Saturday, April 7, 2012

GoT: The North Remembers

Here's a super late review of the first episode of season 2 of Game of Thrones! It's also super long! I should be able to be a bit more concise in the weeks to come; I won't require a big introduction, and this episode in particular felt like it deserved a scene-by-scene approach since it serves as our re-introduction to the characters of the series.

My main thought regarding season 2's premiere of Game of Thrones, HBO's medieval fantasy-themed drama based on George R. R. Martin's epic A Song of Ice and Fire series of novels, is simply that I'm incredibly glad to be watching new episodes of this show again.

After seeing the first few episodes of season 1, I was hooked. Game of Thrones reminded me of one of my other absolute favorites: Kentaro Miura's Berserk, in either printed or animated form. Both series are set to a backdrop of medieval warfare with hints of strange magic at work, but the heart of either story isn't found on the battlefield. These are character-driven dramas, and both of these stories do a tremendous job at building believable relationships between their characters and at showing how those characters develop in subtle ways over time. The first season of Game of Thrones managed to cut a few budgetary corners by avoiding full-out battle scenes (much in the same way that the Berserk anime would often cut to a stylized still image in a dramatic moment), but that wasn't to the detriment of the show since the most interesting and important moments happened off of the field of battle. At the risk of sounding overly cliché'd, it's not about who wins or loses, it's about how the Game of Thrones is played.

Hungry for more of Westeros after GoT's first season wrapped up, I soon started reading through the fantastic set of novels on which the show is based. Having since finished the books and joining the ranks of the many who wait eagerly for more from Mr. Martin, I'm glad to have more of David Benioff and D. B. Weiss's HBO adaptation to tide me over, for a few months at least. The books offer much more nuance and detail than the show could possibly offer, and I would recommend them to anyone who enjoyed the show, but the television medium also has things to offer that the books cannot - especially with the amazing and talented cast they've put together - and I think the show stands on its own as a quality piece of entertainment. As such, these reviews will be written from the perspective of someone who has read and enjoyed the books, but is open to seeing changes made in the television adaptation. I'll be doing my absolute best to keep these reviews spoiler-free, though I will certainly make comparisons to how scenes play out in the books from time to time.

So, enough with the preamble - here's what I have to say about episode 11: "The North Remembers"!

Before I get into the episode itself, it bears mentioning that Peter Dinklage now has top billing in the credits this year. Well-deserved, I say! I find it a bit curious that all we're seeing of Essos is Vaes Dothrak, since the sacred city of the Dothraki was left long ago by Danaerys and her band, but I suppose it's a bit more interesting to see than the Red Waste would be.

The episode begins with the celebration of Joffrey's Name Day, and Jack Gleeson's portrayal of the young king - here and throughout the episode - meets if not surpasses his joyfully-despicable work as Joffrey in Season 1. The casting of villainous types on this show is simply astounding. His scene near the end of the episode with Cersei is especially powerful and gives a great sense of exactly why so many in King's Landing are afraid of the young King. We also get a glimpse of Sophie Turner returning as Sansa Stark. It's a brief scene for her, but she does a good job of showing the character's restraint and caution as she tries to tip-toe around Joffrey's sadism. I wasn't especially sympathetic toward Sansa in either the first season of the show or the first book, so I hope the show will do a good job of encouraging us to care about Sansa in season 2.

Tyrion is quick to steal the spotlight when he arrives, as we have come to expect from Peter Dinklage's performance. Seeing the tribesman march in behind him and Bron was an amazing reminder of the confidence and power he's gained through his recent exploits - precisely the sort of moxy it will take to contend with Cersei and the rest of the small council. I do think it might have been nice for Tyrion to address Myrcella and Tommen by name, rather than just as "you" and "you". We only ever hear their names when the characters are nowhere to be seen - such as when Stannis is preparing his letter latter in the episode - and I wonder if that makes it harder than it needs to be for some viewers to connect the dots and figure out who Joffrey's younger siblings are.

I was very pleasantly surprised to see that they actually found an albino raven to signal the change of the seasons. An interview I had read suggested that they might not have been able to get one for the show, but the image is a strong symbol of the peculiarities of Westerosi culture. This scene is perhaps Lena Headey's strongest yet as Cersei, going from annoyance to indignation to full-blown anger to denial to subdued hope to shame in quick succession. Dinklage plays the stoic one here, only allowing Tyrion a faint hint of a grin at the end of the scene, and this allows Headey's subtle display of emotions to come across all the more effectively.

Next we're off to Winterfell, and Isaac Hempstead-Wright's Bran Stark and Donald Sumpter's Maester Luwin. Sumpter was another brilliant piece of casting, and I've been consistently impressed with the young actors on the show, Hempstead-Wright in particular. This scene with Bran does a great job of showing the contrast between how he and Luwin handle Winterfell and Joffrey's style of rulership in King's Landing: the war and his family are never far from Bran's thoughts, while Joffrey celebrates without a care (as Tyrion was quick to point out).

The brief "wolf dream" scene was also great to see. The first book contains a number of dream sequences (from a number of characters) that didn't make their way into the first season of the show, but Bran's dreams play a fairly integral role in the development of his character, so I was especially interested to see how they would portray them in this series of the show.

This episode's brief scene with Danaerys and the remnants of her Khalasar does exactly what it needed to do: it re-affirms Danaerys's strong will and sense of compassion. Emilia Clarke does a good job of showing this conflict in Danaerys - the need to put on a strong face despite her uncertainties - though her ability to do so isn't really in question after her performances in season 1.

The scene that follows in Craster's Keep is one of my favorites of the episode. Yet again, the producers' ability to cast actors who effectively portray absolutely despicable characters is uncanny, and Robert Pugh's portrayal of Craster is right up there with Harry Lloyd as Viserys, David Bradley as Walder Frey, Jack Gleeson as King Joffrey, and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Jamie lannister. I do think they could have done more to show why Jon Snow provoked such a strong reaction from Commander Mormont at the end of the scene. I didn't get the impression that Jon's comment bothered Craster or Mormont all that much, especially since Craster is fairly disagreeable even to begin with and Jon took the insults that followed in silence. We also get a brief introduction to Dolorous Edd Tollett, who replaces Pypar as a source of wit on the Night's Watch during their northern excursion while Pyp waits back at the wall.

I have to wonder whether the introduction of Mellisandre of Asshai - the woman in red who has converted Stannis Baratheon to her faith in the Lord of Light - conveyed enough information for those who haven't read the books. Her talk of how "the dead shall rise in the north" and Maester Cressen's empassioned speech in defense of the seven combine to give a strong impression indeed, but there's still a lot of information to digest here.

The drafting of Stannis's letter to the lords of Westeros was my favorite scene in the episode. The alterations Stannis makes to the letter provide some wonderfully succinct insight into his stern nature. I especially enjoyed the work they did on this set with the large wooden table fashioned into a map of Westeros and the dragon carved into the stone of the wall. We haven't yet seen much of Stephen Dillane's Stannis Baratheon, Liam Cunningham's Davos Seaworth, or Carice van Houten's Mellisandre, so I'm withholding my judgment overall, but I enjoy what I've seen so far of their performances.

They've also done a great job with Robb Stark's dialogue as delivered by Richard Madden in his scene with Jamie Lannister, and later when Robb gives his terms for peace. We're seeing more of Robb here than we do in the books, and these extra glimpses do a good job of demonstrating just why the men of the north are so eager to follow Robb into battle. I feel like it would be remiss of me to avoid a brief discussion of the CGI-enhanced direwolf, but I don't really care all that much about how the wolf looks so long as it isn't overly distracting. This is a show about the characters first and foremost, and I'm not watching it to be wowed by special effects. I thought the wolf was passable at least, and I have nothing to complain about if their use of CGI allows them to get more bang for their buck in producing the show (according to interviews and bits of the DVD commentary, the real animals were often quite difficult to work with when filming the first season of the show).

In the next two scenes we get to catch up with Sibel Kekilli as Shae and Aidan Gillen as Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish, both of whom gave some of my least-favorite performances from Season 1. Shae came off as a bit unnatural somehow in season 1, though I liked her scene in this episode. Likewise, this episode's scene with Littlefinger plays to Gillen's strenghts in his portrayal of the character: the conversation with Cersei is tense and tight, and Gillen pulls off that side of Petyr quite well. Where he falls flat is when Littlefinger calls for a bit of lightheartedness. His introduction to Sansa and Arya in episode 4, for example, comes off as exceptionally creepy and strange somehow, even for Littlefinger. When he explains his "exceedingly clever nickname" to the girls he seems caught mid-way between happiness and bitterly seething sarcasm, and it just doesn't work. Hopefully he can bring a bit more liveliness to the character when it's called for in season 2.

We then have scenes with Alfie Allen's Theon Greyjoy and Michelle Fairley's Catelyn Stark. I like the angle the show is taking with Theon and Robb's relationship, and despite what seemed to be a bit of an audio problem with some of Theon's dialogue I enjoyed the scene. Michelle Fairley is strong in her scene, though I worry that the way they're writing Catelyn in the show makes her character considerably less sympathetic than she is in the books. In the books it was her idea to meet with Renly. Though that seems like a subtle change, her initial resistance to this suggestion coupled with her resistance to Robb's proposal of an alliance with Balon Greyjoy makes her come off as more of a nag than she needs to be.

Another minor complaint about the scenes with the northmen: I was hoping for a glimpse of Greatjon Umber among the men at the table when Robb was presenting his terms, whose portrayal by Clive Mantle in the first season was consistently entertaining for his two prominent scenes in the first season. Alas, it wasn't meant to be!

Many fans of the books have been less-than-enthusiastic about the prominence of the prostitute Ros, portrayed by Esme Bianco, in the show. The character doesn't exist in the books, but I think the writers of the show have done a great job with her. The character provided some extra context for Theon in Winterfell as well as giving Lord Baelish an opportunity - implausible as some might consider that opportunity - to wax about his motivations. The criticisms she offers to the new pair at the brothel are copied almost word for word from Petyr's dialogue to her in season 1, which I thought was a nice touch.

The bastard-killing montage that ends the episode was especially powerful. It's a great chance for them to show more of Janos Slynt in the show, and the way they adapted one of the prominent pieces of the first season's score for the scene (and closing credits) was very effective. The scene with Arya and Gendry at the very end was a perfect capstone, especially since questions about Arya and her whereabouts were peppered throughout the episode to tease us.

Overall, I'm quite happy with the episode. I don't think it was perfect, but I think it did a great job of re-acquainting us with the cast of characters on Game of Thrones. After watching some of the previews for the show's second season, and knowing how much they have to pack into 10 episodes, I was worried that some of the dialogue might end up getting rushed. The first season did a great job in allowing its actors time to bring a lot of subtlety into their performances. Thankfully, my worries seem to have been unfounded, and I'm definitely looking forward to seeing more of season 2.

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