Monday, April 30, 2012

A "Game of Thrones" Update

Caught up on the latest episodes of "Game of Thrones," and since we're now half way through the second season, I thought it was time to take stock of how the show has been doing this year. Mild spoilers ahead.

I have to admit that last night's episode came as something of a relief, since I'd been waiting for the plot to pick up speed since the premiere. The first three episodes felt like extended "table-setting," introducing characters and elements that would become important later on, but the story was only progressing incrementally from week to week. In the second season premiere we met Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) at Dragonstone, along with his major allies Melisandre (Carice von Houten) and Davos (Liam Cunningham). The next week, Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), went home to the Iron Islands and the cold welcome of his father Balon (Patrick Malahide) and sister Yara (Gemma Whelan). In week three we finally caught up on what Renly Baratheon (Gethin Anthony) had been up to, and the new women in his life, Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer) and Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie).

More and more locations kept being added to the map in the opening sequence, and while it was clear that the gears and the cogs of the plot were in motion, by my count we were following about nine different stories taking place at once, and this time it was harder to see how the actions of characters in each group were having any effect on each other. It also felt like some of the storylines were being slowed down in order to let the others catch up. How else to explain why the Night's Watch spent so many episodes cooling their heels with a small time operator like Craster (Robert Pugh), or why Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) and her people were stuck wandering the desert for so long? The naked lady interludes have become so common, "SNL" spoofed them a few weeks ago. It also worried me that some of last season's smartest operators, Cersei (Lena Headey) and Petyr Baelish (Aidan Gillen), were losing hard-won ground so quickly. Cersei went from being the power behind the throne to almost totally undermined by Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) in a couple of weeks.

To the show's credit, all these new additions to the cast have been great, all the characters immediately distinctive and memorable, and often much easier to keep straight than they have been in the past. I especially enjoy Stephen Dillane, Liam Cunningham, Natalie Dormer, and Gwendoline Christie. Also, I understand why all the extended introductions and all the time spent on maneuvering the characters into proper position are necessary. When the pace really ramps up, which I have been assured by those familiar with the books that it will, there won't be the time to remind the audience of vital little details like who the Tyrells are allied with, and what Theon's motivations are. However, it was no small relief to see some of the major characters and stoylines finally start to converge in the fourth and fifth episodes, even if we are still getting a few new characters, like Xaro Xhoan Daxos (Nonso Anozie), every week. And I like the interesting pairings of various characters that have resulted, like Arya (Maisie Williams) and Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance), and Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) and Brienne.

The War of the Five Kings (or is it six?) has been interesting to follow so far, but there hasn't been anything to rival the fireworks of last season. It's time for some of these heavily built-up storylines to start paying off dramatic dividends, and I look forward to that happening. Last night's episode was clearly one of the more plot-driven and expensive ones, designed to give the show a mid-season boost. Every single thread of this massive narrative saw significant advancement, and it felt like some of the characters were finally where they needed to be. Arya and Theon, for instance, now both possess the power and the opportunity to do some serious damage to their enemies, while Stannis Baratheon and Melisandre have made themselves a new foe that they're probably going to regret.

Oh, who am I kidding? Part of the reason that I like "Game of Thrones" so much is because it is unusually complicated for television and it does get frustrating to follow sometimes. Yet it's also wonderfully unpredictable and exciting, in a way that I haven't found any fantasy series to be in ages. I figured out which of the Five Kings would go down first, but right now I have no idea how the rest of the war is going to play out.

And I like it that way.

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