Monday, June 30, 2014

The Leftovers: 1.01 "Pilot"

"The pope, I get the pope. But Gary fuckin' Busey? How did he make the cut?!"

It boasts the same executive producers as Lost and Friday Night Lights. You must have known I was going to write about this puppy. (Spoilers ahead for the pilot episode.)

The Leftovers is based on a novel by Tom Perotta (who also wrote Little Children, a similarly unhappy book) about a world event where 2% of the population (140 million people) just suddenly disappears, leaving the other 98% behind. Bewildered, overwhelmed, and questioning everything they ever knew, those who are left behind can't mourn their loved ones because they don't know what the hell just happened to them. The Religion vs. Science debate heats up, and people become embroiled in arguments and fights over what really happened on October 14th. 

Of course, the most obvious response is that it was The Rapture, that God chose his most beloved people to rise up into Heaven, leaving the rest behind. This, of course, wouldn't explain why there are so many questionable people who disappeared, or babies and children who were left behind. But it doesn't stop people from suggesting that was it. 

And the ones who are left behind are obviously the point of this story. Recently my aunt was telling me how every year she would put a notice in the paper memorializing my grandmother on the day she died. After a few years of doing this, her husband gently said to her, "You know, your mom can't see you doing this." And she said, "It's not for her. It's for those of us left behind." Funerals are never for the ones who are deceased, nor are the grave sites and tombstones: they're for the rest of us, those who have to go on living without those people, giving us something solid and concrete to remember them by. 

And after whatever the hell it was that took those people on October 14, it left behind people who are confused and broken, and don't know how to go on. This isn't a universe like in Brian K. Vaughan's brilliant graphic novel series Y: The Last Man, where every man but one dies, with planes falling out of the skies, governments toppling, and armies becoming obsolete. Or like the one in Flashforward, where everyone sleeps for two minutes and once again planes fall out of the sky and cars crash and trains derail and many people die. Or the one in Revolution, where the electricity suddenly shuts down and planes fall out of the sky (Christ, I never realized how many apocalypses begin with planes crashing down) and the world goes dark and many people die. This is a relatively small percentage of the population, and there's no real answer as to why

But we're human beings: asking why is the key to our existence, and what sets us apart from the animals. Without that question, we don't seem to have any motivation to go forward. And this opening episode of the series is a perfect illustration of what the world would look like if random people just suddenly... disappeared. The main focus is the Garvey family, revealed to us beautifully one by one as actually being connected, right to the very last (and most shocking) one of all. This is a family where the mother disappeared, where the father became police chief after his own father — the former police chief — lost his mind. Where the son is working for some sort of therapist/mystic named Wayne who brings people peace, and "unburdens" them for serious wads of cash. Where the daughter is in such deep emotional pain she barely talks, is going through normal adolescent heartbreak, but must do so with the added burden of a mother who isn't there. Where the mother... didn't actually disappear, but is a member of a strange cult of smokers who dress in nothing but white clothes, and don't speak, but believe that smoking proclaims their faith, and that anyone who is talking about the Disappearance, theorizing about it, or continuing to breathe clean air is simply wasting their breath. (OK, their "platform" isn't exactly clear, but presumably will become so in the coming episodes.) We see how hard it is to just go on when you don't have any answers, when the entire world has changed around you, when religious nuts are running rampant, and when the Ninth Doctor turns out NOT to be a Gallifreyan time traveller but an American reverend who has abandoned his religion and spends his time trying to convince people this is NOT the Rapture, people, listen up! 

The episode opens beautifully, with a harried mom at a laundromat trying to do a million things at once as her baby screams and screams, but she's multitasking and giving instructions over the phone and getting her laundry done and absolutely nothing is going right, and then... poof, her baby is gone. We don't see him disappear (did he just pop out of existence? float up into the air? disappear slowly?) and that's far more effective than if the writers had chosen to give us one scenario. Instead we only see the aftermath: a crying child whose father has disappeared, a car crashing because the driver is presumably no longer driving, and a mother distraught that the child she was too busy to comfort is suddenly gone. The opening scene comes full circle when Kevin Garvey, getting drunk at the bar, runs into the woman from the laundromat, who is similarly drinking her own problems away. 

Garvey tries to get his wife Laurie to come home, but she's entrenched in the new group. Liv Tyler's character, Meg, can't smile even though she's planning a wedding, and we wonder who she lost. Was it a husband? A previous fiancĂ©? We get one very quick, brief flashback to what Kevin Garvey was doing at the moment of the Disappearance, and it's clear he was having an affair of some kind. At the "Heroes Day" gathering, a woman named Norah Durst gets up to talk about how she lost both children and a husband. Not only is she alone, but she still believes they're out there somewhere, and she tries with some difficulty to refer to them in the present tense. But she also has to deal with the looks she gets every day: if it was the Rapture, they seem to be thinking, then why did the rest of your family go but not you? 

This seems to be haunting those who are left behind more than anything. It's a new world where, as the dog killer at the end says, things are no longer the same. "They are not our dogs, not anymore," he tells Chief Garvey, and he could just as easily be referring to everyone. They are not the same, they've been changed by this. Kevin has nightmares of killing a deer, and seems to see the deer everywhere he goes. A stag would typically represent peace, stability, love, and gentleness, and all those things are gone, ripped apart by the Disappearance that just took 140 million people away like a pack of wild dogs. 

This is a show written by Damon Lindelof (Lost) and directed by Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights) and the influence of the two shows can be spotted throughout:
*Congressman Whitten, who goes to see Wayne to become unburdened, is Buddy Garrity
*the security guy who meets the truck is Peter Berg himself, who always makes a cameo in his shows
*Tom asks Whitten, "So you're from Texas, huh?" and Whitten says, "How did you know?" like a little in-joke to FNL fans.
*there are clearly Daddy Issues going on throughout the show, whether it's Kevin dealing with his own father or Tom dealing with Kevin.
*Tom is seen reading Albert Camus's The Stranger, which, if I were writing a book on this show, I'd know what one of the chapters was going to be
*the flashbacks are quick, but Lindelof specializes in showing how the present has been shaped by the past, and that is one of the cornerstones of this series
*the constant science vs. faith arguments
*the biblical Easter eggs (when Kevin is flipping the radio you hear someone proclaim "Corinthians 15!!" which is the chapter in the Bible in which Christ's resurrection is retold by Paul)

And of course, there are the trademark Lindelof questions here:
*what exactly is the cult in white supposed to represent, how did they form, and what do they hope to achieve? why cigarettes?!
*why does Tom have slash marks on his back?
*why did Laurie leave her family behind?
*what is up with Wayne? Why does he have a bunch of bikini-clad Asian women hanging around his pool? What does he do in the room to "unburden" people?
*what was happening in everyone's life before the Disappearance?
*what the hell happened on October 14th?

I wasn't sure what I thought of the show at the halfway point, but by the end I was really enjoying it. From the super-scary sculpture in the park to the fact that in a crisis, we tend to divide and argue rather than connect and heal, the tone of the pilot episode was almost pitch-perfect, introducing us to a dark world that looks like our own, but with even more grief and heartbreak. And the music, by one of my absolute favourite musicians Max Richter (the piano music playing throughout much of it is from his sublime record The Blue Notebooks, which I highly recommend and probably listen to three times a week), sets an atmosphere and tone much like Michael Giacchino did on Lost and Explosions in the Sky did on Friday Night Lights.

So, at least for the first episode, I'm hooked. Are you? 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Game of Thrones 4.10: The Children

Hello and welcome to the final week (sob) of our season 4 Game of Thrones posts. As always, I'm joined by Christopher Lockett, who, if faced with a crossbow pointed at his head, wouldn't give a shit (snort). And you can expect many more of those high-brow toilet jokes as we run down this epic episode of Game of Thrones. Chris, start us off!!

Christopher: Well, as finales go, this one was pretty sweet. One of the first responses I read claimed to have found it “underwhelming,” and all I could think was “were you watching the same episode as me?” SO MUCH happened, and with the exception of the fight between Brienne and the Hound, it was all more or less faithful to the novels. Brienne and Sandor’s confrontation is nowhere to be found in the books, but I thought it was a brilliant invention. And one awesome, knock-down, drag-out fight.

My notes have a lot of all-caps and exclamation points.

But more on that later. Before I start by talking about the opening sequence at the Wall, it occurs to me that it might be useful to take stock of where we are in the books. While watching the episode, I realized that Bran’s storyline has just about reached the limit of what has been written, almost to the end of his thread in A Dance With Dragons (book five). Which raises an interesting question: does this mean we don’t get any Bran next season? Or will the series race ahead of the novel? Will the series end up being a spoiler for the novel? I say this on the entirely reasonable assumption that GRRM won’t have produced The Winds of Winter before next April. But I invite George, nay, beg him to prove me wrong on that point …

Jon Snow isn’t anywhere near the end of his story yet—there’s room left in A Storm of Swords (book three) and quite a lot to get through in Dragons. Ditto for Stannis, as his storyline is now basically interlaced with Jon’s. Brienne’s case is a bit harder to discern, as her encounter with the Hound is invented; but I’d say she’s about halfway through A Feast for Crows (book four), which is actually quite far along, as she only features in Dragons for about a nanosecond.

The King’s Landing crew have a lot of story to go, as we’ve basically come to the end of Swords. There’s a lot of Jaime and Cersei to get through in Crows, and Tyrion still has all of his story in Dragons yet to come. Daenerys et al are now about a quarter of the way into Dragons; and Arya has just finished Swords, so she has all of Crows still to go. Theon is about halfway through Dragons; and … I think that’s all? Dear gods, but there are a lot of characters in this series.

All right, enough accounting! to the Wall! Turns out I was dead wrong in predicting that Jon Snow disappearing through the gate would be the last we’d see of him this season (though as one of your commenters pointed out, that much was made clear in this episode’s preview. Oops). And we FINALLY see Mance Rayder again. Ciaran Hinds is so good in the role, it’s a shame they’ve used him so sparingly: his entire parley with Jon Snow was understated but powerful. I seem to recall repeatedly using the term “gravitas” to describe him last season, and that is still the case. He’s got Morgan Freeman levels of gravitas.

The scene between Jon and Mance unfolds more or less the way it does in the novel, with Mance being surprisingly calm when he sees the man who betrayed him. He does not behave peremptorily or rashly, but sits down to the parley as if with a guest, and drinks to the memory of Ygritte. We soon learn the reason for his calm: he knows now just how weak the Watch are, and is confident in his eventual victory. But he also raises a terrifying truth that has been lost in the buildup to this battle: that the wildlings do not seek conquest, but “to hide behind your Wall.” Mance was able to unite his factious army because they are all terrified of what is coming. And he makes Jon an offer that is at once reasonable and impossible: let his people come through the gate, and he promises peace.

Of course, it isn’t long before Mance gleans Jon Snow’s true intent, just in time for the deus ex machina to descend. Stannis! I didn’t mention it last week, but the simulated crane shots have been extraordinary: last week we were treated to a god’s-eye view of the Wall on both sides of the battles; this week, a beautiful shot of Stannis’ forces trapping Mance in a pincer maneuver.

I’m curious: how much of a surprise was this for people who haven’t read the novels? It’s a surprise in the book, but one where you remember an earlier scene and think “Oh, right …” While Davos is learning to read, he reads one of the pleas for help the Night’s Watch sent out to the Seven Kingdoms, and so we know he brought it to Stannis. Was there a similar moment I missed in the series? Or was there no hint that Stannis et al would be heading north?

Thoughts, Nikki?

Nikki: It was a COMPLETE surprise to me. I’d like to preface my part here by saying I’m on vacation in San Francisco right now, and ended up having to watch the episode on my laptop at an airport gate in Detroit, gasping and clapping my hand over my mouth and trying to cover the screen because my travelling companion has only seen to the end of season 3 and I didn’t want to reveal anything. So my bits this week might be unfortunately short because I’m trying to fit them in between sightseeing, but I do hope we’re able to spark some interesting conversation amongst all of you, and I hope to get involved in that with you!

Anyway! Back to the episode. YES it was a complete surprise and thank you for mentioning the overhead shots, Chris; I actually paused to write in my notes: “overhead view of the army’s approach is GORGEOUS.” I’ve really enjoyed the CGI overhead views, even if they are a wee bit sped up (if you consider the actual speed of the movement from the air, they should be moving a little slower than they are, but they have them moving at about 300 miles per hour. As they approached the Wall last week they were going about 100 metres per second) but otherwise it’s just amazing.

Ciaran Hinds is amazing, as you say. He tells Jon Snow that his people have bled enough, and when Stannis’s army comes barrelling into the forest, he screams it and demands his men stand down: “I said my people have bled enough, and I meant it.” Davos does his usual bow before the one true king of the Seven Kingdoms spiel, but Mance will have none of it, telling them in no uncertain terms, “We do not kneel.” But then Stannis sees Jon Snow, and when he discovers exactly who this man of the Night’s Watch is, he speaks to him with respect; a respect that is returned by Jon.

And from there we move to the Lannisters. Cersei demands once and for all that she not be betrothed to Loras, because she needs to stay with Tommen. For everything we’ve thought and said about Cersei all along, for everything she has done and all of the misled actions she’s taken (not the least of which is her hatred for Tyrion and the utterly ridiculous origin of it), her impassioned speech about her children and what they mean to her, and how she will NOT have Tommen taken from her really made me sympathize with her. She might be a terrible sister and a complicated lover and a terrible wife, but she is a devoted mother, and always has been. In that, she has never wavered.

And now she will do anything to keep them, including coming clean with Tywin and finally telling him what he did not want to hear: that she and Jaime are lovers, that the children all belong to him, that not a one of them is a Baratheon, and “YOUR LEGACY IS A LIE.” A brilliant scene that was a long time coming, that even had some humour in it when Tywin begins one of his fables and Cersei cuts him off, sying, “I’m not interested in hearing another one of your smug stories about the time you won.” Ha!! A lot has been done this season to make us sympathize with her in the face of her demonizing her brother and putting him on trial, and this scene was the best.

However, it’s sandwiched between two other scenes: a mysterious scene where they seem to be Frankensteining The Mountain back to health, where Pycelle is begging them to stop and Cersei and her medic kick Pycelle out of his own laboratory.

And then after Cersei has done her bit to reanimate The Creature, and does her best to give Tywin a stroke (and, in the moment, put a nail in her own coffin, I thought) she goes to visit Jaime to tell him what she’s just done. As he tries to push her away she tells him that she loves him, that she wants to stay in King’s Landing with him, that she will not marry Loras and the two of them will raise Tommen. And Jaime melts before her, immediately throwing her down upon a table and having her the way he once did. Is she manipulating him? At this point she’s pissed off Tywin epically, and needs someone on her side, and who better than the Kingslayer, even if he only has one hand? The Lannister stories this week were obviously the biggest game changers, consisting of the Cersei arc contained in these three scenes, followed by... well, we’ll get to those ones.

Just as things are shifting in King’s Landing, Daenerys has more people complaining in her court, realizing she’s brought more destruction and hardships to the people through her “freedom” than they perhaps lived with before. What did you think of these scenes? And is it just me who watches these dragons and thinks they act like my cat? ;)

Christopher: Oh, I’ve always thought the dragons are catlike—which makes them all the more terrifying. I’m totally a cat person, have loved cats all my life, but have few illusions about the fact that the only thing that prevents my cat from eating me is that he’s too small (which isn’t to say he doesn’t try). It was a bitter finale for Daenerys: confronted with her failings as a leader and compelled to chain up her children. I actually threatened to tear up a bit as she walked out of the catacombs: she knows exactly what she’s doing, what she has to do, but that isn’t exactly something that’s going to be clear to the two dragons she’s just put iron collars on and left in the dark. It’s a lot like that confused look your cat gives you through the cage door of his carrier when you leave him at the vet (yes, almost exactly like that).

But the problem of dragons rampant—which, after all, was not exactly unpredictable—is actually the lesser of Daenerys’ problems this episode. She’s learning a hard lesson that any casual student of history could have told her, namely that revolutions have a bad habit of turning into their opposites, and the more radical the revolution the more violent the regression. She has upended a way of life centuries old—it’s not going to conform to her idea of how it should be just because she demands it.

 This is one of the places where George R.R. Martin is at his most discomfiting: in making Daenerys the champion of freedom and scourge of slavers, he gives us what appears at first blush to be an unequivocal good. We are so primed by popular culture to reflexively celebrate any and all chain-breaking—and how can we not?—that it’s an easy narrative trick. It’s why Django Unchained is so viscerally satisfying but, on reflection, so deeply problematic; and it’s why so many narratives of this sort, from Glory to Mississippi Burning function more as symbolic salves to white guilt than any sort of substantive discourse on race and the unhealed wound of slavery. Both GRRM and Game of Thrones have come in for criticism on this front, as last season seemed to leave us in an all-too-typical white saviour story, with silver-haired Daenerys literally afloat on a sea of adoring brown bodies.

It was a cringeworthy moment. But to GRRM’s credit, he doesn’t end there, as so many of these narratives do—Daenerys has her triumphs, but now has to face the uncomfortable fact that simply saying “you’re free!” doesn’t automatically make everyone’s lives better, but opens up a whole bunch of new cans of worms. The plight of the elderly tutor speaks directly to this: what is he to do now? Daenerys’ new order, he laments, is the domain of the young. And even if she is able to better police her city, what use is freedom to a man who has never known anything but bondage? It is a quandary more fully described in A Dance With Dragons—the fact that, while many slaves have labored in pain and monotonous torment, many others have led relatively privileged lives as tutors, servants, and concubines and courtesans. Still others are the Mereen equivalent of gladiators, and have known fame and glory in the fighting pits. All of which is further confused by the simple fact of a culture-wide version of Stockholm syndrome: the elderly tutor, he avows, has grown to love the children he teaches and the family that owned him.

And Daenerys is also learning one of the other cruel lessons of leadership: soul-destroying compromise. She allows the man to effectively sell himself back to his former owners, with the proviso that it is only for a year—an entirely symbolic gesture, as Barristan is quick to point out, saying that “the men will be slaves in all but name.” The sequence of her locking up her dragons bitterly echoes her compromise with the old tutor, with its long, lingering shot of the chains she’ll use to imprison her children—the breaker of chains resorting to chains.

Meanwhile, north of the Wall, Bran and company finally arrive at their long (long!) sought-after destination … and in the process give us some truly thrilling moments as a small army of really dessicated ice zombies burst from the snow. This is where caps and exclamation points really start peppering my notes: “Ice zombies! SKELETAL ice zombies! HODOR! FIREBALLS! WTF?” (as you can see, my measured and thoughtful responses to any given episode only come when I’ve had a lot of time to reflect). What did you think of Bran’s “arrival”?

Nikki: Jeebus Creebus. My notes are: “Bran – Hodor – WTF moment!!” I have no idea what the hell any of that was, and it was clear this will be the new thing that will be explained more next season (they always drop one of those babies in there for us in the finale). I thought the image of the tree was breathtaking, with the leaves moving in an almost unearthly way, with the sun hitting them just right.

And then, of course, the path to that tree was fraught with Skeletor’s outcasts. What. The. Hell. Was anyone else thinking Ray Harryhausen in that moment?

I thought the scene itself was spectacular; the fight scenes were extraordinary (my GOD they’ve kept all their big-budget stuff til the end of the season, haven’t they?! As you pointed out, we also got the tabby dragons). As Jojen gets mortally attacked and Bran transfers his soul into Hodor to fight the baddies, we suddenly get Firestarter standing in the mouth of the cave, shooting fire bombs at the skeletons and ending them.

Who the heck is she?

Why did she wait so long to fight back?

How does she know who they are?

Are the children a group of supernaturals who remain perpetually young like little fire-throwing vampires? I’m really looking forward to finding out.

“The first men called us The Children, but we were born long before then,” she tells Bran. When they came into the cave and the Flamethrower told them that Jojen knew all along he wasn’t going to make it, and that he was leading Bran to the thing he’d lost, I half-expected to see Ned Stark sitting in the winding tree (I’ll admit a tiny bit of regret when he wasn’t). Instead we see an ancient man who has been watching him “with a thousand eyes and one” all their lives, who tells him that he will never walk again, but he will fly. Bran’s story is at times the most boring and uneventful in both the books and the show, but it also leans to the supernatural the most (along with the Wall stories), and this twist sent it into a new realm of possibility.

As did the scene with Arya/Hound/Brienne/Podrick. I’m disappointed that the Hound and Arya were just back wandering the countryside, and as you said last week, that they weren’t actually taken up to the Eyrie. You pointed out that they never get that far in the books, so now it becomes some clumsy writing served to get Arya super close and take it away from her again.

But you know what, none of that matters, because how much did I love Arya and Brienne meeting for the first time?! FANTASTIC.

I loved last week’s battle, but frankly I think the throw-down this week between the Hound and Brienne was FAR more fun to watch. And it was tense, because I kept hoping that one of them wouldn’t die, that he’d gain respect for Brienne’s fighting skills, or that Arya would see she’s a good person or Podrick would speak to Arya or SOMETHING but it was still amazing to watch. I mean... she bloody well Holyfields him, for goodness’ sake!!

I think I could hear you cheering as I watched it, Chris. I’m sure you adored that fight scene as much as I did.

Christopher: Of all the changes the series has made to the books, this one was easily the best. And it was heartbreaking … however much the Hound has, against all odds, ended up being Arya’s protector, I doubt there is anyone who would doubt that Brienne would be better. Their initial conversation before the Hound shows up shows just how good a fit they would be—women who reject the role the world would impose on them and embrace a life of fighting and violence. Brienne’s story about her father actually brings a smile to Arya’s face … and then the Hound appears, and it becomes obvious that a fight is unavoidable.

Brienne’s moment of recognition is a wonderful bit of subtle acting by Gwendoline Christie. “You’re Arya Stark,” she says softly, and her voice and facial expression are both wondering, even a bit awestruck. However seriously she takes her oath to Catelyn, she of course recognizes what a fool’s errand this quest to find the Stark girls is. And yet, here is Arya—and she knows a moment of triumph she never has in the novels (thus far), only to have it snatched away by Arya herself.

Because of course nothing is simple. We know precisely how honourable she is (she has Stark-levels of honour), and how dedicated she would be to keeping Arya safe. Jaime Lannister himself wants her find the Stark girls and keep them far, far away from his sister and the dangers of King’s Landing. But the very name of Jaime Lannister is toxic and poisons beyond repair any hope Brienne had of winning Arya’s trust—as does the simple fact that she failed in her job to protect Catelyn.

BRIENNE: I wish I could have been there to protect her.
ARYA: You’re not a Northerner.
BRIENNE: No. But I swore a sacred vow to protect her.
ARYA: Why didn’t you?
BRIENNE: She commanded me to bring Jaime Lannister back to King’s Landing.
HOUND: You’re paid by the Lannisters. You’re here for the bounty on me.
BRIENNE: I’m not paid by the Lannisters.
HOUND: No? Fancy sword you’ve got there. Where’s you get it? I’ve been looking at Lannister gold all my life. Go on, Brienne of fucking Tarth—tell me that’s not Lannister gold.

A meta version of this scene might include Brienne cursing the name of George R.R. Martin for having made these interwoven stories so complex that there is no easy answer to the Hound’s accusation. Yes, it’s Lannister gold. But no, I’m not in their pay. Though when you get down to it, I’m out here looking for the Stark girls because Jaime Lannister urged me to. And he’s actually not so bad a guy when you get to know him. Did I mention he saved me from a bear? And he gave me this priceless Valyrian steel sword because he was pissed off at his dad? Which … oh, this is awkward … it’s actually made from your dad’s sword, Arya. Oops.

Yeah … kind of a hard thing to talk around.

And then there’s the Hound, whose motives are pretty inscrutable at this point. What precisely does he want? He’s pretty much out of ways of monetizing Arya at this point. He could sell her back to the Lannisters, but that would mean his own death; he could take her to the Wall and Jon Snow, but there’d be no payday for him. When Brienne promises to take Arya to safety, he all but laughs in her face: “Safety? Where the fuck’s that? Her aunt in the Eyrie is dead. Her mother’s dead. Her father’s dead. Her brother’s dead. Winterfell is a pile of rubble. There’s no safety, you dumb bitch. You don’t know that by now, you’re the wrong one to watch over her.” And is that what the Hound is doing, Brienne asks with an incredulous curl of her lip. “Aye, that’s what I’m doing.”

Is that what the Hound is doing? Does he honestly now see himself as her protector? Would a more caring relationship have developed? Is he genuinely protecting Arya from what he believes is a Lannister flunky? Or is he just so vindictive when it comes to the Lannisters that he can’t countenance letting them have the victory of capturing Arya? We will never know.

The fight that ensues is at once thrilling and horrifying, with none of the finesse of Oberyn’s ninja-like leaps or Syrio’s elegant water dancing. This is sheer strength and brutality, and is likely far more realistic than anything you’re likely to see in popular film and television … and when it comes down to life and death, there are no holds barred. The Hound grasping the blade of Oathkeeper while the blood runs down over his wrist was nothing if not a representation of the lengths he’ll go to win, and Brienne’s long, sustained scream as she repeatedly pounds the rock into the Hound’s face sent chills down my spine.

And the ear-biting? Yikes. I’m very glad, in hindsight, that I did not see this bit of interview with Gwendoline Christie earlier in the season, or I’d have been wondering precisely when the ear-biting would happen in this episode. I’m rather glad that came as a surprise.
And she loses Arya, who unsurprisingly doesn’t trust her … but who also seems to prefer to strike out on her own. And we see here just how cold Arya has become: calmly watching the Hound suffer, not flinching at all the terrible things he says in an effort to goad her into killing him … or possibly make her feel less guilty about killing him? He knows he’s dying, that there is no saving him “Unless there’s a maester hiding behind that rock.” But she doesn’t move, just watches him, as he passes from trying to anger her to encouraging her to end it, and finally to abject begging. But Arya chooses to let him die slowly, and I think a lot of us died a little inside to see that she has learned to be cruel.

Which is only appropriate, as the final shot of the season is her on a ship bound for Braavos, presumably to seek out Jaqen H’ghar and start her apprenticeship as an assassin …

Which brings us to the last two big scenes of the episode. Tyrion is rescued by his brother, and sent on his way to freedom in the Free Cities by Varys, who finally makes good on his promise to remember Tyrion’s heroism in saving the city. This is a slight deviation: in the novel, Varys is forced by Jaime.

The larger deviation is how Tyrion leaves things with his brother. Remember way back, when Tyrion told the story of how he impulsively married a village girl named Tysha when he was thirteen, but after a week of connubial bliss, Tywin caught them and revealed that she was a whore Jaime had paid so Tyrion would lose his virginity? And then had an entire guard-room of Lannister soldiers take turns with her for a silver a fuck? And made Tyrion go last and pay a gold piece, because Lannisters are worth more? Remember that horrifying story?

In the novel, just before they part, Jaime reveals to Tyrion that Tysha wasn’t actually a whore—she was just what Tyrion had believed her to be, a girl who had genuinely fallen in love with him. Jaime had lied to him back then at Tywin’s behest. So … well, their parting in the novel is somewhat more acrimonious.

But then, Tyrion does not go directly to Varys, but detours instead through the chambers of the Hand. Aaaaaand I think I’ll turn it over to Nikki for the wrap-up, as this is one of those moments eagerly anticipated by readers of the books when we get to see those who haven’t read them lose their shit.


Nikki: The viewers weren’t the only ones who were losing their shit. (And no, that’s not the last of the Tywin-on-the-toilet jokes I plan to make.)

WOW. What an ending. First, Tyrion ventures into Tywin’s bedroom and finds none other than Shae entwined in the sheets, which actually made me think of the Tysha story in that moment (perhaps that’s how they were trying to bring that story back into the fold but keep Jaime a sympathetic character?) Just as Tywin took Tyrion’s new bride and then had his soldiers gang-rape her, now he has brought her back to King’s Landing just to have her betray Tyrion, break his heart, and make him lose any desire for living, before taking her back to his chambers and turning her into his own whore, with her lying languorously on the bed and purring “my Lion,” thinking it was Tywin who had come back into the room.

But it’s those two words that prove her undoing. For as much as Tyrion might have been able to forgive her for what she did in the courtroom — after all, the last time he’d seen her he told her he didn’t love her and she was nothing but a common whore — seeing her turn to his father and sleep with him as willingly as she’d ever slept with Tyrion is the final blow. Not only does he kill her, but he does so with his own hands, using the very gold that Tywin had no doubt laced around her neck as a reward for betraying Tyrion.

And Tyrion’s not done. He goes to Tywin and finds him in the “privy,” in a very vulnerable position. And then his Number Two son points a crossbow at him (I told you I’d get another toilet joke in there...). Just as Cersei tried to unnerve him earlier by telling him that his legacy was dead and that his only two “honourable” children were in fact incestuous lovers who’ve given life to three children — one of them a monster — Tywin looked calm, and simply said it wasn’t true. He didn’t leap forward or grab her by the throat . . . that’s not Tywin’s style. Nah, he was just going to send some men out later and have her done away with, or poison her (unlike Mance Rayder, I could see him pulling such a “woman’s weapon” on her), or worse, find out something that gives him the upper hand, and then force her to sit by while he slowly takes over as the true king of Westeros and just uses Tommen as his puppet.

But Tyrion isn’t going to give him the chance. He finds him on the toilet and tells him that he just killed Shae with his own bare hands. Tywin practically rolls his eyes as he tries to pull up his pants, once again dismissing one of his children as being useless. Cersei never had the guts to fight back at him as he sent Myrcella away or calmly lectured Tommen on what makes a good king while standing over the corpse of her other son. She had no say when he demanded she marry Loras. Jaime takes the verbal blows from Tywin on a regular basis, begging for Tyrion’s life and banishing himself to Casterly Rock, the way his father needs him hidden away because of his physical deformity. And Tyrion has been brought down again... and again... and again... and AGAIN... by Tywin, and never fights back.

Not any more.

Tyrion: All my life, you’ve wanted me dead.
Tywin: Yes, but you refused to die. I respect that, even admire it. You fight for what’s yours. I’d never let them execute you, is that what you fear? I’d never let Ilyn Payne take your head. You’re a Lannister. You’re my son.
Tyrion: I loved her.
Tywin: Who?
Tyrion: Shae.
Tywin: Oh, Tyrion, put down that crossbow.
Tyrion: I murdered her, with my own hands.
Tywin: Doesn’t matter.
Tyrion: Doesn’t... matter?
Tywin: She was a whore.
Tyrion: Say that word again.
Tywin: And what, you’ll kill your own father in the privy? No. You’re my son. Now, let off of this nonsense—
Tyrion: I am your son, and you sentenced me to die. You knew I didn’t poison Joffrey, but you sentenced me all the same. Why?
Tywin: Enough. Go back to my chambers and speak with dignity.
Tyrion: I can’t go back there. She’s in there.
Tywin: You afraid of a dead whore—


When that first arrow zinged out of the crossbow, with Tyrion looking no more unnerved than Tywin ever does, I gasped out loud and clapped a hand over my mouth. Tywin can’t believe it. With his pants still around his ankles, he falls off the commode and onto the floor as Tyrion calmly loads his weapon a second time. “You shot me!!” Tywin says, completely shocked. Finally, one of his children has the guts to stand up to him, but it’s only to send an arrow through his heart. “You’re no son of mine,” he hisses. “I am your son. I have always been your son,” Tyrion says, then sends a second, fatal arrow into his father as the mournful strains of “The Rains of Castamere” begin to play in the background.

Sorry, I just have to say it: Tywin is having a truly shitty day. 

An absolutely astounding scene that changes everything. Who will be the Hand of the King now? Will it be Jaime? Will Cersei and Jaime be able to do something better for King’s Landing with Tommen as king? Or will it be worse?

Varys greets Tyrion with a tense, “What have you done?” before quickly leading him into a shipping crate. “Trust me, my friend. I’ve brought you this far.” He loads him onto a ship and begins to walk back to King’s Landing before hearing the alarm bells go off. And then he quickly calculates the hope he has of surviving there with all of the death throughout the castle — ie, none — and walks onto the ship to sit next to Tyrion’s crate.

Tyrion has been let go, and any outsider will take one look at Tywin’s chambers and believe Tyrion really was the monster they said he was. Cersei wanted Tyrion dead, and she’s now aligned with Jaime, but it was Jaime who broke him out. How will that go? Where is Tyrion headed? Will Brienne ever find Arya? If she does, will Arya be too far gone by that point? Will Daenerys be able to find balance in her benevolent power?

Will Hodor ever learn a second word?

A brilliant, spectacular ending to an incredible episode.

Thank you to everyone who has been following us thus far. We’ve written some pretty long posts here, and maybe next season we’ll aim to shorten these puppies a tad. I really appreciate everyone tuning in to the trials and tribulations of Westeros. We will meet again for season 5.

Valar Morghulis.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Game of Thrones 4.09: The Watchers on the Wall

Hello and welcome to this week's penultimate episode of Game of Thrones. I am, as always, joined by my fellow man of the Night's Watch as we guard the Wall of the internet against... um... yeah, okay, that metaphor was going nowhere... anyway, Christopher Lockett is his name! This week's post is a little shorter because we only had to focus on one story (I can already hear the collective cheer) but we still have a lot to say! Shock. 

Nikki: You know, I never thought I’d see anything more impressive than Legolas sliding down the side of a tower while shooting arrows at the enemies at Helm’s Deep, but seeing the Night’s Watch guys suddenly pull a gigantic scythe that had been long hidden in the side of the Wall and pummel the hell out of the wildlings scaling the side of it? Holy hell. Turns out the reason we haven’t seen much of the dragons this season (I mean, seriously, where DOES Daenerys keep those beasts? Do they just fly around randomly through Meereen scaring the hell out of the local children?) is because they poured 92% of their CGI budget into this one episode. And what an incredible sequence it was.

I don’t recall another episode of Game of Thrones that focused entirely on one area, one battle; they always touch on other things and then come back to the battle at the end of the episode. I could be wrong, but I think this is the first time we get to focus on one story and one story only, Chris, and it was a nail-biter.

With the death of Oberyn looming over us from last week, I kept wondering who was going to die in this one. Samwell Tarly? Jon Snow? Ygritte? Gilly? Someone had to die, after all. After we discussed last week how GRRM has upended our expectations over and over again, does his flipping of convention actually become the new expectation? Do we now go into every scene thinking, “Um... yeah. Jon Snow ain’t walking away from this one...” and then GRRM manages to flip THAT expectation? I just don’t know how to handle any of it anymore, but in creating this “will he or won’t he” atmosphere around his writing, GRRM has effectively managed to make his episodes seem very realistic. Just as in real life, you never know who’s going to return from battle and who won’t. He will take out the main character just as easily as the guy playing “Sentry #13.”

Aside from the awesome effects in this episode (the giant had a bow that shot spears like they were arrows WHAT THE HELL) I think my favourite scene may have been the one between Maester Aemon and Sam. This is when Sam still thinks Gilly is dead from the attack on Mole’s Town, and Aemon tells him how difficult it is to see straight when you are in love. “Love is the death of duty,” he tells him, and he’s pointing specifically to Jon Snow falling in love with Ygritte, or Sam falling in love with Gilly. He tells Sam that he was in love with, and in this gorgeous moment he looks off in the distance and says that he can still see her in front of him, “she’s more real than you are.” Aemon is legally blind, from what I can tell (I believe he can still see shadows and such) and because he can no longer see the world around him in the present, he instead looks upon the beauty of his past. And in the midst of this moment of calm before the storm, he says to Sam, “Nothing makes the past a sweeter place to visit than the prospect of imminent death.”

This one scene then has a huge impact upon our expectations of the rest of the episode. Will Jon see Ygritte and fail to do his duty? Will Sam shirk his duty for Gilly? And whose death will be imminent?

And yet, not surprisingly, love is not the death of duty for Sam. He loves Gilly and hides her and the baby away in a locked room, but refuses to stay with her. He has made a vow, and he intends to stick by it, even as a man lay dying in his lap with blood gushing from his mouth. He knows he also has a duty to Gilly, but his vow as a man of the Night’s Watch comes first, and he never runs off to hide, unlike Janos Slynt, who goes into shock and rushes into the room. (And to be honest, I felt like if he’d jumped into the fray the Night’s Watch might have accidentally mistaken his bald pate for a Thenn, so... he was probably better off cowering in that room.)

And similarly, we saw Jon Snow abandon Ygritte despite his feelings for her, because he had to get back to the Night’s Watch and tell them what he’d seen. Love wasn’t the death of duty for him, either, although we do see in this episode that when he should have laid waste to the wildling girl, he hesitates.

The flip side of Aemon’s speech is Tormund talking about sex rather brutally, and Ygritte staying focused on her one and only task at hand: killing Jon Snow. As Tormund talks about “Sheila” and Sam asks Jon, “So... what’s it like?” in a very Monty Pythonesque way (nudge nudge wink wink) we realize that when it’s time to go into battle, the mind turns to that from which it derives pleasure: namely sex and love. Do those things make us weaker in the face of battle, or stronger?

What did you think of this episode, Chris? Did it play out in a similar fashion in the book?

Christopher: Well, to start with, you’re forgetting season two’s spectacular episode “Blackwater,” which focused exclusively on Stannis’ attack on King’s Landing and Tyrion’s brilliant defense of the city. So we do have precedent for Game of Thrones ignoring all storylines but one in order to depict a massive battle. And I think you’re right about the dearth of dragons this season: this episode outdid “Blackwater” by a mile, and treated us to the kind of eye-poppingly sophisticated CGI one rarely sees on television, but that doesn’t come cheaply.

As for its consonance with the book, it changes a few key details. For one, Toramund’s assault on Castle Black is not coordinated with the assault on the Wall. In the books, there is no stockade on the south side of the Wall, and so Jon Snow and the Watch defend themselves from the tops of scattered towers, and from a makeshift barricade at the base of switchback stairs built into the Wall (in the novels, the “elevator” is not the only means of getting to the top). Ygritte dies in the fight, but we don’t see it happen. Jon finds her afterward just as she dies—with just enough time to remember the cave and say one last “you know nothing, Jon Snow”—and wonders whether it was his arrow that killed her.

Seriously, Jon Snow. You know NOTHING. (Photo from CrooksandLiars)

Also, his friends Pyp and Grenn don’t die in the book: that one took me by surprise, and saddened me somewhat. Neither of them plays a large part in the series, and if you haven’t read the books you could be forgiven for not noticing them as distinct from any of the other watchmen. But as with so much of the casting on this show, the actors playing them were perfect for the parts, and I will miss them. (And it raises a question we’ve asked before about whether choices in the series are spoilers for the unwritten books—does this mean that Grenn and Pyp play no significant roles in the end? Or perhaps GRRM planned for them to, but will now incorporate their deaths into his writing? I’m pretty certain we’re in unprecedented territory here. It’s pretty fascinating, really).

The other significant difference is that in the novels the battle takes place over several days, with Jon Snow proving his mettle as a battle commander. When there is a lull in the fighting and Mance Rayder settles in for a protracted siege, that is when Janos Slynt arrives from King’s Landing with Alliser Thorne, who had been at Eastwatch-by-the-Sea, one of the Night’s Watch’s other fortresses, and takes arrogant and preemptory command. On Thorne’s urging, he has Jon Snow thrown in chains for having betrayed his oaths with the wildlings; and it is Slynt (again, on Thorne’s urging) who sends Jon to parley with Mance Rayder with the suicidal mission of killing him—in order, he smugly says, to prove Jon’s loyalty.

So the series has compressed the action somewhat, which is not a bad thing, and in having Janos Slynt arriving at the Wall MUCH earlier, they turn him into a quivering, cowardly lump. Ser Alliser, by contrast, is made somewhat more sympathetic: I quite like what they did with him in this episode, having him admit to Jon Snow his error in not heeding his advice to block the tunnel, and then delivering a short speech on the nature of leadership that, in the absence of Maester Aemon’s speech, would have been the best bit of writing in the episode:

“Do you know what leadership means, Lord Snow? It means that the person in charge gets second-guessed by every clever little twat with a mouth. But if he starts second-guessing himself, that’s the end—for himself, for the clever little twats, for everyone. This is not the end. Not for us. Not if you lot do your duty for however long it takes to beat them back. And then you get to go on hating me, and I get to go on wishing your wildling whore had finished the job.”

I loved this—there’s no love lost between Thorne and Jon Snow, and if they survive the battle there will be no sudden bonds of affection and friendship between them. But Thorne, unlike his ally Janos Slynt, is a true soldier, and will put aside his petty hatreds in the name of duty. It is actually the flip side of the coin of Maester Aemon’s speech to Sam: love is the death of duty, but then so are other passions. Say what you will about Alliser Thorne, but he understands that hatred will sabotage his ability to do his duty as much as Sam’s love of Gilly, or Jon’s of Ygritte.

And then he goes on to show that he’s a guy you totally want having your back in a fight.

Like “Blackwater,” this was an episode that balanced some fine writing against some pretty spectacular action sequences. There were a number of fist-pumping moments for me, most notably when the burning oil lights the giants up like a torch, and when Jon Snow mashes the Thenn’s head in with a hammer. What got you cheering in this episode, Nikki?

Did anyone else see this guy and think,
"Wow, Tilda Swinton is on Game of Thrones?!"

Nikki: As I was typing the words “I don’t recall another episode of Game of Thrones that focused entirely on one area...” I thought to myself, “Did Blackwater just focus on that battle?” If I’d looked up our review of it that week, I would have seen that yes, indeed, it did. My mistake.

The enormous scythe probably got the biggest gasp from me, as did that spear the giant shot (that sent a man sailing through the air, off the side of the Wall, down several hundred feet, and impaled onto the ground on the other side... WOW). The two moments you mention were certainly spectacular and brilliantly handled on the show. I loved the archers leaning out and standing horizontally against the Wall, appearing to defy gravity as they shot their arrows straight down at the wildlings scaling the side of it (and when the oil exploded and broke the one man’s rope I will admit a scream emitted from my mouth). The sheer numbers of the wildlings as they appeared in front of the Wall, complete with their “fairy-tale” allies, made me think this was going to be a very quick battle, and I was thrilled that the Night’s Watch managed to stand their ground, even if it’s for one night only, as Jon Snow proclaims.

I agree entirely with your assessment of Ser Alliser. For everything I was saying a few weeks back on what a prick he is and what a dumbass he is for not listening to Jon Snow when Jon told him to seal the tunnels, he not only admits to his mistakes here, but fights like a true warrior when he hits the ground.

Probably the biggest fist-pumping scene for both my husband and me is when Sam unleashed Ghost. YES. The direwolves are always exciting to watch and have been since back in season 1, and the doggie-cam style of showing him working his way through the action and then choosing one guy to take down was brilliant.

I also wanted to mention that I thought the music was phenomenal in this episode: they reused that long scary blast music that first played as the Thenn came marching through the valley toward the wildlings, and it was overlaid with bits of the Game of Thrones theme music, the wildling music, and the music often used for the Night’s Watch. Just utterly brilliant music here.

I will admit there were times when we were a tad confused by the layout of everything (so... Mole’s Town must be north of the Wall because the wildlings were already there and massacred it, which means Castle Black is also north of the Wall? So from the south all you can see is the Wall itself, but the Castle is located on the northern side, is that correct?) but it didn’t stop the action one bit.

So, with the Night’s Watch’s numbers depleted but Castle Black still standing, Tormund in captivity, Ygritte and the Thenn leader dead, Slynt in severe shock, Ser Alliser wounded but still alive, Gilly safe in Castle Black for now, Sam having had his first kiss (awwww), and the giants dead after the men of the Night’s Watch held the gate, as Jon Snow had asked them to do... Jon is going to head off into the wilds north of the Wall and find Mance Rayder and end all of this, he says. Earlier in the episode, Gilly made Sam promise to come back, and he made that promise... and kept it. Now Sam watches Jon go — sans sword — and says to him, “Jon? Come back.” Part of me is terrified Jon won’t. But I’m assuming with so much focus on the Wall and what’s north of it in this episode, this might be the last we see of Jon Snow until season 5, and next week we’ll conclude the rest of the action in Westeros.

Of course, this final back-and-forth between Sam and Jon had me asking one very big question: where the hell was Mance Rayder? I remember when Ciaran Hinds was introduced as Mance last season and you were giddy, Chris (not least because he’s Julius Caesar to us) and then... nothing. He’s never there, he’s utterly absent from the battle, and he’s just disappeared from the action all this season. I haven’t read this book, so perhaps there some explanation there I’m missing, but it just felt like he should have been there in some capacity. If he was the one who brought them all together, after all, why isn’t he there fighting with them?

Any final thoughts, Chris?

Christopher: Mance is there, just not leading from the front. I assume that was, in part, just an issue of scheduling and pay … there wouldn’t have been much Mance this season anyway, so why pay an actor for a few-minute cameo in the penultimate episode? I say that, of course, knowing that we might see him in the finale, but I’m going to guess that you’re correct—we won’t see the Wall again until next season, as there is simply too much to tie up in the rest of our storylines.

I think you’re confused about the geography because you’ve momentarily forgotten that Tormund, Ygritte, et al are in fact south of the Wall. They climbed over the Wall last season with Jon Snow (as he reminds us in this episode) and have ranged pretty far south in the raiding as they wait for Mance’s signal. Castle Black is south of the Wall; Tormund’s group comes up on them from the south.

I too was thrilled by Sam releasing Ghost. We haven’t seen much of him this season, but he’s had two really great moments—taking out Rast at Craster’s Keep, and then again in this episode. Having a direwolf on your side goes a long way to evening the odds.

One thing I quite liked about this episode is Sam’s evolution as a character. John Bradley has never played him precisely like the Samwell Tarly of the novels—he’s always been more gregarious, less timid, and far less cowardly. Though I like the Sam of the novels, his incessant cringing and whining makes him difficult to take at times … and while on one hand it’s a welcome change from uniformly dour and courageous male heroes, one does start to lose patience with him. But Bradley’s Sam has evolved—starting out cringy and whiny, but slowly coming into his own as he endures hardships and dangers that would reduce most of us to jelly. They’re precisely the same hardships and dangers he endures in the novels, but Sam as written never quite toughens up. His speech to Pyp as they wait at the gates for the wildlings to attack is another lovely moment of writing, imbued with Sam’s self-awareness of how he’s changed. In the moment he killed the White Walker, he was “nothing”—and that is when fear disappears. So why was he afraid now? “I’m not nothing anymore,” he replies, and those words speak both to Sam coming into his own as a character, but also his realization that he loves Gilly. In other words, he has something now to live for.

In many ways, this was a very deftly written episode for one that was basically a massive battle. The themes of love, leadership, and duty run through it, and far from being three separate concepts they are shown to be inextricably entwined. Jon Snow’s fumbling attempt to explain how sex and love feels at the start is inadvertently quite eloquent: “It’s this whole other person … you’re wrapped up in them, they’re wrapped up in you … for a little while you’re more than just you … Oh, I don’t know, I’m not a bleeding poet!” Oh, Jon—you were almost there. You almost had it. Jon’s description is the opposite of Sam’s when he tells Pyp about becoming nobody. It makes me think of the final line of Philip Larkin’s poem “An Arundel Tomb,” in which the otherwise cynical and bleak poet concludes that “What will survive of us is love.” Maester Aemon might characterize love as the death of duty, but he acknowledges its power … and we see that on Jon Snow’s face when he’s confronted by Ygritte pointing an arrow at his chest. The smile the crosses his face is enigmatic—at once chagrined but, as you observe Nikki, also delighted. It’s as if he’s thinking “Of course you’re the one who’s going to kill me,” but at the same time acknowledging that if he’s going to die, he’s happy she’s the one to do it.

Would she have shot him if Olly hadn’t beaten her to it? I had halfway expected her to put an arrow into Alabaster Seal while Jon was fighting him, at once saving his life but also following through on her earlier threat. We’re never given the answer of whether she’d actually have killed Jon this time … but then, perhaps, some questions should not be answered.

Well, that’s it for this week, folks! Thanks for reading, and always remember to uncage your direwolf before the battle. Tune in next week as Nikki and I put our fourth season of Game of Thrones to be. And I promise you this much: once again, the internet’s gonna get broke.