Thursday, May 3, 2012

Ben & Jordan Watch Game of Thrones: The Ghosts of Harrenhal

The bonds of brotherhood between Ben Morse and Jordan Geary were forged during their time as students at Connecticut College, where they spent four years losing at intramural sports (except softball in 2004!), forming their own fraternity because the school wouldn’t let them, making student films one professor called “unfortunate” and regularly beating their friend Dan Hartnett in Goldeneye.

Today, they live 20 minutes apart in New Jersey with their respective lovely wives, sharing passions for miniature golf, diner cuisine and the music of Motley Crue. They also both watch HBO’s Game of Thrones and have decided to write a column about it. While Jordan ran out and read all the books on which the show is based after season one, Ben prefers books with pictures and floppy covers.

Bear witness to their wit, wisdom and frequent allusions to Melrose Place as they try to do the tradition of Sean T. Collins and Megan Morse proud!

Jordan: My wife and I ate Chinese takeout before we watched this episode and this scene played out:

Me: I have a weird fortune in my fortune cookie.

Chloe: What's it say?

Me: "If I bring forth what is inside me, what I bring forth will save me."

Chloe: This means you are going to give birth to a shadow demon.

Ben: Mine said “This episode is going to be quite slow and boring but you still need to watch it before Mad Men because you committed to doing a blog. Sucker.”

Those guys writing the fortunes know their stuff, man.

Jordan: And thus we jump right into this episode! In true Game of Thrones style, the action starts right from the get-go with Renly being cut down by the shadow demon that was birthed from Melisandre's loins. With this being such a strong scene in the book, I was filled with anticipation in seeing how this would play out onscreen. While in my mind's eye, I saw the shadow demon as more of a quick-moving shadow-on-a-wall type illusion, I understand how this smoky monster interpretation was more visually striking. I also have to admit that it was quite humorous for me to hear you, my coworker, and several other fans point out to me how much they liked Renly in the previous episode, knowing we were all mere moments from watching him getting "shadow demon'd" right in the belly! Despite what police reports say, I am convinced this is how John Lennon was killed.

Ben: As detailed in our previous installments, I was definitely getting to like Renly and was very interested in him as a different sort of would-be king waging a different sort of war, focusing on his strengths as a leader of men and relying on numbers rather than expertise in warfare. That said, though I didn’t say it last week, I did while watching tell my wife, Megan (who will probably not vouch for me), that I had a feeling he wasn’t long for this world. Obviously any character can go at any time on this show, but Renly and Shae were the two I had marked for death in the early going. I would have been interested to see where his campaign went, but I deliberately didn’t get too attached. This also opens up interesting possibilities as they kept harping on the sheer size of Renly’s army and they could obviously be a game changer. Will they stick with Stannis? They jumped ship to him pretty abruptly, so these don’t quite seem like trustworthy sorts. Robb in some ways seems like Renly’s closest comparison in terms of values and he’s a charismatic leader as well, but obviously of a different fashion. I’d actually be quite interested to have a character brought in who’s a Renly-turned-Stannis banner man to get their perspective on who holds their loyalty and why. Yours for season three, George R.R. Martin, just give me a special thanks in the credits.

I was a little more at ease with the shadow demon’s one scene this week than last week. I do like that it resembles Stannis (or at least Brienne says it does). Megan is convinced this will all tie back to Lost at some point.

Jordan: The relationship with Catelyn and Brienne got highlighted a lot in this episode, which I was happy to see. While Catelyn's character and actress are bland as hell, I find the action super-heroine Brienne fascinating. It was an awesome 1-2 punch of acting prowess for her to be sobbing and cradling Renly's fallen body in one moment, only to then turn into a badass slaying machine once the King's men come in and wrongfully think her the murderer. I am amped to see more of her character as the show moves along.

Ben: I need to see and learn more about Brienne before I invest in her. The little tidbits dropped have been enticing, but I feel like she’s still too blank a slate and just an interesting visual more than a character at this point. I wonder how much of that is not having the narrative of a book to flesh her out more, as it seems you’re far more taken with her perhaps either by virtue of being further ahead than me or just that she’s more defined in written form. Speaking of which…

Jordan: Scene that wasn't in the book alert! That whole Margery, Loras, Littlefinger scene stunk. Yes, Littlefinger makes everything better, but this scene is a perfect example of why some of these added bits work to the detriment of the series. Way, way too many things that were new and eliminated some of the glorious subtlety George R.R. Martin put in his story: In the books Margery doesn't communicate her intentions at any point (leaving the reader the fun enigma of trying to guess if she is willing participant or innocent bystander in the larger picture), Littlefinger is never at Renly's camp, and Loras never is shown trying to figure out where his allegiances lie post-Renly-death. It was all too much. Chuck in that corny "I don't want to be a queen...I want to be THE queen" line and I once again must give a middle finger to the series writers for taking some of the best nuance in the show and pounding the readers in the face with it. I can envision them pleading with George R.R. Martin in the perfectly scripted Ned Stark death scene, "Can we PLEASE rewrite the dialogue to have Ned Stark yell FREEEEEDOOOOOOOOMMMMMM like at the end of Braveheart?! We want to make it REALLY obvious he is the good guy!"

Ben: And for the first time I’ve got to explicitly call you out for having a bias against scenes that weren’t in the book. As somebody who hasn’t read a page, I enjoyed and really needed this bit of exposition. I don’t disagree that subtlety and mystery are wonderful things, but far easier to pull off in a series of novels where you’ve got the space to set the scene as opposed to a hour-long episodic television show where you’ve got to progress the plot for an audience with a potentially shorter attention span. I’m not saying I want every character’s motivations and intentions spoon fed to me, but I also feel like this show already has enough people fleeing or switching sides “between scenes” and I enjoyed getting to have the Tyrells unpacked a bit here. If their post-Renly actions had been covered solely by Stannis’ throwaway line later, I would have been frustrated and disappointed. Writing is a medium more for the imagination, where you’re encouraged to fill in the blanks for yourself, but television is a more visually visceral form of entertainment, and I think letting the actors play out their emotions at a crucial moment like this was the right choice.

And the “I want to be THE queen” line was probably my favorite of the episode. Booyah!

Jordan: Even more than usual, I think we can all agree Lena Headley (Cersei) looked unfathomably ugly in this episode. Whoever directed this one forgot to throw the mountains and mountains of camera filters on to mask it. My weekly reminder to our readers that Cersei is supposed to be the most beautiful and coveted woman in the kingdom, not a twin of Bronn.

Ben: We cannot all agree, sir! I think Lena Headley is a perfectly attractive woman; she’s not stunning, but do you want a supermodel in this part? I do not. Acting ability aside, it would shatter the illusion of the world they’re creating here. Westeros might not be a real place (unless we skipped a huge section in World History), but clearly it’s meant to evoke medieval Europe, where creature comforts were always at a premium. Hence you’ve got folks like the Starks who at their best look like the heat is always off in their house, the Greyjoys, who use dust bunnies made of soot (soot bunnies?) as stuffed animals, and then the Lannisters, who have as much wealth as anybody, but still live in a kingdom where there’s no such thing as electricity or decent showers. Sure, Cersei is supposed to be attractive, but I don’t think anybody from Westeros is supposed to be THAT attractive, so Lena Headley is doing fine.

(The exceptions that prove the rule of my previous paragraphs are Daenerys, who is very pretty but also made of magic and can have dragon babies, Robb Stark, who is probably in a boy band when he’s not at war, and Jaime, who stole good looks genes from his siblings through genetic osmosis)

Jordan: Speaking of Bronn, as usual I absolutely loved the Tyrion-Bronn scenes in this episode. From Tyrion being humorously informed that the kingdom sees HIM as the problem as opposed to his nitwit sister, to them coming upon the Wildfire alchemist’s laboratory, any moment with them is a moment I sit up on my chair and smile. I would totally watch a spin-off buddy series with these two. Bronn once again got the laugh of the episode line by saying, "My pleasure!" gleefully when awkwardly ordered by Lancel to kill him if he rats out Tyrion.

Ben: Tyrion and Bronn are, of course, always great. I agree that Peter Dinklage’s stunned/mortified reaction to learning that the populace hates him was great, as was pretty much everything Bronn said while they were talking with Captain Wildfire (as I have named him). That was a cool scene, actually, as it really hammered home how unprepared and reliant on their wealth Joffrey and Cersei are. They think if they just hire the right people, they’ll win this war for them, but unfortunately their rolodex is woefully out of date and most people don’t like them. Bronn standing there explaining why these are dumb ideas grounds it all and shows why Tyrion is different from his sister in that he’ll listen to anybody willing to talk to him, not just the guys with the credentials. It’s an interesting class contrast thing, and I’m also just intrigued by the examination of warfare. I’m curious how Tywin would be playing it were he in Kings Landing, given that he clearly enjoys his wealth, but is also more practical, especially in wartime; I gather stuff like this is why he sent Tyrion to begin with.

Jordan: Jon Snow's story is on the verge of getting way better. In this episode, we see the moment where he joins ranger Quorin Halfhand (awesome name) and leaves the larger group to go see what those no-good Wildlings are up to. This important moment can't come any sooner for the actor playing Jon Snow, who was already overshadowed by the amazing talents of the guy playing Samwell Tarly. Why? Yet another scene was COMPLETELY stolen from him by one of the best of the smaller characters in the book: Dolorous Edd. For those of you that haven't been given a proper introduction to Dolorous Edd, he is a member of the Night's Watch that is all black humor and sarcasm. He's sort of like the comedic version of the songwriter Morrissey, constantly cracking jokes about how dead they are all going to be and how stupid they all are for putting themselves in bad situations. I loved his lines in this scene, particularly his jape towards the grinning Sam, "There’s nothing more sickening than a man in love."

Ben: The story may be on the verge of getting better, but Kit Harington’s take on Jon Snow certainly isn’t, for my money. His over-emoting is like nails on a chalkboard to me. I want to pay attention to what’s going on in the scene, but his whining “I really really wanna go” routine makes me cover my ears. I’m waiting for him to break out the glow sticks and write songs about how his girlfriend left him. If they really want to go for another big shocking death ala Ned, MAKE IT JON SNOW. I don’t care if it was in the book or not. Jon Snow and Jorah Mormont get caught in a tent explosion ala the time Kimberly blew up Melrose Place—book it!

Jordan: The Theon Greyjoy scene was, as always, entertaining as hell. In this one we see Theon having trouble even getting the respect of the shipmates on his single boat, only to be guided to an iiiiiiiiinteresting line of thinking by his first mate, Dagmer. I once again have to marvel at how likeable the show is making our boy Theon, who is obviously just trying to do SOMETHING right in his life. The only criticism I loudly voiced while watching is that they are making his sister Yara more of a mean bully in these scenes than a likeable she-warrior. In the books, Yara gives off a nimble, hand axe-throwing, cocksure sex appeal as the sister who smiles and pirouettes through scenes while she does everything right. While the Greyjoys in the books are not in any way fan favorites, Yara would UNANIMOUSLY win a popularity contest of "people's favorite Greyjoy." In the show, however, she is a grim, manly, unlikeable figure who seems like she would smell bad and doesn't serve much of a purpose other than to antagonize Theon. For this reason, I must sadly say that I am predicting the show cuts much, if not all, of Yara's future character arc. This is a huge shame, but I guess there is only so much screen time to parcel out.

Ben: Obviously if you hadn’t told me Yara is different than on the show than in the book, I would have had no idea, and I don’t mind it. Using a female character as the foulmouthed sailor bully is an interesting inversion for me; I dig it.

I’m not sure Theon is necessarily likable. I mean, I like him a lot, but I don’t get the sense he’s trying to do anything right so much as earn some modicum of respect from his father, whether the means by which he achieves it hurts others or not. Since his introduction, he’s been driven by a manic need to be respected, admired and loved, which I think makes for a fantastic character, but I don’t look at him as being particularly redeemable. He wanted to be a Stark, so he went along with that, then when it didn’t impress his dad, he went along with him, and I’m sure if he sees Robb again, he’ll flop back over to his side; not particularly admirable, but loads of fun. I’ll never get tired of his unflappable assurance that everybody is going to get on their knees and bow to his greatness—in this case the crew—being constantly undercut. I can’t wait for him to finally win. Hmm, maybe you’re right, maybe he is likable. He’s like a scruffy Charlie Brown and Yara is Lucy pulling her boob away instead of the football.

Jordan: The Bran scene in this episode was a bit of foreshadowing, and was just as dull onscreen as it was in the books. At this point in the books, the reader is cursing loudly every time they turn the page and a Bran chapter pops up. His story gets better, but not yet. One thing my wife pointed out that was REALLY interesting is that in the books the "waves crashing against the walls" dream is actually had by Bran's good friend Jojen Reed (who is an insanely important character in the books). We readers are eagerly wondering if Bran having the dream on the HBO show means that they are outright cutting Jojen or saving him for a future date. I really hope they keep him as he was one of my favorites. My prediction (and hope) is he just pops up later.

Ben: Yeah, nothing to see from Bran scenes, move along. I do like that you are now speaking for all readers of the book though. Greyjoy-esque, my friend.

Jordan: As in the 2nd book, Arya's story in the show is becoming the most interesting one of the bunch. While things could seemingly not be any worse for her in the death-ridden Harrenhal, her unlikely partnership with mysterious prisoner Jaqen H'ghar throws a wicked twist in the proceedings. I could not have been more pleased with the casting of Jaqen, as the actor playing him has perfectly captured his mysterious and deadly personality. Similarly, the actress playing Arya is knocking it out of the park, displaying a likeability and cunning that are undoubtedly the reason she surely beat out bajillions of little girls for the role. The scene that REALLY did it for me was the moment where Jaqen kills The Tickler, makes eye contact with Arya, and slowly and dramatically puts a finger on his cheek to indicate "1". I got the same excited goose bumps watching that scene as I did reading it.

Ben: My friend and our predecessor Sean T. Collins spoke this week about how much it said about both Maisie Williams (the actress who plays Arya) and the show’s faith in her that they put her in a one-on-one scene with as accomplished an actor as Charles Dance (Tywin) and their faith was totally validated. I loved Arya scenes in season one, and now in season two, they’re getting up there with the Tyrion stuff at times. I love the idea that among this cast of warriors and royalty this little girl who wanted to learn to swordfight could well end up one of the pivotal heroes and I think her journey from sometime comic relief to a very serious role has been great and well-handled. If anybody besides Dinklage gets award talk for this season, I think it should be Maisie Williams.

And yeah, Jaqen is fantastic. A wonderfully restrained sense of menace. I’m looking up the guy who plays him on Wikipedia. He’s German. That’s not interesting at all. I enjoy how he refers to himself in the third person and hope he gets a cousin in season three played by The Rock.

Gendry is friggin’ cut. Dude did not look like that on Skins.

Jordan: Despite the one-note acting of Jorah Mormont (I really must do my impression of him for you. I've perfected it), the scenes in Qarth were very satisfying to me. Yeah, yeah, yeah you have Xaro giving his emotionless proposal to Dany...something I yawned my way through while reading...but more importantly you have the fascinating introduction of Pyat Pree, the warlock from the House of the Undying. I LOVE that they teased this for a future episode, and the blue-lipped warlock is every bit as creepy as I envisioned him. The show is doing a great job of showing that Dany is on the precipice of a very interesting journey, one that the television series appears to really be undertaking better than the books. Speaking of doing a better job than the books, along with the rest of the book-reading community I didn't even REMEMBER that masked lady who speaks with Mormont in this scene. The books did a crummy job of clouding every Dany scene with about 5 million pointless characters, so it is a common complaint that it is hard to remember which are important and which aren't. After I looked online I figured out who she was, but damn did it take long time. My message to the writers on the show: In the Westeros scenes, don't mess with perfection. In the free cities (Dany) scenes, please PLEASE continue to mess with them to take out all of the useless characters, locations, and scenes.

Ben: All I can think of as far as Jorah Mormont goes now is ways to gets him and Jon Snow off my TV screen in one fell swoop. If your impression is that spot-on, maybe I can dress up like a refugee from a Cure concert/Jon Snow, we can film ourselves in a battle to the death, then sneak it to HBO in hopes that they’ll get confused and just play it.

Qarth is interesting enough and I agree they’re building an eclectic little cast there, but the highlight of the Dany stuff for me was her learning about Robert Baratheon being dead, the Lannisters taking over, and all that. Hearing her and even Jorah actually saying the names of the other characters that they’ve never been even close to meeting got me excited, more so than I was expecting. The suspense as far as them finally making it to Westeros at some point and what kind of disruption that will cause has among the best built threads on the show for me. I can’t wait to see Dany interacting with the rest of the cast. It almost makes me annoyed that they’re fleshing out Qarth, because it means delaying that moment, but I’ve got to calm down and enjoy. More Spice Merchant next week!

Jordan: Overall a great, great episode and the series is only going to get better from here.

Ben: I certainly hope so!

Jordan: One thought: There are so many characters and plot lines at this point, I wonder how much these actors and actresses actually get paid. Like, this conversation may actually have happened: "Hey! Welcome back to filming on Game of Thrones season 2! As you are playing the role of Jaimie Lannister, you are one of the most important characters in the entire series! We're going to have you on every magazine cover and media event and fans will be DYING to talk to you. (Pause) By the way, you are in one episode this season. Here's a tiny check for one day's work."

Ben: I’m sure he’s weeping into his royalty checks for all the merchandise his likeness appears on.

See you next week!