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"Valar Dohaeris," "Dark Wings, Dark Words," "Walk of Punishment," "And Now His Watch Is Ended," "Kissed by Fire," "The Climb," "The Bear and the Maiden Fair," "Second Sons," "The Rains of Castamere," "Mhysa"
by Jefferson Robbins Kings and counsellors indeed. George R.R. Martin's fantasy cycle A Song of Ice and Fire--five very large novels deep now--is concerned with impassioned monarchs and their desperate ministers, as well as the deformations wrought by their egotistical wars. HBO's series adaptation "Game of Thrones" maintains that fascination, the source of much of its continuing suspense and appeal: Anyone in the fragmenting kingdom of Westeros could die at any time, by sword or sorcery or simple dysentery, and the wounds of war upon the body politic are reflected on the characters.
Mortification and the bonds of captor and captive are key to the show's successful third season, which adapts a large part of Martin's novel A Storm of Swords. The people who find their heroism in this tale are the most utterly alone and the most miserably injured, plagued by night terrors and phantom limbs. Multiple episodes see characters careening by themselves through dark and inhospitable wilderness, in pursuit or in flight. They fall into the hands of foes they might otherwise prefer to see dead, and come to rely on them, care for them, even love them.
Yet none emerge unscathed. Dwarf second-son Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage, betraying intellect and conscience without ever deciding on an accent) returns to court with deforming scars--but little thanks--for defending the throne of his twisted nephew, King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson). His brother, feared warrior Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, really coming into his own), loses his sword hand, and with it his sense of worth. Smuggler turned knight Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) still has both hands but nurses one that's maimed by the would-be king he loves and serves. Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), who betrayed the Starks and seized their ancestral holdfast Winterfell, endures the torments of the rack--and while we all wanted Theon to suffer for his escapades last season, who wanted him to suffer this much?
Practically all who endure these cruelties are of noble birth, the very folk who should be able to negotiate a pre-democratic world with ease. "Game of Thrones" necessarily noses into palaces and pavilions, where soap opera comes ready-made, what with all the duplicitous courtiers and brother-fucking queens. But Martin knows medieval war was waged among people with lives nastier, more brutal, and far shorter than ours, so his viewers--like his readers--get plunged just as often into unhygienic muck.
The show orients us around the children of the late Ned Stark, sent nobly to his beheading in the person of Sean Bean in Season One. The only highborn kids in the tale to have received a loving upbringing, they're cast down into the roles of refugees, bridal chattel, and warrior monks, to view the ensuing war from differing, far-flung angles. Eldest son Robb (Richard Madden) leads his father's allies in a frustrated bid to carve out a realm apart from Joffrey, who commanded Ned's death. Middle child Arya (Maisie Williams), the family's only eyewitness to Ned's slaying, roams the countryside in the unwilling care of mercenary Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann), anxious to grow into her revenge. Young Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright), paraplegic since he was nearly murdered by Jaime, quests for a means to deepen his magical kinship with his pet dire wolf and, by extension, to reunite with his splintered family. Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) finds herself forcibly married to Tyrion under the eyes of queen mother Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), albeit with a lesser case of Stockholm syndrome than her counterpart in the novels. And You Know Nothing Jon Snow (Kit Harington), a Stark bastard who carries his family's reputation but not their inheritance, tries to satisfy his sense of duty in service to the Night's Watch--a celibate army manning the vast frozen Wall that segregates the kingdom from nameless northern horrors.
And that's just one House of the seven highest, all vying for control. Impossible to summarize except as "the Wars of the Roses with occasional dragons¹," Martin's tale hangs on a gathering supernatural threat (zombies, basically) in the far north--a fearsome but perhaps not unconquerable force, if usurped princess Danaerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) can just make the voyage from the Eastern empires to Westeros with her three dragons. The strength of both the books and the show, as adapted by David Benioff (25th Hour) and D.B. Weiss, lies in the characters, almost all of them equally compelling on the page and brought to life with élan by a credible cast. Their wounds and their need for rescue, in most cases, bring out their better natures. Jaime, until now a wisecracking killer in service to his power-grabbing family, confesses the truth behind his nickname "Kingslayer"--he's a secret hero whom history must call a villain. His brother Tyrion emerges from his sickroom sure of his importance to the Lannister family, even if their fearsome father Tywin (Charles Dance, a dragon on two legs) consistently devalues him. Theon admits to war crimes--a particularly ironic phrase in this context--and reconciles himself to his Stark upbringing, during a breath of freedom that simply earns him more punishment.
Fittingly, the two leads who escape injury for practically the entire season, Jon Snow and Danaerys, remain my least favourite characterizations of the show. I blame his passivity in the face of massive change and her vast levels of dumb luck throughout her trek. Both are kind of like the kid in Oliver!--shit seems to happen around them, without much movement on their part. Still, Danaerys and social-climbing queen-in-waiting Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer) are answers of sorts to Cersei's brand of rule: They gather subjects through love rather than fear, in Danaerys's case by liberating entire castes of slaves as she goes. A powerful Machiavellian in earlier seasons, Cersei is very nearly sidelined here, severed from the incestuous affair that drives her drama and facing another arranged marriage despite her political acumen.
All of these women must stand in the shadow of Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley), widow of Ned and thwarted mother/advisor to Robb. Episode Nine, "The Rains of Castamere," is Fairley's showcase. This turning point in the series and its consequences for Catelyn are foreshadowed throughout, not least in an early line from Tyrell matriarch Olenna (Diana Rigg, wimpled beyond recognition): "We mothers do what we can to keep our sons from the grave, but they do seem to yearn for it." When the moment comes, Fairley moves from hopeful to suspicious to vengeful to, finally, resigned and annihilated in the best Shakespearean fashion. Fairley has many peers in the cast but, this season, few equals. Catelyn's arc repositions "Game of Thrones" for the future, sacrificing many beloved characters without abandoning the plot momentum they engendered, the way a network soap might. If this series has taught us anything, aside from how to pair naked breasts with plot exposition, it's that the protagonists' stories continue to be written long after they're gone. After all, Ned Stark's been dead for three years, and people can't stop praising him, cursing him, or vowing to avenge him.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
HBO parcels out ten "Games of Thrones" episodes over a daunting expanse of five discs, the better to make stack up the copious commentaries and special features. A flattering 1.78:1, 1080p transfer brings out the burnished noonlight and wintery grit of the series' shooting locations in Croatia, Iceland, Northern Ireland, and Morocco. The sterling digital-first work of various cinematographers is as engrossing as most theatrical releases and shorn of obvious blemish. Even the frequent CGI backdrops, while cleanly composited, become "real" in their very unreality--towers in King's Landing under repair as Tyrion and his henchman stroll the parapets, for instance, or the valley spread below as Jon embraces enemy-lover Ygritte (Rose Leslie) atop the Wall.² The most obvious digital panoramas still look exactly like, yes, the cover of a fantasy novel, but anyone who says those can't be beautiful art has never heard the name Vallejo. I appreciate the video quality best in the show's opener by Rock Paper Scissors, with those clockwork cities ratcheting open: The edges are sharp enough to discern every gear and seam.³
The clang of swords and shattering of shields resounds in the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio array, an immersive construct that foregrounds dialogue and maintains environmental subtleties, but can still cry havoc when the dire wolves of war are loosed. (Too much?) Here it does the work that the budget for sets and extras can't, since battle scenes (there aren't that many) are filmed allusively: Multiple quick shots of five to a dozen guys bludgeoning each other suggest the wider combat.⁴ We can hear a lot of other people fighting and dying, though, and that sells the experience. While Ramin Djawadi's score likewise is well-curated, I'm not among his fans. His music succeeds as earworm material--particularly his insistent and churning main theme and the martial conclusion of Episode 4, "And Now His Watch Is Ended"--but when divorced from image, it sticks in memory without actually being very good.
Twelve audio commentaries grace the set, with three episodes sporting two yak-tracks apiece. Peter Dinklage speaks on none of them, alas. Ah well. "Game of Thrones" brings out the chatterboxes in its participants, from David Benioff and D.B. "Dan" Weiss talking over the third show of the season, "Walk of Punishment," to Madden, Fairley, and veteran TV director David Nutter dissecting the slaughter of "The Rains of Castamere." For my money, few are as charming as Coster-Waldau and his acting partner for much of the season, Gwendoline Christie (as the formidable Brienne of Tarth), conversing with director Alex Graves on Episode 5, "Kissed By Fire." They are deeply convivial and clearly enjoy one another's company, while still exposing the price paid by the actors to arrive at Jaime's most moving scene. Lena Headey, Dame Diana Rigg, and Graves give interesting character insights on "And Now His Watch Is Ended," with Headey (pronounced "HEE-dee," which I didn't know) deferring a great deal to her director and the senior actress.
Harington, Leslie, and director Alik Sakharov discuss Episode 6, "The Climb," but don't disclose much of note beyond technical details, making this the most skippable commentary. On that same ep, Stark kids Williams, Turner, and Wright go on a ramble, opening their own yakker with an abortive but by-now-traditional musical intro.⁵ Martin himself, with Episode 7 director Michelle MacLaren, marvels at the international scope of the production, by comparison with Hollywood-confined shows from his professional past such as "Beauty and the Beast." (For what it's worth, he pronounces a few of his characters' names way differently from the TV canon.) MacLaren's back for commentary on Episode 8 with actors John Bradley and Hannah Murray, thrown together this season as Night's Watch whipping boy Sam Tarly and wildling Gilly. Murray, bless her, pokes holes in the American conceit--expressed by MacLaren and Martin just one episode before--that British actors are somehow natively steeped in classic stage drama.
And there's more. So. Much. Talking. On one audio track of "The Rains of Castamere," Fairley is watching the episode for the first time, and she and Madden are in tears by the end. The discussion surrounding the infamous Red Wedding sequence, however, mostlty consists of Nutter narrating what we can see for ourselves. With not one but three sword skirmishes this time out, it's proper that fight specialists Tommy Dunne and C.C. Smiff appear on a second commentary with stunt coordinators Paul Herbert and David Forman. The murder spree also boasts the densest episode-specific extra, "The Rains of Castamere Unveiled," a 47-minute picture-in-picture exploration that runs video interviews alongside the key scenes. Prompts along the way push the viewer towards deeper, more specific video tracks, and the bloody conclusion can be viewed with two PiP featurettes or standing alone. But was it ten gallons of blood, special effects supervisor Stuart Brisdon, or was it twenty? Who else would know?
Fans can refresh their memories of seasons past with the Cliff Notes reel "A Gathering Storm" (14 mins., HD) and come up to speed with "New Characters" (10 mins., HD) on Disc One. An in-episode text and video guide annotates every instalment, letting us click through text histories, character bios, and even motion-comic animations about the seven kingdoms of Westeros, their satellite territories, the Eastern city-states, and the religions, noble houses, and key events that inform each. ("Thrones" stars narrate the cartoons in character, for an added frisson of nerdery.) These unlock gradually as the episodes proceed, but are also anthologized in a Disc Five menu dubbed "Histories & Lore." The final disc additionally hosts HD making-of docs "Inside the Wildlings" (6 mins.) and "The Politics of Marriage" (8 mins.). Lastly, find five deleted or extended scenes, which serve mostly to remind us that, hey, Ciarán Hinds was in this season. The series is replicated on two included flipper DVDs, minus those voluminous supplements but boosted with digital copies available through iTunes and Ultraviolet. Follow Jefferson Robbins on Twitter
2. There's that theme of loving one's captor, writ large this time. But Jon's captivity involves the promise of freedom--from promises, class status, and chastity. return
3. "Game of Thrones" is an HBO show that largely fulfills the promise of an astonishing credits sequence, unlike some others. (cough"TrueBlood"cough) return
4. There's no showpiece conflict here like "Blackwater," the memorable Season Two hack-and-slash-fest directed by Neil Marshall. return
5. The pace of Bran's progress seems to bother Wright as much as it does me: "The whole of Season Three we just spend in different forests, saying, 'Where are we gonna go now?'" he points out. return