TV REVIEW: Game of Thrones

I offer my most sincere apologies, having been so lax in my Westeros-based reviews of late (I blame real life getting in the way) but now, here's a bumper look back at the last four episodes of everyone's favourite quick-witted, drama-filled and semi-nude fantasy drama. As always, spoilers after the dramatic title banner.

Plotwise, things are beginning to speed up in the battle for the Iron Throne. Robb is gaining victories all over the place and is attempting to ally himself, through Catelyn's emissary work, with Renly Baratheon. Stannis is Westeros-bound and, thanks to Melisandre, looks set on gaining some major victories for himself. Arya and Gendry have fallen in with Lannister forces at the creepy melted castle Harrenhal while Jon is journeying even further north in search of the wildlings. Dany has found refuge finally in the walled city of Qarth, though it may cost her a lot to stay. Back in King's Landing, Tyrion is revelling in his role as the King's Hand, playing the game of thrones with an assured hand, exhanging one-liners with Bronn and generally making his sister miserable. Oh, and Joffrey is still a shit.

While the third episode, What Is Dead May Never Die, was a little too pedestrian for some tastes (including my own), it was necessary to ensure that the audience was completely aware of everyone's motives, otherwise a lot of the upcoming plot points will have made little sense. As The Clash of Kings, the novel upon which this season is loosely based, is a massive set-up for its sequels, it does make sense that the showrunners spent so much time setting all the characters and locations up. One scene that particularly deserves a mention for both its technical and performing brilliance was the one in which Tyrion decides to root out the small council mole. Deftly-handled, it was a joy to watch Peter Dinklage go toe-to-toe with the other fantastic actors, particularly Aiden Gillen and the editing between the three was just seamless. However, I was starting to worry that the pace was becoming just a bit too slow - there's only so many times you can listen to a conversation about how dangerous the whole game of thrones is getting before you actually just start yelling at the television and baying for blood yourself. Thankfully, the show is in such good hands that when the action began to ramp up, it really took off. 

Episode four, Garden of Bones, did cause a bit more of a ruckus than previous episodes, mainly because of that birthing scene, but I'll get to that in a bit. What the Garden of Bones episode did for me, was to push the boundaries both for the characters in the show and for the members of the audience and sadly, it wasn't always successful. There were great scenes, Dany's takedown of the Thirteen in Qarth was particularly memorable, reminding you just why so many people follow her and what a queen she could become. Likewise, the scenes at Harrenhal with the torture in front of Arya and Gendry was an excellent way of reminding everyone of the peril all around for the youngest female Stark. Yet there were other scenes that seemed mainly there to shock you as much as possible. 

The main one to which I am referring is the one with Joffrey and the prostitutes. It seems to have become an episode staple that, at some point, the audience must be reminded that Joffrey is evil and needs to die. As if we need that. He killed Sean Bean. The first scene in which he mentally and physically humiliates Sansa was necessary to the plot - you get to see just how well she's playing the game and, as Tyrion observes, she's one of the most capable survivors in this world. That would have been enough. But no, instead we get an overlong, disturbing scene in which Joffrey gets one prostitute to beat the crap out of the other. The whole thing was just deeply disturbing and didn't really offer much more of a development in Joffrey's psyche; we all know that he's a misogynistic power-hungry twerp. This scene was just another excuse to see Ros naked and throw things at Joffrey's face. I would have much rather have seen something that developed one of the other characters a little more, or something that furthered the plot. 

Speaking of which, the other outrage-inducing scene had to be Melisandre's maternal moment. In the book, the passage in which Melisandre gives birth to a shadow-creature that looks like Stannis remains to this day one of the most jaw-dropping moments in the entire Ice and Fire series. And I have to admit, I loved the fact that they kept it in all its deeply shocking glory. Kudos must go to Carice van Houten for her courageous performance in this scene and also to Liam Cunningham for reacting exactly as most audience members were no doubt reacting in their sofas. Twitter went a little mental, some people proclaiming the graphic nature of the scene to be the outrage, which by all accounts, is an expected reaction. 

I knew what was coming and I was still amazed that they managed to get away with showing as much as they did. But then, there was the other outcry against it, that of the overwhelming amount of magic the series had all of a sudden developed. Only, this isn't really the case is it? Although the writers did play down the magical side to this particular fantasy epic in Season One so as not to put off any prospective viewers, it was always there. We had zombies, dragons, witches and gigantic wolf creatures right through the ten episodes. Yes, it is one of the more 'realistic' fantasy series out there but it was always engrained within the narrative of show. And you'd be really disappointed if they got rid of the dragons wouldn't you?

Like Season One's episode, The Lion and the Wolf, which saw the proverbial excrement really hit the rotor blades, episode five, The Ghost of Harrenhal, saw the plot lurch forward in such an exciting way, I barely stopped for breath for the entire episode. As the title suggests, it was a little more Arya-focused this time as we saw her developing relationships between both Gendry and the mysterious Jaqen H'ghar. We also saw a scene that was practically dripping in dramatic irony as Arya served water to Tywin Lannister as he goes on about what a nuisance her elder brother Robb is being. The reactions of Maisie Williams to hearing this news were perfectly pitched and she really is one of the most consistently brilliant performers in the show. 

Back in Highgarden, we also saw the consequences of the weird shadow birth from the previous episode. Poor old Renly. No one ever took him seriously, not Ned Stark or his enemies and especially not his brothers. And he never really stood a chance, despite his startlingly practical wife. Now, Renly's been murdered by a shadow man-thing and Brienne of Tarth is to be blamed, running off with Catelyn Stark. I had my reservations about the transfer of Brienne from page to screen. She's one of my favourite characters and is described as being so aesthetically unpleasing that I thought there was no way she'd be portrayed accurately in a glossy, good-looking production. But thanks to Gwendolyn Christie and some less than flattering make-up, it's like Brienne just got up and walked on to set; Christie captures her earnestness and naivety perfectly, as well as the fact she could cut you in half without really making an effort. She's an excellent addition to the cast and I can't wait to see her development for rest of this season and into the next.

Finally in this bumper review section, it's the most recent episode, The Old Gods and the New that has raised the stakes even more than those that have gone before. More explicitly violent than previous episodes, it felt like the showrunners are now starting to crank it up in the run up to the season finale. First of all, Joffrey got hit with a cow pat. YES! Although it's not really the cathartic torture scene we're all hoping for, it's certainly nice as an audience member to see someone so evil get hit with crap. All is not well in King's Landing; the people are starving and decide that the best way of showing this is to throw stuff. Which is fair enough really. Sadly, Joffrey has a characteristic over-reaction and decides to behead everyone which results in some dismemberment and Sansa getting a little closer to the locals than is perhaps strictly legal. The near gang-rape in this scene was really hard to watch and was an expert example of tension and nail-biting fear for a character who's winning a few more people over now. Poor Sophie Turner has been bashed about this season but is selling Sansa's journey from simpering moron to natural born survivor really well.

But the biggest development in this episode though has to go to Theon Greyjoy's decision to invade the North. Oh Theon, so many daddy issues and so little time, but attacking Winterfell was the worst decision since Ned Stark decided that Littlefinger was just trying to help him out. Not only are his actions going to royally piss off most people of importance in Westeros, he also completely hamfists it in one of the most uncomfortable beheading scenes ever committed to celluloid. Like Renly Baratheon, Theon's never really taken seriously by anyone, even Bran doesn't quite believe him when he says he's taking over Winterfell and almost everyone thinks they can convince him to stop being a fool. Sadly not though as poor Rodrik Cassel found out. Alfie Allen's performance has been one of the weaker in the season so far but he's starting to settle into it, conveying the turmoil of character torn between two families and not really knowing what to do about it. 

Thankfully, we had some comic interludes to cope with all the violence. We spent longer with Jon north of the Wall as he is learning, rather unsuccessfully so far, that being a Ranger isn't all sword-swinging and posturing. Despite some early tension with a wildling fight, it's Jon's introduction to Ygritte that provides a chuckle or two as they hunker down in the snow together to cope with the cold. Though the cold isn't really what Jon's got to worry about... Another comical scene is back in the gloomy towers of Harrenhal between Arya and Jaqen when she calls in another death for his debt after being discovered sneaking information away from Tywin's table. Compared to the escalating violence elsewhere in the episode, Amory Lorch's death was both unexpectedly quick and played completely for laughs. While a dry sense of humour is always present throughout, it's often very welcome to have explicitly comical moments, breaking the tension on what was otherwise an incredibly nerve-wracking episode.

What continues to amaze about this second season is how real everything feels. One of the big marketing themes in the run-up was all the new locations in Westeros that we'd be travelling to. The landscape of the show got a whole lot bigger and thankfully, it hasn't lost anything by having to travel all over the fictional map. Whether it's the ports of the continually damp Iron Islands or the oasis of Qarth, each location feels completely authentic. This sense of authenticity develops the show so much, allowing you as an audience to get totally sucked into everything that's going on to the point of feeling your skin crawl when you're wandering the streets of King's Landing with Tyrion and Bronn. The winner of the Best New Set award (which I have just made up) though has to be Harrenhal which is just fantastic, creepy and terrifying all at the same time. It's one of the weirdest locations in the books and the set designers have captured it perfectly. The world of Game of Thrones, in its entirety, looks beautiful and it's a testament to the production team that I actually want to explore Westeros and see it for myself. Well, I'd go and wander round if I was armed, preferably with a large machine gun. You know, just in case.


FEATURE: A Very Happy Birthday to HRH the Queen of Comedy

FILM REVIEW: Avengers Assemble