Saturday, 24 May 2014 - Reviewed by
4 - Oathkeeper 5 - First of His Name
Following the 'Purple Wedding', the ramifications are felt by many players in this top-notch medieval fantasy fare. Elsewhere in Westeros, other developments and older plot lines from years gone by are thrown into the mix. Whilst the show meets expectations on a consistent basis it is also able to conjure up surprises - even for the most ardent devotee of the written works of G.R.R. Martin. Although perhaps neither of these particular episodes are world beaters there is much to take on board and reflect upon.
Jon Snow is given a lot to do this time round - despite the malicious interference of superiors Janos Slynt and Alliser Thorne. Kit Harrington is improving his portrayal significantly and Jon has grown considerably as a result of being the 'insider' amongst the Wildling antagonists. Locke is given further development and shows a rather more charming, if ultimately manipulative side. Experienced actor Noah Taylor excels as Bolton's minion; whilst possibly a sociopath and sadist he can still pretend his reason for being at the Wall was down to a relatively small crime. The viewer can but wonder what Locke really did in his past given his true dark nature.
Although Jon seems to have a different set of problems to last season, it seems those with power like Thorne regard him as a nuisance at best. Consequently there is strong dramatic tension as Jon appears to be going on a suicide mission to Crasters Keep with the explicit goal of stopping Mance finding out key information from the estranged Nights Watch. Jon eventually musters a respectable group but there is the caveat that Locke is tagging along and clearly has his own agenda.
Bran Stark and his party were given the short end of the stick last season with few really effective scenes. This current run however has done a nice job of mixing supernatural elements that Jojen can assist Bran in mastering, with the danger that may come from Wilding hordes or from the thugs that hold Craster's Keep. The changes with Sam telling Jon about Bran's mission may upset some of the book purists, although not myself. I would agree that leaving Gilly in proximity to the Wildings who have crossed over southward is inexplicable but it is a good way to balance the kind, educated Sam with the boyish bumbler making rash decisions.
There has been a lot of other re-arranging done by the show-runners, so in addition to Jon, Daenaerys is given some material which took place somewhat later on in the original timelines. I continue to regard the 'Mother of Dragons' as a protagonist from another show, and Clarke's brand of acting is relatively theatrical. Some compensation comes in the development that Dany and her court now know of Joffrey's death. What initially appears an opportune time to retake King's Landing is actually a reminder that Khaleesi must deal with the 'here and now'; rather less welcome news arrives of Yunkai and Astapor regressing back to slaver cities.
Indeed Dany seems to be in control of events around her as much as at any point since her very first appearance, There is no cruel brother to treat her as a bargaining chip, nor fickle alpha-male Dothraki. She has a greater band of warriors and advisors and need not place confidence in duplicitous and ruthless tricksters as she did in Qarth. She doesn't need to bargain or plan risky night-time attacks as she did when acquiring the previous slaver cities. She seems to be someone born to rule - despite being originally third-in-line. The main tension is based on her decision to trust either/both of Jorah and Daario - each man loves her but has shown signs of not being truly dependable; especially in the case of Jorah who even now could still be reporting back to Varys.
Arguably the defining image of the Meereen sections presented is Dany's decree that the deposed slave masters of Meeren be nailed to a cross and left to die slowly to avenge the slave children she witnessed on her journey previously. Despite plot twists aplenty the viewer never doubts that the Mother of Dragons is someone who 'walks the walk'. Overall there is a definite up-turn in making the Khaleesi story line work as effectively as it did in Season One, although I personally do not prize it as the very best component of any given episode.
These episodes' most obvious sources of tension and excitement centre around the character of Karl and his fellow traitors, who maintain an atmosphere of sadism at the late Craster's stronghold. Karl continues to be played ably by Burn Gorman- a dependable actor in various genres - even if he is somewhat of a caricature in both script and performance. There is some nice black humour with Gorman tempting fate by saying he has remained undefeated in a fight since he was nine. Under his rule the women who suffered previously at Craster's hand are treated no better - possibly even worse. There is even a glimpse of Commander Mormont's broken skull being used to dispense some red wine - a clever reminder of the sad and violent fate that Jorah's father suffered.
Once events culminate at Craster's Keep in the final moments of 'First of His Name', it is richly satisfying that one of the female victims helps Jon in overcoming Karl. Perhaps the grotesque death suffered by the renegade is rather more worthy of a horror film - even if on-screen violence is usually justified in the show. Of at least equal controversy is the graphic depiction of how imprisoned women are being raped. Yet by the time the dust has settled there is an excellent moment of empowerment where Jon wisely concedes that these female survivors will now make their own proactive way in the cruel realms of the North.
Locke also has a very violent death which certainly surprised me in coming at this point in time. Hodor is horrified to see his hands bloodied - the result of Bran using his Warg powers to avoid being carried away to certain doom. This also works as a strong moment showing how tough Bran really is - even bearing in mind the battles fought by his older brothers and late father. Even more unexpected is the brand-new material featuring a White Walker converting one of the male babies banished from the Keep into one of its own kind. Whether this intermittent story line will be picked up by season end is no doubt a deliberate mystery thrown into the mix by the showrunners.
King's Landing continues to provide much of the meat of the show. There is an amusing but purposeful bedside visit made by Margaery Tyrell to imminently crowned Tommen. Whilst he is clearly too young to consummate a relationship just yet, it is obvious that Margaery is someone he trusts and likes. The viewer know just how manipulative and yet warm the Tyrell noble is, and should take note that she herself is acting on the and the wishes of grandmother (and supreme game-player) Olenna - who is now moving back to Highgarden.
Once Tommen is crowned proper there is a smart litle scene where Margaery seems to redress the balance of power between her and Queen Regent Cersei, Some may recall the stern threat in the last season over the younger woman's wish to be 'sisters'. For now Cersei is rather less threatening, appreciating the value of allies in these troubled times.
This approach is also demonstrated when Cersei later on decides to be liberally affable and diplomatic when meeting with Oberyn Martell. The Red Viper of Dorne is not given the most compelling of material in comparison to beforehand, but it is clear that he is making the most of his position of influence in being around the royal court. The reminder of middle child Myrcella being relatively 'safe' in Dorne is also a welcome counterpoint to other scenes involving the innocent in these episodes.
Episode Four's title 'Oathkeeper' points out the touching moment where Jaime passes on the sword that Tywin gave to him recently. This is an excellent scene for those who have bonded with Jaime over the course of Season Three - a fine counterpoint to his description of saving the capital from wildfire and the 'Mad King. As Brienne and Pod ride off in search for Sansa, Tyrion is conspicious by his absence. In fact the 'Imp' has but the one scene in 'Oathkeeper' where he is all too aware of the less than judicious court proceedings he can expect to be subjected to very soon, and how his sister is putting emotion above all other thoughts with the goal of silencing him once and for all.
As serious, disturbing and plot-heavy as the show is, there are still some very enjoyable lighter moments. Pod and Brienne have both been improved markedly in television format; providing some distinctive moments of modesty and valour. However when put together, it would appear that Brienne now is demonstrating a sense of superiority - owing to Pod's awkwardness. Once they have spent some time together on the road, there is a lovely moment where Brienne realises that Tyrion owes his life to the quick-thinking, surprisingy powerful squire during the chaos that was 'the battlle of Blackwater'.
The Hound/Arya sections which worked well last time round, is perhaps lacking in real direction. There is no real changes to their status quo except for the addition of Beric and Thoros on her 'kill list' - owing to their siding with Melisandre Syrio Forel is praised to the heavens by Arya (in a call-back to season one), that unsurprisingly features Sandor showing little admiration for a man who trusts his life to a wooden sword. One feels that a confrontation must come between this odd couple, and of course the show has a strong theme of alliances not being bound to last.
On the other hand, Arya's sister Sansa is given some rather strong material - with actress Sophie Turner continuing to improve her range. The audience is made to think that the older Stark girl will at some point become more proactive. Perhaps there is some degree of capability and decisiveness which so clearly exudes from Arya, but up to now the machinations of the Lannisters have been too strong. Her brave defiance of jealous Aunt Lysa accusing her of being sexually active despite her truthful denials is a fine scene which is played just right. The confirmation that Jon Arryn was killed by his wife Lysa at the behest of Baelish, and that the Lannisters took the blame is done in a low-key manner but is ample reward for viewers left scratching their heads since 2011.
Demented Lysa, and her son Robin - unseen since the middle of the opening season - are such memorable grotesques that viewers will be almost transported back to those proceedings as if the had happened recently. Furthermore the sequences with just Littlefinger and his 'ward' talking to each other are well done in both these episodes. Clearly the wife of Tyrion is wondering whether she has leapt from the frying pan into the fire. The viewer however is confident that Littlefinger prizes Sansa above anyone else as an asset, so even if he doesn't have her own interests at heart, he would never let harm come to her.
Watched together these episodes complement one another nicely and set up some potentially intriguing story lines for later on. On an individual basis they are rather routine by the show's lofty standards, with episode Five being static and talky - if necessary in terms of exposition. The books may be more complex but this is still a very dense show with a lot going on at once.
The program continues to make the majority of rival evening fare look pedestrian and routine, although it clearly expects loyalty from viewers dating back to events in the very earliest episodes. There are many elements of the show that have been retained after judicious adaptation of very dense source literature and they for the most part come across crystal-clear to the viewership. Some television shows cynically play out the same old formulas and rest on their laurels. 'Game of Thrones' takes chances and rewards loyalty and emotional investment in the actions of its characters.