Friday, 14 June 2013

GAME OF THRONES: a third season of dismemberment, marriages, dragons, eunachs, torture, and amassing armies

"We have to warn them; or before winter's done, everyone you've ever known will be dead."

The days of toil getting through season 1 seem a very long time ago now, having finished the third season. It's such a rich and complex world that George R.R Martin's created that it took awhile to get to grips with the regions, histories, and peoples of Westeros. To be honest, there are still characters whose names I couldn't tell you off-hand, and a few storylines I've lost the thread on, but the important stuff has crystallised now. This was the best season of the show yet and one of the best things on television, so I thought I'd take this post-finale opportunity to give some broad thoughts on the key storylines and events:

Daenerys Targaryen, Ser Jorah & Ser Barristan
Many people's favourite character is Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), but it was painfully obvious season 2 didn't have the material for her. Things were very different this year, with her impressive rise to even greater power: first by tricking Kraznys (Dan Hildebrand) out of his brainwashed army 'The Unsullied', and finally by liberating the people of Yunkai and being heralded as their "mhysa" ("mother"). She even found a likely replacement for Drogo in the dashing Daario Naharis (Ed Skrein), to the chagrin of right-hand man Jorah (Iain Glen). Unrequited love is so painful. Clarke was excellent this season and remains the only character you can fully champion, although loyalties may be tested if she ever goes to war with the Starks after setting foot in Westeros. Her three dragons were also mightily impressive this year; they really do feel like living, breathing, thinking creatures.

"I will take what is mine with fire and blood." -- Daenerys

Theon Greyjoy & Ramsay Snow
This wasn't a particularly important storyline, but it was one of the most memorably twisted. Having stormed Winterfell and killed the two youngest Stark boys (although he faked that to save face), Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) spent the entirety of this season being physically and psychologically tormented by a sadistic bastard at Dreadfort—who we eventually learn is one Ramsay Snow (Iwan Rheon), the illegitimate son of Lord Bolton. I thought these sequences were the toughest of the whole season, including the infamous 'Red Wedding'.

Ramsay's tormenting was so unflinching it almost became an endurance for viewers, culminating in the shocking moment when Theon was castrated. It was so relentlessly grim (the destruction of a man's body, spirit, sexuality and identity—after he was made to accept his new name of 'Reek') that the finale had to give us a rousing montage of Theon's sister Yara (Gemma Whekan) launching a rescue mission without the blessing of Theon's own father, as a much-needed salve. Let's hope Theon gets some "eye for an eye" vengeance on Ramsay next season, because I think King Joffrey had real competition for 'most despicable character'!

"If you think this has a happy ending, you haven't been paying attention." -- Ramsay

Jamie Lannister & Brienne of Tarth
Easily the best storyline of season 3 belonged to Jamie (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Brienne (Gwendoline Christie), the freakishly tall female warrior tasked with bringing 'The Kingslayer' back to King's Landing from Stark captivity. Jamie was introduced as a villain back in season 1 (causing young Bran's paralysis, being instrumental in the downfall of Ned Stark), and did almost nothing of interest throughout season 2, but this year was a huge turnaround. He's now one of the most heroic and sympathetic characters on the show, having had his sword hand chopped off by Locke (Noah Taylor) in a wince-inducing final shot, and facing relentless anguish from that moment on. But in losing his hand, Jamie found his heart. A strange bond of friendship grew between Brienne, culminating in Jamie heroically rescuing her from a literal bear pit (too much awesome), and one of the season's best scenes found Jamie regaling Brienne with the story of what really happened when he decided to kill the 'Mad King'. For me, Jamie's scenes were the most rewarding and engrossing this year. Excellent work from Coster-Waldau and Christie.

Robb Stark, Talisa Maegyr & Catelyn Stark
Am I alone in finding the surviving Starks a little boring? Ned's death was a massive shock in season 1, but it's becoming clear this dour northern family needed someone with Sean Bean's charisma as patriarch. Robb (Richard Madden) Stark, his wife Talisa (Oona Chaplin), and grieving mother Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) didn't do very much that interested me this season. And when they did finally concoct an exciting plan to capture Tywin's ancestral home, they all died in the very same episode when Lord Frey (David Bradley) avenged Robb's broken vow to marry one of his daughters!

You can't talk about season 3 without mentioning the infamous Red Wedding sequence, which lit up the internet for a week following its grisly events: Robb killed by multiple crossbow shots, his pregnant wife knifed repeatedly in the belly, and his mother having her throat cut, while the Stark party were simulatenously massacred. It was a strong reminder that Game of Thrones doesn't mollify audiences, as each character could be killed at any given moment, but I must confess to feeling the impact didn't quite work. Robb, Talisa and Catelyn had spent so long doing very little that it made a weird kind of sense to kill them off, and there are dozens of other characters whose deaths I'd feel more acutely. It chilled your blood to watch it play out because it was expertly handled, but it just wasn't something that haunted me for days afterwards. Maybe I'm alone in that.

Jon Snow & Ygritte
These characters are oddities to me. I really like Ygritte (Rose Leslie) because Leslie is appealing as a Wilding with very little knowledge of life south of the Wall, but Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) has yet to really excite me. The writers need to get a firmer grip on him, and there were a few signs of improvement here and there. The Snow/Ygritte romance actually worked surprisingly well, so when it soured in "The Rains of Castamere" that was quite effective. Oh, and the special effects were great for that sequence where they climbed the gigantic icy Wall.

Tyrion Lannister & Sansa Stark
I think I preferred Tyrion's storylines (Peter Dinklage) in the earlier seasons, but he had some brilliant scenes with his scowling father Tywin (Charles Dance) this year—who doesn't hide his contempt for his diminutive son. The big event for Tyrion this year was being forced to marry Lady Sansa (Sophie Turner), daughter of Ned Stark, who was executed by her ex King Joffrey (Jack Gleason). It let us see more of Tyrion's tender side, in his refusal to sleep with her to sire another Lannister who will one day inherit the northern territories. I find Sansa quite a drip, but at least this season gave us a reason for her colossal naivety: she's only supposed to be 14! Turner's only 17 herself, which was also a surprise.

"You are an ill-made, spiteful little creature; full of envy, lust and low cunning." -- Tywin to Tyrion

Davos Seaworth, Stannis Baratheon & Melisandre
One of the nicest surprises this year was the storyline with Davos (the amazing Liam Cunningham), who survived the Battle of Blackwater and returned to Dragonstone only to be thrown in the dungeon for his treasonous ranting to Stannis (Stephen Dillane) about creepy sorceress Melisandre's (Carice van Houten) influence. Liam Cunningham was magnificent this season. I find myself hoping he'll save Stannis's soul and be instrumental in getting the Iron Throne back in Baratheon hands... well, until I realise it would be nicer if a Stark became King, or cooler if Daenerys claimed it. That's the clever thing about Game of Thrones: there are no clear heroes and villains. Your allegiances often shift within a single episode.

Arya Stark & The Hound
These two characters make for a great odd couple dynamic, but the quality of their storylines this year was choppy. I loved seeing The Hound (Rory McCann) fight Lord Beric (Richard Dormer) in a trial by combat, and from there we had some nice scenes when he captured Arya (Maisie Williams) and took her to Lord Frey's castles for ransom. You have to worry about that girl's sanity now she's been in close proximity to occasions where her father, brother and mother have been slaughtered.

Sam, Bran, and co...
The other stories this season were good, although I struggle to get excited about goofy Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) trekking through the snow with a naïve young girl who thinks he's a wizard, or Bran's (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) little group of urchin pals. I don't dislike these sub-plots, but it feels like they're place-holders for something bigger in future. Maybe now Sam's raised the alarm about the White Walker army things will get more interesting for him next season. I did love that kick-ass scene where he killed a White Walker single-handed, come to think of it.

Bran's ability to control the minds of animals and (uniquely) humans will also elevate his position in the show, which is overdue because you can't just have him being carried around by gentle giant Hodor all the time. That said, a part of me wishes Game of Thrones wasn't quite so keen to go down the magical path it almost completely abstained from in season 1. I like having dragons and undead armies involved, but it feels like Westeros is quickly turning into Middle-earth. But maybe magic should be employed to help explain why Bran's aged years in what's a matter of, what, months in real-time? (This is a problem that may start affecting other child actors, like Maisie Williams, but for now only Isaac Hempstead-Wright looks conspicuously older than he did in the very first episode.)
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