Sunday, April 20, 2014

Game of Thrones 4.03: "Breaker of Chains"

Welcome to week 3 of the season 4 reviews by myself and my cohort — Christopher Lockett: Newfie Batman. 

So after the massive dollop of awesome that was the Purple Wedding last week, this week we get the fallout. Before we get started, I actually wanted to point out some behind-the-scenes action. This is the last week where we'll be going live immediately at 10pm, following the episode, because HBO only supplied us with the first three episodes to watch in advance. And interestingly, on our copies of the recordings, there are several scenes that flash "TEMPORARY VFX" over major scenes, because they're still working out post-production on their end. Interestingly, when Chris and I watched the Great Joffrey Assassination of 2014, his face wasn't purple at all. What I posted last week...

... is exactly what we saw. In post-production they turned it into this:

His face is far ghastlier, his eyes more glazed over, there are rivers of blood from both nostrils, not just the one, and, most noticeably, the boy is purple. It was more of a "yellow wedding" on the copy that we saw. (During the actual wedding celebration, there's also a lot of green screen still happening, with green dresses, green hair, etc. that you know will be filled in later with far more lavish things.) So each week, it's as much a treat for Chris and I to rematch and see what they ultimately turn it into as it is for you to watch it for the first time. But now... on to the episode!!

Nikki: And the episode begins with Sansa racing off across the waters, escaping the accusations of the Lannisters for the death of the Little Shit (one week later, STILL GLORIOUS) and her connection to Tyrion, and is placed safely in the hands of…


From one psychopath to another. Now, as we discussed back in our book discussion, Lord Baelish is more sympathetic in the books (we see how Catelyn mocked him and how much he yearned for her love but was physically helpless to fight in any battles to win her hand) but on the show, he’s a scheming bastard who in season 3 arranges for the torture and death of Ros, the prostitute who’d been working for him and who he assumed betrayed him. The last we see of him is having a verbal sparring match with Varys, telling him that he believes chaos is necessary to move ahead. He has already asked Sansa once to join him on his ship, and she refused, and so, we assume, he leaves for the Vale of Arryn…

…when in fact it looks like he just threw down an anchor and tried to come up with a new plan to get Sansa on that ship. And if this means that he is behind Joffrey’s death somehow… woo, that plan was a doozy. In the previous episode, Ser Dontos approaches Sansa with a necklace that he says belonged to his mother and is the only thing of value that he owns. He’s thanking her for saving his life back at the beginning of season 2, when she talked Joffrey out of beheading Dontos and making him the king’s fool instead. But it turns out the necklace was a ruse to get Sansa on-side. Dontos clearly didn’t think he was betraying Sansa or putting her in harm’s way, and was instead saving her from certain death at the hand of the Lannisters (which is probably true). Because of Baelish’s unrequited love for Catelyn, one assumes he’ll keep Sansa safe, not only because she’s the daughter of his great love, but because she looks like Catelyn, and he appears to be partly in love with Sansa, too. But when it comes to Baelish, one should never assume anything. Just like the lovely Ser Dontos never should have assumed he could have done a job for Baelish and gotten out of this alive.

And man, that ship must have been anchored waaaay out in the waters, since it was mid-day when Sansa got into the dinghy, and it appears to be midnight when she gets to the boat.

Were you happy to see Littlefinger again, Chris?

Christopher: I keep thinking to myself, there’s something to be written about the fairly singular pleasure those of us who have read the books have in anticipating key moments as they occur in the series: both in terms of wondering how they will be rendered, whether they’ll be done well or not (and so far, to my mind, there haven’t been any missteps); and in terms of anticipating how you lot who haven’t read the books will respond. When the shadowy man who has helped Sansa onto the ship steps back and we see Littlefinger, I came close to punching the air and saying “Yes!” Not because I didn’t know it would be him, but because the reveal was crafted so beautifully. Knowing that you, Nikki, and thousands of other people who haven’t read the books were having a frisson of shock and surprise was almost as good as experiencing it myself. Or perhaps even better. I’m sure the Germans could come up with a word for the experience.

All of which is by way of saying: yes, I am delighted to see Littlefinger again. Though I did wonder (out loud, in fact) “what that hell’s going on with his voice?” It’s like Littlefinger suddenly remembered he was Irish. And don’t get me wrong—I love hearing Aiden Gillen speak with his natural accent, but it was a bit surprising after hearing him speak in a neutral, clipped mid-Atlantic accent these past three seasons. Also, his voice was hoarser than normal … which I suppose is partly because he was whispering, but it was something of an odd effect. He sounded like Irish Batman.

One of the things I liked about this episode is the way, in the first three scenes, we get a contiguous set of schemes: first Littlefinger, then the Tyrell women, then Tywin staking immediate claim to the mentorship of the new king. Let’s talk about Margaery and Olenna first: this scene is understated but deeply significant, at once touching in the obvious affection Olenna has for her granddaughter but also a wonderful display of the Queen of Thorns’ ruthless pragmatism. A shame, she observes, that Joffrey did not have the courtesy of consummating the marriage before dying. Margaery perhaps can be forgiven for having a moment of despairing cynicism, wondering if she is cursed—but what is interesting is that she seems more concerned (however glibly) that she might herself be somehow deficient, rather than railing in totally justifiable anger at her role as a pawn in the game of thrones. Of course she doesn’t: she has shown herself to be precisely as pragmatic as her grandmother in the matter-of-fact way she dealt with Renly’s sexual preferences, and again in the shrewd way she worked with Joffrey, learning to seduce him not through sex but feigned interest in his enthusiasms. Her momentary despair comes from the fear that Joffrey’s untimely death has upset her family’s ambitions … but Olenna sets her straight, observing that “Your circumstances have improved remarkably.” After all, she points out, the Lannisters need this alliance—they cannot hold the throne without the power of Highgarden, and so will wed Margaery to the new king … who is younger, more malleable, and above all, not a psychopath. “You did wonderful work on Joffrey,” Olnenna compliments her, and adds “The next one should be easier.”

Cut to: the next one! Prince Tommen, standing beside his mother, gazing down at his elder brother’s corpse, complete with those flat stones with creepy eyes painted on them. Poor kid doesn’t look like he knows what to think … I mean, I can only imagine what it would have been like to be Joffrey’s little brother! (We get a somewhat better sense in the novels—for instance, Tommen had a pet fawn, which Joffrey killed and skinned and had made into a vest). On one hand he’s aware of the enormity of the situation, but on the other, he can’t be excessively sorry that the little shit is dead.

Enter Tywin, who proceeds to engage his grandson in a Socratic dialogue about what it takes to be king. What did you think of that scene, Nikki?

Nikki: Irish Batman, hahahahaha!!! I was wondering the same thing about that accent! “Where the hell has Baelish been sailing?!”

You wrote, “Tommen had a pet fawn, which Joffrey killed and skinned and had made into a vest.” Good Christ, he was even worse than I thought. Like many of the fans this week, I’ve been thinking how I would have liked to see Joffrey tormented the same way Theon has been before Joffrey finally kicked the bucket; he was let off too easily. Ugh.

Anyway, Tommen has been such a minor character thus far that I barely remembered he existed, but for the first time we see him step up and be questioned by Tywin, who is calm, pragmatic, and as you say, leads the conversation but requires Tommen to come up with the answers. Throughout this utterly brilliant bit of dialogue, I kept imagining Joffrey answering the same questions:

Tywin: Your brother is dead, do you know what that means?
Joffrey: It means the best man has won, and I AM KING! Bow down before me, Grandfather.
Tywin: What kind of king do you think you’ll be?
Joffrey: The ONLY king, Grandfather, does it matter what kind?! (swagger, looks to the left for confirmation from a guard, smirks, puts his hand on his sword) Now bow down before me.
Tywin: What makes a good king?
Joffrey: I’ll show you what makes a powerful king if you don’t bow down before me RIGHT NOW, Grandfather. How much do you like your head?

Instead, Tommen answers with humility and deep thought. He suggests “holiness” is an important quality. Tywin tells him about a man who was holy, but made a terrible mistake and died. Perhaps “justice.” Definitely important, says Tywin, but the most just king he can recall was killed by an unjust brother. “What about strength?” Tommen asks. For that one, Tywin pulls out Tommen’s own “father,” Robert Baratheon, and tells him how strength didn’t do him much good in the end. What do they all lack? “Wisdom,” Tommen answers wisely, and at home we think, oh my goodness, the Lannisters might actually have a shot under the rule of this kid. For the past three seasons, the Lannisters have been the bad guys, despite the fact both Jaime and Tyrion are two of the most sympathetic characters, and Tywin, despite having evil moments, is a genius. With Cersei and Joffrey in power, the Lannisters were loathsome, the house we were fighting against. And now, with Tommen, that might shift.

As Tywin and Tommen walk out, Tywin puts his hand on Tommen’s arm, a gesture I never saw him make with Joffrey, and one Joffrey never would have welcomed or even allowed. Tommen is wise, and he will listen to his even wiser grandfather.

Jaime enters the room to see Cersei, staring down at Joffrey (and I second your creeped-out feeling on those hand-painted stones for eyes, geeeyaaaah). I must mention that I thought Lena Headey was pretty fantastic in this episode and in the previous. There’s so much love for this little monster because at her heart, she’s a mother who loves her son no matter what. During the Tywin/Tommen scene she just continues to stare at her son’s corpse, with anguish on her face, at one point quietly suggesting this isn’t the time or place for this conversation. And now that Jaime enters the room, he rapes her beside their son’s corpse, an intensely uncomfortable scene. Was that in the books the same way, Chris?

Christopher: No, in the books Cersei was still reluctant, but Jaime didn’t force her. An important difference here between the books and the series is that Jaime doesn’t return in the novel until after Joffrey is killed. In fact, it is in the presence of Joffrey’s corpse that Cersei sees him again for the first time, and that simple difference makes the hasty, uncomfortable sex somewhat more understandable (if still awkward and creepy. Also, in the novel, Cersei is having her period, which makes the scene more than just figuratively messy). I wondered to myself whether this rape scene—because, really, there’s no other way to describe it—was written for the express purpose of denuding our growing sympathy for Jaime. He has gone from being a smug and hateful villain to someone far more sympathetic and thoughtful. Did the writers think he needed to be taken down a notch? Or perhaps Cersei raised a little in our sympathies?

One way or another, I think the scene was a catastrophic misstep, made all the worse by the fact that the bit leading up to it was amazing. I agree with you entirely: Lena Headey was phenomenal here, her grief palpable and no less powerful for the fact that we’re all sitting there shouting at her that her son was a monster (or maybe that was just me). Jaime’s confusion was also poignant, as was his shock when Cersei implores him to kill Tyrion.  

I think part of my problem with this scene is rooted in my problem with Lena Headey as Cersei. As you know, she has long been the one bit of casting that hasn’t worked for me, which is no reflection on Headey’s acting—I think she’s done a superb job. But she plays Cersei as cold and aloof. There is very little sensuality there, very little sense of the pungent sexuality that addles the minds of the men about her. Which wouldn’t be a problem if I had any sense of chemistry between her and Jaime when they’re alone—all of their scenes together, alone, have tended to be him being flirtatious or ardent and her being standoffish. The one time before this we see them having sex—the scene that ends with Bran being thrown from the tower—I did not get the sense that she was into it at all.

By contrast, in this scene, that first moment when they kiss was the first bit of real chemistry I’ve seen between them. For a moment Cersei loses herself—but quickly recalls her grief. Jaime’s anger at being rebuffed, and the expression on his face as he stares at her, is a great little bit of face-acting. You can see the tumult in his mind: his desire for the woman he loves, his jealousy that she is more interested in grieving her son than being with him (which is consonant with the novels: Jaime’s POV chapters make it clear that he’s more or less indifferent to the children he fathered on Cersei—all he wants is her), and his helpless anger at being caught between his love for his sister and his love for his brother. That, I think, is where the “You’re a hateful woman” line comes from, her outsized loathing of Tyrion, but it is also perhaps the realization of a painful truth long suppressed.

But the rape? Frankly, it makes no sense, not unless you’re truly invested in keeping Jaime firmly on the villain side of the equation. I think it would have been a more powerful scene if he had just stalked out after the “hateful” line, with Cersei’s pleas following him.

I have a sneaking suspicion this scene will be fodder for a lot of arguments.

One last word on Tywin’s Socratic lesson with Tommen: I think you’re being somewhat optimistic there, Nikki … yes, Tommen is far more thoughtful and kind than Joffrey, and yes, I think we can look forward to a more equitable kingship under Tommen (always assuming, of course, that the principals here escape GRRM’s capricious death pen); but I saw this scene as Tywin cementing his power. Joffrey was unpredictable; we know his petulance and childishness sat poorly with his grandfather (of the various theories about who the poisoner is circulating on the web, this scene gives weight to those saying it was Tywin, who didn’t like being hand to a sociopathic king). What is the ultimate and more crucial lesson for Tommen? Wisdom is the most important quality for a king. “But what is wisdom?” Tywin asks. “A wise king knows what he knows and what he doesn’t.” Which is to say: listen to your advisers. Which is to say: listen to me. “Your brother was not a wise king,” he tells Tommen. “Your brother was not a good king. Perhaps if he was, he’d still be alive.” This last sentence spoken with a glance over his shoulder at the grieving Cersei as he leads Tommen away. This for me was the crux of the scene: visibly separating Tommen from his mother as he continues to murmur advice in his ear, Tywin silently rebukes his daughter for having been so catastrophically indulgent with Joffrey.

The next scene brings us back to Arya and the Hound, whom we had left at the end of episode one having vanquished a handful of Arya’s foes. Then, we were all delighted by their newfound camaraderie … but in this episode? It strikes me that this episode is, in part, about disillusionment. What did you think of the Hound’s cynical treatment of their host, Nikki?

Nikki: Just as the scene with Jaime and Cersei reverses our sympathies on both of them, so does this scene with the host turn my sympathies against the Hound. And yet, at the same time, cements his place as a guy you don’t mess with. On the one hand, I thought it was a dastardly thing to do, so awful and thoughtless, basically ensuring that they’ll starve even faster than what the Hound assumed was already inevitable. But on the other, I wouldn’t want the Hound to turn into a puppy, and we were on the road to that happening. They need to keep showing his teeth to remind us that he’s dangerous, and I like that about the character a lot. I still love his sarcasm most (when Arya says she wants a map and he growls, “Just point out the next map shop you see and I’ll buy you one” he is utterly brilliant), but I like this sense of danger about him so we never get too comfortable around him. Just as a Hound should be.

Arya is constant in her sense of justice for the weak, and therefore turns on the Hound with furious vengeance, but he instantly puts her in her place, cutting her deep by aligning her with the weak hosts he’d just robbed by telling her the weak end up dead, and adding, “How many Starks do they have to behead before you figure that out?”

Harsh. But important for her to see and understand. By ensuring she never gets too comfortable with things, he also prevents her from ever letting her guard down, which could be the thing that saves her in the end.

Meanwhile, in the North… Sam is worried that Gilly is surrounded by too many men of the Night’s Watch, and therefore relocates her to Molestown, a horrible dump of a town nearby filled with frightening people who loathe anyone or anything that comes from north of the Wall. Yeah… Gilly will be totally safe there. Yikes. As she was trying to settle the baby and turned her back on Sam, my heart broke for him, but I also was terrified. Will she even make it through the night there? Is Sam doing the right thing at all?

And then there’s Tyrion, my favourite. Imprisoned, blamed for the death of his little shit nephew, he meets with Podrick, who tells him Sansa is gone and there’s no one left to vouch for him. Even at his lowest, he still manages to crack a joke, saying that Cersei is the only one he believes is innocent, “which makes this unique as King’s Landing murders go.” Ha!! But even more importantly, he begs Podrick to testify against him if that’s what they’ve asked him to do, because while he wants to be exonerated, and we know he didn’t do it, it would kill him for Pod to be somehow sacrificed in the name of Cersei wanting Tyrion condemned above all others. There’s never a sense of defeat about Tyrion, even as he looks worried about it, as if he knows somehow he’ll get out of this pickle despite his sister wanting his head on a spike. He knows Cersei’s weaknesses, and maybe he’s already putting together a plan of how he can use them. Or, perhaps, he has a better relationship with Tommen than we know at this point, and if, as you say (clearly having a better sense of Tommen/Tywin and their future from the books than we do from the show at this point), Tywin is the one who’s really in charge at King’s Landing, would he really let Cersei kill Tyrion?

Speaking of knowing what’s coming up while reading the books, last season you mentioned that Stannis using the leeches was going to become very important, and in this episode he takes credit for Joffrey’s death and relates it back to that scene. What did you think of all the Stannis/Davos material this week? (And also, did you catch the Monty Python reference when Shireen tells him you can’t pronounce “knight” like “kuh-niggit”? Ha!!)

Christopher: I laughed almost as hard as when the Hound said, in the first episode, “Man’s gotta have a code.” I kind of love that the writers aren’t above tipping their hats to their audience. I also love the fact that, once upon a time, knight was pronounced “kuh-niggit” (or more like “kuh-nict,” actually), and that the Python boys all knew that (Terry Jones is actually a medieval scholar).

The Stannis/Davos scenes were much as their previous scenes have been this season—they feel a little like placeholders, reminding us that they’re there without doing much to advance that story. There was an acknowledgement of that in Stannis’ concern: that if he doesn’t press his suit, he’ll be forgotten. Certainly for the moment he’s doing little besides brooding on his rock while his wife descends further into religious fanaticism. That being said, there seemed to be the suggestion that Davos is about to change the game. The scene with Shireen was interesting, as it unfolded similarly in the novel—except that his epiphany was dramatically different, so I’m not sure what’s happening now, aside from that he seems to be about to take out a loan from the Iron Bank of Braavos … or possibly not. Recall from when Tyrion was Master of Coin last season, and he lamented the sorry state of the throne’s finances to his father? The Iron Throne was in a lot of debt to, among others, the Iron Bank. Perhaps Davos sees an opportunity …

But if I can return for a moment to the Hound and Arya scenes … the Hound is such a great character, in both the series and the novels—and Rory McCann has done a spectacular job in portraying his odd blend of pathos, cruelty, and personal ethics, all sedimented over top of profound, roiling anger. GRRM does a disturbingly good job of depicting out-and-out sociopaths like Joffrey, Viserys, or the Hound’s brother Gregor, but it’s the characters like Sandor Clegane that set these novels apart and add a degree of complexity you don’t find in fantasy that imitates the Tolkien model. He is a distinctly Darwinian character: adaptable but merciless in the face of weakness. He is not wantonly cruel—he leaves the farmer and his daughter alive and unmolested—but unsentimental. He made a cold calculation: sooner or later other bandits would be along to kill the man and his daughter for their silver. If they’re about to lose it anyway, it might as well go in his purse.

Arya’s fury at this seeming betrayal is something of a relief, too. There has been a sense since the two of them paired up that they’re both changing each other, with the Hound becoming more sympathetic and Arya becoming colder and more ruthless. Watching her kill Polliver in the first episode was deeply satisfying, but also disturbing: we’ve watched Arya go from playing at violence with Syrio to becoming a practiced and unflinching killer. It’s good to see that her basic understanding of right and wrong hasn’t changed, though one wonders how much longer it will endure.

Tyrion’s scene was heartbreaking, and it offers a cynical commentary on life in King’s Landing. He knows all too well that he dooms himself in ordering Pod to accept the bribe—but also that his loyal squire would be dead if he did not. In ordering him to save his own life, Tyrion shows more capacity for human compassion than any display of grief on his sister’s part could. He has been an adept player of the game of thrones, but at a certain point he cannot do what his father, sister, Littlefinger, et al do, which is see other people merely as pieces on the board. At a certain point, he is unwilling to sacrifice others for his own sake. Whereas his father capitalizes on events to cement his power, offering Oberyn revenge on the Mountain in exchange for his cooperation and thus solidifying Dorne’s loyalty. “Give it to my father,” says Tyrion, “He never fails to take advantage of a family tragedy.”

Meanwhile, in the North, Tormund’s wildling band, augmented by the terrifying Thenns, descend on a village, killing all but a child they send to Castle Black . Speaking of characters we’ve grown to love behaving viciously, we see Ygritte killing helpless people as efficiently as Alabaster Seal does. What did you think of this spot of pillaging, Nikki?

Nikki: The Thenns are terrifying in a way the wildlings never were. The wildlings were feared, but the Thenns are merciless, and when they kill, they eat the corpses. Now that the wildlings are working with them, they become an unstoppable army, made all the more real when we move to Castle Black and realize that they have 100… against 100,000 of Mance Rayder’s people. AND… they still have rangers up at Craster’s whom they know will tell Rayder that. If Rayder finds out just how unmanned that Wall really is, the south doesn’t stand a chance.

And then there’s Daenerys over at Meereen. Back in episode 1, neither of us was too sure of this new casting of Busted Josh Groban for Daario, but he sort of won me over in this scene, where he goes up against Meereen’s champion in a literal pissing contest. Daenerys once again goes for numbers over seeming power when she targets the slaves, telling them that they could be free to follow her if they just throw off their collars. And then she hurls all the collars at the city — the ones they’d been taking off the mile-marker corpses that they’ve been burying for the past 163 miles. It’s a glorious scene, especially when you see the looks on the faces of the slaves, followed by the realization on the faces of the slave-owners. Ruh-roh. I’ve pledged my allegiance to House Targaryen since season 1, and my loyalty remains unchanged.

We haven’t yet discussed Tywin jockeying for the support of the Dornish by offering Oberyn a seat on the judge’s council at Tyrion’s trial, where he reminds the viewer that he’s trying to unite the Seven Kingdoms against my girl Dany. I’ll leave the final word on this to you, Chris.

Christopher: If Tywin could have witnessed the final scene of this episode and seen Daenerys in action, he’d be a whole lot more anxious about things, I think. Daenerys will be a formidable enemy not because she gains the people’s respect (though she does) or inspires fear, but because she has earned their love. However masterful a strategist Tywin is, he will never be loved—though he’ll do his best to make certain Tommen is.

We haven’t developed a solid sense of Dorne as a place yet—in the novels we learn it is sort of the outlier of the Seven Kingdoms, and has always had a fairly elevated sense of itself (which is why Oberyn’s brother calls himself a “prince” rather than just the Lord of Dorne). Meeting Oberyn and Ellaria certainly evokes the sense of its exoticism. This episode kind of bludgeoned us with the stark contrast by having Tywin walk in on what was essentially a mini-orgy—and reminded us that Tywin is a cool customer, keeping his face utterly impassive while Oberyn flaunts his hedonism. I of course know what will come of this putative alliance, so I’ll just say that for all of Tywin’s shrewd plotting, one wonders if he underestimates the passions of other.

And that is all for this week! Tune in next week, for the further adventures of Chris and Nikki watching television and yakking about it!


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Suzanne said...

Great review as always! It is really nice to be able to come here to read both of your thoughts after each episode. I enjoyed this one but not as much as last weeks. I was hoping for a scene between Jamie and Tyrion, but that was when I was feeling more sympathetic towards Jamie. The rape scene is definitely making me change my mind about him -- again. After reading your review and seeing how that scene was changed from the books, I think they might have made a mistake. It might have gone a step too far.

The ending with Dani was awesome!

Annie said...

Thanks for another great review! I always look forward to coming here and reading what you all have to say about the episode.

I've read through book 3 at this point, and I was also surprised and unhappy about the rape scene near Joff's coffin. I still don't understand why they made that change.

I also had to wonder how Littlefinger knew that Joff was dead? Didn't Sansa and Dontos leave immediately after Joffery died? How would Littlefinger have already known?

Bill Gilligan said...

This article is well worth the read as an examination of the now infamous scene.