A Game of Throne: Season Two, Episode One (“The North Remembers”)

Unlike last year, I have been eagerly anticipating the second season of HBO's Game of Thrones.  Now that it's here, I have some of those same mixed feelings that made season one slightly uneven.  Yet, it doesn't seem to matter much anymore.  I will watch this show until the end, even if the characters turn into giant rabbits with swords.

The first episode of the second season is a transition episode.  It's one of those "hey, here's where we've been, and here's what everyone has been up to since we left."  That means, more or less, we're inundated with a lot of information, new characters, and so on, just so we'll get a sense of
what is to come.  After all, Eddard Stark is dead, and that means a hell of a lot of bad shit is coming our way.  What follows, as such, is a somewhat disjointed review.
In this episode, we are shown the following:  King Joffrey's continued psychological abuse of Sansa Stark; the arrival of Tyrion Lannister as the new Hand of the King (and the family politics involved); Bran Stark's reluctant position as Lord in his brother's stead; Danaerys' desperate attempts to save herself in an increasingly hostile wilderness; Robb Stark's continued rise to the mantle of King of the North; Stanis Baratheon's rejection of the old gods in the hope to steal back his throne from Joffrey; Jon Snow and gang beyond the wall; and Arya Stark's trek north.

If that sounds like a lot of stuff, then you understand my apprehension to call this episode anything but a confused mess.  GoT is still brilliant, mind, but there is something to be said about the writers biting off way too much in this episode.  Who exactly are we to care about here?  It's one thing to bring back some of our favorites, crammed together in one space, but to add new ones?  There's simply too much going on here.  Sadly, the overwhelming number of plotlines impacts the casting, as so many of the new additions get short thrift here.  Stanis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) spends most of his scenes glaring at the camera, looking altogether not like I expected him to look.  Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) at least gets a few extra lines, with some emotion thrown in, but his character is as undeveloped as the rest of the newcomers (especially Maester Cressen, played by Oliver Ford Davies, who seems to come on the screen just so the writers can kill him off).  Simply put, the writers desperately need to break up these story lines to develop the characters more efficiently.
He's important.  Really.  He is.  Trust me...
That said, there is a lot to admire about the episode.  One of the most chilling moments in the entire series acts as the climax.  I won't ruin the moment, but you'll know it when you see it -- and you'll be as disturbed as I was.  What I can say is this:  it made me turn away from the screen, even though the act itself was never shown.  And it also shows us something we've known was coming for a while:  that the wicked really are wicked.

Additionally, HBO has done a fantastic job rendering the small cast of CG characters (in this case, one dragon).  The worst thing about TV is that networks make series which need a lot of CG, but they aren't willing to pay for quality material.  HBO didn't fall pray to that all-too-common weakness.  Instead, the creators have done what smart people do:  only use CG when absolutely necessary.  And that means that unlike most television, this show forces us to pay attention to characterization, which GoT usually does quite well.
Yes, I am God.  Hear me roar.
And then there's Peter Dinklage, who every single moment reminds us why he won an Emmy for his work on Season One.  What more can we say?  He's brilliant.  In some respects, he outshines everyone else who is made to work alongside him.  His expressions are nuanced in the way only a great actor can muster.  I hope we'll see more of him this season than last, but we'll see.

That pretty much sums up what I thought about this episode.  Future reviews will likely delve a little deeper into the story.  This review doesn't, in part because this episode is less a story than a giant placeholder.  Every major plot point opens up here, but there's not much that can be said about those various threads until we've seen where they are going.  That said, we're off to an interesting start, even if the first episode isn't the best of the lot.

Directing: 2.5/5
Cast: 4/5
Writing: 2.5/5
Visuals: 5/5
Adaptation: N/A (haven't read the book yet)
Overall: 3.5/5

A Game of Thrones: Episode Seven (“You Win or You Die”)

It's a sad thing that I have to post a review for Episode Seven so late in the week.  More pressing concerns prevented me from getting to it, I'm afraid, such as yesterday's USPS insanity.  I refuse to review anything with anger on the mind, or to do anything remotely productive, such as writing fiction, editing The World in the Satin Bag, or similar things.  When I get upset, I tend to make a lot of mistakes.  Dumb mistakes.  But things have cooled over now and I feel I can review "You Win or You Die" fairly.

The seventh episode in HBO's adaptation of GRRM's A Game of Thrones is yet another episode that suffers from poor writing and excess scenes and nudity, but it is also an episode that partially masks these flaws with some of the best acting all season and a renewed influx of dramatic tension.  The political turmoils that have plagued the characters for so long are finally cracking the pot they've been boiling in.  Eddard Stark has solved the mystery of his son's injury and the former Hand's death and must wrestle with that knowledge and the potential consequences which might arise if it's to be shared.  Daenerys, now free of her brother's fury, must contend with assassins and
Drogo's apprehension to invade Westeros.  And up at the Wall, Jon Snow takes the oath of the Night's Watch, but not in the way he had hoped and with his uncle's disappearance still a weight on his shoulders.  There's much to love about Episode Seven, but there is also much to be concerned about.
Once again, the writers fall prey to the wonders of pointless nudity and sex as a "sexy" metaphor for whatever important thing is going on in the episode.  These scenes have never worked and will continue to drag down the quality of the show if left unchecked.  In "You Win," these errors have a worse effect:  ruining the end of the episode (the important twist) by telling us it's going to happen.  The scene in question involves Littlefinger talking to a pair of whores as they audition for positions in his brothel by pretending to have sex with one another.  Littlefinger directs them and uses their sex as a poorly disguised metaphor for what he plans to do.  And then he says what he plans to do, leaving only the very particulars to the audience's guesswork.  

The scene would be clever if not for that fact that it removes all the power of a twist ending.  How are we supposed to be shocked when he betrays Eddard Stark in the end if we already know he's going to do it?  In the book, this scene comes out of nowhere because so little attention is given directly to Littlefinger (i.e., via his POV).  But the clues are there, as they are up until this point in the series.  We know Littlefinger has it in him to do whatever it takes to get what he wants, but we're also led to believe that he loves Catelyn enough to leave her be in his pursuit of his own personal "glory."  That's where the trick rests:  false security.  Pointless nudity and sex is problematic enough, but telling the viewer what to expect by the end in direct terms is the worst kind of writing, especially when that writing is for a show that places so much emphasis on dramatic tension and suspense.
But I can lay a lot of these concerns to rest by talking about what has to be the greatest medieval pep rally ever put on film.  Towards the end of the episode, Drogo stands up and cries his fury to his men in the Dothraki tongue.  This scene is brilliant for a number of reasons.  First, we finally get to see/hear Dothraki spoken at length by a "native" speaker and with emotion behind the words.  Drogo typically speaks his words deep and without betraying his underlying emotions.  Here, his emotions are red hot.  This leads me to the second reason:  Jason Mamoa.  While Drogo is an important character, his presence on the screen is fairly limited.  Mamoa has only needed to show a sliver of his potential as an actor so far.  Now, Mamoa shows why he is the right actor for Drogo.  When he speaks Dothraki with fury, it's believable.  When he bounds around the room screaming his words, spittle flying from his mouth and his fists clenched, you can almost feel the emotion on the screen.  I found myself clenching my fists too.  I couldn't help it.  The scene is inspiring in a morbid sort of way.

If not for the emotional scene with Drogo, this episode might not have pleased me as much as it did.  There are still serious issues with the writing, but something has to be said for how well the production crew have put together a cohesive world with realistic imaginary languages and cultures.  What I hope for most is that HBO won't continue its trend of giving us a peepshow every episode just to meet a tit quota.  The show is so good that it doesn't need two pairs of exposed breasts and a penis shot to make the story work.  And we certainly don't need characters declaring their plans like some cheap James Bond villain.  Let the surprises happen fluidly, HBO.  Please.
Overall, I think Episode Seven is decent, but it is seriously flawed.  The pacing is solid enough and the introductory scene with Jamie and Tywin Lannister was fascinating (the metaphors are clever).  I find myself enjoying Snow's narrative more and more as the season progresses, too, even though much of what is happening to him has little to do with what is happening elsewhere.  I think one of the things that will be interesting to see is how all of the major character POVs intersect.  So far, Daenerys is the closest to the events in King's Landing, but whether that closeness remains is up to speculation for those that haven't read the book.
In any case, I'm still watching, so that's something.

Directing: 3/5
Cast: 4/5
Writing: 1/5
Visuals:  5/5
Adaptation: 2/5
Overall: 3/5

A Game of Thrones: Episode Six (“A Golden Crown”)

HBO's A Game of Thrones is back on high form again with the sixth episode.  Dropping a number of the extra narratives lobbed at us in "The Wolf," "A Golden Crown" is much more measured, suspenseful, and emotional.  Here we finally see Daenerys extricate herself from her horrible past, rising to her rightful place among the Dothraki (her opening scene is a brilliant foreshadow of what is to come).  Likewise, Bran's dreams (the same ones from the previous episode which I thought were so creepy) are beginning to expand, somewhat more slowly than in the book, suggesting there might be more for Bran that we've already been given (these scenes have to be foreshadowing something, in my opinion).  And then there's Tyrion, Catelyn, and the now-injured
Eddard Stark.  Rumors of war.  Duels (or "a physical trial" as Tyrion might say), and plenty of bloodshed.  Needless to say, I loved all the excitement!
One of the strengths of "A Golden Crown" are its payoffs.  This is an episode that finally begins to weigh in on the promises of the previous five.  Characters we've been waiting to have their comeuppance get just that.  It feels good.  Really good.  Part of what made me love A Game of Thrones is its ability to create characters worth hating.  Seeing such characters get what they deserve is wonderful.  There are still plenty of awful people floating around, though, and I suspect they'll be around when A Clash of Kings hits the small screen.
"A Golden Crown" also increases the tension that's been simmering all season.  Now things are boiling over.  It won't be long before something truly terrible happens to a character we've grown to love or war comes banging on the Stark's door (or, hell, the King's door).   And we can expect that war to be bloody and costly.  Tension is one of the things this series does well.  There is never a dull moment and we're always kept on our toes as we try to figure out what will happen next (who will get screwed over, killed, or destroyed in some other way).  That tension is probably what keeps many people watching, since we are never quite sure when the next major event will occur, or what that event will be (unless you've read the book, in which case you know everything that will happen; even so, readers of the book seem to love the TV series for many of the same reasons, with the added benefit that they get to see their favorite characters alive on the screen).
A Golden Crown if you please...
Another thing I quite like is the attention paid to worldbuilding.  This is more a compliment for the entire series than for episode six in particular.  The Dothraki are brilliantly realized -- savage, but also elegant in their own way.  All the little details in King's Landing and Winterfell are equally fascinating (one scene in a previous episode involves Brandon reciting the symbols and mottoes of the various Houses, which I found quite amusing).  The sets are all beautiful and feel like they are part of a real world.  It's clear HBO is making good use of its budget.  Martin's novel is dense and rich in detail.  It's good to know that HBO is taking the source material seriously enough to treat the world within it like a real place.
My main problems with "A Golden Crown" are the same problems I had with "The Wolf."  Lino Facioli once again flubs his lines and overacts, with a handful of exceptions, and there are added scenes, too.  Most of them actually work, however, adding depth to character arcs and keeping the story fresh and interesting.  The exception for me was the added scene of the King in the woods (on the hunt), but these kinds of criticisms have been made before and I won't bore you with them any longer.  They are also fairly minor.
Getting back to what matters, I think it's fair to say that HBO redeemed itself with "A Golden Crown."  It's a strong episode with an astonishing amount of realism.  The violence in this series is one of the things I've always enjoyed because you can rely on it to be brutal, honest, and without much of the ridiculous flare of epic sword fights in other films.  The fights in "A Golden Crown" end with blood and gore, because that's how they really would end if such things still happened in this world (the duel in the last half is pretty awesome).  I can appreciate that, even if I didn't much care for the ending of the previous episode.  And I imagine when the shit hits the fan in the coming episodes, HBO will keep up its dedication to violence.  I can't wait.

Directing: 4/5
Cast: 3/5
Writing: 4/5
Visuals:  5/5
Adaptation: 4/5
Overall: 4/5

P.S.:  Maisie Williams (as Arya), by the way, is really shining.  Every time I see her on screen, I get excited.  Arya is a fantastic character, and the more I see Williams playing her, the more I feel like she's the perfect actress for the role.  This young one will have a brilliant future, I think.

P.S.S.:  I'm well aware that Episode Seven was released online.  I would like to think that folks who have seen that episode would have the courtesy of not trying to ruin it for everyone else who was unable to watch it online.  Thanks.

A Game of Thrones: Episode Five (“The Wolf and the Lion”)

As I mentioned in my review of Episode Four, the narrative of HBO's A Game of Thrones has been slowly threatening to come unhinged.  Scenes have been added that I feel detract from the most important characters, leaving a small void in their stories.  "The Wolf and the Lion," unfortunately, does more of the same, but to even worse degrees.

Episode Five is, thus far, the only poor episode this season.  While there is much to love about the episode (Arya chasing cats; more of the tournament; more of Eddard Stark and the mysteries of King's Landing; the Eyrie (sort of); and many sword battles and gruesome deaths), its greatest flaws lie in its addition of scenes which have no direct bearing on the story-lines that matter.  I'll only talk at length about the worst of them, but there are easily fifteen minutes of unnecessary nonsense in this episode, all of which take away from some of the more interesting aspects of this stretch of A Game of Thrones.  The Eyrie, for example, gets crapped on, with less than five minutes
spent showing it from inside and out.  It's even incorrectly designed, with the Eyrie itself sticking out like a giant turd in a desolate landscape, whereas the novel makes clear it's meant to be a series of towers built along the side of a mountain.  And it's supposed to be impenetrable.  Yet what we're shown is a rotten egg that doesn't look like it could withstand a siege for more than a few hours.
Similar changes are made in the final confrontation of the episode between Eddard and Jaime, which, to me, seemed to suck the life out of a scene that could have been more emotional, terrifying, and dark (the filmmakers opted for a macho action sequence).  But these are minor compared to the excess minutes spent on nonsense (though I have to admit that the dialogue between the King and Queen is growing on me).
Isn't he adorable when he's scared?
One of the most pointless scenes is practically an HBO hallmark (i.e., the gay scene):  Ser Loras (Finn Jones) shaving Lord Renly's (Gethin Anthony) chest while they discuss his potential as a King.  This scene is, of course, concluded with a blowjob.  It's a gay scene which makes Priscilla: Queen of the Desert practically as straight as a Rambo movie.  If Renly's homosexuality had been established as relevant earlier in the series, I might be able to see the importance of chest shaving, but nothing of the sort has been established.  In fact, Renly has been, up until this point, a minor character, his importance resting solely on the fact that he's the brother of the King.  The fact that he's gay is implied in the novel, but that implication has nothing to do with the mysteries occupying the Starks in the series.  As such, this scene feels more like a throwaway or an attempt to exoticize homosexual behavior.  Sadly, most of "The Wolf" reduces characters to sex objects (Theon's penis waves to and fro like a pendulum here), but nothing more so grievous than its treatment of gay characters.  Renly and Loras aren't on the screen being gay together because their homosexual relationship is relevant or important; they are there because they are gay, and their gayness displayed on screen makes them objects of visual spectacle.  To me, this is a grievous offense, and almost unforgivable.
You can almost see the crazy behind this boy...
But "The Wolf" doesn't stop there.  While the cast is still strong, with some still iffy choices, the addition of Lino Facioli (Robin Arryn) is perhaps the worst mistake the producers have made.  Lino flubs his lines and overacts in a way that makes the other child actors look like they have already given their Oscar winning performances.  No actor thus far this season has managed to destroy an entire scene, and nearly an entire episode, as quickly and surely as Lino.  This is despite the fact that Kate Dickie as Lysa Arryn is shockingly good as the mentally deranged mother of Robin (and sister to Catelyn Stark).  All the creepiness brought to the screen by Dickie is sucked away the moment Lino goes on his miniature tirade.  The sad thing is that the shortened scenes in the Eyrie might have actually saved the series from losing me as a viewer entirely -- a small mercy, if you will.
At least the interiors are cool.
Thankfully, I won't stop watching A Game of Thrones.  I think it's a fantastic series thus far, and one poor episode this far into the series isn't enough to yank me out.  If this had been the first episode, I might have stopped watching, but there are four great episodes that precede it.  All I hope for now is that Episode Six doesn't fall into the same trap.  I want the quality to go back up.  

We'll find out what happens tonight.  If you haven't started the series yet, don't use this review as a basis for whether you should watch.  The show isn't perfect, but every episode before the fifth are worth watching, and the overall quality of the series is high.  Every show has a bad episode.  Fans of Doctor Who know this far too well.  

A Game of Thrones can be forgiven for now...
I would kiss this man...
Directing: 2/5
Cast: 2/5
Writing: 1/5
Visuals:  2/5
Adaptation: 1/5
Overall: 1.6/5

For Carr, because I know you love him so!

A Game of Thrones: Episode Four (“Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things”)

Something about three-eyed crows creeps me out.  But I suppose that's the point of the opening of episode four:  creepiness.  In a way, "Cripples" mirrors "Winter is Coming" with its opening scene, presenting something which feels and appears like a strange nightmare, but which doesn't have a direct tie to the episode at hand (at least, not one which is available to a cursory viewer).  The impact of this scene will likely be felt later, much as the introduction to "Winter is Coming" will reverberate through future episodes.

"Cripples" is a curious episode, split, for the most part, between the mystery that has occupied the Starks throughout the series and Jon Snow's travails at the Wall.  The most interesting remains the first, while the latter acts as a kind of (dark) comedic relief with the introduction of the pathetic
Samwell Tarly (played by John Bradley, who may very well be the most perfect actor for this role).  
Jon Snow's narrative is not as compelling as that of the Starks, but not because Snow is uninteresting or the Wall is boring.  Quite the contrary.  The problem with Jon's narrative is that what we've been expecting to happen hasn't happened yet, whereas some movement has been occurring in the Stark's search for truth.  Most of Jon's narrative is about character growth.  We see Jon rising above his lesser status, growing as a leader and a man, and navigating the very different world of the Wall.  But the terror we saw in "Winter is Coming" hasn't hit Jon's world yet.  "Yet" is the crucial word.  But we have Samwell Tarly, who is as craven and pathetic as readers of the series could have hoped.  Even the added scenes with Sam are welcome in "Cripples."  Perhaps this is because he fits into the title of the episode, but I think it's more because Sam shows us who Jon Snow will become even while Jon struggles to earn the respect he feels he deserves from those above his stature.
But the Starks are where the clearest danger lies.  As much as Jon's superiors bear down upon him, their threats feel somewhat empty.  We're not worried that Jon will end up dead in the morning -- poisoned, stabbed, killed in battle, or what have you.  Not yet.  But we are worried about the Starks, who are in a dangerous place and playing a very dangerous game.  The cliffhanger at the end of "Cripples" only makes this danger clearer.  For me, this is the most interesting part so far in the series.  I want to know what's going to happen to the Starks:  Will they find out the truth and bring it to the King?  Will they die trying?  Will Eddard be the next Hand to die under mysterious conditions?  It's for this reason that I've begun reading ahead in the book.  I can't wait a week to find out.  I need the answers, and if not for the fact that HBO's A Game of Thrones is so good at making many of its characters loathsome human beings, I might not be reading at all.
Despite my fascination with the Starks, "Cripples" has trouble relaying their narrative.  The episode tries to lead us into its ending, but it never quite gels.  There's a mild disconnect between Catelyn, Eddard, and the children.  They all receive some screen time in "Cripples," but the progression they each are supposed to suggest isn't quite there.  The ending is a surprise for those who haven't read the book, but that surprise lacked some of the impact it deserved, despite the fact that "Cripples" is the catalyst for all the major events that follow.  I still enjoyed the episode, but it certainly was missing something (an emotional charge or something resembling a more linear plot).
My other problem with "Cripples" is that it is an episode which includes, as in episode three, additional scenes which serve little purpose other than to remind us of things we already know.  Viserys, for example, is shown in a bathtub with the woman he purchased to teach Daenerys the "womanly arts."  They have a long discussion about the dragons of the Red Keep, and then Viserys grows angry and reminds us of his arrogance, foul attitude, and general lowly nature.  But we already knew this, and a scene later in the episode reveals that same nature, making the bathtub scene redundant.  If they intended to add depth to his character, all they succeeded in doing was make him more the awful person we thought he was.  Perhaps the writers want us to feel less for Viserys, but I think most viewers loathed his very existence in "Winter is Coming" when he sold his sister off to Khal Drogo in order to get an army and take back the Seven Kingdoms.  (There is another scene involving the King, but I think my point has been made.)

I don't particularly care for filler scenes, nor do I care for any scene which draws me away from the characters I care about.  To be honest, I would much rather spend more time with Arya, who gets very little attention in "Cripples," than with Viserys or King Baratheon (unless Eddard is a part of the latter).  Without the aforementioned scenes, the writers could have spent more time showing Eddard's investigations or even the tournament scene, which would have added some entertainment to a very stark (no pun intended) narrative.  There's much more that could have been done, but instead we are gifted with a broken record.  I've made similar complaints about previous episodes.

But, again, I am glad that these scenes are short and that most of "Cripples" is spend focusing on the important aspects of the story.  Even with these flaws, the show is still a damn fine one.  There are few adaptations that I have enjoyed as much as I am enjoying A Game of Thrones.  All I can hope for is that the quality of the series remains high.  Nothing can kill a good series like a couple of muddling middle episodes.  "Cripples" isn't quite muddling, but it does hint at a problem which may not be properly contained.  You'll see what I'm talking about when I get to episode five.

Directing: 3/5
Cast: 5/5
Writing: 3/5
Visuals: 5/5
Adaptation: 3/5

A Game of Thrones: Episode Three (“Lord Snow”)

"Lord Snow" is not a relief episode.  "Winter is Coming" and "The Kingsroad" were episodes devoted to producing tension, introducing all the major conflicts that would drive the series and tossing in a number of cliffhangers and "holy crap" moments to keep the audience glued to the screen.  Instead, "Lord Snow" is an episode that draws that tension out, like pouring lemon juice into a wound.  Now, things must move at a more measured pace.  We may know the answers to what is going on, but the Starks are only speculating -- they must find their way to the truth and navigate the slimy world of kings and queens, lords, and court politics.  At the Wall, Jon Snow must come to terms with his disillusionment about the Wall and the Night's Watch.  And across the Narrow Sea,
Daenerys has begun to discover herself, testing her authority.
For the most part, "Lord Snow" is an effective episode.  The title obvious comes from Jon Snow's name, even though the episode is barely devoted to him (he seems to get the most screen time this time around, but a great deal of attention is also paid to Daenerys, Eddard Stark and his children (go Arya!), and to Catelyn Stark).  Since pacing has been one of the few aspects I have focused on when reviewing each episode, I think it's important to note that "Lord Snow" doesn't add much to the plot, but does move seamlessly between the various characters to give a sense that there is a progression.  That progression is focused on the characters rather than on the plot.  We see characters grow and become new people, setting the stage for what will come in future episodes (if you've read the book, then you know a lot of what happens in episode three is foreshadowing).  Some of these changes are expected, and some are ones I had been hoping for (Viserys, for example).
There are also a number of additions to the cast:  Lord Baelish (Aiden Gillen), Varys (Conleth Hill), Renly Baratheon (Gethin Anthony), Alliser Thorne (Owen Teale), and others.  I've been pleased with the cast so far in the series, although I remain iffy about Aiden Gillen and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime Lanniser).  It's not that they aren't good actors; rather, I feel like their accents are off somehow.  It might be a good thing that I am hesitant about them, though, as both of their characters are meant to illicit negative feelings.  And, of course, there is Miltos Yerolemou (Syrio Forel), who is absolutely perfect for his role -- his accent is spot on, his attitude is just as I pictured him, and he's amusing on screen.  We'll see more of these characters as the series progresses and hopefully my feelings about them will continue to improve.

One of the things I've been incredibly pleased about with this series is the cast of child actors.  "Lord Snow" lets them shine, giving them the opportunity to do more than run around being child-like (climbing, running, laughing, and so on).  Child actors are difficult to pick.  More often than not, the wrong actors are chosen for the role.  HBO has avoided that dilemma.  Maisie Williams (Arya Stark) is brilliant, though a little rough around the edges at times -- her final scene with Syrio is wonderful, though.  Isaac Hempstead-Wright (Bran Stark) doesn't have much face time, but still delivers his lines with enough emotion to make you wonder what is going on inside his character's head (not good things, I assure you).  Even Jack Gleeson (Prince Joffrey) fulfills his role as a stuck-up prince with ease. The more I see of these actors, the more I feel that they are the right choices and look forward to seeing them on the screen.

I only have one complaint about "Lord Snow," which is that it has too many scenes that I feel distract the viewer from the story and the characters who matter.  Towards the middle of the episode, King Baratheon spends several minutes telling war stories with Ser Barristan Selmy and Jaime Lannister.  While I understand that the filmmakers are trying to add depth to Baratheon's character, the scene seemed like it was thrown in the middle to fill time rather than to contribute anything to the overarching narrative.  We know Baratheon is rude, impulsive, and a drunk (a.k.a. a total asshole).  That much has already been established.  This scene only reinforces that point, hinting that maybe there is something more to be seen -- a something which never materializes.  

A similar scene involves the Queen and Jaime Lannister discussing the events in the previous episode, which only reminds us again that they are involved and that they have a "close" relationship.  While I understand why this scene exists, it draws too much attention away from the Starks, who are central, and the problems they are attempting to resolve.  The more time we are given with these characters, the more answers are given to us, and the fewer surprises we are offered when the Starks figure out what is going on.  A Game of Thrones is partly a medieval mystery, full of backstabbing, lies, secrets, and half-truths.  Giving away those truths to the audience by providing scenes where characters admit guilt draws tension away from the mystery Eddard and Catelyn Stark are so adamant to uncover.

That said, "Lord Snow" is a decent episode.  It is well constructed and the scenery and sets continue to be wonderful.  The Wall is the largest addition, and it is as dark and dank and rundown as I expected it to be.  The folks behind HBO have really chosen some great locations for A Game of Thrones.  Hopefully this will continue to be true as new places are added to the story.

I should also note before closing out that one of my favorite scenes this episode is the closing scene -- Arya and Syrio clashing wooden swords together as she receives her first lesson.  I loved this scene in the book and love it on screen.  There's something about the sword fights that draws me in, I guess.  Even the scene where Jon Snow pounds on his fellow recruits (and the scene that follows later on, which shows Snow as a "better person) is fantastic.  Such scenes are choreographed well and feel real.  And that's the most important thing, right?  Realism.  A Game of Thrones is all about it...

Directing: 4/5
Cast: 5/5
Writing: 3/5
Visuals: 4.5/5
Adaptation: 3/5

A Game of Thrones: Episode Two (“The Kingsroad”)

When I initially began watching HBO's adaptation of A Game of Thrones, I was very interested, but not blown away.  That feeling fell to the wayside with "The Kingsroad" (and, as I remarked in my review of "Winter is Coming," much of what I had issues with seemed to dim upon a second viewing).

The second episode of A Game of Thrones is one of the most emotional, which is probably why my feeling about the series changed.  The rocky relationships hinted at in "Winter is Coming" are drawn out in full, given the full emotional impact we've been waiting for.  Michelle Fairley (Catelyn Stark) is superb here, her eyes and face speaking volumes and filling the void where her limited
lines cannot.  Emilia Clarke, who I have already praised in my review of episode one, is once again superb, and Sean Bean, though less present here than in "Winter is Coming," is strong as ever.  Kit Harrington (Jon Snow) is equally as praiseworthy in "The Kingsroad," fast becoming one of my favorite actors in the series, and Peter Dinklage fulfills his role as Tyrion Lannister as if it were always meant for him -- Tyrion remains one of my favorite characters in the TV adaptation.
All this is perhaps helped by the fact that episode two is about deepening our understanding of who these characters are.  Catelyn Stark is more than just a wife and mother; Jon Snow is a boy tormented by his half-blood birth; Eddard Stark is apprehensive about his part in the management of the Kingdom and not the man he once was when he and King Baratheon forged the kingdom; and Daenerys is a woman coming into her womanhood in a society she barely understands.  These attempts to deepen the audience's understanding of the show's characters is well received.  Most of these characters are people we expect to stay with as the series progresses (and when the next book is adapted; whether all this turns out to be true is up to speculation, I suppose, as I haven't read A Clash of Kings yet).  Personally, I appreciate fantasy stories which delve into the characters rather than relying solely on the visual spectacle of fantasy.  A Game of Thrones seems well suited to the medium.
Unlike "Winter is Coming," the pacing in "The Kingsroad" is fierce and fluid.  This is despite the fact that the second episode has now split to four different viewpoints in four separate locations (Jon and Tyrion at the Wall; Catelyn and her sons in Winterfell; Eddard, his daughters, and the King on their way to King's Landing; and Daenerys across the narrow sea -- some of these were already present in "Winter is Coming").  The writing is almost seamless, with a perfect progression from start to finish and plenty of tension.  I would say that "The Kingsroad" is the best episode of the series, except that I haven't seen the entire series yet (this review comes out the week prior to the release of the sixth episode).  Regardless, if you aren't hooked by "Winter is Coming," then "The Kingsroad" should do the trick.  Even upon re-watching, the episode remains strong.
If I have to criticize the episode, however, then I'll have to point to the visuals, which sometimes appear somewhat lackluster when CG is involved.  The costumes and locations are decent enough, though sparsely built as in "Winter is Coming," but there are moments where we see cities in the distance which are clearly drawn onto an existing landscape.  I understand that A Game of Thrones is a television show, and, as such, doesn't have quite the budget of something like Avatar.  Perhaps for this reason anyone can ignore the average CG found in the series.  Since it's used quite sparingly anyway, I don't see it as a major issue, but it is noticeable.  Unlike other cable networks (like Syfy), HBO isn't going overboard with its use of CG.  They've focused on the characters, much as Martin has done in his novel.  I think that much can be appreciated even if the CG isn't the greatest quality.
But at this point I'm nitpicking rather than sending anything resembling legitimate criticism at A Game of Thrones.  "The Kingsroad" is simply a stunning episode.  I kept wondering what would happen next, who was going to hurt who, and whether characters I thought would die were going to live.  "The Kingsroad" is pretty much what turned me into a permanent viewer of the show.  I'll usually give a series three episodes to hook me.  A Game of Thrones technically did it with the first episode, but the second sealed the deal.  And if that isn't high praise for a show, I don't know what is.

Stay tuned for my review of episode three!  Coming...tomorrow!

Directing: 5/5
Cast: 5/5
Writing: 4.5/5
Visuals: 4.5/5
Adaptation: 5/5


P.S.:  If it hasn't already become clear, I am avoiding spoiling the series by providing a plot synopsis of each episode.  I would hate to read an episode-by-episode review and have everything spelled out for me.  If you've read the book, you already know the story being shown; but if you haven't, then a plot synopsis could ruin everything.  I will do no such thing and will keep my reviews focused on my general impressions of the episodes, with plot elements brought into the discussion only when I feel they are relevant.

A Game of Thrones: Episode One (“Winter is Coming”)

I've been cautiously anticipating the HBO adaptation of George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones for a while.  My ex and one of my friends tried to get me to read the first book in the series, but for whatever reason I couldn't get into it.  That negative experience, however, didn't shake my anticipation, in part because HBO had previously adapted two historical products (Band of Brothers and The Pacific), both of which became two of my favorite TV shows of all time (granted, those shows are based on real-world events).  Needless to say:  HBO has a track record of producing good stuff.

Episode One ("Winter is Coming") has the toughest job of any episode in the series.  It not only has to set the foundations for the tone of the entire series, but it also has to establish the relevant characters, plot points, and so on which will remain central to the progression of the story.  "Winter is Coming" does so in expert fashion, opening with a creepy prologue in the woods beyond
the Wall -- a scene that is relatively faithful to the book. If any scene in the first episode were to tell you that HBO was serious about A Game of Thrones, it would be these opening moments.  The White Walkers are terrifying, slipping through the woods beyond the Wall with an ease that reminds one of an horror movie (a good horror movie).  The music, too, highlights the tension, and the scenes following the credits further establish the tone of HBO's adaptation.  Justice is delivered to deserters with apprehension written on Eddard Stark's face, direwolves are discovered in the woods -- an omen for a dark time to come -- the Hand of the King is dead and the Lannisters are plotting, and children of dead kings are rising to retake the thrown that was once theirs.  This is no light-hearted fantasy, to which fans of the books can well attest; HBO is taking the source material seriously for what it is:  a sprawling, epic fantasy, deeply political, bloody, and medieval.
The show's heavy budget, of course, makes it easier to establish the tone of the series, since it allows for well-crafted sets and beautiful visuals.  As important as it is for any show to have good acting, a solid story, and so on, it is just as important for a fantasy production like A Game of Thrones to be visually arresting.  It is perhaps prudent that the series is being adapted now rather than ten years ago.  Budgets are understandably larger, HBO is more firmly established as a producer of quality television programs, and the technology is (more or less) adequate to the task of producing visuals which television budgetary constraints typically cannot produce using real sets.  For the most part, "Winter is Coming" functions well within what financial constraints still exist and exceeds where such constraints are less relevant.  The costumes are gritty or extravagant enough to feel real within the world being set up and the castles and cityscapes (or townscapes, perhaps) are well designed and used sparsely, but still give a sense that Westeros and its outlying regions are real places.  This coupled with the tone makes it easier, I think, for a fantasy fan such as myself to suspend disbelief.
The perfect setting of tone is also enhanced by an excellent cast, all of which, thus far, are well chosen for their roles.  There are no poor choices here, whether members of the Stark family, the Lannisters, or even the last of the Targaryen's.  Sean Bean (Eddard Stark) and Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen), however, are the standouts here.  Both give performances that are emotionally charged and, for lack of a better word, "deep."  It's not just how they deliver their lines -- fluidly and with precision -- but more particularly in how one can see the emotions, history, and thoughts painted on their faces and buried in their body language.  Other actors pull this off too, sometimes out of necessity, but it is only Bean and Clarke, in my opinion, who do so continuously by giving performances that will hopefully be given recognition when the awards season rolls around.
Having lofted high praise at the production values of the show, however, I do want to point out the only significant issue I had with "Winter is Coming."  Pacing.  The episode shifts forward in time quite unexpectedly, often with the direwolves as the only barometer for determining how much time has passed.  The direwolves, however, are poor barometers, particularly since Catelyn Stark reminds us that they grow ever so fast, but never explains what that means.  How fast?  Twice as fast as normal dogs?  Three times as fast?  How long has it been since the announcement of the King's pending arrival in the previous scene to his actual arrival?  A day?  A week?  A month?  I have no doubt that many viewers don't care about these details, but I found myself being jarred from the story, which is never a good thing.  That said, the pacing seems less a problem now than it was weeks ago.  Perhaps this is so because I've come to love the series, having stuck with it through the second episode (which I think is one of the strongest of the series thus far), but I also think this is because I have seen "Winter is Coming" again and begun reading A Game of Thrones.
One of the final points that needs being made is to do with the issue of adaptation.  The writers must constantly work to maintain the delicate balance between being faithful to the source material and trying to adapt it to a visual medium.  "Winter is Coming" is relatively faithful to the book in part because the beginning of the book doesn't require much in the way of fiddling.  Other sections of A Game of Thrones will certainly require more trimming and narrative manipulation, but the first chunk which forms "Winter is Coming" is relatively straightforward (and it ends on one hell of a cliffhanger, by the way).  The only diversions seemed logical to me, such as the additional scenes with Tyrion Lannister, which go a long way to demonstrating who he is as a person -- an act that would be impossible to do adequately with nothing more than words (yes, even the famed "show, don't tell" rule applies to the visual medium, as odd as that might sound).  The rest of the episode, however, is practically identical to the book, with little pieces trimmed here or there and scenes cut back to give the audience the "idea" rather than banging us over the head with it.  Future episodes will likely fair less favorable in this department.

Overall, I'd say this is a good start for a series.  I suspect fantasy fans will love it to death, especially if they're GRRM devotees.  Even non-fantasy fans might find something fascinating in this show.  So much of HBO's A Game of Thrones is devoted to the characters and the politics surrounding them.  There is little magic or silly swordplay (serious swordplay, of course, is welcome) or fantastic creatures here (with the exception of the White Walkers who live beyond the wall, who may or may not be as fantastic as they seem (we're never quite sure of it), or the dragon eggs, which only remind us that dragons used to live in Westeros, but have perhaps gone the way of the dinosaur -- a very big perhaps, I am told).  There's nothing wrong with fantastic creatures and magic, but that's not the kind of story being told here, and I suspect that anyone willing to set aside their anti-fantasy attitude long enough to see what is being done with A Game of Thrones may find that they actually like HBO's adaptation.  Then again, such folks may not be inclined towards an HBO series that fulfills an HBO standard:  blood and sex, both of which are restrained, but still very much present.

If you haven't started watching HBO's A Game of Thrones, you should, particularly if you're a fan of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings or Martin's book.  The show may not be perfect (as my reviews of later episodes will make clear), but it is the kind of show fantasy fans should rejoice to see hit the tiny screen.

Directing: 4.5/5
Cast: 5/5
Writing: 3.75/5
Visuals: 4.5/5
Adaptation: 5/5
Overall: 4.55/5

(More reviews:  Episode TwoEpisode Three; Episode FourEpisode Five; Episode SixEpisode Seven; and Episodes Eight through Ten.)

P.S.:  I actually began reading the book again after seeing the first two episodes.  The verdict so far?  Love it.  That is all.

Show Review: Sanctuary (the pilot episode)

I decided on a whim today to watch the pilot episode of Sanctuary itself because I absolutely, positively hate commercials, and particularly hate the commercials on the Sci (online rather than on Sci FiFi channel). I've heard a little bit about the show and was curious, although I probably should have been reading instead. Regardless, I have some thoughts.

My overall impression of the show is that it feels very much like the kind of show that shows up on a cable/satellite network station and then gets cancelled at the end of its first series. Perhaps that sounds harsh, but there are a lot of things that feel wrong about the pilot episode and particularly that cry of poorly devised genre. My issues with the pilot also stem from my issues with the Sci Fi channel in general. So, I guess I'll just dig in.

First, the premise reads like a TV version of Hellboy, which isn't necessarily bad, but certainly will be noticeable to people who are fans of Hellboy. The problem with Sanctuary is that it lacks the funding that Hellboy received to make that film a much more visually appealing creation: meaning that Sanctuary lacks the visuals to make it an outstanding show. There are too many times when you are fully aware of the CGI, which immediately pulls me out of the show itself. One of the things I think has destroyed modern television and film is this reliance on CGI, but a complete lack of attention paid to the actual details behind it. My rule has always been the following:

Unless you can make it look real, don't use it.
Sanctuary falls prey to many of the problems that exist within Sci Fi Channel's original content: poor CGI. This is incredibly depressing when you look at shows like Battlestar Galactica found within the first Mortal issues. None whatsoever. They could have removed half the (the new incarnation) and see what Sci Fi is actually capable of for a limited budget. True, you are aware of the CGI in BSG, but because it's done well overall you're much more willing to let it go as being a limiting factor of TV. But Sanctuary relies on its CGI to even work, whereas BSG does not. All the creatures (well, almost all of them) either have to be puppets or CGed critters, and it is really obvious when those creatures are CG. There is a mermaid in the pilot and she looks so obviously fake that it bugged me every time I saw her. The CGI quality here is not that far from the CGIKombat movie, and if you remember the CGI in that film, you'll know that that's not good at all. Even when the CGI looks good it's flawed by crappy green/blue screen techniques where the people don't look like they are actually a part of the environment around them (this is particularly annoying when they're inside of the mansion and it makes you wonder why it was so hard for the producers to hunt down a nice mansion where they could film). I realize that TV shows don't have a lot of funding, but if you're going to use CGI, make it look good, or don't use it at all. There really is no reason for the entire pilot to be mired by CGICGI to make the stuff that had to be CGed look even better. And this is very consistent within the Sci Fi Channel's attempt to reach their market. No wonder the station has issues being taken seriously even by fans (and I will make a claim here that any time Sci Fi wants to be taken with a grain of salt when it creates its own scifi/horror movies, then they should cast Bruce Campbell in every part, because only then will anyone watch and be willing to let all the issues in the production slide...because Bruce rules).

Additionally there are issues with casting. The daughter, Ashley, comes off forced and cliche--oh no, yet another leather-clad blonde girl who runs around fighting people and shooting guns...yippee. The main character, Will, is okay, but it feels a little Soap Opera-ish, and Amanda Tapping as Dr. Magnus is perhaps the strongest role, although even her performance is a mixed bag. Even the bad guy, John, isn't perfect, although he really creeped me out and felt like a British version of Rutger Hauer's Roy Batty from Blade Runner. Did anyone else see that similarity?

There 's a complete lack of atmosphere too, let alone conflict. True, there is conflict, but it's poorly done within an hour an a half of actual show. The overall issue is getting Will to join up with Dr. Magnus to deal with all the nifty unknown tidbits of the world (the sort of hidden and unknown aspect of Hellboy's world of monsters and demons and what not). And that part gets resolved, but at the same time we're told a lot of things about Dr. Magnus, which should have been a feature drawn out over the first season rather than developed and answered all at once, and her relationship to her daughter and John. In fact, the whole pilot was trying to do so much all at once it just felt like a bad movie. The atmosphere tries to be dark and gritty, somewhat noir in approach, but it fails to do that because of its poor production quality and limited sets (which is probably due to it being a TV show instead of a movie). The sets that exist don't feel very lived in, but more like temporary creations that lack the personal touch that we might have seen in Lord of the Rings--and before anyone goes off on me for making a comparison between a movie like LOTR and a TV show, you can still create character and atmosphere with cheap props on a TV show in the same manner as was done with expensive props in LOTR, so there.

In the end, I just don't see this as being a show worth watching. Maybe 10 years ago it would have been a fascinating show, but right now it feels tired. The best moment of the whole episode for me was when the girl who plays Dualla from Battlestar Galactica has a brief one minute moment. That made me happy, but the rest of it was worth forgetting. Maybe this show will get better--most shows do after their pilot episode, like Sliders and even the Simpsons--but I'm not sure if I'm willing to waste another hour to find out. I'm not very enthused at this particular moment.

Anyone else see it or have opinions?