Tragedies play for huge stakes and aren’t afraid of terrible outcomes, which is exactly the way viewers should approach the HBO fantasy epic. Think of it not so much as The Lord of the Rings with T&A as King Lear with dragons and zombies.
Stannis, for instance, perfectly follows a tragic arc worthy of Macbeth (who had witches citing prophesies and an ambitious wife). Lest we forget, the show introduced him allowing Melisandre to burn people as sacrifices. Having to sacrifice his daughter in the name of his obsessed belief in his own destiny merely brought a chicken home to roost.
Jon Snow’s return to the Wall seems to visually echo a shot from that scene: we see a close up on Jon’s boots, walking from left to right, not unlike the boot-level shot of the Night King on the dock. Jon and his team show up looking utterly chastened and demoralized, especially for a huge horde of people with a giant on their side. When they get there, the gate’s shut and Alisher Thorne glares down at them as if about to deny Jon’s group entry, but Thorne orders the gate raised. Crisis averted?
Jon laments that the mission was a failure, but Sam points out at the Wildling survivors, “You didn’t fail him. Or him. Or her.” Young Olly seems highly unenthused at Jon’s return, but Thorne remarks, “You have a good heart, Jon Snow.” Hey, maybe he’s not so bad after all. Thorne adds, “It will get us all killed.” D’oh!
On the bad movies podcast We Hate Movies, co-host Steve Sajdak has recurring joke that always amuses me. When things go particularly poorly for a film’s protagonist — whether in a strained romantic comedy or a crummy post-apocalyptic action movie — he’ll say, “This is point where Steve Sajdak would kill himself if he was in this movie.”
The running gag would probably be unfeasible on “Game of Thrones,” which offers countless moments that make suicide seem like a preferable alternative. It would be like the old drinking game where you take a shot when anyone says ,“Hi Bob” on “The Bob Newhart Show.”
Cersei, for example, is in a really bad way: chained in a dungeon and denied water unless she confesses her sins — and there are a lot of those. She alternately bribes and threatens her implacable female jailer (Hannah Waddingham), but her pretense of power crumbles when she’s alone, and she licks the jail floor to get a trace of moisture.
I doubt that this weeks’ episode, “The Gift,” will coax those angry viewers back, but it’s interesting to view the show in light of last week’s on-line arguments. A big objection to last week’s plot development was, not surprisingly, the treatment of Sansa, a young woman who’s spent most of the show as a victim with no agency. Just when it seemed like she was about to take charge of her life, choosing of her own free will to marry Ramsay Bolton, she was more brutally victimized than ever. “The Gift” includes a running motif of women whose agency is gone or threatened, with some figurative in chains, others literally imprisoned. It’s like a series of riffs on the “princess in the tower” cliché.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
We revisit Arya doing the same thing we saw her doing the last time — washing a body at the House of Black and White. Whenever she’s done cleaning a corpse, guys take the body through a mysterious forbidden door, and whenever Arya asks about it — or anything — Jaquen or his young female colleague deflect her questions. It feels to me like the Faceless Men, in addition to being badass assassins and right-to-death advocates, are a straight-up cult, and are subjecting Arya to cultish manipulation techniques, like menial labor and impossible tests.
The young Faceless Woman, for instance, shares her backstory about being a privileged Westerosi heiress with a wicked stepmother, then asks Arya, “Was that the truth or a lie?” “Wot?” Arya asks, thrown by the idea that such a cool story might not be real. Jaquen visits Arya in her room and gives her a barrage of questions, striking her for every lie. (Interestingly, Arya’s stated hatred of Sandor Cleghane “reads” as a lie.)
The “Game of Thrones” actors not only face fan expectations, and the challenges of bringing completely made-up kingdoms to life. Because the characters find themselves caught up in merciless, oppressive forces, some of the actors seem a little one-note, the way Kit Harrington’s Jon Snow is forever carrying the weight of his duty with stoic responsibility. I want to review some of the old and newer characters, partly through the prism of the new episode, “Kill the Boy,” starting with one of the ones I find most unsatisfying. (I can’t get to everyone, though, so sorry, John “Samwell” Bradley.)
Iwan Rheon: I’m a reader of the books who seldom has a problem with the actors, but the Welsh portrayer of Ramsay Bolton has never quite sold me. There’s something uncouth about his take on Ramsay — in the books, he doesn’t seem to have as many rough edges, and his speech seems a little more sophisticated. Rheon has a boyishness that makes him seem less like a charismatic villain in his own right, and more like a bad guy’s sadistic sidekick (like in a Guy Ritchie gangster film).
Both run rampant in cities under female rule, with Danaerys the unquestioned queen of Mereen and Tommen under the sway of either his wife or mother, which varies from week to week. While they both have different agendas, they both also come across as male-dominated insurgencies lashing out against political structures under female control.
Cersei certainly thinks the Faith Militant is under her influence and part of a long plan. First, she sends Mace Tyrell to Braavos to negotiate better terms for the kingdom’s debts to the Iron Bank. That’s her stated reason, at least: more likely, she just wants the Tyrell patriarch out of the way. Then she meets with the High Sparrow and suggests they revive a church tradition called the Faith Militant, which arms the devout to enforce the gods’ laws. “Perhaps the gods need a sword of their own,” Cersei says, and later adds, “What would you say if I told you of a great sinner amid our very midst, shielding by gold and privilege?”
When I see “Game of Thrones” go in a sharply different direction from the book, I have a similar response, that’s like “Hey! That’s not how it really happened!” It’s not as pronounced as in Basterds, of course — because the book and the show are both fictions, they’re both equally “real.” But Martin’s books prime you for one thing, and sometimes the show gives you something else.
Tyrion makes a great foil to practically anybody, and has been bantering agreeably — if mordantly — with Varys so far this season. The bald eunuch and the now-shaggy imp striking a great physical contrast, and are two of the only characters on the show who can match each other’s wit. They don’t do much this week, but establish that Cersei has literally put a price on her brother’s head as they set off on the road to Volantis (like an old Bob Hope and Bing Crosby film).
The fifth season of “Game of Thrones” begins, once upon a time, with echoes of familiar fairy tales. The HBO fantasy series has always evoked medieval romances and timeless epics, with all the knights and dragons and whatnots, but the first season of the season premiere, “The Wars to Come,” riffs on very specific storybook tropes, as if digging even deeper into archetypal narratives.
We open on two little girls journeying into the woods until, like Hansel and Gretel, they find a witch’s cottage, but it’s definitely not made of casting. By her arrogant bearing, one of the girls is clearly a young Cersei Lannister, the other one of her childhood sidekicks. Li’l Cersei wakes up the witch and demands a prophecy. Threatened, the witch (who reminded me of Rickon Stark’s Wildling friend Osha — wonder if we’ll ever see her again?) takes a drop of Cersei’s blood and offers unhappy predictions of the girl’s future marriage and children — which we know will come true. She also suggests that Cersei will be supplanted by another and might as well call her “the fairest of them all,” with Cersei cast at an early age as Snow White’s wicked queen.
So, after last season, where is everybody?
GREETINGS FROM THE GREAT GRAND MASTER! IN REGARDS OF YOU BECOMING A MEMBER OF THE…
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