Game of Thrones
Coming late to the party for a series (or rather, season) that has become media-saturated means it’s fairly difficult to remain spoiler-free. Whether it’s Breaking Bad or True Detective, the luxury of gorging oneself on a box set can become a minefield, especially if, as HBO does, they wait a whole bloody year before releasing the thing, So I’d heard about words “Red Wedding” in advance and that it was game changing, and the Starks had been mentioned, but that was about as much as I knew. I still haven’t got beyond the mid-point in the second book, and from what I’ve heard the novels become increasingly partial to loving descriptions of food and less enthusiastic about dramatic twists and turns. So I wasn’t really spoiled too much. Indeed, the fact that a Stark wedding occurs in the season made for an effective red herring. I thought maybe Sansa was going to get splattered. Or splatted. I doubt I will be able to keep myself pure until Season Four arrives. I’ve already discovered a significant development I wish I hadn’t, so maybe it’s best to keep up with the curve.
As for Three, well I’m not sure I’ve really formed a clear picture of how it ranks with its predecessors. Season One feels the most obviously complete in and of itself, with the cleanest narrative arc (I was going to say like the first Lord of the Rings film, but perhaps it’s best not to go there). Each season is instant five-star material for the breadth and scope of the storytelling as a whole, but in some respects, I wasn’t all that taken with the warfare of the second run. Despite large budgets, they aren’t sufficient to really pack in the spectacle. And I certainly wasn’t impressed with Neil Marshall’s episode the way everyone else seemed to be. Also becoming evident in general is a deceptively skilled method of making relatively little incident go a long way. It feels like a lot is happening, and the talk in this show is gripping like no other. But, if you look back at Season Three and think about how much really significant occurred beyond the infamous Episode Nine? Well, not a whole lot. It doesn’t matter, it should actually be a badge of pride in some respects. It does tend to become clear that each season inevitably comprises a lot of travelling to get somewhere that takes ten episodes. Or not a lot of travelling that also that takes ten episodes.
The chief culprit is Daenerys, who has spent three years now building up her army while receiving sage advice from trusted dote Jorah and then ignoring it. Only for Jorah to be yet again impressed by his lady’s brilliant stratagems. The return of Barristan Selmy hasn’t really created interesting conflict, while the addition of a young buck for the Queen to get all hot about is another means of presumably stretching Jorah’s loyalty as her need for both his advice and company is diffused. It just isn’t all that involving.
Still that’s moderately more exciting than Theon spending the whole season being tortured before having his cock lopped off. Theon’s been such a complete prick (ahem), played without a shred of likability by Alfie Allen, that even after all this, it’s difficult to muster much sympathy for him. In fairness to Iwan Rheon, he does his level best to make Ramsey Snow the sickest puppy you’ve seen in the GoT but this still can’t make Theon seem halfway decent.
On the other hand, seeing an all-round shit turn out to have a more than a shred of decency is what a series spreading this kind of canvas is all about. So learning that king slayer Jamie Lannister is actually a man of honour, who did what he did to prevent further slaughter and horror, is a revelation (edit: I may have spoken to soon, having now dipped into Four). Particularly after seeing him brought to his knees in and losing an appendage (to Noah Taylor of all people) when he shows a surprising flourish of loyalty to his captor Brienne after weeks of mocking her endlessly (the climax to Episode Three is a small-scale shocker compared to the ninth, but in some ways it comes even more out of leftfield; the sheer disrespect!) I didn’t expect this certainly, and while their story is essentially just one long extended escort back to King’s Landing it feels especially meaty (Gwendoline Christie deserves particular praise for her performance as Brienne, and has quickly become one of the series’ best characters). The downside is I’m far less interested in seeing Jamie back amongst splendour than living by his wits (but maybe it won’t be so).
Elsewhere, one of the great pleasures is watching the older hands go at it. So to speak. Charles Dance and Diana Rigg are each called on to play families’ steely elders. Rigg’s Olenna Tyrell has an immensely winning line in caustic honesty (“Ah, here comes my cheese” she notes after Sansa has blurted out that Joffrey is a monster). There just wasn’t enough of Caesar himself, Ciarán Hinds. I hope Mance Ryder gets some really juicy material in seasons ahead. Other familiar faces it’s nice to see include Dennis Pennis, Clive Russell and Tobias Menzies (also ex of Rome).
Talking of Paul Kaye, the Brotherhood without Banners plotline is most intriguing, beginning as a Robin Hood-esque affair before transforming into a tantalising glimpse of the slowly encroaching realm of magic in the series. Thoros is revealed as a red priest to Melisandre’s red witch, surprised at his continuing ability to raise Lord Beric (Richard Dormer) from the grave. The dovetailing of these plot threads is either neat or very convenient, depending on your position.
If Gendry continues to be something of a non-character, Arya goes from strength to strength. Pairing her with The Hound later in the season pays dividends. While you fully believe she’ll make good on her threat to kill him, his reluctant protector role doesn’t proffer him the opportunity for Jamie Lannister-esque reappraisal. But it’s clear he has a code, however belligerent.
The Stannis/Davos plotline lacks much mettle until the final episode; Liam Cunningham makes Davos one of the GoT’s most sympathetic characters (“Everything” he responds when asked what the life of one boy is against a kingdom). Likewise, the Bran story is full of whimsy and mystical meanderings, but only really attains focus toward the end of the season; when his crosses the similarly not all that arresting and rather wet Sam story.
It’s left to Jon Snow to get the strongest action beats, and the most dynamic focus. His struggling allegiances are dramatic and engaging, as Hinds has made such a strong impression in his brief appearance. And, for all the bad-mouthing by Orell (Mackenzie Crook) to both Jon and Ygritte, you can see the skinchanger has a point. That Jon should end up back with The Night’s Watch is in some respects a disappointment; you want to see him encounter different territory. The problem is partly the glacial pace of the advancing White Walkers. They’re there in the first episode of the first season, and the warnings are still coming in the third season. This show is a master class in distraction and delay, but hopefully it knows when to pay things off when it comes to the crunch.
Even though he isn’t in nearly as confident a position this season, it’s still with Tyrion that the most involving plot lies. Imprisoned, forced into marriage, made Master of Coin. He’s on a back foot throughout; from his father; from Shae. When he snaps occasionally at Joffrey, imperilling himself, they’re among the season’s finest moments. For all his apparent carefree debauchery, he’s the series’ most thoughtful and empathic character, who sees no purpose in mindless cruelty and disdains his family’s ways. Cersei is relatively subdued too, ignored by Joffrey and unable to manipulate her father. There isn’t enough of Vastor, whose silky tongue and sly ways have tended to be key to the plots within King’s Landing. His conversations with Tyrion are those of (relatively) reasonable men attempting to find solutions that aren’t necessarily at the end of a sword.
So The Rains of Castamere. When that song starts, and the atmosphere is overladen with doom in a heartbeat, it’s a reminder of what a fine director David Nutter is. David Bradley’s performance as Walder Frey is fantastically assured and, even given the behind the scenes puppeteering by Tywin, what’s most striking and indelible about his action is how petty it is. It’s not about killing a king; it’s recompense for being snubbed. I have to admit Robb Stark was never sympathetic enough to really regret his departure, but Catelyn, wonderfully played by Michelle Fairley, will be sorely missed and its her end that resonates the most.
From advance reports, the fourth season will be one long tide of eventfulness, rather than relying on the all-important ninth episode. That’s a good thing as, now knowing David Benioff and D. B. Weiss’ major motivation in making the series was reaching the Red Wedding, there might be a danger of losing impetus or unconsciously putting feet on the brakes. They’ve already mentioned how the dilemma of tackling a series past its halfway mark that hasn’t yet been completed by its creator could cause headaches, but on the evidence so far, they seem more than up to the challenge.