Monday, June 04, 2012

TV Report: Game of Thrones

With last night's episode, the second series of Game of Thrones has come to its end, and I found myself much more wrapped up in it than the first. Even with some of the things I wish they had done better, I think they've really turned Westeros into a place that feels real and immediate, and not just like a bunch of sets and gorgeous locations.

Some observations, and I'll attempt to not get to into the spoilers, but I'm sure I won't be successful.

First, what I didn't like:

:: As is the problem with a lot of book to film adaptations, there is just a surplus of characters. We still have characters from the first season who have yet to really make a lasting impression, in my opinion--particularly Ser Gregor Clegane (the Mountain)--and then we're introduced to almost an entire new cast that, in its way, doesn't seem to have much to do. I know the books themselves are a long, long game where pieces only come into it when it's time for them to be played, but television drama moves at a faster pace, and some of the interesting new characters--and I'm thinking specifically of Melisandre and Davos Seaworth--make an early impression only to be mostly sidelined for the bulk of the series.

:: Daenerys' storyline. I understand the importance of it--we're seeing just how in over her head Dany really is, and how unrealistic she's being about the people of Westeros clamoring for her return (though I can hardly blame her for that, since that's what she's been fed her whole life)--and there was an excellent payoff at the end as she finally discovered her strength, but I feel like it's also been a less interesting repetition of what happened to her in the first season: she lives her little fantasy, then reality intrudes, and she discovers she has to be ruthless in order to claim her own power. It's an arc that makes sense in some ways, but several episodes of "My dragons! Give me my dragons!" takes a lot of the spark out of it.

:: The city of Qarth. It looked beautiful--the reveal of the doors opening and suddenly seeing this magnificent city in the midst of nothing but wasteland was one of my favorite moments this season--but the story taking place there felt muted (despite some great over-the-top acting from Nicholas Blane as the Spice King).

:: Ygritte. I never liked her character much in the books--she never rises above fantasy no-nonsense tomboy girlfriend who is fascinating because the author says she is--but I like her on TV even less. I get why she's there and what she does for the Jon Snow character, but I keep reading reviews talking about how clever and refreshing she is, but I just find her obnoxious and annoying. She's the Mike Teavee of Westeros. That said, you know, honestly, I couldn't care less about what's happening at the Wall or beyond it. That's the least interesting aspect of the entire story for me, in book and on television. Jon Snow is the same duty-driven boor his father is, too bound by his own principles to be an interesting character, and Kit Harington just sort of stares at everything as if he's going to burst into tears every moment. It just doesn't hold my interest (although the land beyond the Wall looks very beautiful; they really found some great locations so that it's not monotonous to look at).

:: Not enough Varys. Never enough Varys.

:: Also, not enough of Salladhor Saan. One great scene that left me immediately wanting more.

:: The Greyjoys. I don't know, I just pictured more intensity and danger when I read about them in the book. That seems like more of a nitpick to me, because maybe the show's writers just didn't picture them the same way, or more likely there just isn't time in the narrative they're shaping to spend with the Greyjoys, but I considered them more like the hardy, angry, violence-loving Vikings they boast about being. I didn't find them particularly different or memorable here, and I particularly was hoping for a more dynamic Asha/Yara than we got, but it's not like it ruins the show for me when there's so much they're doing right.

Speaking of, here are things I loved about this season:

:: Above all, the willingness to go off-book. I tire immensely of reading reviews and blog posts about the show that are 90% "they're not doing the book anymore, why aren't they doing the book anymore, I don't understand, I can't watch it." This season, the creators were less worried about adapting everything in (which seemed to hold the story back in places in the first season) and more worried about creating compelling narratives and exploring certain themes. One of my favorite recurring themes this season is the idea of power: who deserves it, how will they compromise themselves to get it, how will they wield it if they do, what is the responsibility of having it, and is having power more important than personal happiness. The finale in particular got at that last one, with Daenerys making (in my opinion) a much more personal choice than in the previous finale, and Tyrion coming to a very interesting revelation.

Being off-book also allowed for some of the series' best scenes and plotlines. In the first season, there were some fantastic scenes with Littlefinger and Varys that didn't come from the book, and here we get more like that, and they're very strong. The novels are of course told in point-of-view chapters, so much of what we get is reacting to things that happen offstage, as it were, or in the aftermath of decisions made by others. Here we see more of the characters humanized and their decisions become much less arbitrary and more driven by this constant question of power. So we see already that Margaery is much more cunning and pragmatic than on the page, and we will see in the future just how badly Cersei underestimates her. We get more time with Renly so that when he dies, it's a death that stings instead of just something that happens to move the plot along. Even Catelyn's reaction to being given her husband's bones is a more intimate and emotional moment than any she had with a living Sean Bean in the first season.

But the chief joy of these invented scenes are several episode's worth of Arya Stark, pretending to be a Northern mason's lost daughter, getting to know Tywin Lannister. In a number of excellent scenes, they guardedly match wits and come to a brief mutual respect for one another. She can't reveal her true identity, but there's often the sense that he already knows who she is and is simply keeping the information to himself. And it's complex characterization for Arya to see her not just constantly in danger, as she was in the book, but instead seeing the man who heads the family responsible for the death of her father and trying to kill her brother, and finding times when she respects and even likes him. The series has done an exemplary job with Tywin, who was a remote, imperious villain figure in the novels, and here is a driven but deeply human man whom we can understand even if we don't sympathize with him.

:: The courtship of Robb and Talisa. This is something I like much better than in the novels. In the novels, Robb goes off to fight while we follow Catelyn back to her childhood home so she can continue to be a snob and watch her father die endlessly. When Robb appears again at the end, he's suddenly got a wife with him (Jeyne Westerling, the daughter of a minor noble house) and has just made the biggest mistake of his campaign: destroying a key alliance. It mostly happens off the page, and just makes Robb seem like a petulant, stupid kid instead of the young and capable King in the North who's been winning battle after battle. Because we only see the decision and the horrific aftermath, we're mystified as to how Robb could make such a stupid mistake.

By subbing in a new character who serves as a battlefield nurse, we get to watch their attraction grow and flower organically because we get more time for Robb to develop as a character. By the end of the season, you can't think of this couple not getting married. She's humanized Robb and come to represent everything he wants to live for; his decision becomes much easier to understand, even as we know (especially if we've read the books) that it will cause the dissolution of a powerful alliance and that repercussions will follow. Instead of seeing a boy making a rash and stupid mistake, we see a young man who thought he might never stop mourning seizing what may be his only chance at real happiness. And it's one of this season's themes about power: do you have to sacrifice your own happiness in order to achieve it? Robb's hoping the answer is no.

Over at the AV Club, they've been wondering what the point is of replacing Jeyne Westerling with a new character, and I think the answer is pretty obvious. By making Talisa a noblewoman from the Free Cities, we have someone who can move with impunity through a battlefield of wounded (she's beholden to none of the Westerosi banners), someone who can talk to Robb on his own level, and someone who has experienced (per her backstory) a noble upbringing but has sympathy for what nobility does to the ordinary folk caught up in the power struggles of the rich (another theme I wish this show would explore a bit more). It also gives Robb the illusion that he can make this decision free of any political fallout, which will prove to be not true. But in the end, Jeyen Westerling is a plot device, and Talisa is a full-blooded character, so I'm not losing sleep over the change.

:: Bronn. Because Bronn is just awesome. And, in reference to Joffrey's sadism, he had one of the best lines of the entire series: "There's no cure for being a cunt." Jerome Flynn has just been knocking it out of the park as Bronn. (Another fantastic supporting performance I should mention, especially since he and Flynn had that great scene together in the Blackwater episode, is Rory McCann as the Hound.)

:: The Battle of Blackwater. Smaller than I pictured it (TV budget and all that), but no less powerful. The House of the Undying was the same; I think if they'd given us the same visions Dany experiences in the novel, it might have spoiled a lot of upcoming revelations, but substituting the vision with Khal Drogo was unexpected and maybe much more powerful, giving Dany her agency back.

:: That final shot of the White Walkers made them look far cooler than they are in the books. That guy on the horse (Coldhands? That would be cool.) was amazing.

:: Natalia Tena and Natalie Dormer nude on the same season of television... oh, thank you so much.

:: Gwendoline Christie just so perfectly looks the part of Brienne. She's so tall. I'm really looking forward to next season, when she really gets to flex her muscles as a character, though her scene in the finale was a nice preview of things to come.

My favorite new character this season, though, was easily Jaqen H'ghar, and I loved how Tom Wlaschiha played him as this sort of easygoing mystery. It'll be some time before we see Arya in Braavos, but I'm already excited for it.

Overall, this was just a fantastic season of television, and I'm glad as hell to see the producers were much more confident this time around. They had the courage to drop bits, reshuffle others, and create a compelling narrative instead of just drably adapting chunks of the story to please fans who get crazy about needing to see every little bit of it. This is excellent television, and I'm counting the 10 months until I can see more of it.


Kelly Sedinger said...

It's sad that my increasing irritation with the books, to the point that I almost don't want to even read any new ones that come along (GRRM said in a recent interview that he just HAS to get the next out in under five years), has left me with little to no desire to watch the show.

Cal's Canadian Cave of Coolness said...

There was too much to wrap my brain around so I avoided this one too. I do love Natalie Dormer unconditionally, however.

SamuraiFrog said...

Kelly: You should give the show a chance one day, once you've got some distance from the irritation of the books. The great thing about the series is that it manages to trim a lot of the fat and just get right to the characters and the story. It feels vital and alive where the last few books (by which I mean every one after the first two) have just gotten stuck in the snow and stayed there.

Cal: God damn it, I love Natalie Dormer.

MC said...

With the next book being split over 2 seasons, I guess GRRM is going to have a little more time to finish the next book.

Kelly Sedinger said...

SF: I see your point, but...they're also just now getting to where the bloat started to set in to the books! So I don't know...they'll have to do a LOT of cutting, trimming, and making up new stuff out of whole cloth to cover over all the frankly boring and uncompelling stuff that's on the docket starting with "Storm of Swords".