Sunday, 31 May 2015 - Reviewed by
Season 5 progresses steadily enough with this next batch of Westeros Wonder. However some uncertainty is perhaps generated as the pace continues to be slower than the previous two years, and there is a firm choice by the producers over not being as faithful to the source material as they once were. An added problem also exists in that presently books six and seven are only available as speculation, and not as anything corporal. Some big decisions have been made therefore over quite how to achieve foreshadowing and keep the present story lively in its own right.
Arya having had a kind farewell from the ship's captain who she met at the end of last season is now trying to forge a new life in the markedly different city of Braavos. At first her entrance to the House of Black and White looked helpless, but come the third episode she is now getting somewhere in her quest to complete her 'hit' list of those who betrayed her family and friends. It certainly appears that Jaqen H'ghar is indeed back after a long break from the show. Of course it needs to be stressed that the actual person who had that name and face is almost certainly long dead. But for simplicity's sake I will henceforth name him Jaqen until any changes to suggest otherwise are implemented by the show. The chemistry between Tom Wlaschiha and Maisie Williams is as strong as ever. However the most memorable scene involves Arya on her lonesome, as she is parted from Needle for the short term; wordlessly hiding amongst some rocks.
Having hailed Williams forthcoming turn in the second Peter Capaldi series of Doctor Who, there is a further link between the two iconic shows with the presence of Faye Marsay, as the sullen 'Waif'. This actress impressed as Shona in the most recent Who TV story we have to date - 'Last Christmas' - and is given some excellent dialogue. She also tests the resolve of neophyte Arya to the limit.
Having said all this, I do wonder just how much traction this Braavos section of the show has. In the books it worked well as a series of developments which made the reader do some of the guesswork as to how much time has passed. In a show like this, the 'knitting together process' a viewer is obliged with in order to comprehend the array of locations may lead to some weaknesses in terms of overall impact. However I must praise the sets, lighting and music, which all conjure a strong and brooding atmosphere.
Returning yet again to King's Landing, it appears that there is some potential for excitement after all, as most have come to hope for by now. The Tommen and Margaery storyline is very well done in this pair of episodes. Clearly the Boy King was feeling euphoria upon consummating the marriage, and finally resolving the lust he had for his far more mature partner. She had stoked his fires initially when he was lined up to replace his murdered brother, visiting his bed and talking of their likely future together in 'Oathkeeper'. The brutal reality though, is that Cersei's one remaining son is little more than a pawn in others' games now grandfather Tywin is deceased.
Tommen is acted increasingly well by relative newcomer Dean-Charles Chapman. Also credible is his remorse over Joffrey's death, as clearly there were a few shreds of love that the 'mad idiot' had for his nearest and dearest. Margaery clearly likes her latest husband to a certain degree, but also knows just how to wrap him round her little finger and use him as a way to undermine Cersei.
Except.... that the Queen Mother does not take long to get her own 'back' on opposition, especially on someone like the Highgarden girl; believing the witch's gloomy prophecy. In order to set the record straight, Cersei accosts a very shabby looking individual who has the satirical title of 'High Sparrow'. This man is both very mysterious, owing to the lack of an official name, and yet very clear in his prerogative as he serves the Faith of The Seven. Jonathan Pryce is another newcomer in this episode and what a big asset the show has gained. I have always enjoyed his work, as he is always strong even when given some shaky material. His subtle style in 'Thrones' is most welcome when some veer near overacting, if remaining very watchable. This collaboration with Cersei is wonderfully portrayed in both episodes and it is crystal clear to the audience, if not the 'Queen Mother', that the High Sparrow will be quite a tricky customer, and more than able to wriggle his way round the powder keg that is Capital Politics.
So, just as the new Queen feels she has the Court pandering to her whims, she finds out that brother Loras was arrested for being an affront to the 'Seven Pointed Star' with his 'deviant' sexuality. This then sees Tommen utterly powerless to reverse this development. He is not informed about events like he would have been with a proper Small Council and Tywin still around as his Hand. The King's attempt to get Loras out also sees him confronted with verbal abuse from the poorer citizens of King's Landing. The 'terrible twincest' of Cersei and Jaime is now seemingly common knowledge.
Meanwhile, in case some were wondering, Qyburn is still involved in some skulduggery. He seems to be attempting his own 'Doctor Frankenstein' project. The body lying in his laboratory is so large that is more than likely meant to be the grievously wounded Mountain. While just another instance of set up, the viewer will no doubt recall this brief moment later on when events become more explosive.
The Nights' Watch and Wall sections continue to ring true and showcase excellent characterisations. Most dramatically, Janos Slynt finally gets his comeuppance, after years of scurrying away and favouring who had the greater money and riches. Although Jon Snow does not yet know how Eddard placed his trust in Slynt, it still feels like a major moment forward for our favourite illegitimate son. He is now the Lord Commander through and through, and people can't mock flippantly and expect to get away with it. Stannis' approval of Jon is also true to the books, and yet another moment where silence in a scene is able to generate considerable impact.
Also engaging is the dynamic between Stannis, his stern wife Selyse, his sweet only child Shireen and the unsettling presence that is Red Woman Melisandre. I do like the slow burn pace that features, as it really seems as major developments in both plot and character decisions' will unfold as the season comes to it's climax. The Jon and Sam relationship is still there too, and remains very entertaining. These two men are bound by being the outcast child. Jon struggled with 'stepmother' Catelyn and Sam was demeaned by his own father (who has never been directly featured on the show). A lot of changes have taken place that have nullified the opening season's relationships permanently, but these two kind-hearted men remain friends for life it would appear.
The definite highlight of episode four in terms of character development is when Shireen is reassured by monarch and father Stannis that he truly loves her, and explains exactly how he managed to spare her a terrible fate with greyscale. Both the old hand actor in Stephen Dillane and virtual newcomer Kerry Ingram absolutely convince the viewer of the complexity and depth that lies in that relationship. A bit more disappointing however is the throwaway scene where the Red Woman attempts to seduce Jon. It just comes off as sensationalism, and adds nothing to the scene where they were conveyed to the top of the Wall in the first episode. 'You Know Nothing Jon Snow' is uttered at the end, and it just feels pretentious. The showrunners seem obsessed with one significant character needing to show her bare bosom before long...just because. I give 'Thrones' more leeway than some other programs, as it never was meant to represent the underlying morality and societal standards of our world . Yet some artistic choices should be made with integrity at the same time.
There is no nudity to be found in Winterfell in this crop of episodes though. Not unless one counts a flayed corpse anyway. The Boltons have truly made this place 'home' now, and they are joined by Sansa Stark and Littlefinger. Yet another scheme is being implemented by the reigning Lord of the Vale. Although straining credulity a touch, there is some real conviction in the various scenes that culminate in Sansa meeting Roose Bolton, and her new intended husband Ramsey. One should remember that she never officially divorced Tyrion, but this is glossed over as she now encounters someone potentially even more dangerous and twisted than the late Joffrey.
The recently empowered bastard son of the treacherous Bolton lord makes a hollow promise to be kind and devoted, almost at the same moment as his 'partner in crime' Myranda gazes on with seething jealousy. If this were not bad enough, the audience also is seriously questioning what Littlefinger's plans are in all this. "Avenge [your family]" he tells his ward just before they get to Winterfell, but surely that will be a lot easier said than done... Before he does abandon her though, there is a very well cinematographed sequence set in the lower depths of Winterfell as Baelish ruminates on the past and then the future he hopes to achieve. He kisses Sansa on the lips once again, and she even appears to enjoy it. But will she remain fond of him once events progress without him around to intervene at Winterfell?
Brienne and Pod are on the periphery as they still continue to fret over what will happen to this Stark girl they are tracking for now. Some exposition features as the statuesque woman explains just how she came to be indebted to the (late) Renly Baratheon, and was thereafter looking to serve him till the end of her days. This is a bit of an odd scene, as it seems to clash with the striking debut of Brienne in Season Two when she revealed just who she was to Renly in her victory over a male knight. I do appreciate however the intrigue over her wish to avenge the most charismatic of the three Baratheon brothers, and perhaps Stannis had better watch his back if he were to go and attack the Boltons in the North.
In a Volantis brothel, much further south, a certain erudite Imp utters "I need to speak some one with hair". And this latest come-back actually signals the 'Varys and Tyrion' show coming to an end. The exiled Jorah Mormont unceremoniously kidnaps Tyrion, just as he finishes urinating from a balcony, and bundles him from a beautiful city into a decidedly modest-looking boat heading somewhere perhaps less glamorous. Just before this downturn in fortune for Tyrion, his self pity is something to behold as he admits to a forlorn prostitute that he no longer has the same set of desires that he once had for women of her trade.
It really is quite a shame the show only has a few fleeting moments in Volantis; a by-product of the show's big budget and the enforced ten episodes a season. The sets and models for this city certainly stand out on any half-decent modern TV and show just how many talented people work behind the camera. Also, we get to witness the sermon of another 'Red Woman' - one who in our world is of Japanese ethnicity. The manner in which she stares back at the refugee Lannister is a terrific moment, and one that featured in early photo previews of the season for good reason.
And yet the kidnap by Jorah is a great development, featuring a wonderful cliffhanger generating confusion over whether it is Cersei or Daenerys who will receive Tyrion. Once Tyrion has a chance to speak, after being bound on the boat for an extended period of time, there is a lovely exchange as he realises why Jorah is doing all this. The only responses he gets are constant aloof glances away. At least until he makes one provocation too many, and gets a full-on strike of Mormont's fist to his bearded head.
The Jaime and Bronn scenes in 'Sons of the Harpy' are very enjoyable if a bit thin on anything truly memorable or thematic when considering what the show is capable of. A link to Tarth features, as their incognito passage over sea to Dorne features a view of a neighbouring isle. Tarth was referred to by Jaime and Brienne during their excellent story arc together in Season Three, most memorably during the saving of the 'Maiden Fair' from the bear pit in Harrenhal. Another subtle link features in the accidental saving of Jaime's life with the golden hand. It works as a funny moment, with Bronn forced to fight the majority of the four Dorne warriors who realise that the newcomers' story is bogus. It also functions as a subtle way of showing how the late Locke - lackey to the Boltons - was not as smart as he thought he was when deriding the Kingslayer over what options he had left with a prosthetic right hand.
Less successful, and for sure the clumsiest scene thus far in the new season, is the introduction of the 'Sand Snakes'. To be fair to the producers of this show, they had a rather weak platform to work with in the first place as the books did not break much new ground with these cliched personalities. This still does not excuse the weak dialogue, delivery and production values - all of which stick out badly for a series of this calibre. It also is underwhelming given the amount of hype that was generated in the build up promotions and featurettes that came out during this year.
Thankfully the Daenerys storyline continues to work more than well enough and culminates in a 'shock cliffhanger' with Barristan Selmy and Grey Worm victorious in battle but also seriously wounded. As preceding events unfolded, the Queen of Meereen seemed to be getting complacent, and perhaps being too 'pally' with Hizdahr zo Loraq - a man many viewers would suspect as knowing a lot more about the Harpy attacks than he would ever admit. There is a fine scene between Selmy and his Queen where he shows his gentler side, and she wishes him farewell, asking him to 'go and sing a song'. When things are this warm and fuzzy, it usually bodes very ominously. Overall this whole section of the show is at least a level up from last year's counterpart, and also happens to be less tedious than the books (to my mind).
So we are four episodes in, and wondering just what will be the dominant story arcs of the latest season. Some weaknesses are certainly on display, but a lot of work has been put into making the adaptation of GRR Martin's broad vision work properly for TV. Perhaps the steady pace that is opted for presently will have bigger dividends later on. Time and Winter alike will tell.