Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Game of Thrones S05E09 - The dance of dragons

No choice at all


“...it's all the choosing sides that's made everything horrible

How do you judge a good TV show? Perhaps it’s when, having watched the latest episode of Game of Thrones, you hug your little daughter a bit tighter for a few days, or you punch the air in jubilation at DRAGONS or that you swear ecstatically “Jorah is EFFING BACK!”. Game of Thrones fans, you know what I’m talking about. As usual, episode 9 of every season is chock full of controversy and action and this episode was no different, despite some some ridonkulous and tragic happenings in the North. When Game of Thrones sets up disasters, it takes no prisoners. Here’s my take on it.

We want TV to enthrall and scandalise us, and this hour of TV did both in equal measure. We saw everything from the disgusting (rape and murder of children) to the philosophical ("has anything great ever been achieved without violence?") and then we saw dragons kick butt. For what it is, this was an awesome episode of Game of Thrones and I give it 9/10. If Benioff & Weiss had wrinkled out a few issues with plot and pacing, it could easily have been a 10/10 episode. All in all, this was an action-packed and entertaining episode with awesome set pieces but also some quiet and ruminative scenes, in Dorne and just before the massive set piece in Meereen. Speaking of which, I think Danaerys has really earnt this - she's lost Khal Drogo and Ser Barristan, she had to chain up two of her "children" in a cave and her campaign has become mired in Meereen. So when Drogon came along and saved her, it really felt earnt. This deus ex machina didn't feel phony or contrived. Well, maybe a bit but not enough to spoil the moment. The action was epic, but we'll get to that later.

The "controversy of the week" is the burning of Shireen at the stake - I thought it excessive and unnecessary, not only in a TV-moral sense but also in plot terms. It reminds me of Cersei's statement from last season that “Everywhere in the world they hurt little girls"But more on this below. One of this week’s main themes is good intentions – Jon Snow, Danaerys & Stannis all have them, to varying degrees. The Boltons, Meryn Trant and the Lannisters mostly don’t. And yet it’s the Boltons, Trants and Lannisters in charge of this world, for the moment. Those with good intentions usually fall to those with the ruthlessness to survive. As Ser Alliser says to Jon Snow – “you’ve got a good heart, but it’ll kill us all”.

The second theme is choices and how they form our destiny – Stannis posits to his daughter Shireen that he is destined to be on the path he’s currently on. But of course, nobody is destined to be anything – our ends are mostly the product of all our choices. The Baratheons & Targaryens believe they deserve the Iron Throne purely on the basis of lineage, rather than being deserving. Back in S1, Cersei could've chosen to read out her husband's proclamation making Ned Stark as Lord Regent, but he would've revealed that none of Joffrey, Tommen & Myrcella are actually Robert Baratheon's children. 

She was trapped and so she let Ned Stark's death happen (even if Joffrey was directly responsible). Robb Stark could've gone ahead with the marriage he promised the Freys, but his conscience told him to renege and he paid with his life. Tywin was right when he said that his underhanded massacre of the Starks potentially spared hundreds of thousands of lives (not sure it panned out this way ultimately). The choices everyone faces in GoT are genuinely difficult, in contrast to most other shows which don't allow their protagonists to take real risks. Anyway, on with the show...

The Meereen scenes were easily the most satisfying in the episode and possibly even the season, in that they quite beautifully brought together all of the strands of the storyline: the Sons of the Harpy graduating to an audacious murder attempt on the Queen AND her entourage, Ser Jorah coming back into the fold (the whole episode was oddly convenient for him), the death of Hizdahr zo Loraq and of course, the return of Drogon, dragon numero uno. This set piece took its place in the Game of Thrones “episode 9 pantheon”, alongside the Battle of Blackwater, the Red Wedding and Oberyn Martell’s fight against the Mountain. It’s fair to say it’s no Battle of Blackwater but better than the rest.

Build up to the set piece
Hizdahr: “In my experience, larger men triumph over smaller men more often than not”
Tyrion (later): “In my experience, eloquent men are right as often as imbeciles”
Hizdahr to Danaerys: “What great thing has ever been accomplished without killing or cruelty?”
Hizdahr to Daario: “Kings & Queens never bet on games…perhaps you should find go someone who does…”

The first 10mins of this scene basically involve Hizdahr zo Loraq annoying everyone in sight, althpugh in a vaguely interesting way. He challenged those around him as well as infuriated them. Did anyone else think that the show made too much of his absence at the start of this scene? Was he preparing Sons of the Harpy in the crowd somehow? Anyway, his demeanour seems to have changed radically from the greasy, obsequious little lord he used to be to an arrogant wannabe King/Queen’s Consort that he is now. Danaerys & Daario trade plenty of less-than-witty repartee with Hizdahr (with Daario waving a knife in his face), making it even more obvious just how much Danaerys needs the thoughtful and mature Tyrion by her side (“It’s easy to confuse what is and what ought to be, especially when what is has worked out in your favour”). Tyrion has some great lines, paying Hizdahr the ultimate back-handed compliment by saying “My father would’ve liked you”.

The sword-fighting scene was fairly exciting, although I wasn’t sure how to react when Ser Jorah started to take a beating – we’d been conditioned to think of him as invincible. However, here, he nearly died, saved only by an external intervention. Jorah’s insistence on turning up here, there and everywhere seemed like it would do him no favours with Danaerys until the Sons of the Harpy showed their hand, showing up in their hundreds, thus making every man and woman count. Ser Jorah was back.

“Protect your Queen!”
The location
The sons of the Harpy knew they’d never catch Danaerys Targaryen in a back alley and so it would have to be in an official setting, which is why the tournament made sense. In case we didn’t realise how big the budget for Game of Thrones is, the filmography gives us a fantastic sense of space with lots of mid-aerial shots. Of course, taking on Danaerys’s camp in this kind of space also makes it easier for certain dragons to come to the rescue…

The Sons of the Harpy
The hundreds of Sons of the Harpy showed that they had gone from a small, violent group to either a large-scale rebellion OR a highly organised and motivated group bent on toppling Danaerys. Is there a Westerosian hand in all this? Lord Baelish or Cersei somehow? Anyway, Danaerys’s tenuous grip on power was laid bare but Drogon, her largest (and only free) dragon comes through, taking a few arrows in the process.

Danaerys’s entourage
Danaerys’s crew fight valiantly, but as the hundreds of Sons of the Harpy poured in from the front, I think most of us shared the look of disbelief on Daario Naharis’s face. When Game of Thrones sets up disasters, it takes no prisoners. This wasn’t going to end well - Team Targaryen was hopelessly outnumbered. And then, to absolutely nobody’s surprise, Drogon came along to rescue Danaerys (his mother). However, in Game of Thrones, the good guys never get away with anything cleanly, and Drogon appears to have sustained significant injuries. I liked the minor skirmishing that took place when the Sons had Danaerys’s crew encircled, with the movements resembling chess more than war – one move here, one move there, one stabbing here, one beheading there. Testing the waters, not all-out warfare. And then Drogon came along to make it all moot.

Photography + acting
Stylistically, I quite liked the scene – the crowd fight scene was superbly executed. One of the things about Game of Thrones is that even background scenes use well trained actors and there’s hardly ever even a single hair out of place, even with extras far off in the distance. Despite the big budget, however, the bit where Danaerys gets on Drogon looks quite clunky and CGI-laden. I’m not sure all of Emilia Clarke’s performance worked, although to be fair, it’s hard to make it all work: first she had to look playful, then queasy (watching people die in battle), then queasy and surprised (Jorah’s appearance), then shocked and panicked (hundreds of Sons), then proud (Drogon), then proud but still panicked (Drogon stabbed by spears) and finally, serene/queasy (escaping on the back of Drogon). Phew – now that’s hard work.

Tyrion’s face throughout the Drogon moments was definitely worth savouring – I got the sense that the penny really dropped for him. It finally hit him – he was now with the Queen of Dragons.

So, GoT fans, where will Danaerys go after this? Can she just go back to her palace? I assume Tyrion, Jorah, et al make it out in one piece…or do they?

North of Westeros / Stannis Baratheon
“Have the dead horses butchered for meat”

So the most shocking scene of the week was the burning of Shireen Baratheon, Stannis's angelic little girl, at the stake. I think Ser Davos knew something was up and so tried to take Shireen and Selyse with him, but I don't think he imagined just how badly things would go wrong. Given what I know about him, and we do know that he stuck with Stannis despite having his fingers cut off, there is NO WAY he would let Stannis kill Shireen. Obviously, Stannis knew this. Anyway, apart from being brutal, this murder was also senseless, particularly after Stannis's declaration of paternal love a few episodes back. Is this the point of no return for Stannis? Does he lose himself completely after this?

Meanwhile, the fortunes of the soldiers in Game of Thrones tend to undulate like leaves in a stream, and so it was with Stannis's army. His army has ground to a halt despite starting off looking decisive and purposeful, and in this episode, they may have been dealt a fatal blow. Remember Ramsay Snow saying in the last episode that he just needed 20 men to attack Stannis’s army? Well, some granary-burning and horse-killing later, Stannis’s camp is crippled and reliant on Castle Black for back-up (in the shape of wildlings + giant?). In his discombobulation, Stannis turns to Melisandre’s magical musings, which may or may not help.

“It’s all the choosing sides that made everything horrible.”
“If a man knows what he is and remains true to himself…the choice is no choice at all. He must fulfil his destiny...however much he hates it.”

GoT’s flair for storytelling and pyrotechnics makes it easy to overlook the storyline’s many flaws. For instance, how can 20 men can devastate a seasoned campaigner’s army, Northerners or not? Why would Stannis sacrifice his daughter despite telling her just a few episodes ago that there is nothing he wouldn’t do for her? Why has Melisandre not used her magic at all recently? Why could she have Renly killed using magic but not Roose Bolton or Tywin when he was alive, for that matter? The use of Melisandre’s magic smacks of convenience rather than plot. But anyhow, the overwhelming feeling after that episode is one of shock – although GoT has killed children before, none of them were as beloved as Shireen. 

Melisandre, for her part, is either genuinely trying to evoke the Gods’ magic or simply trying to get rid of Stannis’s existing family in order to start a new one. Either way, however, her motivations are impure. One final thought on this – Stannis’s soldiers looked a bit queasy – will they continue to support a childkiller? How can you support a man who’s willing to kill his own daughter for victory? Stannis only really loved one person in the whole world and now that she is dead, what’s the point in winning the Iron Throne? Stannis told Shireen earlier that sometimes choices aren’t really choices because of who we are and the path we’re on, but this amounts to nothing less than sophistry.

Castle Black
The exhausted wildlings and Jon Snow arrived back at Castle Black where they received a quiet, if not quite gracious welcome. Ser Alliser seemed less smug than usual, but it’s surely in Jon Snow’s interest to move the wildlings along as soon as possible. This will surely come in the form of assisting Stannis, although I shudder to think how useless they would be as part of an organised army. One thing is for sure, they now follow Jon Snow.

“I can’t behead you…many in Dorne want warbut I’ve seen war…I don’t want to lead my people into that hell”

The liveliest exchanges took place in Dorne this week, with Ser Doran holding court with a slew of interesting characters: Jaime Lannister, Myrcella Lannister, Trystane Martell and Ellaria Sand, all of whom have their own agendas. Ellaria, lest we forget, was Oberyn Martell’s lover and consort and his brutal death in Kings Landing has left her wracked with fury, her every move tipped with the poison of vengeance. Every exchange involving Ellaria simmers with tension, even when Oberyn’s brother, Doran, is trying to pass himself off as a faithful servant of the Iron Throne (“I can’t disobey my King”). Jaime Lannister just wants his daughter/”niece” back in one piece and says very little throughout.

“Speak to me that way again and you won’t [live a long and happy life]”

I can’t help but think that Doran meant something more than the obvious when he said “yes, we’re breaking bread with the Lannisters”. Nobody can be THAT obsequious without having an ulterior motive - surely the point is that Doran has his eye on the long game – marry into the Lannister clan and put somebody on the Small Council (now wide open with Cersei gone). The later scene between Ellaria and Doran confirms that although Doran is afflicted by gout and not in peak physical condition, he is obviously feared as well as respected. And he could be the new Tywin Lannister.

Oh, and Bronn gets a mouthful.

Arya’s storyline was trundling along until Ser Meryn Trant appeared on the scene, and lest we forget, he’s on her kill list. She does a lot of stalking but no killing. There's some light relief with Mace Tyrell & Tycho Nestoris.

True to his character so far, Meryn Trant’s exploits in Braavos seem to consist of looking mean, whoring and swearing indiscriminately. It was again harrowing to see Game of Thrones thrust children into adult situations but history is replete with these perversions. I hope he dies a terrible death.


No comments: