Thursday, August 6, 2015

TV Review: Game of Thrones, Series 5

I think it's fair to say that I was approaching Game of Throne's recent fifth season with a slight sense of foreboding. It's third and fourth seasons had covered events of only one of George R R Martins's novels, and at time struggled with the compression required, whereas the here we were getting ten episodes to cover events of two books, and finally bring the TV series into a position to overtake the books. They're also books where the shine started to come off A Song of Ice and Fire for me, as the narrative discipline of the early books started to fail and we got a lot of meandering around world as things fell apart slowly, with little hope of change. Room for compression, then, but also a lot of sharp cuts to do so. In the end, they (mostly) manage it, but not without some bumps on the way. 

I think the core issue with Game of Thrones (and it's parent books) at this point is that they are at that difficult mid-point in a long story where everything is still hanging out there with little sense of how it's all going to fit together. Each major character seems to be off on their own arc, which rarely intersect with the others, leaving the show feeling like a series of disconnected strands that don't marry up either narratively or thematically. At it's best, Game of Thrones makes all this work, but in it's weaker hours it can be just be a collection of procedural plot scenes strung out with brutality and nudity, often at the same time. By series 5, the novelty of it's shock-engine has worn out too, leaving it exposed to deeper analysis of it's workings. 

Much has been made of the use of sexual violence this season, although to be fair to the show its something that  has been there from the start, and is omnipresent in the books as well. The diverting of Sansa Stark from an isolated sideline into the teeth of a brutal marriage threw it into sharp relief; a reminder to the audience that this is a really horrible world for women, and drew the heavy outrage the showrunners must have expected. It's a deeply awful plotline, albeit one cold-heartedly pulls a bunch of otherwise disperate characters together, and in the end I was more disappointed that they have simple dropped Sansa into a pre-existing book story rather than develop something more interesting about how women could, potentially, adapt and survive in such terrible conditions. 

Pre-existing book storylines affect the series' other great moment of horror, Stannis burning his only daughter before being taken out at the Gates of Winterfell. By this point TV Stannis feels like a different character to Book Stannis (in the same way as Cersei is) due to the performance of the actor inhabiting the role. Shireen's death feels like an act of Book Stannis rather than the more human TV Stannis, and another example of the TV being unable to properly develop some of the opportunities it's choices have presented it with. 

On the plus side, we got a lot less of Tyrion complaining about booze and whores, and a lot more pace out East in Mereen. Jon's trip North of the Wall became the series best episode, and continues the TV development of the White Walkers as a potent and immediate threat. Even the hugely condensed story in Kings Landing gets there - missing a lot of depth, for sure, but it gets there, and tees up more excitment there to come. Arya continues to be a great asset to the show, and her training in Braavos is a creepy pleasure. It's only Dorne, really, that falls flat, with the total write-off of Arianne, and a disappointly curtailed Doran, making it scenically interesting but so hollowed out I wondered why they bothered. 

As ever, Game of Thrones has been the show that everyone* seemed to be watching and it certainly seemed to spawn a barrage of opinion pieces every week. Watching it a few weeks behind meant that was almost permanently spoiled, but also with a little bit of distance from the swirling "instant reaction". So I'm left enjoying the show, but with a nagging concern that, like the books, maybe we've seen all the cards it has to play, and so it needs to get on with it's story now, please, because we all really want to see a Dragon fight an Ice Zombie.

* "the grand and unrepresentatve social media echo chamber"