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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Review: Game of Thrones, "And Now His Watch Has Ended"


Season 3, Episode 4  
Grade: A
Verdict: This show's finest moments are encapsulated in its morally ambiguous characters, and this episode marks several important character shifts. While the episode's climax isn't exactly a shocking twist, it's so well-executed and rewarding that it still feels like a stunning game-changer. 

When people ask me what my favorite TV show of all time is, I answer unequivocally - The Wire. Why? It's a complicated, dark, insightful show, but that's not the main attraction. The show's genius lies in the ever-expanding moral gray area that blankets almost every character. With every episode it gets harder to distinguish the stereotypical "good guy" from "bad guy," and you're only left with the characters you like vs. the characters you don't. There is no "good" or "bad." 

All that to say, I think Game of Thrones is the second-strongest show I've seen from HBO, and arguably it is the best show on television right now. It's a show that capitalizes off of that same formula that gave The Wire so much success. Having both read the books and caught up on the TV show, I'll say that the TV show does an excellent job at cutting to the heart of Martin's work. If you're interested in rich world-building, the books are a must. But the character development and embellishment have always been my draw, and that may be why, for me, the show is even better than the book series.   

The characters in this world are constantly evolving and changing, so it's foolish to claim any one particular episode marks the strongest shift. But as I watched this episode, I couldn't help but think: I can't BELIEVE I feel bad for (insert character)! Here are the chief examples of surprising shifts or behavior: 
  • Jamie: I literally loathed this character in the first few episodes of the series. Incest, attempted murder of a child, rich and spoiled. There was nothing redeeming here. But Jamie's recent journey has humbled him. In this episode, he's dehydrated, missing a hand, and lacks the will to live. He drinks horse piss. What he's getting is everything I thought he deserved, and the character is rich enough that I still find myself capable of empathy and sadness. He saved Brienne from being raped in the last episode, and in this one she returns the favor by trying to save him from rock bottom. 
  • Theon: It would be a stretch to say I like or even pity Theon. He betrays the Starks for a family who doesn't care for him, and now he's been captured. In a storyline that is completely fabricated for the show, we see Theon think he's escaped capture, only to be betrayed by the man who freed him from jail. It seems his captor found it worth slaughtering men from his own company just to watch Theon feel the pain of hope gained and hope lost. Theon breaks down and gives an emotional speech about the regret he has for betraying his family, and I actually buy it. I don't care for him, but it's easy to see his motivations and it's hard to write him off as straight-up evil. 
  • Cersei: Cersei's role in this episode is small. She watches Margaery tighten her grip on Joffrey, who seems to hang on Margaery's every word and genuinely adore her. It's clear that Margaery is using Joffrey for his position and power, but it's hard to hold it against her, given how hateful he is. Cersei can tell that she's losing control over her son, and she pleads with her father to help her win it back. In a brief moment with the Queen of Thorns and again in a conversation with her father, Cersei seems to acknowledge the difficulty of being an intelligent woman operating in a world where men rule. No matter how much power she thinks she has, it'll always be second to the men she is tied to. It's hard not to feel sympathetic for this, regardless of Cersei's questionable behavior. 
  • Daenerys: Daenerys is one of the show's many heart-of-gold underdogs, and it's difficult to imagine rooting against her. But that doesn't mean she isn't capable of doing things that could be considered evil or immoral. At the end of this episode, in one of the best moments I've seen on TV in a LONG time, Daenerys turns her army of unsullied against the merchants who created and sold them to her.  I think everyone's been waiting for the satisfying moment when we find out Daenerys could understand the language the slave trader spoke all along, and we finally get that here. The music and the visuals were perfect. She commands her dragon to burn the man she's sold it to alive. OK, OK - these guys aren't exactly going to be missed. They chain men and sell them, and they're not the types you'd trust with a fire-breathing dragon. But you have to admit that, coming from any character, this is a downright sneaky and treacherous move. Daenerys is learning that in order to obtain the kind of power she wants, she has to resort to betraying and even killing the people in her way. On the plus side, she frees her army, who decide to remain by her side. 
In this episode, we also finally get some interesting action happening beyond-the-wall. Sam witnesses a rebellion in the knight's watch that leads to the death of a key character, and he escapes with Gilly and her son. We also get a small, interesting moment between Varys and Tyrion. Varys explains to Tyrion how he became a eunuch  and how he climbed the social ranks of the kingdom so that he could enact revenge on those who'd hurt him. Varys is difficult to like, but the story is actually quite touching, and we get an idea of exactly how menacing and intelligent his character is. 

In all, this was my favorite episode of the season and cemented the fact that this show is arguably one of the best on air right now. I'd have thought the show would have succeeded at visuals and world-building and failed to upkeep Martin's strong character development, but I'm quite pleased and surprised to say that it has used its space and time very wisely, retaining every bit of character enrichment we see in the novels. 


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