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Season Finale: Game of Thrones – “Mhysa”

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“Mhysa”

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.

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Game of Thrones – “The Bear and the Maiden Fair”

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“The Bear and the Maiden Fair”

May 12th, 2013

“How do the men holding the banners fight?”

I’m always interested by what online conversation refers to as “Filler” episodes. By all accounts, “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” fits the bill as far as I understand it: no major events take place, a lot of storylines are merely ways of reminding us of what’s about to happen and the stakes for those involved, and there’s not that big triumphant moment that takes the story in a new direction.

As a result, “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” never evolves into a particularly exciting hour of television, content mostly to sketch out the boundaries of the season’s storylines in preparation for the oncoming climax. In the hands of A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin, the hour functions not unlike the dominant narratives of his books: a lot of people talking about doing something or going somewhere or being someone. At times cheeky in its references to future book material, the episode mostly settles for a sort of muddled clarity, a promise that there is a future even while acknowledging it to be a dark and complicated one.

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Game of Thrones – “Kissed by Fire”

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“Kissed By Fire”

April 28th, 2013

“You swore some vows. I want you to break them.”

As Ygritte seduces Jon Snow in a conveniently located hot springs, I found myself at odds with the story unfolding onscreen. Although I have long known—unlike Jon Snow, of course, who knows nothing—this scene would take place, there was something oddly romantic about the moment that struck me as off. In the books, I always remembered the scene as more complicated, a sort of alternate passage into manhood as contrasted with the vows Jon swore in front of the heart tree. It was still effectively Jon and Ygritte having sex in a cave, mind you, but I always found the moment less romantic and more adolescent.

This is, of course, because it was more adolescent given that Jon was only a teenager. The same goes for Robb Stark, whose decision to chop off the head of Richard Karstark was less an act of determination and more an act of formation, a moment when he stopped being a boy and became a leader. The show’s decision to age up the younger characters made sense, and it has resulted in a number of positive story developments, but Robb and Jon are two characters whose stories have been transformed by nature of their relative maturity.

In the case of Jon’s encounter with Ygritte, there’s no adolescent fumbling to be found here: instead, he’s a masterful lover, his desire to kiss her “there” proving quite well received. And yet whereas I once saw that scene as this brief moment of solitude, of innocence—and the removal of that innocence—in the midst of a coming war, here it just felt like Jon and Ygritte getting it on, following by some pillow talk without the pillows. It all felt too romantic, which is not to say that romance has no place in this show but rather to say that the storyline came at a point in Jon’s storyline where I did not feel it earned that romance, at least not in the way I had understood it previously.

As “Kissed by Fire” unfolded, however, it became clear that Jon and Ygritte’s encounter had been somewhat shifted in meaning. It wasn’t about breaking up Jon and Ygritte’s journey so much as it was giving us a fleeting moment of romance before destroying every other idealistic notion you could imagine. Their encounter gives the episode a brief moment of solitude, but it’s not for the characters so much as it’s for the audience. It is a moment of lust and freedom in a world where lust is punished, freedom is overwritten by family, and “romance” exists only as the enemy of common sense and good strategy.

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Season Finale: Game of Thrones – “Valar Morghulis”

“Valar Morghulis”

June 3rd, 2012

“You’re not the man you’re pretending to be. Not yet.”

Last season, Game of Thrones ended its penultimate episode with a shocking moment. With the swing of a sword, Eddard Stark was dead, and the ecosystem of the series had changed forever. The finale, “Fire and Blood” was largely left to pick up the narrative pieces that were left behind, selling viewers on a show without its lead. As a result, last season’s finale became about journeys forward: Tyrion’s journey as the King’s Hand, Robb’s journey as King in the North, Dany’s journey as the Mother of Dragons, Arya’s journey back north with Yoren, Bran’s journey as the Lord of Winterfell, and Jon Snow’s journey beyond the Wall with the Night’s Watch.

By comparison, “Valar Morghulis” has a greater burden to resolve ongoing storylines, with more of the season’s climax left to be explored given the contained explosiveness of last week’s “Blackwater.” While any simplistic analysis of the season’s narrative would identify the battle in Blackwater Bay as the season’s climax, the disjointed nature of the various journeys means that each character has been headed towards their own climaxes which were promptly delayed by last week’s events. Dany is still looking for her dragons, Jon is still a captive of the Wildlings, Arya is on the run from Harrenhal, and Bran remains hidden in his own home as Theon reigns over Winterfell. And these are only the storylines that we could identify most cleanly, as we could also consider Jaime and Brienne’s journey, or Robb’s relationship with Talisa, or any number of other threads that “Valar Morghulis” is expected to contend with.

For the most part, however, “Valar Morghulis” follows the example of last year’s finale, largely focusing on pivoting towards future storylines. This is not to say that it is anti-climactic, with Dany’s storyline in particular reaching a strong conclusion and the final moments of the episode delivering the equivalent thrill to last season’s reveal of Dany walking out of the fire with her dragons around her. Indeed, both episodes also spent a lot of time with characters taking stock of what has happened, settling on a course for the future, and then largely disappearing as other storylines took over.

The difference, though, is that there is something more substantial to take stock of. These characters are all older, mostly wiser, and each more clearly placed on a particular path. If last season’s finale was designed to solidify that these characters are not simply meant to live normal lives, consigned to a life at the heart of this conflict whether or not they choose that life, “Valar Morghulis” was about how that experience has changed them, and how the beginnings of their journey will prepare them for what’s to come.

It may be the same structure, in other words, but the result is a stronger finale, and a good burst of momentum into a third season.

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Game of Thrones – “The Prince of Winterfell”

“The Prince of Winterfell”

May 20th, 2012

“One game at a time, my friend.”

Tyrion speaks true, in this instance: for the last two weeks, I’ve prioritized my professional responsibilities over what are ultimately my personal ones, meaning that writing about Game of Thrones became infeasible. Accordingly, one might expect that I’d have a lot to say about “The Prince of Winterfell,” the eighth episode of the show’s second season, given that I haven’t had a chance to say anything about the two episodes that came before.

However, in all honesty, we are reaching the point in the season where I don’t have a whole lot to say. With very little being introduced, and with so many storylines fully in motion, evaluating the show at this point is difficult: we have not yet reached the climax, the moment where everything is meant to coalesce, but we are also past the point where new ideas are being introduced. “The Prince of Winterfell” falls pretty much in line with what we’ve seen in the past few episodes, taking us mostly down a logical path toward what previews for next week position as the “Clash of Kings” that the season’s literary origins refer to.

Until we reach that point, though, the show is continuing to ignore Tyrion’s advice and tackle as many games as it possibly can. It’s a strategy that makes “The Prince of Winterfell” a wide-ranging episode which has to do a little work in a lot of places to get the show into position for the next moves in a whole new set of directions.

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Game of Thrones – “Garden of Bones”

“Garden of Bones”

April 22nd, 2012

“Too much pain will spoil the pleasure.”

One of my general criticisms for “Garden of Bones,” which is Vanessa Taylor’s first script credit on Game of Thrones after joining as a co-executive producer this season, it’s that choosing a pull quote was a bit too difficult. It was an episode filled with lines that felt like they were aiming too much towards broader thematic ideas, pulling me out of the moment and placing me into the head of the writer.

It doesn’t mean that the episode isn’t filled with a lot of great sequences, or that those lines aren’t evocative of key themes that are valuable to the series’ future. However, there’s something about the episode’s exposition that calls attention to itself: a rarely seen character emerges with new confidence early on so that his comeuppance later has relevance, a single character out of a larger group is awkwardly signaled out by his full name for no reason other than informing the viewer who he is, and another name is conveniently used in a conversation just as another character needs to learn it.

It’s not enough, as noted, to entirely derail the larger function of “Garden of Bones,” but there does come a point where an episode that begins with a Westerossi Meet Cute begins to flow less naturally, a point that this episode reached as the exposition burden of the early parts of the season seems to come to a head.

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Season Finale: Game of Thrones – “Fire and Blood”

“Fire and Blood”

June 19th, 2011

“There you will see what life is worth when all the rest is gone.”

Earlier this week, I rewatched last week’s penultimate episode, “Baelor,” with my brother who was seeing it for the first time. Generally, I’ve been watching Game of Thrones alone, and any interaction with other viewers has been done online (or, if done in person, was done with people who I had previously interacted with online). For the first time, I was sitting in the same room as another viewer as we watched the show, and the experience made clear what I had known from the beginning but had never seen quite so clearly visible: Game of Thrones is a show that every single viewer likely considers differently.

It is not just that we can separate between readers and non-readers, although that is certainly the most obvious distinction to be made. Rather, we need to also consider questions of genre, gender, sexual content, race, and other qualities which have been called into question over the course of the season: regardless of whether I individually had concerns with the show’s use of fantasy, or its sexposition, or the Othering of the Dothraki, the fact is that those concerns existed, and have created a divisive response even among those who generally like the show.

In a piece earlier this week, friend of the blog Cory Barker wrote about his ambivalence towards the series, and kept trying to find reasons for it within the text. While his process was enlightening, he couldn’t find the silver bullet: there was no one part of the show that was creating a lack of an emotional connection. How we view the series can be defined by issues like genre which are inherent to the text itself, or issues like viewing patterns which are entirely extratextual but can define one’s experience with the text. My brother, for example, watched the season on a staggered schedule of short marathons, while my parents watched it on a weekly basis; as a result, they remembered different things, retaining different parts of the show that were highlighted by their personal experience with the text.

I raise all of these points because after a season of open interpretation, at least for those who hadn’t read the books, there is something almost prescriptive about “Fire and Blood.” While “Baelor” delivered a fatal twist, and suggested a certain degree of carnage to come in the weeks ahead, “Fire and Blood” steps back to serve as a more traditional denouement, laying out the various threads which will be followed into a second season. Rightly treating the fate of Ned Stark as the season’s climax, it seeks to explore the scenario that Mirri Maz Duur lays out to Dany early in the episode: what is the worth of each of these characters and these storylines in light of recent events? It’s a moment where the show actually has to step forward and proclaim its identity in order to convince the skeptics that this is a show worth watching, and to convince the believers that their faith has not been misplaced as the show transitions into the next stage of its narrative.

“Fire and Blood” doesn’t beat around the bush: it shows its hand from its bloody opening to its fiery conclusion, laying out a pretty detailed framework for what the second season of the show will look like. However, it never feels like an artificial framework, and that sense of interpretation never disappears even as the storyline becomes less open-ended. Serving as a fitting bookend to what I personally feel was a very strong first season, “Fire and Blood” reinforces central themes and delivers on what matters most: reminding us why these characters are following the path they’re on, and informing us why we want to follow that path next season.

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