Monday, May 18, 2015

Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken

This week's Game of Thrones was a deftly managed blend of stories close to the books and others wildly diverged from them, of stories about character growth and others more action-centered.

For Arya, the episode was all about learning to lie convincingly. But there was perhaps another layer of depth to it than that -- she also learns to kill not out of anger or for vengeance, but as a kindness. The books made very much more explicit that these worshipers of the Many-Faced God see death as a gift, only to be bestowed on those who deserve it (be that the victims themselves, or those who seek death for others). I think it's important that the lie that finally impresses Jaqen H'Ghar revolves around Arya achieving a greater understanding of death.

The Jorah/Tyrion pairing took a turn straight from the book this week, with the two captured by slavers. But there was a welcome addition before that happened: a conversation about Jorah's father. In the books, George R.R. Martin seems to take a sadistic delight in keeping characters apart. (More even than in killing characters, as many would have it.) It seems obvious in retrospect that Tyrion, who met Lord Mormont of the Night's Watch, should have exchanged a few words with Jorah about it at some point along their journey. But it never happened in the book. And while it probably serves little purpose in propelling the narrative (Jorah is already quite far down and in need of no more kicking), it was a much appreciated bit of character development.

Littlefinger returned to King's Landing this week -- something he has yet to do in the books. It led not only to a wonderfully fun verbal sparring match with Lancel, but to the reveal of another layer in his plan. He wants Cersei to send soldiers to take Winterfell from whoever holds it after the clash between Stannis and the Boltons. At this point, Littlefinger has told so many plausible stories to so many people, it's hard to know what he really intends. Whether this latest version is his real plan, or just another reasonable explanation of it to satisfy people in power, this is exactly the clever character from the book I'm glad to see remain intact.

An even more welcome return to King's Landing came in Lady Olenna, the Queen of Thorns. Though only a very minor character in one of the books, she popped off the page for a number of readers. On the show, the wonderful performance by Diana Rigg made her an even more potent presence. The showrunners saw fit to give us more of her, and I for one am thrilled. The withering barbs she traded with Cersei were a delight. And I eagerly await learning if Olenna can find a way to extricate Loras and now Margaery too from their precarious positions. In the books, Cersei is our only viewpoint into events at King's Landing, and she is a predictably self-absorbed narrator. We really don't get to learn much of what's going on with Margaery once the Faith Militant seize her. It's all the more interesting on the show, where we know that Loras and Margaery are in fact guilty and complicit. (The show has scoffed as much about the criminalization of homosexuality as I reasonably expect it to.)

The adventures of Bronn and Jaime, and their big fight with the Sand Snakes, was probably the least interesting aspect of the episode for me. It was a well choreographed battle, and fun to watch. But this is basically why the Sand Snakes didn't work for me as a subplot in the books. Time was spent building up them and their awesome fighting prowess, only for them to be quickly captured and sidelined. I suppose here at least they did get to fight (more than I can say for the books), and one of them did escape with Myrcella. We'll see where it leads.

Finally, we had Sansa's story up at Winterfell. I love that before plunging her deep in the darkness, the show gave her one last chance to hold her head up high. Myranda tried toying with her, and Sansa boldly threw it all back in her face and refused to be frightened. Of course, Ramsay is one of the most wicked characters in the story (and that's saying something), so the attempt to frighten was at the same time a legitimate warning. Not that there was much to be done in any case. The episode ended on a violent rape, perhaps made more uncomfortable in that it was left largely to our imaginations -- through the horrified eyes of Theon Greyjoy. Nope, weddings in the world of Ice and Fire are never a good thing.

I give this week's episode an A-. It continued this season's excellent trend of condensing the quagmire of Martin's least effective two books into a compelling, visual narrative.

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