Welcome to the United Kingdom of Westeros

“One more such victory and I am ruined!” – Pyrrhus

Yes, I was going to catch up on my blogging about Preacher, now some two weeks overdue. But you’ll hopefully appreciate that these last couple of weeks have been a little tumultuous in my country, which overnight on Thursday went from being a peaceable United Kingdom to something more akin to the squabbling factions of Westeros. So I thought maybe I should write something about that. Continue reading “Welcome to the United Kingdom of Westeros”

Game of Thrones: Season 5, Episode 6 – Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken

“I’m Sansa Stark of Winterfell. This is my home. And you can’t frighten me.”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

After last week’s focus mainly on just two of its multifarious plotlines, this week Game of Thrones was back to business as usual with a lively ep taking in snippets of plenty of them. While there was little in the way of epic action, it was no less dramatic for that as all the patient political scheming of earlier episodes began to pay off in spades. And perhaps more than any ep I’ve seen yet, it was dominated by the show’s women, who were both the drivers and the victims in practically every snapshot this week. Continue reading “Game of Thrones: Season 5, Episode 6 – Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken”

Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 3–What is Dead May Never Die

“Power resides where men believe it resides. It’s a trick. A shadow. And a very small man can cast a very large shadow.”

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Wow. I swear, it seems like this show gets better every week. With the plot well and truly motoring along now, this third episode of Game of Thrones seemed the best yet, for a variety of reasons. Yes, it had the requisite amount of impeccable dialogue, gory battles and gratuitous sex and nudity to liven up exposition that we’ve come to expect from the show. But best of all, it served up a monster portion of what I like best about the show – portraits of Westeros’ devious, Machiavellian characters in all their scheming glory. For that, it’s up there with another favourite of mine, I, Claudius, which I wouldn’t be surprised to find is one of George RR Martin’s inspirations for the books.

King of the schemers this week – taking the crown from Varys – was undoubtedly Tyrion. Having flexed his muscles as proxy Hand of the King last week, with his exile of Janos Slynt, this week he was clearly in his element among the slimy, untrustworthy denizens of the Small Council. In a cleverly scripted and edited scene, we saw him testing,one after the other, Grand Maester Pycelle, Varys and Littlefinger as to their trustworthiness. They’re all veteran schemers too, of course, but this was Tyrion’s chance to hoodwink them before they’d got his measure as every bit their equal.

And it worked, too. Having fed each of them separate stories about who he was planning to marry off Princess Myrcella to, then stressed that “the Queen mustn’t know”, all he had to do was sit back and wait to see which story she went ballistic over. In hindsight, it was perhaps no surprise that it turned out to be Pycelle who went running to her; much as I love genre veteran Julian Glover in the role, the character is far less interesting than either Varys or Littlefinger and thus more expendable.

All of this was played beautifully by the actors concerned. Peter Dinklage continues to be masterful as the irreverent, sardonic Tyrion, and Conleth Hill is more than a match for him as sly spymaster Varys. Their scene together, in which Varys smoothly compliments the newcomer (“nicely played".) was one of the highlights in an episode full of memorable scenes. I’ve seen some sceptical reviews of Aidan Gillen’s performance as Littlefinger, but I have to say that he too worked well for me in the scene where he realised he’d been had, only for Tyrion to hook him all over again with the promise of Catelyn Stark.

Lady Stark was back herself this week, and with her we finally caught up with the last – and perhaps least – of the pretenders to the throne, Robert Baratheon’s youngest brother Renly. Renly’s been busy between seasons; not only has he grown a beard, he’s married one – Margery Tyrell, sister of his true lover Loras. Slipping smoothly into a bodice yet again after The Tudors, Natalie Dormer was surprisingly good as Margery. The script here made her out to be a another astute political operator, far more so than in the book. She knows that the true way to cement their alliance, and Renly’s power, is for him to get her pregnant asap.

Unfortunately that may be harder than she thinks. She’s perfectly aware of her husband’s dalliances with her brother – and ruthless enough to suggest he join them in bed, if that’s what it takes – but Renly just can’t get it up for her. Indeed, poor old Renly got most of the gratuitous nudity this week, but was perpetually thwarted when it came to actual sex. He can’t get it up with Margery (is there a Westerosi equivalent of Viagra, I wonder?), and pretty young Loras is in a snit with him. Not that this stopped Gethin Anthony and Finn Jones having some pretty raunchy semi-clad foreplay, ticking a box for those like me who enjoy a bit of man on man action.

The reason Loras is in a snit is his humiliation at the hands of another fan favourite from the books. Yes, Brienne of Tarth – Brienne the Beauty – has finally arrived, clobbering the Knight of Flowers but good in a playful tournament (nobody died). Gwendoline Christie certainly looks the part as Brienne – apparently she took on a monster training regimen to bulk up suitably. But even her almost defensive fearlessness can’t disguise that she’s got the hots for the King she’s meant to be serving. Shame, she’s barking up the wrong tree there.

With all that going on, Catelyn barely got much of a look in, dramatically. But when she did, she was as dour and grim as you’d expect from a woman who’s already lost one fiance and one husband to war. "It’s just a game to you, isn’t it?” she bitterly asked the affable Renly, before commenting on his youthful army, “I pity them… They are the knights of summer. And winter is coming.”

She wasn’t the only one quoting the Words of her House; this week we also got to hear those of House Greyjoy (“We do not sow”), as Theon was faced with a very hard choice by his unyielding father. Would he continue to help Robb Stark, son of the man who’d thwarted his father’s rebellion and held him captive for his entire childhood? Or would he prize his true family over his adoptive one?

It’s a measure of how surprisingly good Alfie Allen is as Theon that I truly felt for him as he first swallowed his pride then betrayed his honour, siding with the bitter, twisted father he’d never truly known, all in the hope of glory. It was another nice visual touch from director Alik Sakharov as the decision was shown without words; Theon, a lone point of light in a vast darkness, choosing to burn the warning letter he might have sent to Robb.

Patrick Malahide is his usual chilly self (albeit more unkempt) as Lord Balon Greyjoy, a hard man shaped by the culture Theon was taken away from. Still, good though he is, I couldn’t help thinking that, visually and in personality, he seems very similar to David Bradley as Walder Frey last season. We haven’t seen Walder yet this year, but when/if we do, hopefully the producers will be able to clearly differentiate the two…

With the focus of the episode firmly on these three plotlines, the script still found time for some vignettes from elsewhere in the Seven Kingdoms, and even these were replete with rich character detail. North of the Wall, we found out the resolution to last week’s cliffhanger, as Jon Snow, having been bashed about the head by Craster, was dragged bloody to the loathsome wildling’s hall.

Lord Commander Mormont was none too happy, after last week’s lecture about learning how to follow; and Jon himself got a Star Trek Prime Directive-alike lesson from Mormont, who turned out to be all too knowledgeable about what Craster did with his unwanted son’s. “The wildings pray to crueller gods,” he muttered darkly, and Jon replied that he’d seen one – that dark figure taking the baby in the wood had been one of the mysterious and deadly White Walkers after all, unseen since the prologue of the show’s very first episode. They’re plainly the greatest of the threats facing Westeros, but as yet they’re in the shadows – perhaps a good thing, as a Sauron-like unstoppable magical threat is less interesting than all the political wrangling going on all over the Seven Kingdoms.

Back at Winterfell, we’re seeing more of the crippled Bran’s mysterious ability to ‘green dream’ himself into the bodies of animals; yet again, his direwolf hunting in the night. Isaac Hempstead-Wright as Bran got a short but effective scene with Donald Sumpter as the sceptical Maester Luwin. “My dreams are different,” Bran protested. “Mine are true.” But Luwin’s had a go at magic, as an impressionable student, and like Arthur C Clarke with his Mysterious World, doesn’t believe in any of it: “Maybe magic was once a mighty force in this world. But not any more.”

The equally compelling Maisie Williams got a bit of the action too, as Arya heard the backstory of Ranger Yoren. His brother had been killed in front of him when he was a boy, and every night after he’d repeated the name of the killer like a prayer – until one day the killer returned and Yoren butchered him with an axe, fleeing to the Wall. You could see Arya mulling this over thoughtfully…

But not for long. Like in a classic war film, Yoren’s revelation of his hard life was an obvious prelude to him getting brutally killed, as Lannister thug Amory Lorch turned up to assist with the search for Gendry. Yoren took some killing though; even after a crossbow bolt in the chest and a spear through the back, he still managed to take down a few thugs before a sword in the spine felled him for good. Francis Magee turned in another of the show’s great performances as Yoren, and he’ll be missed.

Still, this sequence usefully compressed a much longer – perhaps unnecessarily so – plotline from the book, omitting the escape and subsequent wanderings of Arya, Gendry and a couple of the other recruits. Here, they went straight into captivity, heading for Harrenhaal Castle – but not before Arya, smartly, led the thugs to believe that the hapless boy they’d already killed was Gendry, the conveniently placed bull’s head helmet lending her story credence.

This is epic stuff, but with the fate of kingdoms depending on the whims of treacherous backstabbers, it doesn’t stint on the character portrayal either. Obviously it has excellent source material, but this week’s writer Bryan Cogman expanded it well, with acres of quotable dialogue. It could be argued, again, that making some of the book’s more implicit plots explicit – Renly and Loras’ affair, Margery’s political cunning – was unnecessary for a show with this much intelligence; but I think the overt scheming displayed as a result makes for some hugely entertaining scenes. With all the pretenders to the Iron Throne now in place, and the plot already speeding along, I can’t wait for next week!

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!