Monday, May 05, 2014

First of His Name

The week's new Game of Thrones episode marked the halfway point of the season, believe it or not. As with last week, the were a number of changes big and small from the original book, but this time it seemed to me easier to determine why the writers were making them and where they were aiming toward.

For example, they seemed to begin a campaign of softening the character of Cersei this week. George R.R. Martin did this in his writing too, but primarily by making Cersei a perspective character in book four. The series can't just put you into a person's head that way, so it must go about the business differently. I don't recall book Cersei resigning herself to her family's relationship with the Tyrells in the way series Cersei did tonight, but it made for a series of interesting new scenes.

First, at Tommen's coronation, she seemed to swallow her first instinct and actually extend an olive branch to Margaery. She even acknowledged the horrid disposition of her own late son, Joffrey. And while Margaery generally accepted the peace offering and feigned innocence about her ambitions to marry Tommen, she couldn't resist getting one dig in on Cersei at the end of their conversation. ("Should I call you mother?")

Later, Cersei appealed to Oberyn to see to it that her daughter hasn't forgotten her in the long year since they were separated. And later still, Tywin revealed the true state of the family's finances to Cersei, making it clear why Lannister marriages to the Tyrells need to go forward. Again, Cersei seemed to simply bear it -- if not with a smile, then at least with acceptance. Perhaps this was all more depression on her part than truly getting on board with "the plan," but either way this was definitely not the claws-out Cersei we've seen before.

Across the sea, we got one scene with Dany. As the books devolve from this point into the morass of ruling Meereen, it's easy to forget why Dany felt compelled to stay in place and do so. The show uses this scene to spell it out clearly and effectively, as her advisors report the retaking by slavers of the two cities she'd previously freed. If she can't hold on to her conquests, she reasons, they really don't count for anything. And if her potential subjects feel her actions don't count for anything, they won't follow her in the first place. Dragons are great at all, but they're a hammer where politics requires a scalpel. Perhaps the show will continue to depict the Meereen storyline in these more sympathetic terms.

From there, we returned to the Eyrie for the first time since Season 1, to visit crazy Aunt Lysa and crazier cousin Robin. I hope the fact that it's been so long didn't confuse TV-only followers of the story, because a huge bombshell was dropped here this week: Joffrey's was not the first political assassination Littlefinger helped to orchestrate. He also pulled the strings on the death of Jon Arryn, Hand of former King Robert, whose death originally led the king to recruit Ned Stark for the job. This was essentially the point at which this story began for us, and it turns out it was because Littlefinger convinced Lysa to poison her own husband. But moreover, in case I hadn't made it clear: Lysa is crazy. Out of the frying pan and into the fire for poor Sansa, whose brief relief at being back with family was then snuffed by the realization that that family might just kill her in a fit of jealousy.

Another callback to the first season came when we checked in on Arya and the Hound, as Arya again began to practice her "water dancing, taught by swordmaster Syrio. You have to admit, the Hound has a point: how good could he have been if he's dead now? Of course, it's one of the many debatable points among book fans, whether he's actually dead or not. Similarly, the show never presented Syrio's death to us on screen. So I suppose one never knows.

We also had some nice exchanges between Brienne and her new squire Podrick, who warmed himself into her good graces by revealing that even he was there when it counted on the battlefield -- for Tyrion at Blackwater.

From there, the episode closed out north of the Wall, attending to both of the new plots added for the series. Jon and his men laid waste to Craster's Keep, and Bran extricated himself from captivity. Both plots seemed a way for the writers to get where they needed to go in a more visually interesting way than the books. For Jon, it was a victory to earn him some respect among the men -- more believably, I feel, that the book's approach of having him return to work as a steward in the Night's Watch. For Bran, it was taking a further step in his ability to control Hodor with his mind -- more born of urgency and necessity than the book's more "Jedi training montage" approach. (At least, this is how I remember the book. I admit, it's been a long while.) In the process of all this, Ramsay's man on the inside was killed, thus neatly wrapping things up for the not-in-the-book character.

It was a solid episode again, though I've come to expect that from Game of Thrones. I give it an A-.

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