This year, I’ve been watching Outlander alongside Game of Thrones. The STARZ show is based on Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, which is 90% historical fiction and 10% fantasy. It’s a tightly-focused character drama centering on Claire Randall, who is transported back in time to the Jacobite uprising centered around Bonnie Prince Charlie.
The advantage to Outlander is how focused it is. There are two main characters, Jamie and Claire. And that’s it. Oh sure, sometimes the show does scenes from other POVs, but it’s still just one story, as opposed to the six or seven in Game of Thrones. So for all you people hungering for in-depth politicking, drawn-out tension, and breathing room in general, go watch Outlander. The latest episode, “Prestonpans,” is a great example of the kind of battle episode that really works on TV.
Anyway, let’s talk about Game of Thrones.
Look, I’ll be honest with you – I loved this episode. Way more than episode 7. It was fun and watchable for about 85% of the scenes (and I’ll talk about the ones that I thought fell flat).
I was glad that Arya’s survival wasn’t due to some magic mumbo-jumbo or weird Fight Club identity-switching voodoo. In the end, this isn’t a story that relies on magic as a storytelling tool. Arya isn’t a superhero, she’s a human – a well-trained, smart human, but a vulnerable human nonetheless. I can’t think of anything more against the ethos of ASOIAF to have Arya get out of this pickle scot-free by using magic. And honestly, it was just good to see Maisie Williams do some serious acting in a well-lit place. The chase scene was a joy to watch, although the jumps from high places probably should’ve shattered some of her legs. Right? And she rolled down those stairs for a while. It felt a little like Sweet Bro and Hella Jeff.
Oh well. The culmination – Arya chopping the candle – was, in my opinion, a great payoff to her story this season. People have complained that we didn’t see the fight. That was the point. Arya’s faith in her blind-fighting is tied to the audience’s faith in Arya. And the final scene with Jaqen? Well, first off, I didn’t really recognize Faye Marsay’s face. I honestly thought it was Arya’s face for a half-second before I realized “no, that’s dumb, obviously she survived.” Jaqen also lets her walk out. And on one hand, that doesn’t really jive with the book Faceless Men. But you know what? That’s okay. The show has this trend of making superhuman characters – the Unsullied, the Faceless Men, Stannis, etc – less superpowered. The Unsullied aren’t invincible ubersoldiers. The Faceless Men struggle with their emotions. Stannis…uh…burns children. And that’s a change that I think works.
Let’s talk King’s Landing for a hot sec. Lena Headey is just a menacing as ever, and we finally see The Mountain that Dies do some head-smashing. And boy oh boy was it pretty wacko. I thought the declaration that Trial by Combat is illegal was a great plot twist – it makes sense on just about every level, character, plot, and theme. Because it’s true – trial by combat is a tool for the highborn to put themselves above the law, in this kill-or-be-killed world where access to knowledge about war and combat is one of the perks of being highborn. This was the first time that it really felt like the High Sparrow was actually toppling the power structure in Westeros, and not just harassing promiscuous nobles. I also loved the juxtaposition of Cersei entering the throne room with her Kingsguard monster, and Tommen leaving with his four holy knights. The end of the scene was ambiguous – Qyburn tells Cersei that “rumor” she heard was “more” than they expected. It’s wildfire! It’s the wildfire that King Aerys II “The Mad” Targaryen hid all around the city to blow it up; the wildfire that Jaime tells Brienne about back in the baths at Harrenhal.
Ooh, that was a good segue. Let’s do it – let’s talk about Brienne and Jaime.
I enjoyed almost everything at Riverrun this episode. Now, I’ve read some great stuff by turtle-paced over on tumblr about how book-Brienne and show-Brienne are VERY different characters, and I have to agree. Book-Brienne is an apprehensive, sensitive 20ish young woman who happens to be good at killing. Show-Brienne is a tough, take-no-prisoners, bullish woman in her 30s. But I think this episode really sold us the fear and apprehension that underlies everything Brienne does. Her scene with Jaime was a nice bit of characterization for both of them, I think. And I appreciated that Jaime was wearing what Tywin wore back in Season 1.
But let’s talk about Jaime. I talked about him a little last week too, and how I think he gets shat on by book-fans for being the complete opposite of his book-character. But you know what? He’s not that far off. The only difference is that – in the show – he has no reason to grow distant from Cersei. This is an alternate timeline in which Jaime and Cersei do not have a falling-out after Tywin dies, and in which Jaime still wants to protect and love his sister. Earlier I talked about making the superhuman characters more human. It applies here too. Jaime is far more flawed in the show. But he’s still a strong, complex character. His scene with Edmure should make that clear (also, let’s just bask for a second. That scene was SO GOOD. I could watch NCW and Tobias Menzies yell at each other for the rest of my life. And it was a great idea to give Edmure more face-time with the surrender of Riverrun. Tobias Menzies [who also plays Black Jack Randall on Outlander!] is a phenomenal actor with a phenomenal face).
Back to Jaime. I’ve seen one or two or a million snide comments about how his line “the things we do for love” signals that he’s had 0 character development since season 1, episode 1. That’s not how this works, though. In fact, I’d argue that they gave Jaime a version of the Jon and Dany arcs from A Dance with Dragons. How so? WELL – in those stories, Jon and Dany make a choice to turn away from their identity (the bastard of Winterfell and the Last Targaryen). ADWD is the story of them struggling to wear these new identities – the Lord Commander and the Queen of Slavers’ Bay. At the end of the book, both Jon and Dany turn 180 degree back around and decide, “no, I’m going to be what I wanted to be all along after all.” Jon decides to march on Winterfell (and dies). Dany decides to go full Fire and Blood.
So when they have Jaime say “the things we do for love” in season 6 episode 8, five years after he first says it, they’re obviously aware of this circle they’ve created. Because that’s what GRRM did with Jon and Dany. It’s a character taking a detour and then returning to their true self, informed by new experiences and new convictions. And yeah, I’ve seen plenty of people say that was lazy on GRRM’s part too. But most of the fandom (the book-reading fandom, anyway) is willing to bend over backwards to convince themselves that GRRM Did Nothing Wrong. And I mostly agree with that! But these same people are the ones who will laugh off Jaime’s arc as being dumb in the show. I gotta disagree there. (Oh, and it’s the same thing that happens to Arya in this episode. She goes through her plot detour and then returns to her true self).
Okay, I’ll get off my really high horse about Jaime. Let’s talk about something more cheery. Like Colonel Sandor’s Death Quest.
So it turns out that Lem Lemoncloak and his Brotherhood cronies were just rogue agents! They didn’t represent the Brotherhood. On one hand – yaaaay. On the other hand – really? We fridged Ian McShane and forty innocent villagers just for this? Come on. Also, the Lady Stoneheart train is officially off the tracks. As in it isn’t running anymore. Now that Beric is back, I’m 100% confident that Catelyn won’t be back. Anyway, why couldn’t Sandor or Ray have said to Lem Lemoncloak last episode “hey, does Beric know you’re doing this?” Or maybe one of Lem’s compadres could’ve said that – “Lem, it’s not worth it, Beric won’t like this.” Because this felt out-of-nowhere, and not necessarily in a wow what a great surprise! way. I am excited, though, to have the Brotherhood back. There’s a lot of potential here – will they join up with Brienne? Will they attack the Twins? Beric made it sound like they’re going North to fight the true war (which makes you wonder why they’re bothering to support the Blackfish’s insurrection, which is just a waste of human lives).
Oh, speaking of the Blackfish and wastes – man, we don’t get a Clive Russell death scene? Whatever. Edmure’s total devotion to capturing the Blackfish was odd, too; in the books, he lets the Blackfish escape Riverrun. BUT I can understand why they’d kill him off in general – the death of the Tully Restoration embodied. And I really appreciated how conflicted the conclusion to the siege made us feel. On one hand – yay, no casualties! On the other hand – boooo, the bad guys win. I think they really did a bang-up job with Jaime’s Riverlands material here, capturing the complexities as best they could in what amounts to about 30 minutes of screen-time total. (That’s why I brought up Outlander earlier. Outlander can devote 60 minutes to a single battle without bumping other plots out of the way. Game of Thrones doesn’t have the breathing room for that. There’s nothing they can really do about that, though; that’s the problem with adapting a massive, sprawling book series with multiple POVs).
Okay, let’s talk about Meereen, and the garbage fire that is Tyrion Lannister.
Varys sets off on a “mission.” What mission? To assassinate Kevan and Pycelle? Seems like Cersei’s already on that road, to be honest. Tyrion continues to be annoying on all levels. He’s an annoying friend – he’s totally that guy who makes people drink even when they say “no thanks, I’m good.” And I don’t understand why the show is playing that up for laughs! In the books (and, you know, real life), drinking a lot is a problem. It’s a sad escape for Tyrion, the only refuge he has left. It’s not party time social lubricant, it’s how Tyrion tries to escape the world. And what is this bullshit about him opening a vineyard? Of all the things you could’ve chosen to have motivate Tyrion this season, you decided that he wants to settle down and be at peace? WHY.
I really don’t get Tyrion’s story this season. I just don’t. Give him something to do! Make him dragon-obsessed; maybe he spends all season making saddles instead of leading the city, and as a result everything goes to hell and Varys leaves in a huff. Or maybe Tyrion tries to assassinate the Masters, and that goes to hell and starts a war. SOMETHING, ANYTHING. There wasn’t much tension to his 7-year-plan for the Masters, because nobody was really invested in it working. Not even Tyrion. Earlier, I was saying that GRRM gets away with stuff that the show does not. And it’d be easy to say that here the show is doing Tyrion’s ADWD arc, which is supposed to be off-putting and frustrating to read. But there’s a key difference. That being – in ADWD, Tyrion is a character. In GOT, Tyrion is a drunken witticism machine. He needs someone to play off of! Alienating your characters is all well and good, but you have to still do something with them. Again, look at Jaime – he reflects off Cersei, Bronn, Brienne, Edmure, the Blackfish, this wide cast of characters that lets us understand where he is and where he’s going. But Tyrion? He has no Penny, no character to bounce off of. Not even Varys – sure, Varys was in the same location as Tyrion, but they didn’t develop each other at all. Tyrion just made eunuch jokes (literally in every scene that Varys appears. What and why).
Oh, well. At least the Masters did something interesting. They attacked Meereen! Woohoo! I was so happy to see their warships because finally something was happening in Meereen. And the council scene where Tyrion, Grey Worm, and Missandei are under siege? That might be their best scene together this season. Dany’s return was an exciting cliffhanger; hopefully now Tyrion will remember that the two dragons exist and are free. Tyrion’s one interesting character moment this season (freeing the dragons) hasn’t affected the plot at all yet. It might as well have happened in a vacuum chamber or been a dream sequence.
But like I said, I enjoyed about 85% of this episode. The endgame is fully set up now, I think. Next week will be the big battle episode, featuring – according to the producers “tactics.” What are tactics? Who knows. I’ll be rewatching “Prestonpans.”