Thursday, May 24, 2012

Ben & Jordan Watch Game of Thrones: The Prince of Winterfell

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!

Ben: After two solid outings that reeled me back into what I felt was becoming a subpar season, this episode torpedoed my enthusiasm right back down. It just didn’t work for me. It wasn’t atrocious, and there were a lot of good scenes and bits—which we will of course cover along with the bad—but my biggest issue is that they didn’t spend enough time anywhere for me to get invested.

Jordan: I could not have had a more different reaction! For the first time all season, there wasn't a scene, performance or creative choice made that I could easily point to and say, "The episode was good...but THIS part sucked." You are correct that they didn't spend too long in any one spot, but I felt like they spend juuuuuust long enough for me to get invested before switching gears. The hallmark of a good show is to hook you, then leave you wanting more. They teach you that on the FIRST DAY in (insert film school I didn't go to here).

Ben: That would be fine if they were hooking me, but the only thing they’re leaving me wanting more of at the moment is for the episodes to end so Veep will come on. Have I mentioned I love getting final edit of this after you’re already done?

Jordan: Since we outnumber you 2-1, the overwhelming consensus is that the episode was good. By "we", I of course mean me and Joe Rogan's twitter account.

Ben: I was very impressed with how they balanced an impressively sizable cast last season, so I didn’t pay heed to any concerns about even more new characters bogging things down, but now I’m starting to think those are pretty valid. I don’t have any trouble remembering who’s who or anything like that, but the stop-start momentum of the storytelling is really hurting things, in my opinion. Here’s where I’m starting to see the issues in book-to-television translation without even having read the source material. With the book, as you’ve explained to me, you get lengthy chapters rotated between characters, so nobody is really getting shortchanged; here, you get five minutes of Dany’s story a week so it all feels so stagnant because we’re getting at least what feels like the equivalent of two pages of action doled out at a time. Everything seems to move at a snail’s pace and we’ve got no option to adjust that; were I reading the book, I could gorge myself as I choose and decide when I’ve had enough of the plots advanced, but here I just have to content myself with a month of watching Arya have her 18th tense table clearing/bonding session with Charles Dance.

Jordan: and Joe Rogan see your point. I will point out that the books at times had trouble in the opposite extreme, namely being stuck in a 25 page Bran or Sansa chapter while quietly praying Tyrion or someone else entertaining would be the next chapter. I do have to agree with you that some "snippets within the snippets" I think are getting unintentionally lost. For instance, certain important secondary characters like Rorge and Biter are being shown for 1/10th of a second and probably have already been forgotten by the television audience despite their important roles in the series. Still, I find the vignette feel of the show exhilarating, and it will make for a ton of fun as this extensive cast starts meeting each other in various scenes down the line.

Ben: The fact that this episode crystallized so many of my issues with the larger season as outlined above marks it as not a great one for me, but as I said, it was still a mixed bag, so let’s proceed.

Jordan: Nah, I say we just abandon this thing right now. Want to play football?

Ben: I would love to play either the real deal or some form of Madden on your new Xbox rather than watch this show at the moment, but we’ve made a commitment to our readers!

Our boy Theon’s stuff was part excellent and part awful this week. The excellent part was Yara’s appearance and their chat, as once again interactions with his family bring out the best in this character. It reinforced what I dig about Theon and have been harping on week after week: his deep-seeded need to prove himself worthy in the eyes of really anybody, but especially those who he unintentionally abandoned for most of his life. It’s weird, but I do think there are tinges of guilt in Theon’s motivations in as far as he feels bad that he didn’t really comprehend that he was living the high life while his father and sister hanging around a decrepit castle back home cursing his foster family. When he’s yelling and flambĂ©ing little kids, he becomes far less interesting because he’s just a bad guy; when he’s around his family, he becomes a far more intriguing figure as the little boy who wants his dad to tell him he’s his favorite.

Jordan: Totally agree with you. In regards to Theon trying to prove himself, Yara's stern warning to him that the Greyjoys’ place is the ocean just goes to show the confused situation Theon finds himself in. He is not only trying to prove himself to his father, not only trying to become a hero to his people, not only trying to prove he is more worthy than his sister to be heir to the throne...but is ALSO trying to live how his people live. You see him goaded into chopping people's heads off and making any possession he has legit by making someone "paying the iron price" for it (i.e. killing someone for it), but it all feels completely foreign to him. He tries so hard to do something right, only to accomplish it and get told it's been done the wrong way. Let's recap the sad, sad tale of Theon so far…

Theon yay!: Theon becomes a hero for the Starks in battle against the Lannisters!
Theon booooo!: Theon finds no joy in this because he is fighting for the family holding him hostage (After each of these imagine a sad trumpet going "wah wah wahhhh").

Theon yay!: Theon saves the lives of Bran and Robb!
Theon booooo!: Theon gets reprimanded for not saving them SOONER because Robb deep down doesn't trust him.

Theon yay!: Theon presents a letter from Robb to his dad, proclaiming him a King if he helps the Starks!
Theon booooo!: Theon's dad hits him for this, calling him out as a stooge for the Greyjoy opponents.

Theon yay!: Theon gets baptized as a true Greyjoy by his uncle!
Theon booooo!: Theon's sister still reminds him every two seconds he is not a Greyjoy in his heart.

Theon yay!: Theon takes over Winterfell, the seemingly unconquerable land of the Starks!
Theon booooo!: Theon's sister tells him Greyjoys are meant for the ocean. Winterfell is inland and thus not something they will be able to hold successfully.

Theon yay!: Theon (seemingly) butchers Bran and Rickon, preventing any uprising of Stark loyalists against him within the castle walls!
Theon booooo!: Theon's sister says Greyjoys LOVE, LOVE, LOVE, LOVE killing people....just not valuable hostages and children. THAT is shameful.

I could go on and on. Somewhere Rodney Dangerfield is shaking his head at the lack of respect Theon is getting.

Ben: Gemma Whelan just owned it as Yara this week with her turn-on-a-dime performance. I loved when she was laying into Theon for being an idiot and letting his impatience and anger get the best of him in regard to the Stark boys, really undercutting all his supposed accomplishments. I also loved the flipside when she made the tender appeal to her brother, not her rival, to come home because she really does love him and doesn’t want him dead. They key was how she waited until every other Greyjoy loyalist was out of the room before she showed Theon any affection; it would have rang false otherwise. Telling him he was an awful baby was a nice touch too.

Jordan: I REALLY loved Theon's interaction with his sister in this episode. At her core Yara loves her family and while she finds Theon to be a completely over-matched idiot, he IS trying as hard as possible to do what he thinks is in the best interest of the Greyjoys. The way she looked at him in the scene was perfect too. It's as if in her eyes, she is a master magician while Theon is a little kid that is overcompensating by having his first ever magic trick be sawing himself in half and then lighting himself on fire. She knows he won't be talked out of it, that he is probably going about it all wrong, but in the end she can't do anything but hope and pray it all works out well in the end.

Ben: But then Yara leaves and it’s back to cackling Theon and his band of bullies. I’m so much less interested in him wanting to be a prince or revered/feared by his subjects than the more complex stuff with his family. It also kind of kills the tension when you realize just how little he’s accomplished and how screwed he is: He’s been outwitted by a jungle girl along with two little kids, he’s made awful tactical errors pointed out by Yara (giving up his hostages, land locking himself away from the sea) and despite how he proud he is of taking Winterfell with so few men, well, he has like no men. The moment Robb decides to confront Theon will be an interesting one based on their history, but the moment immediately after will be a foregone conclusion because it’s a horribly one-sided contest.

Jordan: Theon is trying to play the part of Robb, but there is one huge difference: Theon has NO CLUE what the people he is fighting with are like. While Robb is utilizing his life's worth of knowledge as a Stark amongst Northmen, Theon is guessing left and right what these kooky pirate people would want in any given situation. The results thus far have been predictably bad, which is saying something since we are talking about the frickin' NEW LORD OF WINTERFELL over heya!

Ben: Also, that fake out with the neighbor kids that I called last week was so transparent I’m actively annoyed they treated the “reveal” of Bran and Rickon being alive as even a remotely big deal.

Jordan: Yeah, that was pretty obvious. An unfortunate result of these shortened scenes is telegraphing a lot. Hard to hide the big reveal after a 30 second scene that consisted of "Wow, glad we escaped. Hey, look! Neighborhood kids! How will we hide? Hmmmmmm. Hodor, you are dropping nut shells! Hmmmmmm."

Ben: Even Ygritte couldn’t salvage the beyond the Wall segments this week for me, mostly because she had like two lines. It wasn’t even Jon Snow’s fault in this case, as he was serviceable, but this is a prime example of the stop-start stuff I was talking about, as they would never linger more than two minutes on these guys, but still felt the need to sprinkle their story out in tiny portions throughout the episode; the past few weeks with Jon and Ygritte were much more effective as they had less but longer scenes and I got a sense of them and their situation. I wish they’d just skipped the Wall stuff this go around and consolidated it all into a future, lengthier installment, but this show can’t go an hour without Kit Harrington’s confused pout. It was nice to get confirmation that Jon got all his companions killed, though, as his constant failure is a source of amusement.

Jordan: I enjoyed the short beyond the Wall scenes this week. The Dolorous Edd/Sam crew finding the dragonglass was pretty neat to see, and Ygritte saving Jon Snow from the Lord of Bones was our first true reveal that he appears to be more to her than a virgin she wants to mess with (both sarcastically and sexually).

Strange thing to note: Although the book described the area just beyond the wall as cold, I didn't necessarily see it all being a GLACIER IN ANTARCTICA like the show has suddenly presented to us lately. I was imagining trees, frozen rivers...things like that...probably because they were written about constantly. Like, are we to believe once you walked 10 feet past Craster's spot in the woods all of a sudden you were in the Arctic? It's not a huge deal, but I feel like in the producer's haste to shoot somewhere cool like Iceland they made it a little TOO barren. Wow, I'm nitpicking now. Let's move on. Or abandon this and play football.

Ben: Also nice to see Sam and company again, and in that case, those guys are nicely cast in their niches, so a little goes a long way. I was really hoping that thing they found was a manhole cover and we were going to learn Westeros is post-apocalyptic New York City, but maybe next time.

Jordan: My first reaction was that we would see whatever the Westeros version of Ninja Turtles was. Alas, we do not see Krang and the Technodrone until at least book five.

Ben: I’m glad our main caveat from last blog was resolved somewhat if not outright addressed with Arya and Tywin finally splitting up, at least for a little bit. I don’t know how many scenes of them sitting at that table I watched, but it feels like enough to create a spin-off show where the Benny Hill theme is playing on a loop as Arya comes up with dumb additions to her impossibly elaborate fake dead father’s back story while Tywin sneers and then sighs.

Jordan: It DID feel like a spin-off, didn't it? No one was happier they split up than me. It was beginning to feel like a bet in the writer's room for how many episodes they could seamlessly weave dialogue from Growing Pains into the show without anyone noticing. Fortunately, they got called out last week after this exchange:

TYWIN: Carol, how dare you disobey us!
SANDOR "THE MOUNTAIN" CLEGANE: I never thought I would ever say that but Carol Ann Seaver, you're grounded.
ARYA: Wait...
TYWIN: No explanations. You are not getting a nose job.
ARYA: I know I'm not.
ARYA: I'm not getting a nose job.
SANDOR "THE MOUNTAIN" CLEGANE: Don't confuse us by agreeing with us, Carol.

Ben: That would have been amazing. Actually, it just was.

Arya is a character this show needs to badly redeem in terms of awesomeness, as she was a breakout all last season and to kick this one off, but weeks of making the same wide-eyed “am I going to get caught?” face and carrying cups around has been a drag. Her back on the run with Gendry and the husky kid is a good start. And even though telling Jaqen he had to kill himself if he didn’t help them isn’t up there with her better gambits, like saying the dead kid was Gendry, it brought her precocious cleverness back to the fore, and that’s the side of her I want to see; it also gave Jaqen another chance to be bad ass, with the hanging guards bit, so that’s always nice.

Jordan: One of my all-time favorite scenes in the book was Arya telling Jaqen that the third person he has to kill is himself, causing him to go from world's most suave murderer in one moment to "oh please don't make me do this" scared guy the next. This wasn't done as well as it could have been, but it was entertaining nonetheless. One thing I didn't expect is that there is a level of comedy to the Jaqen killings that undercuts the really terrifying nature of Arya's life in Harrenhal. This is one of the three most deadly murderers in the kingdom essentially saving the life of Arya and anyone she cares about because of a debt. If the Growing Pains Tywin scenes didn't take the fear of this place out of you, then most certainly the humor of the Jaqen scenes did.

By the way, there have been a lot of facts from the Game of Thrones world left out of the TV series, but I submit Joren pointing out “Jaqen, Rorge, and Biter are the three most deadly murderers in the kingdom” as the biggest one left out. Totally killed the stakes in regards to those characters, and they now just seem like unwashed nobodies.

Ben: I was interested to see Jaime and Brienne paired up, because Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is similar to Peter Dinklage as far as being charismatic and bold enough in his acting that anybody playing off him is either going to rise to their best work to keep up or be left in the dust; sadly, I feel it was the latter scenario here. Jaime’s japes were so seamless and airy while Brienne’s retaliation I felt was supposed to show, hey, she’s clever too, but they just came off clumsy and stilted. I will give this one some more time, but poor start.

Jordan: Believe it or not, Brienne is supposed to be completely clumsy and stilted in every way but fighting, so this was more successful reaction from you than you might think.

Ben: If their goal was the unorthodox one of making me not interested in watching a particular character’s scenes, then yes, mission accomplished.

Jordan: Jaimie and Brienne's interaction boils down to cocky, dangerous jokester and honorable, completely uncomfortable knight. I agree that this could go either way, but if the books are any indication it should bear fruit.

Ben: I thought the Robb and Talisa stuff was good. Her origin story was her acting highlight thus far and really made me care about the character. Their sex scene was hot because they’re among the more attractive people on the show. I do feel like she has been getting progressively softer in her attitude, though, which I suppose is supposed to demonstrate how she’s so head over heels for Robb, but I liked when she debuted that there was an attraction but she also called him out on his shit and made him questions the whys of this war; now it feels more like she’s trying to reassure him that he’s the good guy and is doing the right thing, which is far more bland and predictable as a dynamic.

Jordan: Watching attractive people go at it is always fun. It's seriously the only reason anyone watches True Blood. Oh yeah, High and mighty True Blood Fan, like it's that AMAZING plot and character development that keeps you coming back for more.

Ben: Uh, remember how we bought the entire run of Melrose Place on bootleg VHS during college? And then I bought the entire run again on bootleg DVD a few years back? Maybe we should keep quiet…

Jordan: For some reason, I buy Robb and Talisa channeling their anger and attitudes into lust for one another. They are both strong-willed characters, so being told by everyone that there is one little thing they shouldn't do makes it irresistible. Something I don't buy? The king's men just casually strolling away from the tents the 5,000th time Talisa is in Robb's company and he curtly tells them "Leave us." A little wink from a guard would go a long way, even if it kills all of the tension in the series.

Ben: The Davos/Stannis scene was pure gold, one of the true highlights of the episode; another case where they only got a brief window but these guys were able to make it count. I started to see why you dig Stannis here Stephen Dillane just did a masterful job conveying his motivation and how he’s been getting screwed over despite being the most loyal, hardworking member of his family all his life. I felt for the guy. I also liked how Dillane threw a little bit of a pouting kid into his speech but not the degree it overshadowed the capable and dangerous man delivering it. Davos was the perfect straight man and I also genuinely dug the mutual respect these two battle-tested soldiers showed one another; on a show filled with posturing, arrogance and demands (all of which I am also a fan), stuff like that stands out.

Jordan: This makes me happy to no end. Something quite strange in watching this second season is that since I know already what will happen (more or less. Screw you HBO writers), I take more delight in the reactions of those around me than the show itself. Like, I could give a crap if the scene I saw in my head is executed to perfection onscreen, but am DEEPLY wounded when people come up to me and say, "Why do you dislike Tywin? That guy is such a cuddly teddy bear!" You liking Theon, and now coming around to Stannis, has me grinning from ear to ear.

Up to this point, I was worried they were just transforming Stannis into a cold villain, which made NO sense to me because he is never presented in the book that way. For all of the love for Tyrion, at this point in the book I think many readers are going into the Baratheon-Lannister battle-to-end-all-battles rooting for Stannis to win. This episode's speech, albeit brief, went a long way to showing that while he’s a cold, stern man, he has come a long way and finally deserves to be king. The acting chops of Davos and Stannis really shone in this one too, especially with the cool moment of Stannis telling Davos that he will be the Hand of the King in the new regime.

Still can't get over your reaction to this scene. I may rewatch it. I am giddy right now.

Ben: I like Tyrion, I like Bronn and I like Varys, but their scenes have ceased really telling me anything new about them (Tyrion had a terrible childhood, Bronn knows how to fight better than rich people, Varys likes to keep secrets) and in this episode especially it felt like they were just being tossed on screen because people like them. Normally that’s cool, because again, they’re all entertaining and I like watching them do whatever, but when everybody else is already struggling for screen time and plot advancement, I really don’t need yet another grudging mutual admiration exchange between Tyrion and Varys. The best King’s Landing scene was the Tyrion-Cersei stuff with Dinklage’s card shark shell game and Lena Headey’s overblown smug satisfaction—I think she’s growing by leaps and bounds recently—but even that felt like it was a rehash of crap I’ve already seen.

Jordan: I loved all of the Tyrion, Bronn, Varys AND Cersei stuff this episode. The scene with Bronn revealing he killed all of the thieves in the kingdom shows that in a weird way Tyrion's appointees are actually making the kingdom a safer place. He has a bizarre, rag-tag group of distrustful misfits around him that STILL are better than what was there previously. I also laughed loudly at Bronn cleaning his fingernails and it upsetting Tyrion. Those two could sit and stare at the wall in a scene and I would eat it up.

As for Cersei, despite her ugly looks Lena Headey is showing off some fine acting chops as of late. In the books I actually cared about Shae, so this scene was a lot tenser until Tyrion realizes that Cersei stupidly found the wrong woman. The Shae in this series is gross looking and a bad actress, so I was not expecting to like this scene. It was Lena Headey's smug, misguided jubilation that won me over, and made me happy she is on the series (although I would be happier if she had a bag over her face).

Ben: Lena Headey is a beautiful woman.

That scene of Dany and Mormont added absolutely nothing to the episode aside from getting his requisite eyebrow raise quota in for the week. It felt like it was put in just so they could cut from Varys telling Tyrion that Dany was a live to a shot of her (and to be fair, it was a cool shot).

Jordan: I didn't mind Jorah Mormont that much in this episode, most likely because the show's producers finally found a good length of time to have him onscreen to conceal how bad of an actor he is (plus or minus 15 seconds). I'm not the world's biggest Dany fan, so less of her is better for me on this show. That's all I have to say about thaaaat (said in a Forrest Gump voice).

Ben: All that said, I’m excited for next week and the war finally getting underway as I figure stuff’s gotta progress given the build to this and the herd is probably going to be thinned as well, which is necessary at this point.

Jordan: I am PUMPED for the battle, which has been called by tons and tons of crew members "un-filmable." Look, Jack, with enough money you can film anything...and Game of Thrones has enough money right now to afford to make this epic battle AND afford a full facial reconstruction for Lena Headey next season.....please?

Ben: Lena Headey is a beautiful woman.