Monday, 2 May 2016

Game of Thrones - Home

Last week I briefly talked about what it would be like if a season of Game of Thrones managed to combine the greatest assets of each prior season, and I mentioned that no two seasons of the show have the same key strength. Last week's The Red Woman felt akin to a latter half season three episode: everything moved quickly, and with an impending sense of doom and dread marking most of the plot threads. The second episode of season six - entitled "Home" - feels less like a latter half season three episode, and more like a former half season five episode. That is, to say, everything is bound really nicely by one thematic idea and the array of sequences and locations all run smoothly, but there's just a real lack of narrative tension. Could it be, then, that Game of Thrones' own shocking and unpredictable formula has become one of its greatest curses? I always feared the show would arrive at this stage at some point, and now I worry that it has finally docked there: granted, there are some solid narrative developments in Home, but a great deal of them are exactly what we all predict, and a lot of them play out exactly how we all said they would. In other words, season six already desperately needs a Hardhome.

We'll get the big one out of the way first: "Home" ends with Jon Snow returning to life after his murder at the end of season five, and the flaws in this particular thread all battle it out to take center stage. Jon Snow's death just doesn't really work as storytelling. It makes sense in some ways - namely that Jon is now no longer bound by his oath to the Night's Watch - but it all ran its course in an obvious and straightforward manner. There's no narrative tension in whether or not Jon will come back. Sure, other episodes of this show have wiped out big names and kept them dead, but these characters were all at a point in their arcs where that made sense for them. Should Jon Snow stay dead, a multitude of characters' stories would tumble to the ground, not to mention the fact that the Wall (an extremely important location for the show) couldn't remain a viable place to spend time should Jon not be present. There's no tension in the episode's entire final sequence, in which the camera lingers on Jon for an interminable number of seconds before everyone slowly leaves the room - an act I assume was meant to represent everyone's loss in faith or hope for the future, but it didn't really stick the landing - only for his eyes to burst open in the final few frames. It's not particularly exciting, and it plays out exactly in the ways a solid ninety percent of viewers had already worked out.

Other aspects of the episode fared better, but plenty of tonight's threads felt stale, as if they needed to be shown in this episode to fill up the time. Arya suffers an identical beat down to the sequence we saw last week, yet this time it ends with Jaqen appearing and "testing" her to decide whether she should return to her training. It's impressive that the show has reached this stage in Arya's story this quickly, but Jaqen (a man of deep mystery who can take on any face and voice he desires) simply showing up to ask Arya three very obvious and very plain questions just felt uninspired. Ramsay Bolton - a character dangerously close to slipping into one-note territory - murdered his father, his mother-in-law and his baby brother in "Home", and I'll give the writers credit for these moments taking place much earlier in the season than I anticipated. Yet still, the narrative reasons behind Ramsay's actions were lacking, and any solid reasoning for why he does this feels too obvious. Ramsay is clearly going insane, but that just makes it more predictable that Roose's child would be a boy and that it would tip Ramsay over the edge. Roose's murder should be a pivotal moment for the North, but it almost seems like he's been wiped cleanly off the slate as if he never existed in the first place, as if there will be no narrative consequences to what should be a massively shocking moment. These were probably the three weightiest arcs in "Home" in terms of narrative progression, but none of them really worked in the ways that they should.

Unusually, Game of Thrones was considerably more successful in the plot threads that didn't advance than in the ones that did. Not a great deal happened when we finally checked back in with Bran tonight after a whole season away from him, but his vision of the young Stark family was an enjoyable opening to the episode, and it laid out the title's thematic framework wonderfully. This then allows the Lannister, Sansa-Brienne, and Greyjoy plots to subtly and effectively check in with that theme of "home" as well, creating an interesting handful of stories that were perfectly enjoyable even without narrative progression. Theon's decision to return home is more table setting than momentum, but it will be interesting in future episodes to see what he interprets as home: the Iron Islands, or Winterfell? The murder of Balon Greyjoy (not the show's most compelling villain) was an exciting moment in a fairly unexciting episode, and it sets up a compelling story arc that hopefully doesn't fall into the same traps as the Dorne arc. Only time will tell, I guess.

And that's this episode of Game of Thrones in a nutshell, really. Only time will tell how important it was for Jon Snow to die and then return to life. Only time will tell whether Ramsay's actions have genuine narrative repercussions or if the murder of Roose Bolton is all wrapped up in a neat little bow already. Only time will tell whether it was worth soaring through Arya's plot so quickly, even if it meant sacrificing plausibility in terms of how she transitions from beggar to trainee. I spent a lot of the wait between seasons five and six hoping for a more eventful season, and we seem to be getting that this year, but that cannot happen in favour of interesting storytelling. It just can't. With "Home", Game of Thrones has run through the motions in a fairly straightforward and unexciting way, simply because it feels like it has to. The three most progressive arcs tonight - Jon, Arya, Ramsay - were arguably the only three that didn't fit in with the episode's titular theme. Perhaps for that reason, some people will favour these three subplots over all else. But me? I'll take thematic framework over botched shocks any day.

Notes - 

  • Seeing a young Ned and Benjen Stark was a nice enough moment as it is, but when Lyanna rode in on her horse I thought the nostalgia would knock me unconscious. It's a testament to both the novel and the show's world building that a character we've never glimpsed at before can create a sense of nostalgia.
  • The Roose-Ramsay scene didn't really work for me at all, but the fact that Roose dies exactly how Robb Stark died was a nice touch. Both were stabbed in the heart by a man they thought they could trust.
  • No Dany tonight, which is a shame since I would have loved to have seen how the theme and ideas of "home" would come across with her in a Dothraki horde.
  • I didn't have time to talk about Tyrion and the dragons. It was a pleasant enough diversion that should hopefully set up for bigger things to come, no more no less. 
  • I really hope this is a blip in an otherwise great season. Last week's premiere was seriously effective, but this felt tame and stale in comparison. Here's hoping things pick back up again next week!

Next - Oathbreaker

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