“The Watchers On The Wall”
June 8, 2014
“Blackwater” was about convergence. It was the inevitable collision between Stannis’ claim to the throne and the Lannister powers controlling it. In truth, Stannis’ side of the battle was pretty thin, sketched in without a whole lot of detail beyond Davos and his son. It was really about how Stannis’ attack changed the power dynamics at King’s Landing, whether through Cersei’s steely resolve, Tyrion’s ingenuity and intelligence, or Joffrey’s cowardice. At a stage when this was still ostensibly a show with the Stark family as its protagonist, it was an early example of the richness of stories in King’s Landing, capable of carrying an entire episode on its own.
“The Watchers On The Wall” wants to be “Blackwater.” Neil Marshall has returned as director. Mance Rayder’s not dissimilar to Stannis, in terms of development at this stage in their respective narratives, an idea more than a person. We know characters on both sides. And like that episode, “The Watchers On The Wall” is exclusively focused on the attack on The Wall, eschewing other ongoing narratives in favor of the battle at hand.
The problem with this comparison is that I don’t know why I care about The Wall. Actually, that’s a lie: I know why I care about The Wall, which is the fact that I’ve known where this story is going from the beginning, and have been anticipating it playing out. But for those who aren’t book readers, this season has often struggled to make The Wall an integral part of this narrative. The season went through a lot of effort to flesh out the characterization. There was Jon’s attack on Craster’s Keep to keep the action quotient high and to build more content into the storyline to help delay the battle until the season’s climax. There was moving Gilly to Mole’s Town so she could offer perspective on the early phases of the attack. There was sticking with Ygritte and Tormund to preface the viciousness of the Thenns. And there was Ser Alliser and Janos Slynt conspiring to keep Jon Snow from preparing for the imminent attack in the proper fashion.
The problem is that none of this built momentum. It established the various players that are central to the battle, but it didn’t make it feel important, even though this is undoubtedly an important battle. It just paled in comparison to the immediacy of Tyrion’s plight, or the looseness of Arya and the Hound, or a range of other stories that were undoubtedly more dynamic. This doesn’t feel like the culmination of a season-long storyline. It feels like something that just got delayed, a logical climax to the season (and the book most of the season is based on) that required padding to land in this position.
The result is an episode that has to prove itself without the benefit of strong connections to the characters, or season-long storylines waiting for a climax. “The Watchers On The Wall” needs to be a self-starter, building anticipation for and delivering action that the episode’s pedigree has promised. And while a visceral piece of action filmmaking and a spectacle worthy of “Blackwater,” it proves less a climax so much as long-delayed rising action to finally bring The Wall into play in the season’s narrative.
June 9th, 2013
“Here only the family name matters.”
As Varys explains this fact to Shae, he’s being pragmatic: he’s trying to help someone whose very existence at King’s Landing threatens her own life and the life of the man she loves. Varys acknowledges that she has made Tyrion better. Varys acknowledges that hers is a true love. And yet Varys also gives her a collection of diamonds, telling her to sail to Pentos and start a new life for herself so that her love can do something good for Westeros without the threat of a single-named woman hanging over him.
It’s dark advice, advice that Shae refuses to take. Despite the fact that we just saw both Robb Stark and Talisa die for following true love over pragmatism, and despite the fact that Jon Snow just took three arrows from the woman he loves, Shae proves what many other characters have learned as well: there is still power in love even when all signs would suggest that trusting in such power will be your undoing.
“Mhysa” is about this love, which may seem strange in light of the fact that last week ended on such a foreboding sendoff for Robb and Catelyn Stark. And yet Game of Thrones needed a new motivation beyond ascending to the throne, a sense of purpose that could evolve beyond the War of the Five Kings and the deaths of Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark which set it off. What “Mhysa” seeks to accomplish is reframe the actions of its characters not as part of a larger power struggle, but rather as actions designed to protect their families or to protect the realm. This is not to say that we are to support the Lannisters’ cruelty or to endorse Melisandre’s sorcery, but rather that we can shift our understanding of their actions away from a part in a larger plot and instead toward what motivated them to take those steps in the first place.
It’s an enriching move that works to build a strong foundation for future seasons, although one that has some issues retroactively making some of the season’s storylines resonate in the way intended. “Mhysa” concludes a third season that was only retroactively revealed—for non-readers, at least—to be the season where Game of Thrones could no longer be simplified to a battle between the Starks of Winterfell and the Lannisters of Casterly Rock, one that did its job without necessarily connecting in the process.
“Dark Wings, Dark Words”
April 6th, 2013
“I try to know as many people as I can. You never know which one you’ll need.”
When HBO’s decision to order Game of Thrones to pilot was first announced, I went back and began rereading the books in preparation. At the time, I wrote a piece thinking about how the structure of the books—specifically the chapters told from specific characters’ points-of-view—would prove a challenge, but how there remained thematic through-lines that could be capitalized upon.
More recently, Benioff and Weiss have said that they aren’t structuring the show around themes, suggesting they’re for grade school book reports. It’s a silly comment, and I will continue to remark upon clear themes that run through both the series and the novels on which that series is based, but I do think that they’re right on one point: this is not, primarily, structured as a thematic story. And yet, given the fact that the narrative has become dispersed from a clearly outlined conflict—the War of the Five Kings—into a scattered collection of individual narratives, a question is raised: how exactly is the show being structured?
To suggest that Game of Thrones is a character-driven show is not exactly groundbreaking, but I was struck during “Dark Wings, Dark Words” how the show is actually organized by character. In thinking about some of my pre-air thoughts regarding how audiences might respond to some characters better than others, I watched the episode thinking through one primary question: who is this scene about? While the fragmentation of the narrative means that no single episode will be about one single person, the focus of a given scene nonetheless often falls to a single character, and not always the character we might presume it to be. And while there is a collection of new characters introduced in this week’s episode, none of them feel like their scenes were about them so much as the existing characters they were meeting. At the same time, meanwhile, some characters whose existence was once defined by their support of other characters have become subjects of their own storylines, even if their role within the larger narrative hasn’t necessarily changed.
“Dynamic Duets” and Season Four So Far
November 22nd, 2012
I was at a Thanksgiving gathering today, and an open question was asked regarding the quality of Glee this season. An initial opinion suggested the show was terrible this year, and without any hesitation I disagreed: Glee, to my mind, has been measurably better than last season, and probably the season before.
I don’t know if this is a controversial opinion, but it was met with skepticism by the room, and perhaps rightfully so. Given the sheer number of words I spent laying out my frustrations with the show before quitting weekly reviews, I am all too familiar with Glee’s flaws. And to be clear, the show has continued to have these problems, and I’ve continued to sit on my couch and complain to Twitter about them like a crazy person. But around those problems has grown a season moving with purpose the vague “graduation” theme never offered, pulling fewer punches and forcing its characters to ask questions that occasionally threaten to mean something.
Put more simply, Glee is a better television show this season. Its flaws, while still numerous, feel like the byproduct of trying to do something instead of the byproduct of doing nothing, a constructive shift that helps the show overcome its occasional missteps to reach musical resolutions that feel earned.
“You Win or You Die”
May 29th, 2011
“It’s the family name that lives on. It’s all that lives on.”
[You can also hear additional thoughts on this episode in a special edition of the Talking TV with Ryan and Ryan podcast that I participated in.]
[Also, for more on "Sexposition," check out my review of Season 2, Episode 2, "The Night Lands"]
There has been a lot of conversation surrounding the question of exposition with Game of Thrones, understandable given the high volume of material that has been revealed through conversations in an effort to capture the complexity of George R.R. Martin’s world.
“You Win or You Die” is not particularly exposition heavy, although there is one example that I will break down in greater detail, but the function of exposition is to provide a sense of history and context and I would argue that this episode is very interested in this idea. Some have argued that flashbacks might be considered another way to provide insight into history, and that it would beat the somewhat sloppy exposition that has to this point been deployed, but I would ask this: is the point of exposition to inform or remind the audience of particular information, or is it designed to inform the audience that the particular information in question is, in fact, important enough to be discussed in this context?
The answer, as always, is that it is meant to function as both, but I think those decrying the very existence of exposition in its current form should consider the latter more carefully. The role of history within this world is an important theme that is highlighted in “You Win or You Die,” as various threads comes to a point where the past is either given new meaning or forgotten entirely.
Or, rather, forgotten in some circles and remembered in others.
May 10th, 2011
Ian Brennan has always been the Glee writer most interested in embracing the series’ meta qualities, but there are two moments in this week’s episode where he goes one step too far. First, Sue’s list of most-hated songs the Glee club has performed were very clearly a bit of self-deprecating commentary rather than something Sue would actually observe – the notion of apologizing to America was particularly strange, greatly exaggerating the reach of “Run Joey Run.”
Now, note that Brennan wrote the episodes in which both “Run Joey Run” and the “Crazy in Love/Hair” remix appeared, so he’s picking away at himself more than the show itself. This was also clear when Jesse discussed the whiplash nature of his relationship with Rachel disintegrating, which was most evident in the Brennan-scripted “Funk.” In both instances, I found the commentary obnoxious, and it pulled me out of the scenes themselves and into the artifice of the series.
Of course, the show does this quite often, but it felt like “Prom Queen” had a particularly steep climb in regards to fully integrating the viewer into its world. This goes both for the episode’s climax, which was the topic of a huge spoiler controversy over Twitter a few weeks back, and the performance of a particular viral video sensation of questionable quality. I am not among those who asks that the Glee universe presents itself as cohesive or realistic, in part because the show is clearly built around their world extending into our own with concerts, downloads, and everything in between, but also because I think this meta quality has a certain charm to it…when used properly, and when used sparingly.
While it is unfortunate that the climax of “Prom Queen” had to be caught up in the online kerfuffle and thus rendered somewhat less effective, I would argue that the episode as a whole transcended Brennan’s obsession with the show itself to deliver a couple of strong moments which felt honest to Prom at McKinley High School.
And yes, that more or less includes “Friday.”
May 3rd, 2011
“Tell me why everything turned around?”
“Rumours” never pretends that it isn’t an episode built around the songs from the Fleetwood Mac album of the same name: heck, early on Will pulls out the LP with April Rhodes and displays it for everyone, and it becomes the Glee club’s lesson of the week.
What I found interesting, though, was how the somewhat artificial presence of the storyline was ultimately overcome by Ryan Murphy’s willingness to play with the album’s methodology in the script. Rumours, the album, was produced in a very focused environment based on historical record: as Will explains, they only spoke to one another about the music so as to avoid their personal differences from breaking them up before the album was complete. And yet Glee has often suffered for this very reason: because we see so little of these characters’ lives outside of the Glee club with the show so focused on the musical performances and New Directions’ trip to Nationals, the interpersonal relationships that would allow them to develop as characters are left by the wayside. And unlike the songs on Rumours, the songs on Glee are rarely infused with the emotions of unspoken (and unseen) personal conflicts, instead feeling like plot points or iTunes sales.
“Rumours” is quite effective because it allows the central theme of the episode to trickle down through its characters organically, never dwelling on the initial rumors and instead focusing on their psychological effects on ongoing character arcs. Despite the presence of a meddling Sue Sylvester spreading vicious rumors about members of New Directions, what follows feels driven by individual characters confronting their insecurities in a self-aware, nuanced fashion. Parts of it are manipulative, and certainly there are some of the show’s usual leaps of logic, but “Rumours” successfully uses a simple premise to reveal some complex emotions, nicely encapsulating the level of character momentum the show has heading into the final three episodes of the season.