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"Two Swords," "The Lion and the Rose," "Breaker of Chains," "Oathkeeper," "First of His Name," "The Laws of Gods and Men," "Mockingbird," "The Mountain and the Viper," "The Watchers on the Wall," "The Children"
by Jefferson Robbins I suspect "Game of Thrones" has started to find its high-fantasy elements as tedious as I have. In the show's fourth season, the trio of dragons reared by Danaerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke)--the only thing that makes her a ruler, aside from her family name--is far more felt than seen, and momentarily more a curse than an asset. Brandon Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) and his young cronies have to fight off a frozen-lake's worth of Ray Harryhausen skeletons, a homage so derivative it adds up to me snorting my beer out of my nose. An epic assault on the epic-sized Wall includes an epic total of two giants. The fantasy convention of magic swords with hoity-toity names comes in for ridicule, too, when brutal asshole King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) demands a title for his new enchanted blade and some wags in the audience yell back "Stormbringer!" and "Terminus!" Woman warrior Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie), the most gullible when it comes to matters of knightly virtue, gets a nifty pigsticker, names it "Oathkeeper," then spends her only battle of the season beating her adversary's face in with a rock. Magic, in this adaptation of contemporary fantasy's most successful novel series, is bogged down in human muck and mire.
And that's okay! The more I see of political machinations across the huge map of Westeros and its satellite states, the less concerned I am about snow-Nazgûl, rootbound tree-wizards, or telepathic dire wolves ex machina. Showrunners D.B. "Dan" Weiss and David Benioff maintain their firm hand on the scripts (seven of the ten episodes are credited to them exclusively, and Weiss directs the season premiere), and they've begun to diverge from George R.R. Martin's source novels--not a lot, but enough to prove they're playing in his sandbox by their own set of rules. This Westeros, with Joffrey's key opponent Robb Stark slain in Season Three, is tired and war-scarred and even more dangerous than it was when the noble houses were fielding their organized armies. There's a wonderful shot in Episode 4.8, "The Mountain and the Viper," of broken and brainwashed Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) riding to a castle in the swamp. It's a "Childe Roland To the Dark Tower Came" visionscape, striking home that much harder when you consider how Theon's been gelded, like a Fisher King suffering along with the Waste Land. Lords and ladies talk of peace and honour, but that only highlights the foul notion that noble intent can excuse despicable ends, or that the end of a war equals tranquility. "There is no safety, you dumb bitch," barks the never-knighted swordsman Sandor "The Hound" Clegane (Rory McCann)--the opposite side of Brienne's idealistic coin, who's had it up to his disfigured ear with the pretty words that perfume massacres.
Propriety and brutality layer over each other this season. The men of the Night's Watch, including bastard lordling Jon Snow (Kit Harington), prepare for a barbarian attack that could overwhelm the Seven Kingdoms, but they're weakened by a faction that's turned to rape and nigh-cannibalism rather than face their duty.¹ Flamboyant prince Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal) uses a trial by combat, meant to decide the fate of Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), as an instrument of his own vengeance. An elegy for the assassinated Joffrey (spoiler) by his grandfather Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) turns into a lesson in rulership and sexual utility for his young successor Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman). And Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), secret father of both Joffrey and Tommen, rapes his sister-lover Cersei (Lena Headey) in a moment of mourning beside the dead king's bier.
This last, undertaken with little motivation and no ramifications, is a point where "Game of Thrones'" social politics finally pall. I have questions about its artifice: What makes a rape is a lack or revocation of consent, and the way this assault is shot, edited, and looped, it's not clear that Cersei's refusal was elemental to the scene as written and performed. But it's done, and I can no longer think of a single leading female character who hasn't been raped or threatened with rape. Jaime brutalizes the woman he claims to love most and then forgets about it, while Cersei, long portrayed as fiercely Machiavellian and vengeance-minded, also appears to forget about it, and pledges conspiratorial, connubial allegiance to her rapist. Nude, enslaved women are used as set dressing in "Game of Thrones", yet bisexual, polyamorous Oberyn engages in fivesomes with his partner Ellaria (British national treasure Indira Varma) with his pants on. Ramsay Snow (Iwan Rheon) proves to be a de Sade on the rack but vanilla in the sack. The series continues to shun full-frontal male nakedness, even when--as in Theon's case--it might lend weight to story or character. Anyone who loves anyone in Westeros comes to a bad end. All this sex, and no one's happy.
That's only one front in the Culture Wars of Ice and Fire; on another, the people of Westeros, our heroes (such as they are) and villains, are whiter than white.² Danaerys, the whitest, successfully liberates all the enslaved brown people of the Far Eastern regions, always to the tune of wooden flutes. Yet once she does, consarn it, those dusky freed folk just don't seem capable of governing themselves, and she's locked into a cycle of interventionist wars to reinstall puppet headmen. It would be easy to view this as casual supremacy and colonialism, coming after the infamous crowdsurfing scene of Season Three, when Dany was embraced and uplifted by the rescued masses. I choose to see it as a somewhat awkward satire of colonialism--again, the bitter fruit of Euro-American "good" intentions, with the threat of dragons standing in for the threat of airborne nukes. If "Game of Thrones" put half the thought into women's subjugation that it has into martial politics, it could transcend genre in much the way "The Sopranos" and "The Wire" managed--be more than just a fantasy series, as those shows were more than just a Mafia drama and a cop procedural.
Let us, then, discuss where things go right: The grumpy Batman and Robin act that is the Hound and orphaned Arya Stark (Maisie Williams), which goes out on a heartbreaking note. The sweet intimations of an affair between Danaerys's eunuch warrior Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) and court translator Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel). The long-simmering breach between Danaerys and her counsellor Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen), coaxing out Clarke's best performance of the series so far. The lessened emphasis on Jon Snow, whose suffering adds up to snoring. Weepy blanket Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) finally learning something about self-preservation through duplicity. Brienne coming to understand that she's sworn too many vows. The throwaway Monty Python joke. Podrick! Hot Pie! Ser Pounce the kitty!
Oh, and every scene with Peter Dinklage. On trial for his life and surrendering any hope of winning honest love, Tyrion is blessed with a set of extraordinary monologues this season, including one that casts the conspiracy to execute him as rank ableism. The camera conspicuously hews to the short-statured actor's eye level throughout, except when an elevated view is called for. (Scott Kaufman cleverly assessed this tactic in an essay for The AV Club on Episode 4.1, "Two Swords.") Dinklage not only leads the cast, he also leads the show's many portrayals of dysmorphism, disability, gender expression, or deformity: Jaime's amputated hand, the Hound's burned face, Brienne's "manly" stature and pursuits, Theon's scarification, Grey Worm's castration, Shireen Baratheon's mark of disease, Hodor's hodoring. And there's a question as to whether Tyrion's lover Shae (Sibel Kekilli) would meet her ultimate fate if Tyrion were not small enough for her to throw from a bed. In my favourite moment, Tyrion and Jaime, both now marginalized in their society as a dwarf and a cripple, bond through shared ridicule of a mentally-disabled cousin. There's always someone more marginal than you, even when you're the Imp in a sword-and-sorcery soap opera.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
The theme song on this Blu-ray set's spin-up menu is the youth choral version from season-ender "The Children." My first thought on hearing it: "Oh Christ, it has words now." I can't understand it--they're probably singing in Dothraki or Sindarin or whatever they spoke in the Valyrian Freehold--but it's clear as a bell. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio for the series proper yields some nice, wet, juicy swords-slicing-skin sounds, particularly in the Wildling sack of a Northern town in Episode 4.3, "Breaker of Chains." Nothing is lost as far as dialogue, whether bellowed or insinuatively whispered, while the noisier entries--cf. Episode 4.9, "The Watchers On the Wall," wherein Neil Marshall again proves himself the only "Thrones" director who can fluidly helm a battle scene--sound out with thumping depth. There's a subtle layering at work, say, in the several courtyard scenes, where key players exchange words over a rhubarb of hoofclops, leather slaps, background mumbles, and ambient open-air nose. Image quality of the 1.78:1, 1080p presentation excels, particularly in catching the fine details of the show's ornate costuming, the actors' skin tones and clothing textures, and the broad weight of landscapes. Even the composited shots, with monolithic CG medieval structures looming over the foreground players, have improved over last season. I'm particularly taken with the Northern Ireland shooting, reflected in the sojourns of the Hound and Arya. "Game of Thrones" is up to the challenge of multi-location lensings; the port capital of King's Landing is always sun-splashed and verdant, while the frozen Wall and the wild North beyond are properly grey, blue, and dark. An occasional wash of mud shows in the blacks of the latter scenes, noticeable when the camera is in motion. However, Tyrion spends a lot of time confabbing in a torchlit dungeon, and the carefully-composed close-ups there are unblemished and intimate. Not too spoil too much (more), but when a favourite character lies wounded and begging for a quick death, you can see the flies already circling.
Here come the supplementals, and not a moment too soon. This deep in, you'd be forgiven for confusing a Martell with a Tyrell, Missandei with Melisandre. Despite frequent beheadings, the dramatis personae, naming conventions and genealogical charts remain cumbersome. It is literally impossible to learn and remember all the players and their kinships without referring to the supplementary disc materials or, in the alternative, reading Martin's books. The world of this series is growing larger than its impressive opening-credits clockwork map, which looks great but does little to orient us. Most helpfully, the tradition continues of in-episode pop-up guides to put characters in their contexts, or match whole races to their histories, in case you were wondering what a Thenn is. Toggling further through these leads to stylish animated "Histories" featurettes on the various nations, noble houses, and social systems in play. As in Season Three, these recur in collected form on Disc Four, and the tales are told by the actors in character.
The performers' contracts must be awfully detailed and airtight, because they're also indentured for an endless string of commentary tracks--eleven altogether, and they managed to rope in Dinklage this time around. The yakkers are hit-and-miss in terms of chemistry, sometimes jamming together principals who apparently have nothing to say to each other, or no real interest in interrogating their own processes. For instance, Natalie Dormer (Margaery Tyrell) joins Gleeson, author/scriptor Martin, and director Alex Graves for "Breaker of Chains," revealing little of note except that a) Martin wanted the entire episode to take place at Joffrey and Margaery's wedding, which is reason to be glad Martin's not the showrunner, and b) the boring-ass wedding band is played by boring-ass real band Sigur Rós. As for Dinklage, he's shuffled off to the secondary yak-track on 4.10, "The Children," an aimless transatlantic confab with Coster-Waldau and Headey. With no director or exec on hand to steer things, it instantly devolves to raunchy, funny, but uninformative levels of "Mystery Science Theater 3000"-ness. For technical revelations, I recommend director Alik Sakharov and writer Bryan Cogman's track on Episode 4.6, "The Laws of Gods and Men;" costume designer Michelle Clapton, DP Anette Haellmigk, and production designer Deborah Riley on 4.8; and the secondary commentary on 4.9 by visual effects artists Steve Kullback and Joe Bauer. (This is the episode that, thanks to these craftsmen and director Marshall, finally shows us the full geography of the Wall after four fucking years.) Glaringly, there is no commentary at all on the third episode--the Rape Episode. Perhaps that shouldn't be surprising, but it's a coward's way out..³
Let's work backwards from Disc Four, home to "Behind the Battle for the Wall" (37 mins., HD), a technical exploration of that bravura fight. Background specials like this clue you in to how much yardage "Game of Thrones" gets out of armies composed of just twenty people, or wedding parties of twenty-five, and there's nothing either I (and evidently Marshall) like better than some bellowing jackhole in the front row of a besieging army catching a flaming arrow in the throat. We only get one such battle per season, so enjoy it. Right next door is "The Fallen: A Roundtable" (29 mins., HD), a spoilerfest with Cogman quizzing the actors behind killed-off characters: Dance, Pascal, Gleeson (looking like a Twilight vampire), Kekilli, Rose Leslie (Ygritte), Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Jojen Reed), and Mark Stanley (Grenn, whose name you probably never knew). Pascal pulls the curtain back on the green room where Charles Dance shared a couch with a nude actress prepping for an orgy, while Kekilli, asked to recall her very first scene, reports: "I was topless." That'll happen. This final disc is also home to a three-minute pack of HD deleted scenes and the two-minute HiDef blooper reel, where you can see a White Walker falling off his horse. Discs Two and Three are commentary-heavy but free of other extras, while Disc One grants us "The Politics of Power: A Look Back at Season Three," which is not the simple "previously on" clip collection you'd expect but rather a 25-minute, HD semi-documentary that intersperses the actors and showrunners, outlining where the story is and how it got there. "Bastards of Westeros" (HD, 7 min.) explains how children born outside marriage get their surnames, something difficult to gather from series context. "New Characters and Locations" (HD, 8 min.), however, is something you could glean by, I dunno, watching the show. Follow Jefferson Robbins, First of His Name, on Twitter
1. Burn Gorman drinking wine from his old commander's skull, Noah Taylor as henchman to a sadistic torturer: "Game of Thrones" is where reliably interesting actors get showpiece roles, then take one in the neck. return
2. Even when we get to Braavos, once thought populated by dashing Hispanics, the central bank is run by white English guy Mark fucking Gatiss. return
3. The digital-download iTunes option includes "Inside the Episode" post-credits segments. On 4.3, Benioff simply opines, "It was a really uncomfortable scene, and a tricky scene to shoot," out of his awful stubble-crafted beard. return