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Thursday, June 23, 2011

A Game of Thrones: Episodes Eight, Nine, and Ten (and Final Thoughts)

I've decided to review the last three episodes of HBO's A Game of Thrones together in order to avoid repeating the same praises over and over.  The cast of the show, as I've already said, is practically perfect, and that doesn't changed in the final three hours worth of show.  Most of what I'll relay below are my final thoughts about the last three episodes, somewhat disconnected from any formal review structure and episodic order.  A lot of these final thoughts will be focused on my issues with the series.  I will say that the following things are still some of the greatest strengths of the series:

  • Cast/Acting (as I just noted):  almost every single actor/actress in this series is superb.  Peter Dinklage better damn well get an award for playing Tyrion.  Maisie Williams is still one of my favorite child actors in GoT; if she does not have a great career ahead of her, I will be pissed.  Lena Headey is still brilliant and loathsome (in a good way).  Emilia Clarke is also quite amazing in this series; she gets stronger and stronger as an actress (and as a character) with every episode.  And Sean Bean is, well, Sean Bean; what more can I say?  I don't think there's been a TV series where I have loved the cast as much as I do in GoT.  I will come back to the series based on the actors alone (though Sean Bean will be sorely missed, of course).
  • Sets/Costumes:  To put it briefly -- gorgeous sets, gorgeous scenery, and gorgeous costumes and design.
  • CG:  The producers of GoT were intelligent enough to limit their use of CG, which means the few times when we do see something put together by computer, they are properly budgeted and look decent enough for a TV series.  No more of that SyFy cheap cheese garbage.
Beyond that, the series moves back and forth between good and bad.  I'll talk about some of those issues below.

(Note:  I'm not going to offer any synopses for the episodes.  You should watch the show.  There may be some spoilers, though; if you haven't watched the show, then don't read beyond this point.)

Now to the reviews:

Episode Eight -- "The Pointy End"
"The Pointy End" is a product of wasted time.  I've mentioned many times before that the writers for Game of Thrones have taken significant detours, often for no other purpose than to present breasts or, as in episode seven, to tell us what is going to happen later, thus spoiling the surprise.  Sadly, this means that significant moments in the story or shortened to make room for all that extra stuff (more often than not extra scenes involving male chest shaving, women fingering one another, random penis shots, or four or more naked breasts in the same shot).
"The Pointy End" opens with what should be a major sequence (i.e., the fall of Eddard Stark and his House in King's Landing) and takes a lot of the power out of it by removing a good deal of the death that is supposed to take place there.  It's fortunate that the writers decided to keep the final showdown between Syrio and the Lannister's guard, but that doesn't change the fact that the entire sequence ends so quickly that it's hard to feel the impact it has on the characters (not just Arya and Sansa, but the dozens of guards and the like who, we are to assume, have been slaughtered).  A similar reduction takes place later in the episode when Tyrion tries to convince the hill people to join him, which suffers from the poor establishment of the Vale earlier in the series.  The absence of narrative fulfillment in both these instances does a great disservice to the consistency of the writing and the strength of the character arcs, though I'll admit that at least the fall of House Stark is better handled than Tyrion's "rise to power."  Things simply "happen" without much in the way of explaining how; when explanation is offered, it is without development (i.e., "do this" "okay" "done").
The problem is that "The Pointy End" is such a good episode if you ignore these two problem areas.  It draws out all of the established plotlines and shows how everything is tangled together, and the episode avoids many of the pitfalls that killed the earlier parts of the series (pointless nudity, etc.).  It's fortunate that the aforementioned problems are less egregious than those in other episodes I have reviewed, but they also expose the fundamental flaw in HBO's adaptation:  narrative direction and space.  The fact of the matter is that 10 episodes is not enough to meet HBO's tit quota and fully develop all the plotlines they've tried to insert throughout the series.  I understand that the writers are anticipating A Clash of Kings, but that doesn't give them an excuse to wander away from internal consistency in this season.  While the second season was ordered before A Game of Thrones even aired, such things are never sure things.  We have no guarantee that a second season will ever be filmed until the season is over and all the ratings are in.  If A Game of Thrones lost 50% of its viewers after episode five, I doubt HBO would spend millions on producing a second season.

Having said all this, I do want to reiterate that "The Pointy End" is a good episode.  Much of what is great about A Game of Thrones can be found here in good order.  Here the story finally gets back to, well, the story, without spending inordinate amounts of time playing around with other nonsense.  If not for the inability of the series as a whole to deliver the promise it set up in the first half, I think "The Pointy End" would be in my top three episodes for the entire show.

P.S.:  Momoa is bloody awesome...still.  The cast is just so wonderful in this series.

Directing: 3/5
Cast: 4/5
Writing: 4/5
Visuals:  5/5
Adaptation: 3/5
Overall: 3.8/5

Episode Nine -- "Baelor"
Much as "The Pointy End" bears the weight of over-extension, so too does "Baelor," but in remarkably more obvious ways.  While "The Pointy End" is still a good episode, despite its flaws, "Baelor" is an abject failure at fulfilling the promises set up in the last few episodes.  There are two parts of this episode where this failure is made obvious.

The first is in the fall of Khal Drogo.  In "The Pointy End," Drogo is injured in a feud with one of his riders; rather than being injured in a proper battle, as in the book, he injures himself by pushing his chest into the blade of his enemy.  This makes Drogo exceedingly arrogant, but it also makes him remarkably stupid.  If being wounded is so dangerous in this world, then why would he let himself get injured?  I think the writers set this scene up in order to suggest that Daenerys has swayed him away from his more rugged ways, but this is not properly displayed from "The Pointy End" to "Baelor."  Even the betrayal of the maegi, which isn't exposed until the next episode, suffers from this lack of development, leaving the fall of Drogo without the impact it needs.  

The above is a fairly minor critique, though.  By itself, it would not significantly hurt the episode, but the second failure of "Baelor" makes these minor errors more apparent.  The last two episodes of GoT have been promising war.  But "Baelor" does not deliver.  Rather, the two pivotal battles in the series are completely removed from the episode, likely for budgetary reasons.  The first is at least cleverly worked around:  Tyrion is knocked out in the pre-battle furor; when we see him wake up again, it's at the end of the battle, where we are to assume he was knocked out again.  I can accept this, since that particular battle is not as important as the second.
But the writers used no such clever work-arounds for the second battle, which results in the capture of Jaime Lannister and the defeat of the armies plaguing Riverrun.  Rather, all we see are Robb and his men flying out of the trees as if they've been in battle all this time.  The problem is that as much as GoT is a show about characters, it is also a show which promises blood as much as it promises character drama.  There has been very little blood throughout the series (individual instances, sure, but not war-level blood), which makes these battles crucial to offering proper release from all the tension set up by Littlefinger's betrayal.  To me, the write-off of both battles is a mistake.  If the budget is an issue, then it makes much more sense to me to spend less time and money on some of the pointless garbage they've shoved into the series.  Even if you can't film both battles, the piss poor excuse for writing off the second battle is hard to swallow.  
This issue is what kills "Baelor" for me.  The rest of the episode is so damned good.  Daenerys' desperate attempts to save Drogo with blood magic is well played, as are the final moments of Eddard Stark (with Arya in tow) and even the short scenes with Jon Snow (where he discovers who Maester Aemon really is) and the Freys (where we get to see what disgusting old perverts look like in this world).  If you pretended that the battles weren't supposed to happen at all, you could see in "Baelor" one of the strongest episodes of the series.  But when you take into account how they wrote off the second of the battles, it leaves a sour taste in the mouth.  I love GoT something fierce, but every time the writers screw up on this series, they do so royally.

If I'm being honest, however, I think the fact that the rest of the series is so well-written explains why I notice the failures.  If you put a old apple next to a fresh red one, you'll notice the difference quite easily, even if the old apple isn't rotten.  But I suppose a lot of my problems stem from having started the series having not read the book, and finished the series having finished reading the book.  I expected more.  Much more.  I expected battles.  I expected logical progressions of narrative.  But what I'm getting in these last episodes are rushed plotlines, sad excuses for removing important elements, and so on.  The kind of story they've set up can't be shown in 10 episodes.  It's just not possible.

The good news is that there aren't any annoying pointless scenes in "Baelor."  It's just rushed and absent of action.  That sucks on its own, but it's not nearly as bad as some of the crap we've had to deal with earlier in the season.

Directing: 2/5
Cast: 4/5
Writing: 2/5
Visuals:  4/5
Adaptation: 3/5
Overall: 3/5

Episode Ten -- "Fire and Blood"
Now we come to the finale.  I can't complain about this episode without being a nitpicker.  Finally, the writers get the pacing right and the episode doesn't feel rushed by an attempt to close out the series in time.  This feels like an episode that should be as it is, and it packs one hell of an ending.

Daenerys' last moments are astonishingly good; she is a character I expect to fall more and more in love with in the second season.  Her transition from a timid "prize" at the beginning of the series to a strong-willed woman of power is one of the best things about GoT.  She is the one character who develops the most in the series, and it's a thrill to see her character's final transition in the last minutes of the finale.  I do think the writers could have spent a few moments relaying the importance of the "Bloody of My Blood" lines spoken when her transition is completed, but this is a fairly small criticism.  The explanation is implied, which may be enough for some; for me, however, I think there needed to be more conflict before she walked into the fire to relay just how daunting and terrifying it is for the people around her to discover that she has not only survived the flames, but has come out unscathed and with dragons in her arms.
The rest of episode is equally well-acted, well-written, and well-directed.  The scenes with Sansa made me hate Joffrey more than I ever did, while the added bits with Catelyn and Robb were brilliant.  The book leaves some of the emotion felt by Robb out of the picture.  Catelyn is well represented, but what the series does that the book could not is give Robb his moment to display the emotions he's been forced to contain while on the war campaign.  The resulting scene is beautiful and an example of a good addition to an adaptation.
Overall, this is by far one of the best episodes of the season.  Despite the flaws in "The Pointy End" and "Baelor," what proceeds in "Fire and Blood" is precisely what makes this series so amazing when it does well:  beautiful directing and acting and damned fine writing (solid plotting and a well-paced narrative).  I also think "Fire and Blood" is a cleverly-written transition episode, though perhaps an insecure one in part because second seasons are not promises.  Many of the developments here are setting up what will occur in the next season (taken from the book, of course).  This is intelligent writing on the one hand, but also a terrible risk on the other.  After all, if there is no second season, the lack of a conclusive ending to the series means lots of unanswered questions for viewers.  We're lucky to have a second season on its way, but I would hate to see GoT become one of those series that ended too soon without giving us all the answers.
The only minor complaint I have about "Fire and Blood" is the fact that Arya has no scabbard for Needle.  This doesn't make much sense to me.  Needle is sharp enough to kill someone.  Why wouldn't she have grabbed the scabbard along with the sword?  Why would the writers leave that detail out, considering that the sword should have been in the scabbard when she plucked it from its box two episodes before?  I've been rolling this around in my head for a while now and can't find an answer.  It's a minor detail, but I suppose all we have to complain about in the finale are minor details.  After all, Daenerys' clothes burn off, but not here hair.  WTF?

P.S.:  The sound of the dragons screaming gave me chills.  I'm not kidding.  The last 30 seconds of the series are chilling.

Directing: 5/5
Cast: 5/5
Writing: 4/5
Visuals:  5/5
Adaptation: 4/5
Overall: 4.6/5


Series Rating (Overall)
Directing: 3.55/5
Cast: 4.2/5
Writing: 3.025/5
Visuals: 3.95/5
Adaptation: 3.3/5
Overall: 3.58/5

(More reviews:  Episode One; Episode TwoEpisode ThreeEpisode FourEpisode FiveEpisode Six; and Episode Seven.)

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  1. I've almost completely reconciled myself with the fact that they skipped both the battles in Baelor. Budgetary and time constraints, ah well, what did I expect. Sure, I would've liked them to film it, but I also never gave them a million dollars. Many of my friends are downloading/streaming the series illegally, and I don't even discourage them. I only wish I were rich enough to give a million dollars to the cause.

    In the meantime, it wasn't like there was pointless fluff in Baelor that took the place of the battle scenes.

    But if they start cutting out battles in the second season ... well ... then I'll have a very good excuse to pursue a career in film so I can produce Game of Thrones: The Remake.

  2. darkul6:39 PM

    Hm, Daenys hair not burned away?
    Think about it again, it is even more logic in the adaption than in the books. If Daeny is a "dragon" everything she is, skin, organs, hair and so on, should not be burned.

    Arya and a scabbard, hm ... also weight she does not need, wealth she cannot display. Needle alone looks not very expensive, but with that noble scabbard it is well worth to attract unwelcome attention.

    The missing battle sequences, hm ... if you see how well the sets were done, and how well many of the shoots and scenes you could have anticipated for a first season that at least on battle will not be seen onscreen. I was also a bit disappointed but in the aftermath it was no problem at all even though the series lacks fighting and would deserve them, even needs them.
    You are right when you say, there were many unnecessary scenes, containing sexposition which almost embarasses the viewers. Sure, instead of them they could have done battle scenes, but ... the costs would be immense for a first season. The second season will not have that problem, if one could believe the rumors or interviews of the producers. Although, yes, we missed those two huge battle sequences which would add to the epic at least 20%.

    But in general I cannot agree with you on the issues with weak directing (my average would be above 4) or weak scenes at all except the one sexposition scene with Littlefinger. For me as a reader it was almost all there ... except the battles and some prehistory. And what a luck ... not too much nerving Bran or Rickon. They've got good scenes too.

  3. Carr: I know there wasn't pointless fluff, but there's little excuse for cutting the battles when they had the space to do it and certainly had the budget (considering all the crap they spent money on which served no real purpose in the overarching narrative). They definitely can't sustain the cutting of battles, though.

    darkul: No, that doesn't make sense, darkul. She's the blood of the dragon, not a dragon. Her hair, therefore, is dead skin cells. It's protein. The dragons that spawn from the eggs have no hair; they are scaled. Dany's skin can withstand the heat, but her hair should not.

    As for the scabbard: so your logic for not having a scabbard is because it would add weight? So do soldiers leave the scabbard behind when they march across the land? That makes no sense. It's a scabbard. And the sword is shop. If she fell on it, which is very likely, she would cut herself. There is nothing logical about any of this. And the scabbard being noble also doesn't fly since people are already taking note that a) she has a sword, which most people don't have, and b) the sword is castle-forged steel, which is doubly not something she should have (hence why the boys think she stole it).

    It's also not logical to say "well, the sets were nice, so we shouldn't have expected a battle." That's not what the narrative set up. The narrative told us there would be a war. We didn't get one. We got talk of war and symptoms, but not the war itself.

    And saying it would cost too much is also a piss poor reason. If you don't have the funds to do the story justice, then you don't do the story. This is like arguing that we don't have the budget to do all the magic in Harry Potter, so we won't do it. Yet it's Harry Potter. The magic is crucial to the story. The same is true of those battles.

  4. Re: Hair. I just think it's amusing. Dany's fireproofness extends to her wigs. Sure, we could scientifically interpret the hair as dead protein, but it's a fantasy story. I don't really care. There are, however, some hair changes that happen to certain characters in later seasons that are verrrry important to me, and I'll be much less nonchalant if they fail to make those changes (and I have a bad feeling they won't dare to do it, if keeping Dany's hair is representative of the types of decisions they make).

    Again, although I was irritated that they didn't do the battle, I guess it didn't irritate me as much as it irritates you. I wouldn't go as far as to say, "if you don't film the battles, then don't film at all," because then we would never get such a wonderful adaptation in the first place. I'd much rather have GOT sans battle than life sans GOT. So it's nothing like Harry Potter. I just think it's very unrealistic to expect huge budgets for a first season small screen production. I don't want this series to cost too much and go the way of Rome.

    Also, where are you getting your numbers for the budget? I haven't looked much into what they spent where, but I'm curious as to where you found data.

  5. Carr: Oh, sure, but I said that was nitpicking. I didn't dock the finale for that, because I didn't see it as overly detrimental to the story.

    I would argue that no adaptation which ignores the flow of narrative arc isn't worth making. If you can't do it, you shouldn't do it, or you rewrite it so certain things are no longer necessary.

    I really doubt they couldn't have done at least the one battle in the forest, where Jaime is captured. I could handle writing off some of the battles for budgetary reasons, as I said in my review. The first battle wasn't as crucial, but they did a piss poor job working around the other one.

    I don't have data, I just know they have wasted an inordinate amount of screen time on garbage they didn't need, which costs money.

  6. darkul5:40 AM

    you really sound too harsh here. Doesn't look to me as you accept different oppinions or explanations than your own ones. I'm different here.

    Would you rather see no GoT on TV unless they don't shoot some decent battle scenes, until every detail of the books is planted in?
    To be honest, I also doubt that those battles were not possible to do, somehow they are an essential part of the books, even more to show how dangerous this world is and that war is coming very fast, consequences dealt out. I also agree that some other minor things could have been left out. We agree on that completely.

    But again you insist on your oppinion extremely. First of all, it is fantasy, true, a fantasy story that feels real and has a low amount of fantasy elements. At least up until the first book.

    Daenys hair may be protein and dead cells, but it grew out of her and is STILL bound with her skin. (Now don't start telling me that if a tick bites her and sucks blood, this tick doesn't burn away also with my argumentation). I didn't mean that she is a dragon therefore I put the quotes around the word. She is a Targaryen believing that they are "dragons", again quotes, as you see. And if I can pick out your description here. There is nowhere in the books any evidence that Daeny has dragon's blood in her veins. It may be just a saying, the possible extension of their family motto. This is the same argumentation as me saying she is a "dragon".

    Second, again, the scabbard. Sure, you're right, a scabbard is also there for not harming oneself or showing, that one is aggressive, eventually the sword is sheathed. But you really pick every word I wrote as reason to argue against it.
    The scabbard we all saw (was it the second or third episode?) is really a very very ornated one, one for a lord. Arry is looking like a beggar in the end of the season. Sure she has a little sword hanging at her hips, but again I doubt that not almost everyone has a weapon, be it a dagger or something longer, be it hidden or exposed.
    It really would be obvious that it would be not Arry's sword/scabbard combo if she would use that scabbard. Everyone would be suspicious with that scabbard and that poor looking girl. With only the little sword it is a bit less a problem.
    My "weight" argument was also not weak. Think about Syrio's lessons again.

    I vote for a DVD release with battle scenes added and sexposition reduced ;)

  7. I have no problem with other opinions, but I am not required to agree with you :P And so I won't.

    Yes, I would rather not see GoT on TV if they can't do it right. You get one shot at this show, if you're lucky. You screw it up, and that's it.

    And stop focusing on the hair. That was a minor complaint. If you read my review, you'd know that it wasn't something that ruined the series for me. It's just an inconsistency.

    Your argument about the scabbard doesn't make sense either, by the way. Her sword is CASTLE-FORGED STEEL. Not cheap-shit-iron-found-in-a-dumpster. This is acknowledged in the books AND the show. That's why there is the conflict over the sword. She's not supposed to have one in the first place, because even a cheapass sword wouldn't be something she could afford as a beggar to begin with. They are ALREADY suspicious of that logic doesn't hold.

    The weight argument still holds. Even if you add in Syrio: he would not tell her to be a moron and put her body in danger of stabbing.

  8. darkul1:57 PM

    Ok, accepted, even though I see those things a bit different.

    I think the problem with the show was the sexposition as you often mentioned, which seemed to exist only to gain a higher audience rating or to compete with other series, such as Spartacus B&S, Rome, Tudors or even Boardwalk Empire which also uses to much skin and this in a genre where it wouldn't be necessary. Sex sells. To me it was a bit offending. But also Martin's descriptions were not very well written in the books. Those scenes are not his strength.

    The other problem were the missing battles and some weak duelling scenes, but that all did not ruin the show for me. It was a very good season one IMHO. I haven't expected more. I was surprised how good they did it and I was in Westeros, not in a studio. Really, I was not expecting battle scenes at all although they play a major role in the book. That said, I was pleased with what HBO gave me.
    But ok, if they continue to do workarounds in season 2 that could cause real problems. If there will be a season 3 those problems will even multiply. And then, at the latest, they will lose viewers.

  9. I agree. They can't sustain a show which tells us there is war without providing actual battles to watch.


    Maisie Williams answers a question about why she wasn't carrying a scabbard with Needle. Basically, the killing scene was at the end of a long day, and she kept forgetting to take the scabbard with her, so they told her to forget about it.

  11. So the director is incompetent. Got it. That's nice to know...