Game of Thrones: Season 6, Episode 1 – The Red Woman

“Fuck prophecy. Fuck fate. Fuck everyone who isn’t us.”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

So, we stride boldly into uncharted territory as Game of Thrones returns for its first season premiere Since The Books Ran Out. As if to show the training wheels were off, showrunners Benioff and Weiss immediately started running with radically new plotlines (though to be fair it might be based on what George RR Martin told them). This involved interspersing the usual collection of short establishing vignettes in the season premiere with some massive plot twists, and some seismic shifts in Westeros’ balance of power. Continue reading “Game of Thrones: Season 6, Episode 1 – The Red Woman”

Game of Thrones: Season 4, Episode 2–The Lion and the Rose

“There’s been too much amusement here today. A royal wedding is not a place for amusement.”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

Ah, weddings. I must say, personally I have rather a dread of them. I’ve never encountered one that hasn’t been an awkward occasion, as you gingerly tread the minefield of half-understood family politics and longstanding grudges. Inevitably (in my experience), at least some part of it ends in tears, as Aunt Maisie, tipsy on complimentary cava, finally confronts Cousin Jane over the long-disputed inheritance of that cherished family heirloom, followed by the equally inevitable punch-up between their dutifully defensive and equally tipsy husbands.

Continue reading “Game of Thrones: Season 4, Episode 2–The Lion and the Rose”

Game of Thrones: Season 3, Episode 10–Mhysa

You really think a crown gives you power?”

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After the tumultuous events of last week, this week’s season finale of Game of Thrones felt more like an epilogue than a climax. True, it was still a highly charged, and often tremendously violent piece of drama. But it also had the tall order of providing a capstone to just about all of this year’s multifarious plotlines, in preparation for next year. Benioff and Weiss’ script accomplished this with some aplomb, catching us up on just about every major character – the ones still alive, that is.

Continue reading “Game of Thrones: Season 3, Episode 10–Mhysa”

Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 9–Blackwater

SPOILER WARNING – THIS IS FROM LAST NIGHT’S US BROADCAST, AND MAJOR PLOT POINTS ARE DISCUSSED. DON’T READ AHEAD IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN EPISODE 9 YET.

“We’ve got brave men knocking at our door. Let’s go kill them!”

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Finally, after weeks of moving pawns from place to place, the endgame of Game of Thrones’ second season is here – in the form of the Battle of Blackwater Bay, one of the most fondly remembered set pieces from the book. After the vast majority of battles in Westeros’ civil war taking place offscreen (and cheaply), this was clearly the one the showrunners had been saving up the budget for. A sumptuously mounted, exciting and massively gory conflict, it took up the entirety of the episode, a necessary focus largely absent in recent weeks of jumping from plot to plot. And yet even in the midst of all the carnage, there was room for plenty of the character depth the show is justly renowned for.

Even with the obviously large amount of money spent on staging the battle, book purists may be a trifle dismayed to see some fairly substantial changes in the meticulously described military tactics of Blackwater as described in the original novel. Firstly, and most significantly, the whole battle takes place at night, while it was clearly described as a daylight battle in the book. Night battles were very unusual (though not unheard of) in medieval warfare. Yet it fits in with the general visual style of the show this year. I must say though, the show’s insistence on having so many scenes take place in (authentically dimly lit) darkness has meant that I’ve found myself squinting at the screen to make out what was going on on more than one occasion!

Tyrion’s defensive tactics were also much simplified, perhaps because the lengthy, complex description of the battle in prose would have taken far longer than the one hour of screen time it was allotted here to show. The ruse of allowing Stannis’ fleet entry to the bay virtually unopposed, then cutting off their exit by raising a giant chain across the bay’s mouth, and raining fire on them was completely absent. And while the tactic of destroying the fleet with fireships full of wildfire was present and correct, it was only one fireship that accomplished this, rather than the flotilla of the book. Yet that one ship was more than enough to blow a huge amount of ships out of the water in a superbly realised green inferno; gods know how much wildfire Tyrion stuffed into it, but it went off like a jade mini-nuke.

That, if anything, showed the visual logic of having the battle take place in darkness. The terrifying green explosion, and its subsequent orange fires as the ships began to burn, stood out starkly against the darkness of night in a way it never would have in daylight. It’s indicative that the changes made in the script recognised that this is a different storytelling medium with different requirements both visually and in the structure of the drama. And if book purists have a problem with those differences, they could try taking it up with the screenwriter – one George RR Martin. Internet flame wars aside, I think it’s safe to say that the author of the books knows what he’s doing.

The clever structure of this episode made it clear that Martin is no slouch when it comes to writing for television. We were shown the buildup to the battle (from both sides), then as the fighting got into full swing it was neatly intercut with scenes of the pessimistic Cersei holed up with Sansa and the other palace ladies holed up in the holdfast and fretfully anticipating the outcome. Meanwhile, outside, Tyrion, Bronn, the Hound and even Lancel got to show their true mettle as the carnage progressed.

That said, I did wonder about a bit of intrusive Author Voice in the exchange between Davos Seaworth and his son Matthos as Stannis’ fleet approached the city. Matthos confidently asserted that “the people of King’s Landing did not choose the false king Joffrey Baratheon. They will be glad to see his head on a spike”, to which the older and wiser Davos contended, “the people won’t see us as liberators. All they’ll see is that we’re trying to burn their city.”

While true enough, this felt like a somewhat hamfisted attempt to parallel Stannis’ imminent attack with recent ’wars of liberation’ which have found the US welcomed less sympathetically than they expected. As an allusion, it works well enough; but I’ve already had enough of real historical wars being paralleled with US adventures in the Middle East, in the recent BBC Robin Hood and the movie Kingdom of Heaven among others.

Still, that’s just a personal view; it wasn’t out of character for either Seaworth to express those views. And the rest of the characters were written as well as you would expect from the man who created them. Bronn and the Hound in particular were well-served this week, as the setup of their initial antagonism (nearly leading to a barfight to the death) led to a hair-raising moment mid-battle as the pyrophobic Hound was charged by a knight who was literally on fire, only to be saved at the last minute by an arrow from Bronn.

Rory McCann as the Hound was superb here, his usual embittered cynicism pushed sharply to the fore by his disillusionment with the King he serves and also by his understandable terror of fire, so plentiful in the battle raging for King’s Landing. This was neatly foreshadowed by his flinching every time a flaming torch came near, leading to the payoff of him fleeing the battlefield with the bitter declaration of, “fuck the king”.

He’s finally, properly deserted now, off to the North perhaps. But before he left, he got another of those tantalising scenes with Sansa, highlighting their weird little relationship. Popping up in her bedroom, he invited her to come with him, promising to take her ‘home’ to Winterfell. Of course, with Winterfell currently held by Theon Greyjoy, and her brothers ostensibly dead, Sansa chose to stay. But the wounded look as the Hound stalked out was almost heartbreaking, like a man who’s just had his last little bit of honour cruelly refused.

Sophie Turner as Sansa got some of the episode’s most thoughtful scenes, mostly paired (as she has been many times in the past) with Lena Headey’s brittle and increasing fragile Cersei. Cersei’s plainly finding power not as rewarding as she expected, as she’s more or less admitted in recent weeks. Now she finds herself cowering, increasingly drunk, in a holdfast as she depends on men to sort out the problem outside. And she’s not optimistic either; those scenes were hovered over by the baleful presence of grim-looking, mute King’s Executioner Ser Ilyn Payne, on hand to spare the women rape by killing them should Stannis prevail.

Cersei did seem to have an increasing despair, as shown by Headey’s bitter smile and sharp tongue. Yet despite her apparent fragility here, we were shown that she’s still very much a force to be reckoned with. Noticing Sansa’s surprisingly lowborn handmaiden Shae, the Queen recognised her as oddly out of place an began to question her with a suspicious and determined look in here eye. Given that we know Cersei’s been torturing Ros in the mistaken belief that she is Tyrion’s whore, there was a lot of suspense here with the possibility that she might discover her mistake.

Fortunately, Shae found herself saved by the bell; or rather, by the arrival of the ever-wet Lancel Lannister, bringing news of the apparently losing battle outside. True to form, Lancel was fairly rubbish throughout. He fled from the battlefield after an arrow hit that seemed less than incapacitating, then cravenly agreed (after a halfhearted objection) to the Queen’s proposal to remove Joffrey from the battle. Yet even Lancel got to display a bit of courage as he eventually tried to tell the Queen that this might well destroy the Lannister chances, only be met by a punch in the chops from the aggrieved Cersei. Safe to say he won’t be returning to her bed any time soon, having made the mistake of underestimating her venom under pressure.

In the thick of the battle itself, Tyrion once again got to show that he can hold his own not just as a politician and tactician, but also as a soldier. With the jittery looking Joffrey having fled to the dubious safety of his mum, it was up to Tyrion to make the inspirational speech that would give the men the heart to follow him into battle. This was nicely done, very much in the style of the classic example, Shakespeare’s Henry V. Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion may tend more to the scatological than Shakespeare’s Henry, but the intended effect was the same. Having finally won the attention of the demoralised troops, he goaded them into action with self-deprecation as he strapped on his armour: “I’m only half a man. What does that make those who refuse to fight?”

Stannis too was in the thick of the fray. Unlike Joffrey, he’s clearly not afraid to lead from the front, and was in the thick of the action as his troops stormed the walls of the city. Said action was increasingly and massively drenched in gore; heads were chopped off, throats were slit, viscera were spilled, and at one point the Hound actually cut someone in half diagonally. Stannis experienced the gore as his mouthy lieutenant, next to him at the wall, had his head pulped by a falling stone from the battlements. It didn’t put him off though, and he was among the first up the siege ladders.

The blood-drenched spectacle of the battle was truly impressive. Apparently showrunners Benioff and Weiss had to convince HBO to up the budget to actually show it, with the original intention to have more of a bottle episode told from the POV of  Cersei and Sansa cowering in the holdfast. I’m thankful that HBO agreed; much as the show is great character drama, the absence of onscreen battles in a show centred on a civil war was becoming increasingly conspicuous. That the battle as seen was so exciting should give huge kudos to director Neil Marshall, who started his career with low-budget werewolf horror Dog Soldiers. As that film showed, Marshall is clearly adept at producing the maximum spectacle for the minimum of money.

The battle ended suitably abruptly (as such battles often do) with the surprise arrival of reinforcements led by Tywin Lannister and Loras Tyrell. The tension and atmosphere of doom for the Lannisters had, up till then, been ratcheted to breaking point; Cersei was just about to poison her son Tommen (and herself) as Tywin burst into the room to declare the battle over. Good thing for Tyrion, who’s been dealt a nasty blow, only to be saved by callow squire Podrick. I must say, the slash across his forehead and cheek looked considerably less severe than the injury described in the book, which left him with only half a nose; but then Dinklage has always been a better looking man than the Tyrion the books described.

All told, a massively exciting episode with a nearly faultless script from the author of the books and tight, spectacular direction from Neil Marshall. It was great to hear Lannister anthem of power ‘The Rains of Castermere’ finally, at first raucously sung in a bar, then in a beautifully mournful tone over the end credits. Like Lord of the Rings, the books are full of songs (though they’re less twee than Tolkien’s), and they’ve wisely been kept to a minimum in the show. But this song’s notable for its frequent occurrence, and if composer Ramin Djawadi was to set any of them to music, I’m glad it was this.

With the whole episode forming a set piece of the battle, next week’s ‘epilogue’ is going to have a heavy workload catching up the rest of the plot before season’s end. We’re still awaiting resolution for Dany in Qarth, Robb in the Riverlands and Jon beyond the Wall, to name but a few. It’ll probably be a crowded episode, without the tight focus of this one. But that’s not really a problem; if the season has a climax, it’s the Battle of Blackwater, and thankfully this was no letdown.

Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 1–The North Remembers

SPOILER WARNING – I’M GOING TO TRY TO REVIEW EACH EPISODE AS SOON AS POSSIBLE AFTER ITS U.S. BROADCAST. IF YOU’RE IN THE U.K., AND WATCHING THE SKY ATLANTIC SHOWING THE NEXT EVENING, DON’T READ THIS REVIEW UNTIL AFTER SEEING IT, AS MAJOR PLOT POINTS WILL BE DISCUSSED.

“There’s a king in every corner now.”

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After Mad Men last week comes the return of another much-anticipated, highly acclaimed show – HBO’s Game of Thrones, based on George RR Martin’s massive, convoluted fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, is back. It’s got a lot to live up to; its first season was widely touted as the latest contender in legitimising genre television as serious drama, after the likes of Battlestar Galactica and The Walking Dead.

HBO is used to critical acclaim and viewer respect, but I wonder if even they were quite prepared for the smash hit of Game of Thrones’ first season. Fantasy is generally the most looked down on of genres, after even science fiction and horror. The problem really is that JRR Tolkien set the standard with Lord of the Rings, and so many fantasy novels written after that are perceived as pale imitations. Cheap fantasy B-movies (often made by Italians) compounded the problem, with the genre becoming disparagingly known as ‘sword and sorcery’.

I have to admit, I felt much the same. I tuned in to the first episode of Game of Thrones expecting little, and having not read a fantasy novel for years, for exactly these reasons. Ten gripping, complex and violent episodes later, I picked up Martin’s books and devoured all five within a space of months. The TV series is a very faithful adaptation, as the books (at least the early ones) come fully formed as thrilling stories of political intrigue, backstabbing and internecine warfare.

Significantly, the overtly fantastic elements are used very sparingly. There is magic, but not much. There are dragons, but they don’t even hatch until the climax of the first season. And the dead walk, which is a signifier of the real danger hanging over the inhabitants of Westeros – but not often. Instead, the story focuses much more on the feuding Houses of Westeros, in their struggle to gain the upper hand and win outright rule of the country’s Seven Kingdoms. It’s heavily influenced by the English Wars of the Roses – the leading Houses even have names reminiscent of that struggle’s combatants. The more sympathetic, aggressively northern ones are the Starks (York), and the sneering, coldhearted rich southerners are the Lannisters (Lancaster).

The season 2 opener has a lot to catch up on, establishing where all the major players are now after the tumultuous events of season 1, and introducing a few new ones along the way. This opening episode manages that surprisingly well. We get to see what’s happening with almost every main character, along with introducing the oft-heard of but never seen brother of dead king Robert, Stannis Baratheon – technically the true heir to the throne.

Queen Cersei’s incestuous son Joffrey is still ruling at King’s Landing, his capricious madness an uncontrollable factor in her Machiavellian schemes. His hostage bride-to-be Sansa Stark is already learning how best to deal with his unpredictable cruelty, manipulating him into sparing hopeless chubby knight Ser Dontos, who he was about to have killed on a whim. Cersei, used to having control over her spoiled son, has not learned the lesson so well; slapping him for impudence, she’s genuinely frightened as he coldly reminds her that he could have her executed for it. Jack Gleeson is a really nasty piece of work as young Joffrey, with the impulsive nastiness of a Caligula in training.

Thankfully, his uncle Tyrion has turned up at King’s Landing to deputise as Hand of the King in his father Tywin’s absence, and may be able to keep Joffrey in line. Instantly the fan favourite after season 1, Peter Dinklage is still superb as Tyrion, and gets rather more screen time this week than a lot of others. His dry, barbed wit is still very much in evidence, never more so than in the Small Council scene as he takes his place with his outraged sister, Cersei.

In the North, Robb Stark is still waging war for northern independence, with Cersei’s brother (and lover) Jaime as his captive. Obviously heir to the same dry wit as Tyrion, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau continues to make Jaime an intriguing character, and more sympathetic than the standard villain. He’s actually rather more interesting than the conventionally heroic Robb, though Richard Madden is certainly very nice to look at. Robb’s direwolf has grown too; after criticisms that the direwolves in season 1 looked a bit too much like cuddly dogs, this time we see a genuinely huge beastie menace Jaime. It’s presumably a product of the same very impressive CG that realises so many of the series’ settings, but it’s so well done you could really believe it’s actually there.

More CG is to be found across the Narrow Sea, where last Targaryen (and another claimant to the throne of Westeros) Daenerys is trekking across the desert with her newly-hatched dragons. Again, the dragons are used sparingly, in fact we only see one of the three, perched cutely on Daenerys’ shoulder before being locked in a little cage.

What remains of Dany’s Dothraki tribe are struggling through the Red Waste, a parched piece of desert with seemingly no end (actually Malta). As she sends her riders off to search for some sign of life, she reaffirms her friendship with exiled knight Ser Jorah. Seemingly hard to connect to the events across the sea in the first season, this narrative thread is one of my favourites. As a little-experienced actor, Emilia Clarke is stunning as Daenerys, and Iain Glen is reliably good as Jorah. I was a little sad, therefore, that this plot strand only got one scene this week; but with so much to cram in, it’s hardly surprising that some characters get little more than a cursory nod.

Given similarly short shrift, sadly, were Conleth Hill as oily spymaster Lord Varys, and Jerome Flynn as Tyrion’s mercenary bodyguard Bronn – again a shame, as these too were fan favourites last year. Varys barely gets one line, and Bronn no more than that either. But I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of them as the year goes on. Robb Stark’s mother Catelyn at least gets a whole scene, with actress Michelle Fairley making the most of her limited screen time.

A little more time was devoted to events beyond the Wall, as Jon Snow and the Night’s Watch trekked into the icy wilderness to discover why dead men are walking and attacking people. Robert Pugh popped up as nasty piece of work Craster, who marries his daughters then impregnates them to give him more daughters to marry, and so on. This led to some tense scenes as Craster took an instant dislike to pretty boy Jon (well, to be fair, Kit Harington is pretty).

As Craster, the usually aggressively Welsh Pugh was affecting no less a convincing Northern English accent than the rest of the Watch. More thought has clearly gone into the accents than simply allowing the actors to use their own; aside from Pugh, Night’s Watch Commander Mormont is played by the very Scottish James Cosmo, and he still sounds like he’s from Yorkshire. The more posh Lannisters have cut glass south eastern accents, and would sound quite at home on the current Conservative Party front bench – aside from, perhaps, Peter Dinklage as Tyrion, who for all the excellence of his performance, hasn’t quite mastered a consistent English accent.

Elsewhere, we were introduced to a new set of players, as we cut to the castle of Dragonstone, home to another contender for the crown – Robert Baratheon’s elder brother Stannis. As portrayed by Stephen Dillane, Stannis is a stern, unyielding man, as in the books. We establish this pretty early on with his overly literal pedantry about the propaganda letter to be sent out to Westeros – “strike out ‘beloved brother’. It’s not true.”

Stannis is accompanied by the sinister priestess Melisandre, devotee to a new, fierce religion worshipping the Lord of Light. We first encounter them both symbolically burning the idols of traditional gods the Seven, to the consternation of Stannis’ Maester, who then perishes in a futile attempt to poison the priestess – both drink from the same glass, but only the Maester dies. Incarnated by Dutch actress Carice van Houten (previously seen in Paul Verhoeven’s wartime thriller Black Book), Melisandre is clearly a force to be reckoned with, and has Stannis in her thrall. His more reasonable adviser Davos, played by the reliable Liam Cunningham, is clearly going to have a fight on his hands to moderate her influence.

The usual massively graphic violence was present and correct from the outset, as tournament knights cheerfully slaughtered each other for Joffrey’s entertainment. Also predictably present was the gratuitous sex and nudity for which the show has become
(in)famous. A tour of one of Lord Baelish’s brothels was introduced by yet more instruction in the art of shagging for money, with the participants very much in the forefront of the frame.

This scene led to into the episode’s climactic montage, as Joffrey, concerned by the possibility of the late King Robert’s bastards laying claim to the throne, started his own slaughter of the innocents. It was a genuinely shocking moment when the King’s Guard slashed the throat of that young whore’s baby, one even this series had to leave offscreen. But the mother’s reaction was shocking enough. This was followed by yet more scenes of children being violently killed; proof, if you still needed it, that this is not fantasy for the faint at heart.

But Joffrey can’t get them all. As we saw at the end of last year, blacksmith’s apprentice (and unknowing heir to the throne) Gendry has headed off north to join the Night’s Watch. Gendry is incarnated by the very attractive and personable Joe Dempsie, late of Skins and The Fades; unfortunately, he doesn’t get so much as a line this week. But it’s a good cliffhanger as we see him, together with Ned Stark’s other daughter Arya, heading away from the city amid a stream of refugees.

A sterling season opener this, written by series creators David Benioff and D B Weiss. It hits the ground running, with all the quality, thrills and sometime flaws of the first season. My only complaint would be that perhaps it tries to take in too much, with various characters left virtually mute even if we see them. There again, I was a little disappointed not to see Charles Dance pop up as the arrogant Lord Tywin Lannister, or Gethin Anthony as the pretty (and gay) pretender Renly Baratheon. So clearly, even the writers thought it was biting off more than they could chew to fit in every major character.

I have a bit of a dilemma reviewing this series episode by episode. Because I’ve now read all the books in the series that Martin has written (so far), I obviously know what’s going to happen, since the show is almost completely faithful to the source material. So my solution is this: I’m going to review each episode as though I didn’t know, trying to see it as someone who was seeing the story for the first time. Equally, I’m going to avoid referring to anything that happens in the books after the point the series has reached; I don’t want to spoiler anyone, as I know many people are watching this show having never read the books. It’s going to be an interesting exercise in self-discipline – check back in coming weeks to see how it works out!