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Wednesday, June 01, 2011

A Game of Thrones: Episode Seven ("You Win or You Die")

It's a sad thing that I have to post a review for Episode Seven so late in the week.  More pressing concerns prevented me from getting to it, I'm afraid, such as yesterday's USPS insanity.  I refuse to review anything with anger on the mind, or to do anything remotely productive, such as writing fiction, editing The World in the Satin Bag, or similar things.  When I get upset, I tend to make a lot of mistakes.  Dumb mistakes.  But things have cooled over now and I feel I can review "You Win or You Die" fairly.

The seventh episode in HBO's adaptation of GRRM's A Game of Thrones is yet another episode that suffers from poor writing and excess scenes and nudity, but it is also an episode that partially masks these flaws with some of the best acting all season and a renewed influx of dramatic tension.  The political turmoils that have plagued the characters for so long are finally cracking the pot they've been boiling in.  Eddard Stark has solved the mystery of his son's injury and the former Hand's death and must wrestle with that knowledge and the potential consequences which might arise if it's to be shared.  Daenerys, now free of her brother's fury, must contend with assassins and
Drogo's apprehension to invade Westeros.  And up at the Wall, Jon Snow takes the oath of the Night's Watch, but not in the way he had hoped and with his uncle's disappearance still a weight on his shoulders.  There's much to love about Episode Seven, but there is also much to be concerned about.
Once again, the writers fall prey to the wonders of pointless nudity and sex as a "sexy" metaphor for whatever important thing is going on in the episode.  These scenes have never worked and will continue to drag down the quality of the show if left unchecked.  In "You Win," these errors have a worse effect:  ruining the end of the episode (the important twist) by telling us it's going to happen.  The scene in question involves Littlefinger talking to a pair of whores as they audition for positions in his brothel by pretending to have sex with one another.  Littlefinger directs them and uses their sex as a poorly disguised metaphor for what he plans to do.  And then he says what he plans to do, leaving only the very particulars to the audience's guesswork.  

The scene would be clever if not for that fact that it removes all the power of a twist ending.  How are we supposed to be shocked when he betrays Eddard Stark in the end if we already know he's going to do it?  In the book, this scene comes out of nowhere because so little attention is given directly to Littlefinger (i.e., via his POV).  But the clues are there, as they are up until this point in the series.  We know Littlefinger has it in him to do whatever it takes to get what he wants, but we're also led to believe that he loves Catelyn enough to leave her be in his pursuit of his own personal "glory."  That's where the trick rests:  false security.  Pointless nudity and sex is problematic enough, but telling the viewer what to expect by the end in direct terms is the worst kind of writing, especially when that writing is for a show that places so much emphasis on dramatic tension and suspense.
But I can lay a lot of these concerns to rest by talking about what has to be the greatest medieval pep rally ever put on film.  Towards the end of the episode, Drogo stands up and cries his fury to his men in the Dothraki tongue.  This scene is brilliant for a number of reasons.  First, we finally get to see/hear Dothraki spoken at length by a "native" speaker and with emotion behind the words.  Drogo typically speaks his words deep and without betraying his underlying emotions.  Here, his emotions are red hot.  This leads me to the second reason:  Jason Mamoa.  While Drogo is an important character, his presence on the screen is fairly limited.  Mamoa has only needed to show a sliver of his potential as an actor so far.  Now, Mamoa shows why he is the right actor for Drogo.  When he speaks Dothraki with fury, it's believable.  When he bounds around the room screaming his words, spittle flying from his mouth and his fists clenched, you can almost feel the emotion on the screen.  I found myself clenching my fists too.  I couldn't help it.  The scene is inspiring in a morbid sort of way.

If not for the emotional scene with Drogo, this episode might not have pleased me as much as it did.  There are still serious issues with the writing, but something has to be said for how well the production crew have put together a cohesive world with realistic imaginary languages and cultures.  What I hope for most is that HBO won't continue its trend of giving us a peepshow every episode just to meet a tit quota.  The show is so good that it doesn't need two pairs of exposed breasts and a penis shot to make the story work.  And we certainly don't need characters declaring their plans like some cheap James Bond villain.  Let the surprises happen fluidly, HBO.  Please.
Overall, I think Episode Seven is decent, but it is seriously flawed.  The pacing is solid enough and the introductory scene with Jamie and Tywin Lannister was fascinating (the metaphors are clever).  I find myself enjoying Snow's narrative more and more as the season progresses, too, even though much of what is happening to him has little to do with what is happening elsewhere.  I think one of the things that will be interesting to see is how all of the major character POVs intersect.  So far, Daenerys is the closest to the events in King's Landing, but whether that closeness remains is up to speculation for those that haven't read the book.
In any case, I'm still watching, so that's something.

Directing: 3/5
Cast: 4/5
Writing: 1/5
Visuals:  5/5
Adaptation: 2/5
Overall: 3/5

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  1. I'm watching very carefully to see what score you give for Writing in the next episode ...

    Very ... carefully ...

    To be frank, I've given up on expecting them to not use sexposition. Obviously such demands can only be reserved for other shows, shows with completely different producers. Or maybe we could band together and sign a petition and hide Ulysses references in it, and somehow convince the producers to go in a new direction in the next season.

  2. Well, that's not until Sunday, my dear. My hope is they don't throw in more random sex and boobs just because they've got actors willing to be naked on camera. To be fair, I wasn't bothered all that much by the penis thing this time around, since it made some kind of sense as to why he was naked.

    And while you may have given up, I refuse to ignore the fact that tit-quotas are killing the story.

    I like the Ulysses references thing!

  3. Anonymous10:29 AM

    They're a little heavy on the sex but in general it reinforces the physicality of the setting.

    As for the rest, I think you must be tone-deaf to dialogue because this is excellent stuff, and in general the series is one of the best-written examples of fantasy ever filmed.

    GRRM will never be mistaken for a feminist but within the male-dominated world depicted, women gain considerable agency and complexity as characters.


  4. Jeff: In generally, I completely agree. I've loved most of the series. The dialogue is good, but I find the additional scenes are sometimes too much. It might make more sense if they included the Littlefinger scene w/ the whores AFTER this episode, because his betrayal would be hot on everyone's mind and his motivations wouldn't take away from the surprise.

    But I agree that dialogue is generally very good in this series. I just don't like pointless nudity and misplaced scenes.

    And I agree about the way women gain agency in GRRM's world. The book is amazing, and the show is damned fine programming.