and we're back. When we last left things, we looked at the many ways the universe has it in for the Stark daughters, and how King's Landing has largely become the Lannister show. It's like Dallas, only with less pantsuits and more whores and murder.
That could actually work.

Anyway, we continue this by looking at the remaining focus characters: remaining Stark child Bran, would-be liberator Daenerys Targaryen, the increasingly luckless House Greyjoy, the last of the original king contenders, Stannis, and finally the mortality-prone men of the Night's Watch. know the drill. Although this one's not AS bad with them.

Without further ado...

"Benioff,'s not that we're ungrateful about having more to do...
But we've been talking it over, and none of us is really that crazy about making a sidestop in a rape cabin."

Rounding out the wayward children tour, we come to the northward bound adventures of Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) now missing the Stark family's 'Fifth Beatle', Rickon (Art Parkinson.) Alongside Arya, Bran is the other big case of this show having to pad out story this season. His is also one of the trickiest to really run with, because it's the kind of story that works well in a book, but really suffers in a visual medium. For much of this book, his story is just traveling to get beyond the Wall and fulfill the purpose his abilities have been guiding him towards. It plays a lot more into the magical elements of the story that the series has, by and large, tended to downplay to this point. This season further adding into that, with much of the development over Bran's ability as a Warg being only really employed in a way that can be best summed up in the phrase 'Hodor smash.' I have to admit, I feel kind of bad for the cast members in this storyline. They're doing well with the material, but the fact is, it's a very slow burn story to begin with, and the show itself doesn't even seem particularly interested in building up the mystery around it. Given the number of hints that Bran is going to be crucial to events to come, it's actually kind of sad to realize just how much of the past two seasons for him has been reduced to just spinning the wheels as the showrunners trimmed many of the more prominent revelations that were to be brought to the table by Meera and Jojen Reed (Ellie Kendrick and Thomas Brodie-Sangster.) Even the big moment he got this season was more a tie-in to the padding out of Jon Snow's storyline and itself a variation on a part that was meant to come earlier but was sacrificed for time. I still find myself a bit torn on his story in the final episode. On the one hand, I have to admit, they did a pretty good job with jump-starting the end of his narrative with events from A Dance With Dragons, though I worry they might run out of story sooner. On the other, the fact they've spent this much of the show with the magic and mysticism used sparingly made the last episode's decision to go whole hog here feel a bit out of place. Based on where they left things off, next season will be the time for the showrunners to put up or shut up on Bran's storyline. Hopefully they choose the former.

"I'm not sure what happened to you since the last city we freed...but you no longer look like Barry Pepper in Battlefield Earth, so I'm willing to just let this one slide."

Next we go across the narrow sea to the newly established anti-slave government of Daenerys Targaryen. This is one of those stories I feel very conflicted on - mostly as a consequence of knowing where it heads. Which is a shame since, on its own, this season has actually done a good job of building on the story as set up in the book. Even the decision to build on supporting characters like Missandei and Grey Worm has suited things well, though I still feel somewhat mixed about the idea of them toying with the threads of a romantic plot between the two. I will say this much on that line, however, between discussions from Grey Worm and Varys, I think Benioff and Weiss seem to have given more thought to the mechanics of castration in Game of Thrones than Martin himself has. That aside, this arc has largely translated well to the screen so far - Dany is still riding high, but the show has been willing to show some underlying hints of trouble ahead. Now that the battles themselves are resolved and she's missing one of her main advisers, it will be interesting to see how the series handles her crash course in the dirtier sides of politics. Especially given the aging up her character has had so far (particularly with regards to her 'will she or won't she' with mercenary leader Daario Naharis. Unless they age up her writing to better reflect her decisions, Dany risks developing a rather unpleasant case of Suspiria Syndrome*.) But, that's still in the future. As of where they're at now, however, this is a story that, once I take my own sense of snarkish foreshadowing out of, I have to admit has largely carried over well.

*For those not quite getting what this means, Dario Argento had initially meant for the students at the dance school in the movie Suspiria to be much younger than they were depicted. But...trying to make a movie where you viciously murder thirteen-year-old girls is a REALLY hard sell. So the cast were aged up, if not the script, resulting in Helena Markos enlisting girls who were talented dancers, but possessed of the survival instincts of terminally depressed lemmings.

Ironically, the only thing preventing Theon here is not his Stockholm levels of loyalty, but the fact he's completely blanking on the appropriate lyrics from Sweeney Todd.

...and then on the other side of the coin we get House Greyjoy. I'm gonna be honest: at this point I honestly don't know what it is that Benioff and Weiss have planned as far as the Greyjoy storyline goes.  Where Theon is concerned, it has stayed pretty faithful, though some elements of his story seem to be being accelerated (most notably Ramsay using him as a political figurehead.) I have to give credit where it's due - Alfie Allen has handled the transformation of Theon from a cocky and headstrong prince to a mutilated and broken man quite well emotionally. The show has somewhat diminished the physical toll, but I can somewhat understand on that one given the timetable they're working with in the series. His performance has definitely made up for it by way of a Stockholm Syndrome from Hell. His sister, however, has been considerably less than lucky. For as much as people wondered at what the showrunners were playing at with Yara's vow to retrieve her brother at the end of season three, many were disappointed to find the answer amounted to little more than a half-hearted siege that took up a part of an episode and ended with little to no actual sense of anything accomplished that wasn't already established anyway. I want to feel like it was at least done in the interest of keeping her a relevant character in the overall story, but given we haven't heard anything from her since that failure and tied with the talks of the upcoming season and what was done this season, I'm beginning to wonder if the show just plans to drop much of the plot for what happens with House Greyjoy from here on out. Granted, this season could have just been playing for time till they have all the pieces in order, but as of right now, I'm not feeling particularly assured that that's the case.

"It's not that we don't think you're good for the money, Stannis. We know you'll make good.
It's just...well...we paid a lot for these sets, so we want to get the most of them.
...and let's face it, this show hasn't exactly been generous for you as screentime goes."

Which brings us to the ultimate dark horse, if not of the books, then certainly of the show, Stannis Baratheon. Last time, I discussed how the show's love of Tyrion has somewhat affected his depiction. If there's anything to be said for this theory, then one finds it very hard NOT to suspect that the show runners aren't particularly fond of the last Baratheon brother. I'll be the first to admit he's not easy to like. He can be very stern and hard to those who aren't on the same wavelength as him, but at the same time - and it's kind of a point of Martin's skewing on fantasy cliches, for as harsh and rigid as he can be, he's not actually wrong in many cases. Unfortunately, the showrunners either tend to not see that or don't wish to acknowledge it, as to date they've had a tendency to depict him as a sour old man who has to rely on Melissandre to get anywhere (despite the fact the character is shown to be skeptical of the effectiveness of her red god on many occasions.) This season was no exception in terms of giving him the raw deal, which was especially unfortunate given by this point in the books, Stannis is supposed to be the one who steps up and goes to bat for the Realm against the greater danger while all the other lords are still busy squabbling among one another for their own little power grabs. In the show, this isn't made particularly clear - instead, Stannis takes a protracted field trip to Braavos, employing elements of A Dance With Dragons and when the time comes for him to do the right thing and march on the Wall, it's not seen as being the act of a pragmatic man looking beyond titles in the interests of the Realm, but rather it's actions that are only vaguely alluded to until he actually sweeps in in the finale. This course of action TECHNICALLY isn't wrong, but it IS a pretty poor representation of a character who, by design, is supposed to drive home the idea that sometimes the right person for the job isn't always going to be the charismatic or heroic person, but simply the one who can step up and summon the will to do the right thing.

...I swore I wasn't going to do this, but Hell with it.

Speaking of the Wall, we come to one of the greatest ironies of this season (and really a lot of the show in general.) I will admit This was something I'd only really half noticed for a while on the show, but only really took stock in after this season's penultimate episode The Watchers on the Wall. As a general rule, the penultimate episode of any season is meant to be the BIG episode. It's the crucial event moment - either a major upset in the setting, or the moment that was going to require the bulk of the season's budget to do justice to. In this case, and in a sort of call back to the second season's penultimate episode (Blackwater), this was a tight-focus episode dealing with the Night's Watch. The Siege of Castle Black is essentially the moment where, after a large chunk of being treated as a run down bunch of the Realm's cast-offs and garbage, the Night's Watch actually fulfills its intended purpose - fighting, and for many dying, to defend the Realm from the threats that lie beyond its boundaries. On its own, it was a largely very solid episode devoted to just that - in fact, we saw several characters who lived in the books wind up paying the ultimate price for the sake of the Realm in this version of the siege. After the episode aired, however, the reaction from the fans was rather lukewarm. One of the big complaints being people who didn't feel particularly invested in the characters fighting and dying at the Wall. To me, this isn't actually a fault of the episode on its own, because again, it's a solid episode-not quite Blackwater, but still does the siege justice. The problem is, the show really hadn't done a whole lot with the Night's Watch as characters at this point since the end of season one. In fact, the number of people who had a hard time remembering who Grenn and Pyp were, and as a result not really caring what happened to them, said quite a lot about how the show has handled Jon's friends in the Watch to this point.

I can hear some of you now "How is this irony?" The irony is that, looking at this season overall, the showrunners have waxed a bit meta in how they've prioritized the stories to this point. Like so many of the characters within the fictional realm of Westeros, they spent the bulk of their time focused more on the power plays and family intrigues down south, and really only pay bare lip service to the Night's Watch. In the end, when the time came for the Watch to prove themselves in the show, many of them may as well have been introduced for the first time that night, as the show hadn't really done much with them as characters since they were introduced several seasons back. In all, the show's handled the Watch much the same way the nobles it places its focus on does- by viewing it as little more than a collective of generally unlikable people shipped up to a frozen wasteland to putter around in the snow and then get killed by wildlings. It was actually really strange this season to look and realize that, for only being around this season to get killed off, Oberyn Martell had arguably more screentime and development than almost anyone at the wall that wasn't Jon Snow. Actually, as far as this season's concerned, I'd argue Oberyn got more development than Jon did, given the bulk of what Jon had to work with this season was characters either looking to him for advice or going "Shut up, traitor!"

The particularly frustrating part about all of this is the fact that they had time they could have spent re-establishing these characters and their connections again, as well as properly driving home just how dire the situation at the Wall is - we hear it said, but it doesn't reflect too often. Instead, we get things like a side stop of a few episodes involving House Bolton's button man Locke and traitorous Night's Watch member Karl that really doesn't amount to much beyond giving Jon's storyline some action scenes. I mean, sure, it was gratifying seeing Karl get what was coming to him, but it really didn't add a whole lot to a story that, for its climax, needed to really drive home a sense of urgency. In the end, it was a visually impressive showpiece ultimately hindered by the fact the show dragged its feet getting there.

In all, I walked away from this season feeling kind of mixed. It's still largely positive, and definitely an improvement over the wildly varied season two, but not without its flaws. One of the biggest problems, and it's one that's been more pronounced as the show moves on, is with the prioritizing of stories. With a story like this, I'll concede it's not an easy task. You have only so much time and more and more characters to split the narratives between. The problem is, after a point you can tell certain characters are getting more attention either because of favor from the showrunners or audience popularity. It really became pronounced this season thanks to the fact that many characters really didn't have a lot of story to work with in general. So we got a lot of arcs that felt like they were just biding time until the rest of the story advanced to such a point as they could be sprung. Meanwhile, to make room for said wheel-spinning, other less liked characters found themselves with a lot less screentime to get their 'to do' lists done in.
This sounds like I'm ragging on the season, but for all of its flaws, I have to say this has still largely been an enjoyable one. By comparison to the second season, it's much more consistent in its quality, and when it's on point, it is actually VERY on point.
Overall, this season has been a good showcase of some of the best and worst aspects of this series as an adaptation-and thankfully, the spread between the two is enough to, again, keep quality consistently on the better side of things. Which sort of makes it strangely appropriate that this section, devoted to many characters that got rather short shrift storywise, wound up much shorter by comparison to the first part.

That said, with more characters jumping into the mix next season, the showrunners are going to have their hands full with the extra balls getting juggled. Still, if the highs continue to be as good as they have been, I'll be up for staying on the right, lumps and all.

Till then...

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