Wednesday, May 28, 2014

What Else I'm Watching: Mad Men

As I mentioned in yesterday's blog, I'm going to devote this non–Game of Thrones/Walking Dead week to say that yes, I actually am watching other television. But pairing up with Christopher Lockett on GoT and Joshua Winstead for TWD means they actually kick my butt to do blog posts, which is why I'm consistent with those shows now and nothing else.

But that doesn't mean I'm not watching. Because I'm watching a TON.

And among those shows is Mad Men. It feels like it just started a couple of weeks ago, and yet here we are at the "mid-season finale" (what a load of bunk, by the way; it's the same thing they did with Breaking Bad and it's no less irritating). These season has seen Don Draper having to make up for falling apart last weekend, drunkenly making his way through the office, destroying business and losing accounts. After being forced on a paid leave, this season he lies to everyone around him, not letting anyone know he's actually being forced to stay at home. Megan is off on the west coast living in Laurel Canyon, trying to get her acting career moving again and enjoying the freer side of the late-'60s lifestyle, not realizing that the reason her husband isn't actually with her has nothing to do with having to go to a 9-5 job every day, and everything to do with burying his own pride.

And yet... it all just felt wrong. Yes, in a way Mad Men is happening in real time. We're in season 7, and we're about 10 years after the first episode (it's mentioned briefly that it's 1959 in that premiere episode, although in the next episode they zip it to 1960), so with the exception of fast-forwarding some time here and there, time has passed for us the same way it's passed for them. And yet, with us being the voyeurs looking inward, we can look back and see how far they've come. And the way they're all treating Don now is justified in some ways, but hurts in others.

As I've said on here before, Mad Men is a great show, but when the scene features Peggy and Don, it raises the show up to something extraordinary. The chemistry between Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss is wonderful. There's no romantic inclinations between them at all — he stopped that in its tracks in the very first episode, after Joan counselled Peggy to "be there" for her boss should he need that sort of thing and Peggy decided to try it — but instead they are like mentor and student... and then colleagues, then equals, and rivals. Her trajectory has been upwards, with a few bumps along the way, while he started the series near the top, then went through the stratosphere, and then his rock bottom. Emotionally and personally, Peggy hit rock bottom, too: we all remember her getting pregnant by Pete and suffering an emotional breakdown because of the way she buried the reality of what was happening to her. She didn't hide the pregnancy; she refused to acknowledge it. And when a baby suddenly came out of her, her mental collapse was complete. She was self-destructive, giving the child away, lying to Pete and everyone around her... and Don was the only one sitting by her side. Not being a shoulder to cry on, but the giver of harsh words, telling her to get up, face the world, become another person, and bury this. At once he was in her corner, but also pushing her out of that corner and telling her to give it a stiff upper lip. He was the only one she could confide in, the only one who figured out what had happened and searched for her until he found her in that hospital bed... but maybe the advice he gave her was more destructive than helpful. Their rivalry, which has jumped back and forth every season from her appealing to him and him shooting her down, to him coming to her with praise and her refusing to accept it, and then these tiny moments where they're both on the same page, as they were this year dancing in Peggy's office on a weekend as she's struggling with the copy for the ad. I still think "The Suitcase" is THE single best episode of the series, and it sits right in the middle of the show's run, like the perfect centrepiece from which every episode grows, and that has everything to do with Moss and Hamm just killing every scene.

I love this dress SO MUCH.
Joan has shown nothing but contempt for Don this season, and I'll have to admit, in the beginning I was confused as to why. She's a partner only because she spread her legs for a client and was offered a partnership to do so, and Don was the only one of the partners who found this reprehensible. He rushed to her apartment to tell her not to do this, that she's better than this, and she just smiled and kissed him and patted him on the cheek. He didn't realize she'd already done the deed, and she didn't tell him. But she knew that he cared for her. So why is she SO angry with him now? In his drunken phase, he came in and imploded the company; he drove clients away; he lost all of the partners money. If Joan was going to lose her dignity and sense of self-worth, the least she could do is pad her pockets with enough money that her son will have a better life. But now Don took away that money, her chance at becoming a millionaire, and she's furious for it. All of the men sitting at the partners table are advertising geniuses who worked their way to get there: Joan is a secretary who slept with an important client to get the business. In some ways, she doesn't seem to deserve a spot at that table. But we know how smart Joan is, how much of a lynchpin she's always been for that company, how she's kept things running smoothly behind the scenes, and how Sterling-Cooper owes much of what it is to how she kept the daily operations going, and was often even helping out with ad copy. And what she was asked to do was unforgivable. So yes, Joan deserves her spot at that table, and deserves to be angry at Don for what he did to hurt that position. Still, every time she glared at him this season or raised her hand to vote to turf him, I was saddened. I miss the camaraderie the two of them had, and the way he was always there to talk to her, not taking advantage of her the way Roger did.

And then there's Pete. Just as that hairline recedes more every year (they shave it on the show to make it look more severe than it actually is), so do Pete's morals. As he's cavorting with women, he becomes furious if he thinks his wife might be out on a date. He's always been a boor, but the scene when he took his beer bottle and stuffed it into the cake that his wife had made was classic Pete. And yet of all the people, this guy who has hated Don from the very beginning, the one who found out about Dick Whitman in season 1 and threatened to spill the beans, is the one who's in his corner now. Pete is nothing if not endlessly pragmatic. Despite everything, he knows that Don is great at what he does (when sober) and that he deserves a second chance, if only to put more cash into Pete's pockets. He doesn't care about retribution; he just wants Don back on the horse making money for the company.

Betty has been relegated to a side story, as have her children (which is too bad, because Kiernan Shipka just gets better and better every year as Sally Draper), but since the central story is Don, there's not a lot to be covered with them anymore if they're no longer in his life.

Megan is younger than Don, and he warned her early on that he worried their age difference might become a problem, but now that he's in a crisis at work, but she's wanting to live in the 1960s of free love and flower children, the generation gap has become insurmountable. We only see them together a couple of times this season, and otherwise he's in New York while she's talking to him on her hideous green phone (my parents totally had that phone). At one point she breaks down, having discovered that he's been lying to her about his job, and she tells him that it's over. But just as Don doesn't realize that being put on indefinite leave at the company means he's being turfed and can never go back, he doesn't seem to grasp that Megan telling him that it's over means IT IS OVER. She's ready to move on, he just seems to be in the way when he comes to her place, and when at one point he tries to pawn off one of his stray cats on her — Anna Draper's niece — Megan gives her some brief help before writing her a cheque to send her on her way. Of course, much of that had to do with the fact that Stephanie casually said she knew everything about Don, whom Megan still finds somewhat of an enigma, and she no longer wanted this person in her house. But on another level, she's finished with Don, and doesn't want to be picking up the pieces of his life anymore.

And so we come to the final episode. A man has just set foot on the moon, changing the world and the way we see it forever. Don has tried to come back to work, but has been turned into a guy writing tags for Peggy, taking orders from underlings, and being imprisoned by a partners contract that's as stifling as it is condescending. Don should be at the top of his game, but because he let his personal demons take over — and then affect those around him — he's paying the price. Watching him sit at a typewriter or being lambasted in meetings rather than being treated with some deference and respect is SO painful at times. We can't help but think how much he's helped every one of these people around him, how he's been there for them when they were down. But then we can't help but remember that each one of these people tried to help him when he was at the bottom, and he pushed them all away. Now that he's sober, with his head hanging in submission, they're not ready to forgive him easily. And despite him kidding himself into thinking he'll be safe, that his marriage will survive, and that he'll claw his way back to being the Don Draper of old, it's over. As a man makes a giant leap for mankind, Don lets go of the reins of the Burger Chef account, and tells Peggy it's hers now. He calls Megan and finally accepts that she's done with him. And then Bert Cooper dies.

Bert's death hits Roger the hardest, obviously, since the two men were once the only two names on that partner's wall. But in the midst of his grief, and knowing he's about to lose Don for good, he makes a play no one saw coming: he goes to McCann and offers them the company. McCann has wanted Sterling-Cooper — and specifically, Don — for some time now. They made Don a sweet offer earlier this season, and he came storming into Sterling-Cooper in the midst of his leave and waved the offer in Roger's face, who haughtily told him to take it. But Don just couldn't do it. However, he gave Roger the card that Roger needed, and knowing how badly they wanted Don, he knew this could be his way out. Roger's just been sitting in that office, drinking and not doing much, and he's been ready to move on for a long time. The ad agency is just a hobby — and more often than not, an albatross around his neck — and he's wanted a way out. But he needed to get his money out of the deal first.

So when he goes to the other partners and tells them what he's done, they're at first horrified, and then suddenly pleased when they know how much they stand to gain from this. All the money (and more) that they believe Don stole from them due to his behaviour last season is now back in their pockets, and it's all because of Don. Roger is the one who entirely orchestrated the deal, but it's the creatives they want. Say what you want about McCann, but unlike the gong show that Sterling-Cooper-Draper-whatever has become, McCann doesn't put the money guys before the creatives. They know that by buying the company, what they're getting is Ted and Don. Don manages to get Ted on board for the deal, and in doing so, helps Roger seal it. After the Season Where Don Was Humbled, he walks out of the meeting with everyone suddenly forgiving him (amazing how you forget all the good Don has done when he's cost you a million dollars, and then forget that you hated him when he gets it back for you) and Don once again on top. He's running the show, he's back where he should be, and he's in charge.

But back to Bert. We see Bert for the last time sitting on his couch, smiling as he sees man take a step on the moon. And happy in knowing the world has changed in 1969, he dies. Robert Morse found fame in the Broadway musical How to Succeed in Business without Trying, playing a young up-and-coming executive who tries to prove himself in a corporation. Here's a scene of him in that musical, when he was just a tad younger than Don Draper is supposed to be at the same time:

So when Don leaves the meeting and suddenly turns to see a vision of Bert Cooper singing and dancing (in sock feet, of course!) the song "The Best Things in Life Are Free," it was an overwhelmingly joyful moment. I glanced over at my husband, who had a big silly grin on his face that matched my own. What a wonderful, perfect way to send off that character, and to pay tribute to the actor's own background and significance during the very time period the show is portraying. In this moment, Don realizes that it's not all about money and power and finding your way to the top; it's about everything else. It's about the life he's lived, the people he's lived it with, and the experiences he's had. Even the terrible things that happened to him are important, because they made him who he is.

"Love can come to everyone, the best things in life are free."

But Don just made millions for Sterling-Cooper. He's running the show again. So what's the significance of this song? I'd like to think that Don will move on. If the series had ended here (and it very well could have) we would all be satisfied that Don got his mojo back, and that he's back on top. But there are seven more episodes, and I doubt they'll be episodes of him showing how awesome he is and doing more Kodak carousel–type pitches. I'd love to see Don striking out on his own, becoming his own person, and finding a way to embrace the Dick Whitman he once was and know that it's because of that man that he's the Don Draper he now is. Maybe this will mean him being pulled up to the top of McCann and becoming a partner there, and making that company McCann-Draper. Maybe they'll have him set up a satellite office elsewhere, where he can begin again. What I want is to see him moving forward, and this episode would indicate just that.

Despite everything, despite Don being such a loathsome character at times, we still want to see him win, just like we want all of our antiheroes to — see Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey, Walter White. I'm happy to know they're returning for a final seven episodes, to wrap up everything, help Don find some peace, and show us where they'll be headed in the 1970s. (Spoiler: bell bottoms, oil crisis, and glam rock.)

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

What Else I'm Watching: Hannibal S2

(The first part of this review contains no spoilers; I'll let you know when they begin.)
Sadly there is no Game of Thrones episode this week (although the trailers for it have been KILLER so I'm dying for this week's episode!) So to fill the space, I thought this week I'd talk about a couple of other shows I'm watching but just don't find the time to write about. The first is Hannibal. I wrote about it last year in a post telling people they really should be watching this show.

Created by Bryan Fuller, the mastermind behind such shows as Pushing Daisies and Wonderfalls, Hannibal would seem like strange territory for Fuller to be dabbling in, considering his shows tend to be quirky comedies. Dead Like Me, a series he created but left a few episodes in over creative differences, tended to mine a darker side of Fuller's sensibility, but it still maintained that over-the-top goofiness that pervades his other shows.

Hannibal, on the other hand, is the goriest, darkest series on television right now. The humour is dark and backstabby, not at all what it is on his other shows. And yet... it's a Fuller show through and through. One of my favourite things about Pushing Daisies was the look of the show: the brightly coloured dresses and paint on the walls; the wildly decorated house that the sisters lived in; the way the camera would pull back to reveal a fairy-tale-like world that was bursting with magic realism. In one episode, we see how the two sisters once performed a mermaid act underwater, and the act is shown to us using little paper dolls slowly swimming under the water. It was breathtaking, like nothing I'd ever seen on TV before. And it was classic Fuller. Somehow, without sacrificing the writing or the acting, his shows manage to focus on the direction, specifically the art direction, and they become these perfect little jewels to look at. Pushing Daisies is a show that is so funny and sweet and sad, yet you could put it on mute and just marvel at the very look of it.

Hannibal is one part superb acting, one part fantastic writing, one part Mads Mikkelsen (YES HE GETS HIS OWN PART), and three parts art direction. There is nothing — nothing — on television that looks like this show. Not even close. The food that Hannibal prepares is shown from strange angles, as we watch it sizzle in the pan, veggies being diced as their colours fly across the screen, and then sumptuously laid out on the table in Hannibal's sublime dining room for the guest hungrily awaiting... the one who doesn't realize that like soylent green, Hannibal's food IS PEOPLE. We know it's people, and yet... it looks so good. (Although I can't help but wonder how two people will eat a platter of food that looks like it was made for a dinner party of 30, but I digress...)

If you haven't watched the show yet, give it a shot. It's meant as the prequel to the first novel in Harris's series, Red Dragon, and next season the show will be moving in that direction to coincide with the events in the book. If you are a fan of the books and movies, there are several nods to both already, and they've also played with some of the story lines, with some characters having a very different trajectory than they did in the books.

A couple of weeks ago Entertainment Weekly featured a column that complained about the gore on TV, saying it wasn't scary. That for all the blood and guts on Hannibal and The Walking Dead, sometimes not showing it is far scarier and these shows are missing the point of what horror really is. I think the columnist was the one missing the point. "Horror" is defined as an intense feeling of fear, shock or disgust. That last one applies beautifully to Hannibal in every episode. But what Fuller has created isn't just horror; it's an examination of human psychology. The writers aren't concerned with why Hannibal is the way he is, but how he can manipulate others, and whether or not he, in turn, can be manipulated. What makes him tick? If he's impermeable, then how could Will Graham reach him and influence him in some way. The best part of the series is the cat-and-dog chase between Will and Hannibal, watching who has the upper hand and why. The horror generated by this show is a very real horror, a horror at how the human mind works, how our morals can be overcome, and how they can be manipulated.

For those who HAVE watched the show, and just watched the season 2 finale this past weekend, let's talk. (spoilers begin here)

Just when you think that you've seen everything on television there is to see, a horse is opened up and a dead woman's body slides out. And when you've pushed the popcorn to one side because that was so horrific you can't even think of food, they open up her chest cavity and a bird flies out. Good GOD. I've never EVER seen anything like that on, well, anything. Move aside, movies — you've been trumped once again.

And, of course, that scene followed the one where we saw Beverly's body sliced like a hardboiled egg, standing upright but in 7 or 8 different pieces. Followed by Hannibal putting her kidney through a meat grinder. AAAHHH!! OH... and THAT followed the scene of the guy waking up as part of the colour palette tableau and ripping himself out of it, as his sewn body parts ooze off his face and arms because he's ripping himself apart out of desperation. Or how about the time when he feeds Eddie Izzard his own leg as his last supper?

This has been a helluva season for gore.

But like I said above, the gore is like the zombies dying on The Walking Dead — it's horrific, and it's the parts we'll be talking about for ages, but it's there to unsettle us, to let our guards down as they pummel us with the real horror. The true heart of the show is in the psychology of each of the characters. We watch Hannibal manipulate his patients into not getting better, but becoming worse. They have turned to him to try to work out their problems, and he teaches them not to see their mental illnesses as problems, but something to be embraced. We watch, fascinated, as they embrace their dark sides, as a brother cuts out his sister's uterus and then eats his own face as retribution for it. Are the Verger siblings just pawns in the endless game between Hannibal and Will? Since they're in the books, we know we'll be seeing them again.

And yet, for all of the manipulation, the saddest point in the entire season has to be when Bella Crawford comes to Hannibal to free herself from the cancer eating her alive. She wants a witness to tell Jack that his wife died peacefully, and that her last thought was how much she loved Jack. Hannibal watches the life quickly drain from her, sits a moment, and then injects adrenaline into her jugular, snapping her awake and forcing her to live the rest of her days in pain, agony, enduring the sorrowful looks from her husband. In a spectacular twist, Hannibal's worst act of the season isn't killing someone, but giving them life.

And in the midst of an episode where we have the matroyshka dolls of disgusting, as one creature is buried inside another which is buried inside another, what stands out above all of that is the acting of the incomparable Jeremy Davies, who is always asked to play outstandingly loopy, and handles it with aplomb every time. His character in the horse episode makes Daniel Faraday look stable.

Fuller has definitely played with the books a bit. Dr. Chilton, the doctor who haunts Hannibal once he's caught, who makes his life so miserable, and is probably best known to movie fans as the one Hannibal is referring to when he says to Clarice at the end of Silence of the Lambs that he's "having an old friend for dinner," DIES in this series. So... it would appear that Will is going to become that nemesis for him. It was exciting to have Mason Verger show up, although I couldn't help but immediately picture the horrific face he ultimately has in the movie Hannibal after most of his face is gnawed off. They moved that story up considerably into these early days on the TV series, rather than having that be something that happens much later when Hannibal is older. Freddie Lounds is a woman rather than a man, and when she was apparently killed off I was very surprised, because as annoying as I've always found Freddie in the books and movies, he/she is still pretty key to the story. But it turns out that was all a ruse. One that is ultimately Will's undoing in the end.

Hannibal is superb television. In the past few years, there has been a movement among critics to pan anything that's network, to say that television is in a golden age right now (I completely agree) but that the best stuff is over on cable: if it ain't on HBO, Showtime, AMC, or FX, it's not worth watching. For the most part, that really has become the case. But Hannibal, and a handful of other shows, are proving this wrong. People watch cable because it's edgier, because you're allowed sex and swearing without any concerns. Of course, graphic violence apparently isn't something that needs to be hidden over on cable, and network television is allowed to be as graphic, bloody, and horrific as they want to be. Just, you know, don't show a boob. (I think these restrictions really say something about us as a culture, but that's another blog post.)

But as long as Bryan Fuller has a show on network television, you can never say it's not edgy, pushing boundaries at every turn. His examinations of why people do the things they do, and the beauty with which he presents them, are sublime. I was THRILLED when Hannibal got picked up for a third season two weeks ago, and hardcore fans of this show were cheering everywhere. We ended season 2 in such a way that if the show had been cancelled at the end of season 2, we would assume Alana, Will, Abigail, and Jack were all going to die in the house as Hannibal walks away from everything, into a new life. However, season 3 means that at least some of them will survive, and the cat-and-mouse game will begin anew. And I cannot wait for that to happen.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Game of Thrones: 4.07 Mockingbird

And welcome to week 7 (already?!) of our Game of Thrones recaps, where we discuss champions, direwolf-shaped bread, and how mockingbirds sing as they show others how to fly... through the Moon Door.

Here we go!

Nikki: This week opens with the Kingslayer and He Who Is Accused of Being a Kingslayer. Poor Tyrion is still reeling from his treatment at the hands of Shae, and doesn’t seem to be clear enough yet to realize that she did what she did out of heartbreak. “Yes, I fell in love with a whore,” he tells Jaime, “and I was stupid enough to think she’d fallen in love with me.” She really did give her heart to Tyrion, despite what he thinks, and he doesn’t realize that he took that heart and shattered it into a million pieces, because if he’d held onto it the way he’d wanted to, she’d be dead. But SHE doesn’t know that he was sacrificing himself to save her, and so she committed her act of pure revenge.

Tyrion had declared at the end of last week’s episode that he wants a trial by combat, and he wants a champion, and that becomes the theme of this week’s episode. Jaime was the one he wanted, and Jaime turns him down. He’s scared, and through his lessons he knows he’s no match for anyone anymore. He was cocky and self-assured at the beginning of the season, knowing he could fight with his other hand better than most people fight with their regular hand, but his lessons have taught him differently. And the Mountain, as we saw in that one grotesque scene, is quite the formidable foe. Poor Tyrion is lost, and tries one last feeble joke on his brother, telling him he’s the golden child, and wouldn’t it be funny to see their father’s face as the family name is snuffed out with one blow. Jaime actually considers it for a moment, but realizes he values his own life, and were he to step into the ring, both he and Tyrion would be dead.

And so Tyrion tries Bronn, the man who was his champion the last time. But Bronn isn’t the sellsword that he once was, willing to step up and fight for Tyrion for a few pieces of silver. Now he’s dressed in fancy clothes and betrothed a woman who will ensure him a castle (as long as he gets rid of the older pesky heir, of course) and has no need for Tyrion and his shekels. “I like you . . . I just like myself more,” he tells Tyrion, reminding him that despite theirs being a friendship that is actually important to him, Tyrion has never risked his life for Bronn. Tyrion resignedly accepts Bronn’s refusal. It’s easy to hate Bronn in this scene — after all, he was nothing but a sellsword wandering the lands before he took Tyrion’s challenge and saved his life at the Eyrie, and made a lot of money doing so. Since then he’s been at Tyrion’s side, receiving favours and being given higher positions of power at King’s Landing due to Tyrion’s continued favours, and along the way has mocked Tyrion’s every move and talked about what a ridiculous family the Lannisters are. And . . . actually, yeah, it is easy to hate Bronn in this scene. And for a moment, I thought they were going to actually attempt a David and Goliath thing when Tyrion joked that he could go up against the Mountain himself. “Wouldn’t that make for a great song?” he says.

Until the real champion enters the room. We talked about Oberyn last week, Chris, and what a fantastic character he is, both funny and casual, yet cunning and as full of political maneuvering as the next guy. But there’s a deeper purpose behind Oberyn’s actions: he knows what the Lannisters did to him, and specifically what horrors the Mountain enacted upon his sister, a sister he loved very much. The scene where he tells Tyrion about seeing him for the first time as a baby, a tiny misshapen thing that young Cersei had told him was a monster, is heartbreaking. We all talked about Dinklage’s incredible performance last week, but the one he gives during this scene might have topped it: he doesn’t say a word as Oberyn tells the story, but instead sits there, eyes welling with tears, jaw moving in fixed, clenched hatred of a sister who seemed to have despised him from the beginning, a little girl who would come in and pinch his pink cock, as Oberyn put it, until he thought she’d squeeze it right off and Jaime would have to stop her. Tyrion knows that Cersei has hated him for as long as he can remember, but it’s during this story he realizes she’s hated him even longer. At the trial he told Tywin he was on trial for being a dwarf. Now he realizes that as far as Cersei is concerned, he’s on trial for murdering her mother as well as her son.

“It’s rare to meet a Lannister who shares my enthusiasm for dead Lannisters,” Oberyn says of Cersei. But he’s not on her side. She’s a true Lannister, and one who backs the Mountain as her champion. And if the man who killed his niece and nephew before brutally raping his sister Elia (before slicing her in half with his giant sword) is going to be the Lannister’s champion, he will be the one to fight him.

What a song that will make. I hope they’re singing it for centuries afterwards.

If he does win, I wish he could head north to the Wall and take out Ser Alliser while he’s at it. That guy drives me nuts. What did you think of the non-celebration upon Jon Snow’s return, Chris?

Christopher:  GRRM’s talent for writing hateful characters is nowhere more evident than with Ser Alliser Thorne (well, and Joffrey). His sustained animosity toward Jon Snow is as consistent as it is vaguely baffling … especially when it flies in the face of common sense, as with Jon’s suggestion that they block the tunnels through the Wall. Tunnels can be re-built, but a massive wildling army south of the Wall would do more damage than Thorne seems to want to admit, to say nothing of leaving the Wall breached for the inevitable invasion of ice zombies.

The scenes at the Wall, however infuriating Ser Alliser is, felt a little like a placeholder—we’re in a holding pattern at the Wall, waiting for the arrival of Mance’s army. But then the rest of this episode felt like a placeholder. It was all quite good, don’t get me wrong, unlike the previous two episodes, not much actually happened (until the very end—but we’ll get to that). We do however get a new installment in the saga of Arya Stark’s unsentimental education, and another example of the common folk suffering in the aftermath of the war. “Who were they?” Arya asks the wounded farmer. “I stopped asking a while ago,” he replies, and his calm resignation in the last minutes of his life speaks less to stoicism than to exhaustion. Who were they? It matters not at all whether Lannister or Stark, Ironborn or Northmen is burning your home and plundering your coin. As we learned a few episodes ago, if the farmer had not already been attacked, the Hound would not have been adverse to relieving him of whatever meager wealth he possessed. The war might be over for the nobility, but the common folk still suffer.

The Hound performs what he considers an act of kindness, putting the man out of his misery … only to be attacked by the men who (presumably) are responsible for sacking the farm, one of whom shared a cage with Jaqen H’ghar—a particularly nasty piece of work named Rorge. I was wondering if we were going to see him again, considering that he actually plays a somewhat more substantial role in the novels than he has so far in the series. I was wondering to myself, as he stood facing off against the Hound, “How is he going to escape this now so he can … Oh. OK, Arya killed him.” Apparently she took the Hound’s anatomy lesson to heart (get it? to “heart”? Oh, I kill me), and I think I was even more surprised than Rorge at Arya’s quick little thrust to his chest. I guess they’ll have to introduce another psychopathic killer to play the role Rorge plays later in the story …

What did you think of the ongoing Hound and Arya story, Nikki?

Nikki: Ooh, I’m intrigued by the fact there’s another psychopath later in the books, whether he be Rorge or not. As you say, with the exception of the conclusion a lot of the episode felt like exposition to get us to whatever’s going to happen next, but what I did like about the scenes with the Hound and Arya is that it moved their relationship a little further. As we discussed a few episodes ago, they can’t make the Hound completely sympathetic or he’ll lose the danger he’s supposed to pose to Arya at every turn. However, they can certainly give us some insight into his character and allow us to see things from his perspective. Yes, he could turn on Arya or anyone who does him wrong at any moment, but at least as an audience we’ll understand why.

In season one, at the jousting tournament for Robert Baratheon, Baelish sat with Sansa and told her the story of the Mountain and the Hound. He said it like he was telling a ghost story around a campfire, turning the Monster into a true monster, and it wasn’t clear if he was just telling a story to scare the shit out of Sansa or if it was actually true. (I believe in the books it’s simply stated by the narrator, so you know it to be true, but in the show it wasn’t as clear.) Now we have it stated by the Hound himself: his own brother stuck his face in the fire because Sandor was playing with Gregor’s toy. And much like with Tyrion hearing the story about himself as a baby, here we are reminded that the Hound was a mere child once, being horribly abused by his own brother, and we’re also reminded that he’s human, and that he can be hurt emotionally. As he tells Arya, the pain was bearable, the smell was worse, but it was the fact that his own brother did it — and that his own father covered it up by telling everyone that his bedding had caught on fire, thus letting Gregor off the hook — that showed him where his place was in the world. He has always been alone.

For me one of the best parts of the episode was when Podrick, of all people, figured out where the Hound might actually be headed after he and Brienne discover that Arya is really and truly alive. I was thrilled when Brienne complimented the cook on his kidney pie and then the camera turned to reveal Hot Pie standing there! We see he’s doing well and thriving as a cook in this pub, and has been able to hone his craft (the bread direwolf that he sends with Brienne is much better than the one he’d made for Arya before). Where before Brienne and Podrick were presented as a comic duo, now we see just how well they work together. Brienne tells Hot Pie the truth about their quest, and where Podrick correctly thinks they should hold their cards closer to their chest, Brienne is the one who’d correctly asserted that Hot Pie was not their enemy and could be trusted. We’ve seen that Podrick is incredibly loyal, worthy in battle when he defended Tyrion and saved his life, and apparently very good with the ladies, but now we see just how brilliant he is when he deduces that if the Hound has Arya he must be taking her to the Eyrie because that’s the only place where he’d get a ransom.

Of course, now all I can think of is that if it’s like any other scene where Starks are about to come together (see Red Wedding and Bran and Jon a couple of episodes ago), either the Hound isn’t going to make it up the hill to the Eyrie or Sansa will have disappeared before he gets there, and Brienne and Podrick will be captured. Oh GRRM, how you frustrate us so!!

Speaking of frustrated, poor Selyse walks in upon Melisandre in her bath and not only has to continue to show her unwavering devotion, but must do so while gazing on the gorgeous body of the woman who has been with her husband. What did you make of that discussion?

Christopher:  Well, first and foremost I was impressed with just how much Tara Fitzgerald has allowed herself to be so dowdied up. Carice van Houten is an extremely beautiful women, to be certain, but so is Fitzgerald—when I first heard she was cast as the unattractive Selyse—who is described as plain, dowdy, and chinless—I wondered why they were departing from the novels in casting someone with Fitzgerald’s striking looks. But they’ve chosen to make Selyse severe and angular, turning her into an ascetic as well as a fanatic. We haven’t seen much of Selyse so far in the series; this encounter went a long way to explicating the power dynamic between the priestess and the would-be queen.

My initial reaction to this scene was to roll my eyes a little, as it first appears to be yet more classic Game of Thrones sexposition (without the actual sex), an excuse to let the camera linger on Melissandre’s naked form while she and Selyse talk. But I think you put your finger on it (that’s what she said) in observing that it works as a goad to poor Selyse, whom we assume to have taken to Melissandre’s religion with such passion to compensate for the fact that there is utterly no passion in her marriage to dutiful, cold Stannis. As I’ve noted previously, in the novels there is no sex between the priestess and Stannis, and I was dubious when, in a moment of rather hamfisted symbolism, she did him on the giant map of Westeros. Then I had about the same thought I had in this scene: that they were introducing this plot point as an excuse to get Carice van Houten naked (as with her seduction of Gendry). To be certain, it does seem that the writers have a bit of a crush on van Houten, as she has replaced Esme Bianco (Ros) as Character Most Likely To Get Naked. But upon reflection, I think that the series has made the relationships on Dragonstone somewhat more complex, and made Melissandre at once more human and more inscrutable. In the books, she is painfully beautiful but also aloof, operating (from what we gather) entirely according to whatever religious impetus brought her to Stannis to start with. The series’ Melissandre appears as slightly more self-interested. Sleeping with Stannis, we begin to suspect, wasn’t merely a religious rite; she has insinuated herself into the life of the man she wishes to place on the Iron Throne, and her conversation with Selyse delineates exactly how the power dynamic now works. Yes, it was a typical bit of Game of Thrones gratuitous nudity; but while van Houten’s nudity means to titillate the audience, Melissandre’s means to intimidate Selyse. As I’ve said before, there are many moments when this show uses female nudity as an assertion of power, such as the scene between Brienne and Jaime in the baths, or when Daenerys defiantly stands and stares down Daario Naharis 1.0.  It is significant that part of Melissandre’s monologue deals with the trickery a priestess like her has to engage in: what powders and potions will put on a show for the credulous, but also which ones actually have power. The larger meaning here isn’t exactly subtle: Melissandre knows how to dazzle, how to impress, how to seduce … some tasks require magical assistance, some do not.

Melissandre: A drop of this in any man’s wine will drive him wild with lust.
Selyse: Did you use it with Stannis?
Melissandre: No.

I confess to a sharp intake of breath at this exchange, in spite of the fact that you can see Melissandre’s answer a mile off. Here she asserts her power over Selyse, which is the simple fact that she has power over Stannis, that she inspires in him the lust and desire that Selyse never has. And she goes on to exercise that power, more or less ordering her to bring Shireen with them when they sail. Why? Why does Melissandre want Stannis and Selyse’s unfortunate child with them?

Actually, I’m really asking … because this exchange (to the best of my memory) never happens in the novels.

But from one cauldron of sexual politics to another: it seems that Daenerys has allowed herself to succumb to Daario’s charms. And that’s quite the outfit she’s wearing in the scene: I have written in my notes that I can’t wait to see what Gay of Thrones has to say about it.

Nikki: HAHAHAHA!!! OMG, I have in my notes, “Well, there’s one more outfit I’ll never be able to cosplay.” I don’t think I’ve ever seen Daenerys in an outfit as revealing as that one, save her birthday suit. And also, no offense to Liam from Nashville, but I just felt like this scene might have made more sense with Daario 1.0. The new guy seems a little too hamfisted to be a Lothario. (That said, when he dropped trou I immediately said to my husband, “So THAT’S what Rayna James has been gettin’.”) Like Melisandre, Daenerys telling Daario to undress comes across as an order — one with which he is all too willing to comply — showing that even the most powerful woman has needs. She will not allow him to control her any more than Stannis controls Melisandre, but she will enjoy her time with him and then send him on his way, which, in the case of Daario, is pretty much all he was looking for anyway. Poor Ser Jorah then sees him leaving the room, and when we talk about sexual frustrations on Game of Thrones, Ser Jorah’s picture really needs to be sitting beside it. It’s clear he’s been in love with his Khaleesi from the get-go, which is why he stays at her side and why he dislikes Daario and anyone else who gets too close to her.

In this case, at first Daenerys seems to have learned nothing from Loraq’s visit in the last episode, telling her about how ill-gotten her attempt was to free the slaves of Meereen, and that she’d hurt his father, who was a master but a fair one who tried to get others to treat their slaves fairly. (To which Dany never asked, “But did your father pay his slaves?” If only to have the guy look around and say, “Uhhhhh… oh look over there!” and then run away.) She tells Jorah that she’s sending the Second Sons to Yunkai to slaughter all the masters and free the slaves again. Jorah argues for moderation, she says she wants an end to slavery and will do whatever it takes to get it. However, she tells him, she’s going to send Loraq as an ambassador so he can tell them that “they can live in my new world or they can die in their old one.”

Can this work? We’ve seen what Daenerys has done in Yunkai, Astapor, and Meereen, and word travels quickly in Westeros. Her name will be known far and wide if it isn’t already, and it’s one thing to free the slaves in Yunkai, leave, and have the masters try to restore order even worse than it was before, but it’s quite another to go back to Yunkai, remind everyone who’s boss, slaughter all the masters, and once again free the slaves by showing them someone is looking out for her. Jorah tries to advise her on moderation, and on the one hand he’s absolutely right: the world is not black and white, and there are even slaves who are terrible people, and masters who are good and righteous, but Daenerys isn’t looking to deal with individual will here. As far as she’s concerned there is a world with slavery, and a world without it. Sacrifices have to be made, and if a few good men die along the way to eradicating slavery, so be it: the greater good will endure.

And last but certainly not least we come to the Eyrie, a place of sexual frustration if ever there was one. First we have the exchange between Sansa and her super-creepy cousin, who asks her what kind of a place Winterfell could possibly have been if it didn’t have a moondoor that made people fly, and then Littlefinger reveals the intentions he has on Sansa that we kind of saw coming, and then there’s that spectacular ending.

I will leave the final discussion on this to you, my friend, and will just say that A) I thought the scene between Sansa and Robin was a dream at first because who the hell can pack snow that perfectly (???!!!), B) Sansa’s hair is an even more remarkably red than I thought it was, and C) what I love most about this season is that we’re not having to suffer through a lot of good people dying, but instead we’re getting some true karma here. Although, for as weird and effed-up a child as Robin is, part of me feels sorry for how he’s going to take this news. After all, he still appears to be breastfeeding. :::shudder:::

Christopher: You’re quite right to observe that the lion’s share of the deaths this season have been people we won’t miss—but they’ve still been quite shocking, most of them, none more so than Lysa. And we’ve still got three episodes left, so expect that butcher’s bill to be added to.

This episode is titled for Littlefinger’s affected sigil: he wears a mockingbird, an eminently appropriate symbol for him, as they mimic the songs of other birds. Littlefinger has proven to be a master of dissembling, of being different things to different people and giving people the songs they want to hear. We see however in this episode that he is also playing the part of the cuckoo, insinuating himself into the Eyrie with Sansa as his ward and, after marrying Lysa—and thus giving himself title to the Eyrie—he disposes of her. We know from hard experience that Littlefinger is playing the long game, and for the most part he plays it utterly unsentimentally (recall his speech, re: chaos, ladder). What’s remarkable about his resurfacing this season is that he seems to be betraying genuine, deep feelings … When Sansa asks him why he really killed Joffrey, he replies “I loved your mother more than you could ever know. Given the opportunity, what do we do to those who’ve hurt the ones we love?” Sansa’s response is to smile: a moment ago when she asked the question, we could see her steeling herself, obviously ill at ease with Littlefinger, on guard. But when he characterizes his murder of Joffrey as vengeance, she allows herself a bit of complicitous satisfaction. She is still guarded, but there is a sense here that Littlefinger has said precisely the right thing. “In a better world,” he continues, “one where love can overcome strength and duty, you might have been my child.”

I have previously voiced my ambivalence about the way in which the series has been portraying Littlefinger as an utterly unsentimental, utterly calculating player for whom all those around him are disposable. He has that dimension in the novels, to be certain, but there was always visible a minute chink in that armour where Catelyn was concerned, as well as his past humiliations. That has largely been absent until now, and the Littlefinger we see in this episode proves to be far more complex than he has let on.

None of which is to suggest he isn’t being supremely creepy here. I’m not sure what’s more disturbing—the prospect that everything he has done has been all one big long con of almost algorithmic precision, or that it all proceeds from a perverse psychodrama in which Littlefinger has decided to resolve his past hurts by replacing Catelyn with Sansa. “But we don’t live in that world,” he tells Sansa. “You’re more beautiful than she ever was.” And he kisses her while audiences the world around squirm uncomfortably in their seats … and Lysa witnesses it.

What I like about Littlefinger in this episode is that he manages to be at once sympathetic and creepy, heartfelt and cruel. He doesn’t just shove Lysa out the Moon Door, he makes certain she knows she’s been terribly deceived. “I have only loved one woman,” he assures her, “only one, my entire life,” and for a brief moment she looks mollified. But of course he then stabs her metaphorically through the heart before literally killing her, giving her a terrible last thought to run through her head on the long, long way down.

On the bright side, we’ll never again have to watch her breastfeed her son.

Well, that brings us to the end of another episode. Three more to go! As always happens, this season is flying by. So on behalf of Nikki Stafford and myself, have a wonderful two weeks (there's no episode next Sunday) of anticipation.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Game of Thrones: 4.06 "The Laws of Gods and Men"

And... welcome to week 6 of Game of Thrones, which picked up many story lines that have been left aside for a couple of weeks, and then ended on a WHOPPER of a scene. Yes, we caught up with Theon and Stannis, but this episode belonged to Tyrion Lannister and Peter Dinklage, who may not have killed King Half-Wit, but he certainly killed this scene. To start us off, I call to the stand Christopher Lockett, the guy I'd call on for a character reference any time. 

Christopher: Judging from a lot of the discussions I’ve been reading, the writers are making fans of the books increasingly nervous with this season’s deviations … and this episode will likely only serve to ratchet up that anxiety, given that essentially its first half comprises storylines that do not appear in the novels. I remain fairly sanguine, as I simply cannot imagine that the series will change the overarching story in any substantial ways. These narrative doglegs are interesting, however, for the simple question of how the writers will get us back on track. Certain things have to happen, and some of these departures make me wonder just how the writers will unknot the threads down the line.

Sorry to be cryptic, but that’s about as spoilery as I’m comfortable getting.

Let’s talk first about Stannis’ visit to the Iron Bank of Braavos, but before I say anything about that I need a little moment to geek out about seeing Braavos appear in the opening credits. This city is one of GRRM’s most intriguing inventions, modeled on late medieval Venice, and about as close to an egalitarian society as one is able to find in that world. Like Venice was in its heyday, Braavos is a hub of commerce, a city run not by hereditary nobility but by its moneymen and merchantmen. And we meet the most powerful of the former. Stannis and Davos cool their heels in an impressively austere room while Stannis paces and complains about being made to wait. Davos is more patient, observing that this is the Braavos way, and starts to relate a story of his smuggling past … and stops, presumably thinking that it might not be the time to remind his king that he used to be a criminal. And then the doors open and in walks … MYCROFT HOLMES! My, but that fellow does get around in the corridors of power. (If only Tyrion could have hired his brother later in this episode.)

As mentioned, this entire sequence does not appear in the novels. Stannis does ultimately have dealings with the Iron Bank, but that comes much later, under rather different circumstances. I find it interesting that the series is choosing to make the Iron Bank more prominent: not just because they’re having a major plot point pivot on whether or not Stannis will get bankrolled and hence have the resources to renew his war with the Lannisters, but because they’re emphasizing that crucial aspect of GRRM’s writing I mentioned last week: the pragmatic logistical component. Stannis is a man of unwavering principle, but his legal claim on the Iron Throne holds absolutely no water for the bankers (something Stannis should have understood in the first place when Mycroft bluntly dismissed the title of “lord,” and then further repeated all of Stannis’ titles back to him in a bored voice). He points out the fact that patrilineal right has counted for little in Westeros’ history, that its history books are littered with such words as “usurper,” and that the question of who is the rightful king is always open to interpretation. “Here our books are full of numbers,” he tells Stannis. “Much less open to interpretation.” And again, the question of logistics: he makes Davos list all of Stannis’ forces and resources, which amounts to a whole lot of not very much. “You can see why these numbers don’t add up to a happy ending.”

I like that it was Davos who convinced them—Davos, the pragmatic man, who points out in no uncertain terms why the Bank’s current arrangement with King’s Landing is a losing bet: Tywin is rock-steady and reliable, yes, but he is also old (sixty-seven, apparently), and he is the only stable presence there: Tommen is just a boy, Cersei is crazy, Tyrion’s on trial for killing Joffrey, and Jaime is a king-killer.

I love this bit, even if it does feel a little disingenuous—one has to assume that Mycroft has already worked all this out for himself. Then again, it may be that he’s just taking the measure of this would-be king. A bird in the hand, after all … Tywin might be a thin thread to hang the bank’s investment on, but until Davos’ impassioned speech, he has no reason to think Stannis is anything more than just another usurper. And Davos speaks Mycroft’s language in terms of payment and debt, showing him his mutilated hand, his punishment for years of smuggling as the price for entering Stannis’ service. A Lannister may always pay his debts, but as we gleaned from Jaime’s discussion with his father, Lannisters are as dwindling a resource as their gold.

After Davos re-hires Salador Saan, we cut to Yara’s raiding party, as she reads Ramsay’s letter to her crew and riles them up. This raid on the Dreadfort is odd on two fronts: one, it’s geographically problematic; and two, it is a complete deviation from the books. What did you make of Yara’s abortive attempt to rescues Theon?

Nikki: I too loved it when the doors opened and freakin’ Mark Gatiss strode in. I’m sure there was a huge audience of cult TV that squeed in that particular moment. He played it so straight, never wavering from that pasted-on smile until Davos began challenging him, and then we saw that confidence begin to waver. I, too, was thrilled with that scene (Stannis never would have been the one to say anything to convince him; that guy seems to be trapped in an arrested development where he requires everyone around him to do and say everything on his behalf) but it was brilliant.

And yes also on Braavos making it into the opening credits model. Just as my husband moaned, “Does this 28-minute opening sequence ever CHANGE?!” they showed it and I sat right up and exclaimed, “Ooh!! New city!! Ooh!! Back it up!! Big statue!!” Fantastic.

The Theon “rescue” sequence was heartbreaking. As Yara climbs back into the boat after failing to capture Theon, she bluntly says, “My brother’s dead,” and we know that’s the story she’ll take back to the Iron Islands and her father.

And the sad thing is, she’s absolutely right. Theon is dead. Now we have Reek, a quivering, shivering, shadow of his former self, who thought his sister was nothing more than another trick by Ramsay to make him think he was about to be rescued, rather than his actual rescue party. Yara’s departure means there’s no more rescue coming for him, and Reek’s complacency and actions in that moment solidified that he was 100% Ramsay’s puppet. (Speaking of Ramsay, the cuts all over his body — and the rough sex he was having right before Yara showed up — show his masochism equals his sadism.)  

As viewers, we internally beg Reek to go with Yara, to just be Theon again and run away rather than hinder the rescue mission. And yet… the writers oh so cleverly pull us in on the whole ruse in the following scene, when Ramsay tells him he’s drawn a hot bath for him and wants him to get in. Now we’re right there with Reek, shouting no, no, don’t get in there, he will drown you. And just as Ramsay has brainwashed Reek, he’s brainwashed all of us. He doesn’t do anything at all to Reek when he climbs into the tub; he simply begins washing him. Notice how Reek grabs the edges of the tub, almost to brace himself for the expectation that Ramsay will try to dunk his head under the water. Notice also the sadistic smile that creeps over Ramsay’s face when Reek drops his britches and one can only imagine the scarred, mutilated absence between Reek’s legs that Ramsay stares at. Now that Ramsay has his total loyalty, he tells him it’s time for Reek to pretend to be someone he’s not: Theon Greyjoy.

I thought the cutaway here to the Daenerys story was utterly brilliant. As I’ve been saying on here for a few weeks now, Daenerys (my girl, always my girl, please don’t take any offense to what I’m about to say oh First of Your Name, Mother of Dragons) has been “freeing” the slaves and punishing the slavemasters, but that opens up a whole new host of problems. Last week Ser Jorah told her that in Astapor and Yunkai she’s left more of a mess behind than perhaps was there to begin with AND she took the city’s armies from them, so now they’re utterly defenseless. She pulls the slaves on side and makes them love her, but it’s only so they’ll follow her into battle where most of them will be slaughtered. She expects their love and loyalty, but she’s freed them from one master only to control them herself. Cutting away from Theon’s story — where Theon has been beaten into submission, to the point where he now loves Ramsay, who seems to be freeing him from the life of torture he’d received from . . . Ramsay — reminds us that Daenerys frees them from one hell only to plunge many of them into another.

In this episode we see that the dragons are roaming the countrysides and fields, looking for herds of goats that they first barbecue and then eat. The goatherder approaches Daenerys on her throne and tells her what they’ve done, and she promises him three times what the goats are worth, and he backs away happily, grateful for his queen. (Did anyone else think that was his son’s bones in that blanket? When he first opened it I was horrified until I realized he was saying that was one of the goats. Apparently I didn’t notice the giant HORNS when I watched it the first time.) Daenerys looks thrilled that she’s made someone happy, and excitedly calls in the next supplicant. And… yeah, it’s not as happy as the first one. This guy is the son of one of the masters whom she had crucified (against Ser Barristan and Ser Jorah’s advice) and now she realizes the world isn’t black and white, with slaveowners being bad and slaves all being good: sometimes the slaveowners are good people, who fought against cruelty to the slaves, who treated the slaves well. In attacking the city and doing what she did, she looks like a despot who is forcing the people to trade one cruel monarchy for another. We know Daenerys wants the best for people, wants to be loved, and cares about her people, which sets her apart from other rulers, but this job ain’t as easy as she thought it was going to be.

What did you think of the Daenerys scene, Chris?

Christopher: I thought it was very well done, and unlike much of this episode, more or less hewed to the novel (more or less—there were a few deviations, but it got the gist of things). Dany has placed herself in a difficult spot, insofar as that she wants to be a liberator, but in order to do so, she has to be a conqueror too. And she faces a quandary we see through much of history: in liberating one segment of a population, it is necessary to overturn the customs and structures of another, and however much the revolution might be guided by moral imperatives, chaos and injustice are inevitable. In the case of something like slavery, there are no neat solutions, as the institution of slavery itself deforms a society in myriad pernicious ways.

One of the things that is admirable about A Song of Ice and Fire is that GRRM doesn’t shy from this basic fact, but places it front and center. There is a lot in the depiction of Daenerys’ “liberation” of the slave cities that is cringeworthy—first and foremost being the image of an extremely white person playing magnanimous saviour to pitiable people of colour (the final shot from last year’s season finale exemplifies this)—but on the level of storytelling, the degree to which the entire process is shown to be fraught is well done. Hizdahr zo Loraq’s entreaty reminds us of the grey areas, that not everyone is as deserving of punishment as others. On the other hand, I wanted Daenerys to remind him that, whatever his father’s opposition to the crucifixions, he was still complicit in the institution of slavery. The defense “well, I didn’t want to go as far as the others did” isn’t really a viable one when it comes to war crimes.

The fates of Astapor and Yunkai are also poignant for us because they resonate with so much of what has happened in the past hundred years in terms of the legacies of colonialism and wars of choice like Iraq. Daenerys’ blithe assumption that those cities would become peaceable simply because she ousted their tyrants and liberated the oppressed reminds me of nothing more than the neocons’ naïve belief that all you have to do is overthrow a dictator and say “you’re a democracy now,” and suddenly there will be a Starbucks on every corner (yes, I’m oversimplifying). But to her credit, Dany at least recognizes her mistakes and attempts to come to grips with them. Will she succeed? I actually can’t say, because GRRM hasn’t gotten that far in the novels. But I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that things get much, much worse in Mereen before they gat better.

The cut-aways in this episode are quite good: from Ramsay to Daenerys, and from Daenerys’ struggles ruling to a meeting of the Small Council, with Oberyn taking up his new position there. His presence, as Tywin intended, is symbolic of the Seven Kingdoms finally resuming something resembling equilibrium … but for how long? The obvious antipathy between Mace Tyrell and Oberyn reminds us of long-standing feuds, and Oberyn’s own vendetta against the Mountain sneaks in with the mention of the Mountain’s brother. And of course we hear tell of a new threat—Daenerys and her army and dragons. There is a palpable anxiety in the room when she is mentioned, in spite of Tywin’s attempt to dismiss her with the oddly (for him) naïve comment that dragons have not been a factor in war for three hundred years. Really, Tywin? What, do you think she’ll arrive on the shores of Westeros and the people will collectively say, “Oh, dragons are SO three centuries ago”? It’s tempting to think of that line as a stumble, but I’m more inclined to think of it as a betrayal of Tywin’s actual nervousness. After all, if “that Targaryen girl” does in fact return, Tywin Lannister becomes public enemy number one. He’s trying to reassure his people … but he’s also trying to reassure himself. And am I alone in sensing a little bit of goading glee in Oberyn when he tells everyone just how formidable the Unsullied are?

Oberyn is more and more becoming an intriguing character. Obviously Tyrion’s trial is the most spectacular part of this episode, but I loved the little exchange between Oberyn and Varys. It was very reminiscent, deliberately so, of Varys’ verbal fencing with Littlefinger. But where Baelish and Varys were politely implacable enemies, we don’t entirely know Oberyn’s intentions … and he doesn’t know Varys’, as we see in his somewhat clumsy attempt to feel him out. It is made very clear just why Varys is such a formidable player: like Littlefinger, Oberyn is ruled by desire. Where Littlefinger’s is focused, Oberyn’s are more diffuse and hedonistic; but in both cases, neither person can quite understand Varys, who is not ruled by his passions.

Oberyn: Everyone is interested in something.
Varys: Not me. When I see what desire does to people, what it’s done to this country, I am very glad to have no part in it. Besides, the absence of desire leaves one free to pursue other things.
Oberyn: Such as?
Varys: [looks significantly at the Iron Throne]

This exchange is wonderfully cryptic. He is after the throne itself? Isn’t that a direct contradiction of what he has just said? Or is there another, subtler meaning in that look?

What do you think, Nikki?

Nikki: One thing I love about doing these back and forth discussions with you is that almost every week, we write down exactly the same dialogue exchanges to be used later. The Varys/Oberyn (I can’t help but think of them as Dr. Evil and Mr. Sofia Vergara now… thank you Gay of Thrones) one I have written down word for word in my notes, just as you did. I, too, am intrigued by Oberyn and think he’s the best addition to the cast this year. He’s someone with his own ideas, who, like Tyrion at the beginning of season one, chases his passions and often gives the finger to political behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing that everyone else takes so seriously. For Oberyn, life is about joy and passion; he’ll sit on the Small Council and seems happy to do so, but only for him to get an inside view of the goings-on, and then toss out a bon mot or three (my favourite in this episode being when he comments that the Unsullied are powerful on the battlefield, not so much in the bedroom, ha!).

The scene between the two of them sizzles because every time we learn the tiniest little tidbit of Varys’s past life, it feels significant. Here he keeps his hands hidden inside his sleeves as always, and occasionally gives a little nod or quiet word to either affirm or deny Oberyn’s leading questions. But that nod to the throne at the end… wow. It certainly looked like he was admitting he was the dark horse who’d lately thrown his hat in the ring, but we know he’s been playing it all along. But does he actually want to sit on the throne, or be the trusted advisor to the one sitting on the throne? The line “the absence of desire leaves one free to pursue other things” is such a loaded one. Could he be referring to Tyrion: with Shae out of the way and stuck in a loveless marriage, there’s no passion or desire in his way. Or Jaime Lannister, who, post–rape scene, seems to have lost all desire for Cersei? Or does he mean himself? While everyone else is giving in to the very passion that Oberyn deems significant — including Lord Baelish, who despite his cunning, is still ruled by his unrequited love for Catelyn — Varys just slowly and quietly keeps his eye on the prize. The question is, what prize, exactly? And for whom?

He’s not the only one with his eye on the prize, however. Tywin holds many keys in this episode, and while he certainly shows his vulnerability in the Small Council scene when he waves off the dragons like they’re not important, as you pointed out, he’s back in charge when Jaime comes to him to plead for Tyrion’s life. In that scene Jaime comes storming in and thinks he’s trying to strong-arm his dad into a bargain: you let Tyrion go, I’ll step down from the Kingsguard, marry, and have children that will carry on the Lannister name. He thought that was his initial offer and that a negotiation would ensue, until Tywin triumphantly pronounces, “DONE!” and stops Jaime in his tracks. Jaime stepping down from the Kingsguard, Tyrion being banished to the Wall never to be seen again, and the Lannister name being carried on through the most viable genetic line Tywin had? Exactly what Tywin’s wanted all along. How much of this entire trial was simply a means for Tywin to get what he wanted?

The trial (hilariously sent up as The People’s Court in this week’s Gay of Thrones) is definitely the highlight of the episode, for sure, and one of the highlights of the entire series thus far, but it’s split up: we have the initial scene of Jaime walking Tyrion to the “courtroom” in handcuffs as per Tywin’s orders, with Tyrion announcing loudly, “Well . . . we mustn’t disappoint Father!” Note how when they’re walking down the aisle, someone defiantly shouts, “Kingslayer!” from the crowd. We assume the disdain in that person’s voice means the insult was being thrown at Tyrion, but notice the irony that it used to be the compliment they paid to Jaime Lannister. I guess whether Kingslayer is a good or bad word depends entirely on which king it was that you slayed.

In this scene, we get a parade of untrustworthy people lying through their teeth about Tyrion’s guilt, which is brilliantly played out as Tyrion sits small in the prisoner’s dock, the top of his head barely showing above the rail, listening to these people while not being able to defend himself. What did you think of Tywin’s control over the trial and Jaime in that scene I mentioned? Or the group of people who come out in the trial and what they said? How much of what they said do you think was directed by Tywin, or are they all speaking of their own volition?

Christopher: A little from column A, and a little from column B … As I mentioned before, though much of this episode departs from the novels, the trial unfolds practically word for word. And I should correct you on a specific point: the only person who actually lies outright is Shae. Everyone else more or less tells the truth, but tells it in such a way that puts Tyrion in the worst light possible. One interesting deviation from the novels is Pycelle producing Sansa’s necklace and declaring that the missing stone had left “traces” of the poison used to kill Joffrey (in my notes I’ve written “C.S.I.: King’s Landing”). I remember thinking, back when Littlefinger drops the necklace onto Dontos’ corpse, “Aren’t you worried that it will be found when the boat drifts ashore?” (in the novel, they burn Dontos and his boat to destroy the evidence). But on reflection I thought of course Littlefinger wants that damning evidence to make its way back to King’s Landing—so much the better for him to strengthen his hold over Sansa, to make her appear more unequivocally guilty (not that Cersei et al really need more evidence).

The most heartbreaking witness (besides Shae, of course) is Varys, who relates precisely Tyrion’s words to Joffrey after news of Robb Stark’s death, but then also colours his testimony with a little speculation, musing that perhaps Tyrion’s marriage to Sansa had made him sympathetic to the North. That, for me, is always such a painful moment (in the novel as well), specifically because of what Tyrion reminds Varys of—that Varys had been Tyrion’s friend and had thanked him for saving the city. But Varys is in no position to aid Tyrion, as he’s already warned him … whatever power he wields is tenuous, and in spite of his seemingly omniscient capacity to obtain intelligence, he cannot openly thwart powerful people. And so he will have to play Tywin’s game. None of which makes his testimony less damning or less painful for Tyrion, which prompts his question and Varys’ response—neither of which, I should note, are in the books. “Have you forgotten?” he demands. Varys’ answer is as hauntingly cryptic as his earlier discussion with Oberyn: “Sadly, my lord, I never forget a thing.”

How amazing is Conleth Hill in this role? As I’ve observed before, he’s nothing like the Varys of the novels except for his baldness. Oberyn could be excused for making assumptions about the sexual preferences of the novels’ Varys, who plays the part of a simpering, mincing, effeminate castrato. Conleth Hill’s Varys possesses a quiet dignity. I don’t know which version is better: the powdered, fluting Varys, it becomes apparent in the novels, is merely a performance, one mask worn by a master of disguise. We have not yet seen any chameleon-esque tendencies in Hill’s Varys, but that implacable equilibrium he radiates makes him such a compelling character—especially when displayed in contrast to the histrionics of those around him.

And then we cut to Tywin and Jaime, and it is a scene that, as you say Nikki, makes one wonder just how subtle Tywin is. Even given how much he hates Tyrion and is shamed by his very existence, it seems unlikely that Tywin would be so eager to see his flesh and blood executed for treason. And yet, that is precisely how the trial appears to be weighted: the deck has been stacked very neatly against him, and every avenue Tyrion might take in his own defense blocked. There seems no chance whatsoever of a not guilty verdict. And so Jaime pleads with his father for a way out, a chance for Tyrion to take the black. As you say, Nikki, Jaime presents his offer of leaving the Kingsguard and returning to Casterly Rock as the opening move in negotiations and is caught flat-footed by Tywin’s immediate acceptance. How much of the trial has been orchestrated by Tywin to arrive at this very resolution? It’s win-win-win for Tywin: the troublesome Joffrey replaced by the malleable Tommen, his despised son humiliated but not dead, exiled to the Wall, and his beloved son brought back into the fold to make a new generation of golden-haired Lannisters. Is he really that clever?

Perhaps not. Perhaps he then overplays his hand. Shae’s testimony is the most damning and the most mendacious, and that which most hurts Tyrion, provoking him to reject the whispered deal about taking the black and demanding trial by combat. There is little doubt that, even without Shae’s “evidence,” Tyrion is doomed. Shae is there to put the final nail in the coffin. Which makes me wonder: at whose behest is she betraying her erstwhile lover? Who brought her back? Did she return of her own accord to revenge herself on Tyrion’s final words? Was she captured, and gives this false testimony in exchange for her life? If so, who put those words in her mouth? Tywin? Is Tyrion’s father doing this to make a perverse point about his whoring? Or is it Cersei’s doing, making absolutely certain that her hated brother dies?

What do you think, Nikki?

Nikki: When the doors opened and Shae walked in, my husband gasped loudly and my hands flew to my mouth, and I moaned, “Nooooo… not Shae!” It was an absolutely devastating moment, and the look on Tyrion’s face speaks volumes. Until then he’d become resigned to who he was, what was happening to him, and just hoped that Jaime would come through for him. And then… Shae walked in.

You are absolutely correct that the people who come before Shae aren’t outwardly lying; when I said they were all lying about his guilt, I meant exactly that: they’ve taken his words out of context and suggested they were precursors to a murder he didn’t commit. They weren’t lying, but they were providing a misdirection by way of context. Tyrion took the poisons that Pycelle accuses him of, but that was to save the city during the Battle of Blackwater. Cersei quotes him out of context, as does Varys, and the soldier at the very beginning. All of their witness statements add up to a murderer proclaiming what he’s about to do . . . except the context in which each of those statements was uttered, of course.

But Shae . . . ugh. That was just so heartbreaking and painful, and I asked all the same questions you did. The day before the wedding, Shae is serving everyone at the dinner where Joffrey is given the sword, and Tyrion overhears Cersei telling Tywin that Shae is the whore she’d told him about. It’s in that very moment he decides he must save her life and send her away, but to do so he destroys her soul, making her despise him by calling her a whore and telling her she didn’t mean anything to him. I still think Dinklage’s performance in that scene is extraordinary: it’s one of the only times we ever see Tyrion outright lie about something, and every word that comes out of his mouth pierces his own heart even deeper than it pierces Shae’s. His voice cracks and is almost a growl by the end of the scene, and his face is screwed up with sorrow, which she takes to be disgust.

And now, days (weeks?) later, we see that he succeeded: she hates him. Varys whisked her away to another life, and now she’s back to exact her revenge. She never believed him when he told her exactly what they’d do to her if they found out she was his lover, yet she clearly believed every verbal dagger that spewed forth from his mouth in that terrible scene. To me, Varys is clearly at the bottom of this: he’s the only one who knew where Shae had gone to. And when he steps down from delivering his testimony and Tyrion asks him to recall that they were friends, he drops his head and, as you point out, says, “Sadly, my lord, I never forget a thing.” And clearly, he’s remembered Shae, where she went, and that by turning her over to Tywin and Cersei, he makes sure he gets more brownie points than ever before.

Was Tywin behind it? Cersei? They could have been in collusion to get her back, but I don’t think Tywin colludes with anyone, and I think Cersei’s been too drunk and in mourning to have actually gotten her act together to have created this conspiracy. I think it was Tywin, working with Varys to get her back.

Regardless of who did it (it was totally Tywin), the impact it has on Tyrion is immediate and horrifying. As her web of lies becomes more and more complicated, and eventually devolves into sordid lies about their sexual acts (which is where Oberyn sits up and starts becoming interested), Tyrion is not only feared and hated, but mocked. He becomes the laughing stock of the courtroom, and if he wasn’t already tiny inside that prisoner’s dock, he shrinks further in this moment. “Shae . . .” he finally says. “Please, don’t.” It’s the only time he begs, the only time he asks for someone to stop torturing him. He stood silent and in shock as Cersei pointed at him at the Purple Wedding and was walked away. He told Jaime and anyone who would visit him that he was innocent, but he never rattled his jail cell bars or screamed his innocence to passersby. He strode into the courtroom, silent, and never yelled, “THIS IS NOT TRUE” when people took the witness stand. But now, quietly, he begs her to stop lying, to stop breaking his heart.

But she’s only doing what he’d done to her. Lying to break his heart, to make him hate her the way he made her hate him. The difference is, he was trying to save his life, and Shae is trying to have him killed. “I am a whore, remember?” she fires back at him. And that’s when he realizes that despite Shae’s betrayal, despite his father’s machinations to get him into this very spot, despite his sister’s coldness and failure to see the truth, despite his innocence… he was the master of his own downfall. For he really DID say the things Cersei said he did. He DID take the poisons out of Pycelle’s store, even if it wasn’t for this and was ages ago. He DID call Shae a whore and turned her against him. He DID regularly use prostitutes and drink himself senseless and was everything his father ever accused him of being.

And it’s in that moment that he suddenly rises up. At first quietly, then in a booming voice, he says that he wishes to confess. “I am guilty,” he pronounces. “I’m guilty of being a dwarf. I’ve been on trial for it my entire life.” Jaime looks shattered, Shae looks like she has second thoughts about what she just did, Cersei remains stone-faced, and Tywin simply looks satisfied. As you said, Chris, he can’t have his son executed for treason, because while he wouldn’t care about losing the son, he wouldn’t want the blot on the family name. Instead he can send him to his certain death on the Wall. But… might Tyrion think he’d somehow won if he didn’t execute him? Hm… can’t have that. So… let’s destroy him from the inside. Tyrion’s outburst at the end of this episode is exactly what Tywin wanted: proof that he has triumphed over the son who was always too smart for his own good.

As Tyrion digs his hole deeper, turning to the disparaging and naïve citizens of King’s Landing, he tells them that he wishes he’d had the guts to kill King Joffrey, that he wishes he’d had enough poison to take out the whole lot of them. Amongst the gasps and oohs and aahs and chatter that rises up from the courtroom, you just see the look of quiet glee on Tywin’s face. And finally, to everyone’s surprise, he turns back to his father and tells him that he’s done with this, and demands a trial by combat. Cut to Jaime and that, “Oh… right” look on his face. Remember when you told Tyrion just a few episodes ago that if you’d been at the Eyrie you would have been his champion? Looks like you’re about to get called out on that.

I am positively giddy about the next episode. The ending of this was SO spectacular, so upsetting when it cut to credits (my “NOOOOOOO!!!” was heard throughout the neighbourhood) I just can’t wait until next week.

Near the beginning of the first book in the series, we are introduced to Tyrion Lannister when he has a conversation with Jon Snow about who has it worse: the dwarf or the bastard. And this is what GRRM writes:

[Tyrion] favored Jon with a rueful grin. “Remember this, boy. All dwarfs may be bastards, yet not all bastards need be dwarfs.” And with that he turned and sauntered back into the feast, whistling a tune. When he opened the door, the light from within threw his shadow clear across the yard, and for just a moment Tyrion Lannister stood tall as a king.

In this scene Tyrion once again stands tall, but makes himself the most hated man in King’s Landing. I mean, things can only get better from here, right? ;)