Game of Thrones – Season eight review

Spoilers for eight seasons of television.

A lot of people didn’t like season seven of Game of Thrones. I was not one of them. For many the sped-up pace and seemingly too fast travel made everything feel less realistic, and because quite a few plot-lines were streamlined and wrapped up it felt to many like the show was rushing. I however defended this choice. To me it was simply the ramping up of pace that the penultimate season needed. I could forgive cutting out journeys and other unnecessary scenes in order to focus on the important stuff. In retrospect, I should probably have spotted the warning signs; the willingness to rush to plot points. But season seven was giving me so many moments I had longed for: Daenerys meeting Jon Snow, Dragons in battle for the first time, the Dothraki fighting in an open field, Jon Snow as king in the north. Having so many brilliant scenes completely won over my inner fanboy.

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Don’t mistake me, I still think that season seven was a good series of television. It has flaws, but they are outweighed, at least to me by the fantastic production. However, if I had looked a little harder I might have seen a bad trend in the writing. A tendency towards sacrificing logic and set up in order to surprise the audience, or make sure characters headed a certain way. I was more than happy not to notice when the writers were making great scenes that pleased me as a fan, but now that those flaws have come home to roost, I’m forced to admit that the problems with the final season of Game of Thrones come from the last few seasons just as much.

Season eight has been baffling to watch. I was looking forward to it, honestly more than Avengers Endgame, as I am a much bigger fan of fantasy than comic books. I was confident that the writers would have some brilliant last-minute plot to throw at us before the conclusion. And as creators David Benioff & Dan Weiss had met with G.R.R Martin to discuss the ending, I was sure it would at least be broadly satisfying, even if there might be differences. Things started off very well. The first two episodes Winterfell and A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms were fantastic pieces of television, artfully reintroducing us to the predicament of all these characters after the long hiatus. They gave each character a lot of good interactions with one another that developed many of them in interesting ways. There were some really good moments in the build up to the assault from the White Walkers, romances coming together after years, reunions and emotional conclusions to long time characters arcs. There was also some great set up for Jon Snow in particular, finally revealing to him his true parentage, something fans have been waiting for ever since it was little more than a theory.

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And then, The Long Night happened. When I first saw it, I couldn’t help but feel a little cheated. It was a very exciting battle, but with a sudden and overly simple ending. The fact that Arya came out of nowhere to stab the Night King should have felt amazing, but the show simply hadn’t earned it. The fact that they introduced the idea that the entire army of the dead could be killed by destroying the leader was something I worried about last season when it was brought up. They found this out by killing a white walker general, which killed the wights around him. At the time I hoped this was a red herring because writing in a fail-safe where all the enemy forces are destroyed by killing the leader is a tired cliché at this point. It felt really anticlimactic after so many seasons of build-up, not to mention that this happens halfway through the season. It also robbed Jon Snow of anything to do for the entire season. He mostly just stood around while other people drove the plot on.

So, I ended the third episode slightly nervous about what could be in the finale, if the main antagonist had been destroyed three episodes early. It turns out, not much happened. Cersei barely put up a fight, and many of the characters we know and love are given lame endings. Daenerys turns evil, which was always set up as a possibility, but struck me as a poor move, especially as it basically just repeats what happened with her father. Jon doesn’t become king, but kills Dany and re-joins the Nights Watch, essentially meaning that his whole story ends up nowhere. It also renders the big twist of his parentage basically meaningless, not to mention the slightly sexist trope of a women going mad with power and a man being forced to kill her. Bran becomes king, which is even cheaper when you consider that he did nothing for the last two seasons of the show. Some of the characters end the show in a positive way, Sansa becomes queen in the north, Arya goes west to explore, and Tyrion becomes Hand of the King yet again. But for me, after the battle at Winterfell, everything that happened next felt like a let-down. Nothing felt momentous or important, I felt like I was just wading through the rest of the show to get some closure that never came.

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The finale was not the worst piece of TV I have ever watched. There are shows that jump the shark far worse than Game of Thrones. Dexter is almost unrecognisable after season four. But for a show which has received such acclaim to finish with such a lacklustre finale is a shame. There was so much potential in the show, much more potential plot to use and yet it felt like the writers were rushing all the way through the final season. They tried to subvert everyone’s expectations at every turn, but didn’t stop to think if that would make a compelling story. Not everything has to be unpredictable. Sometimes people want to see a show end how they expect, as long as it is satisfying. Game of Thrones managed neither. There were so many elements set up and foreshadowed in earlier seasons that don’t pay off now, and it makes me wonder what the point of them all was. Not all foreshadowing needs to turn out true, but if none of it does, why was it even there?

At the end of the day, this show was still an amazing ride, and one that I’m glad I followed from start to finish. But I won’t be able to summon the same level of enthusiasm for it again, sadly. The final season of Game of Thrones is like watching a chef cook a fantastic smelling meal, adding vibrant ingredients one by one while you look on with anticipation, only to realise once you finally eat it that a lot of them don’t go together, it tastes quite bland and the chef wasn’t actually following a recipe at all.

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Career Spotlight: Jonathan Pryce

Looking back at the career of a great English actor…

Now that I’ve written quite a bit on this blog, I’ve gotten tired of doing film reviews, especially seeing as I’ve mostly been reviewing things I like. So, in the name of diversity I thought it would a be a welcome change of pace to introduce a new segment. This is a section which will look at prolific actors and actresses that have been in a lot of films and television, but not usually as the starring role. They are brilliantly talented but often play side characters or supporting roles, so you may well recognise them, but not know their names. I think it’s high time these people got a bit more appreciation, so here goes…

To begin this occasional segment, I thought I would look at the long career of Jonathon Pryce, an English actor most famous for being a bond villain and Governor Swan from Pirates of the Caribbean. I’m going to go over some of the highlights of his filmography, and how well I think he does in the various roles. Obviously, I don’t intend to look at every film he has been in, and so I’m going to pick four films from various points in his filmography which represent the range of his ability. Without further ado, let’s take a look at the acting career of that guy you probably sort-of know from Pirates of the Caribbean.

Jonathon Pryce has been active since the mid 70’s in both theatre and films. From ’76 to ’83 he had supporting roles for four feature films, three of which were relatively small independent projects. It wasn’t until 1983 that he got his first starring role in a feature film for Something Wicked this Way Comes, based on the book of the same name by Ray Bradbury. This is a strange film, with some great atmosphere but big pacing problems and some questionable child actors. However, I’m not reviewing the film, I’m only interested in Pryce’s performance. He plays the sinister Mr Dark, who despite not having a very subtle name, is a deliciously cruel character and a highlight of the film. Pryce gives him just the right level of enjoyment in what he is doing, without making him cartoonish or silly. He has oodles of charm and charisma, and yet you never forget he is the villain; he’s intimidating without needing bravado.

The character of Dark is a skilled manipulator, using people’s desires against them, and Pryce is excellent at playing the tempter, seeming reasonable, yet malevolent. For example, there is a brilliant scene late into the movie in which Dark offers Charlie Holloway, the main character’s father, to make him young again. The way in which Pryce paces his speech, and the intensity of his words is riveting. This is the first example of how much presence and authority Pryce can command with just his voice and his eyes. His intense stare, almost unhinged looking and his powerful, crisp voice both give his characters weight and gravitas. We can’t help but pay rapt attention whenever he is on screen. In my opinion, it is worth seeing this film just to get a clear example of how good Jonathon Pryce is at playing the villain.

Just two years later, however we get a very different character for Pryce to portray. Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) is, according to Pryce himself, a personal career highlight. It showcases his talent for a restrained performance. Even in his most silly roles, Pryce knows just how to sell his character, by keeping his performance under tight control. He knows exactly when to let loose and when to rein it in, and this creates a, if not completely realistic, certainly believable character. In particular in a film as bizarre and ridiculous as one made by Gilliam, Pryce shines as the put-upon straight man, making the outrageous world he lives in seem stranger by contrast. Brazil is such as interesting and funny film that I may come back to it at some point, but for now let’s focus on Pryce’s role.

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As Sam Lowry, he is swept up in an accidental conspiracy leading to him running from an Orwellian government. The key difference between a film like this and 1984, is that the evil government is more incompetent and overrun by bureaucracy than malice. In fact, the inciting incident of the film is a misfiling leading to the wrong person being arrested for terrorism. Within this incompetent and infuriating world, the character of Lowry stands out because he is normal. Pryce gives him enough frustration at the world around him, enough longing to be elsewhere so that the audience can easily empathise. We’ve all been in a less severe version of his situation, held up by paperwork or screwed over by a mistake. It’s strange to see Pryce play the hero of a story, but as the film is about a struggle against overwhelming red tape, it makes sense that a less well known, or traditionally good-looking actor would fit the role better. He brings his quiet intensity to Lowry, making him desperate to live out his daydream of excitement and romance. I can’t say much more without spoiling this film, and believe me, it’s one you want to watch without spoilers. Let’s move on.

The penultimate film I’m going to look at is one much later in Pryce’s filmography, from 2003. In Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl Jonathon plays Governor Swan, Elisabeth’s ambitious father. This film gives a good example of his comedic chops, as he plays a more humorous character, but not quite as over the top as Jack Sparrow. While Johnny Depp gives a thoroughly entertaining go as the lead, his performance is a little too disconnected from reality, and sometimes that can detract from the stakes. Pryce reacts to the world around him in a naturalistic way, which means that when the world around him is ludicrous and fantastical, it produces a realistic, and often hilarious reaction. For most of the film, Pryce plays governor Swan as a concerned father, who wishes her wellbeing but also wants her to choose the life he plans for her. He portrays this with genuine warmth and feeling, but the best parts of his role are when he comes into contact with the supernatural.

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Case in point, when he is trapped on a ship being invaded by Zombie pirates, he does the very human thing and locks himself in the cabin, accidentally cutting off a pirate’s hand, which then carries on moving on its own. The scene is very funny mostly because of Pryce’s great comic timing, but also his very real, human reaction. Upon realising the hand is still alive, he almost vomits, and his struggle to fight this one hand, whilst outside a battle against zombie pirate’s rages, is a great contrast. Pryce’s expression when he traps the hand in a cabinet, and the cabinet starts shuddering is priceless (I apologise for the pun, I couldn’t resist). The crowning moment is when he walks outside after the curse has been lifted and joyfully squares up to the already defeated pirates. In a film filled with quirky pirates and undead skeleton people, it’s nice to contrast it with some normal characters and Pryce can do both types very well.

So far, we’ve seen Pryce as the villain, the hero and the light comic relief, but I would like now to take a look at a more morally grey character Pryce has played. To complete this segment, I’m going to look at a very recent performance in Game of Thrones. In Game of Thrones, Pryce plays a religious leader called the High Sparrow. This is one the most nuanced performance I’ve seen from him and it perfectly demonstrates why he is such a talented actor. He fits so naturally into the character, it’s hard to see him as an actor. In the fifth and sixth season on Game of Thrones Pryce plays a religious leader named the High Sparrow, who rises quickly to power, and then starts to take over as the de-facto leader of King’s Landing. He is a humble seeming character, wearing only ragged robes and no shoes, and puts on a great show of helping the unfortunate. While he may or may not actually care about the plight of the poor, his real goal is to amass power, and he sees his religious followers and the poor masses as tools to complete this goal. Pryce shows a very subtle man, who presents a humble grandfatherly exterior, but reveals moments of cunning and hardness.

A perfect scene to show this is when Jaime Lannister confronts him in the Sept of Baelor. At first, the Sparrow plays the defenceless old man who just wants to see justice done. He uses humility as a weapon to disarm his enemies. When it doesn’t work on Jaime, he drops the act and lets his true character out, explicitly threatening him and demonstrating just how many are on his side. Pryce is brilliantly subtle in how he lets his facial cues and body language convey the shift in personas, as he drops the humble act. His measured and calm responses never change, but his tone alters dramatically. He starts the conversation light and kindly, and ends with a serious and completely sincere tone, safe in the knowledge that Jaime won’t kill him. Only an actor of the same calibre as Jonathan Pryce, someone like Anthony Hopkins for instance, could put that many layers into a performance, and still make it seem natural. It is a masterfully done role.

Hopefully during the course of this admittedly rather long post I’ve managed to highlight the skill in acting Jonathan Pryce possesses and how overlooked he can be. Now that I have pointed out some of his best and most interesting roles I hope that you’ll be inspired to check an actor who deserves much more attention and praise.

Making A Scene: The Spoils of War…

Breaking down a truly spectacular Battle…

I was hoping to write another movie review, but I haven’t had a chance to actually get out to the cinema, so none of the films I could review would be very recent. I have on the other hand been keeping up with the latest summer TV, in particular Game of Thrones. The latest episode The Spoils of War was a high point for the entire series and I thoroughly enjoyed the jaw dropping battle sequence. However, since I don’t want to spend forever writing long episode recaps about every episode in a season, I’ve come up with a new segment called “Making a scene” in which I will look at specific scenes from films and television episodes. And this week, I will be looking at the “Field of Fire” sequence from Game of Thrones Season 7 episode 4. As I’ll be talking about a scene from season 7 of Game of Thrones, be warned, there will be spoilers!

This episode has many amazing and well-crafted scenes. It may well be one of the best episodes the series has ever produced, and the gob-smacking ending is what captivated me most. To recap, after spending three episodes holding back, Daenerys Targaryen finally has enough and decides to attack the vulnerable Lannister army as they transport food and supplies to King’s Landing. Caught on the road unready for battle, the Lannisters are decimated by the horde of Dothraki screamers and literally burned to cinders by Drogon’s fire. By the end of the episode the entire army is routed and although Bronn manages to wound the dragon, the day definitely belongs to Daenerys.

The scene is masterfully directed and the director Matt Shakman should be extremely proud. His shots make the battle feel the way it does, and in terms of emotion, if not scale, I would say this sequence eclipses the Battle of the Bastards by miles. To be fair, it was always going to be hard to compete with a dragon. The camera-work is balanced between sweeping views of the action from up high as we fly with Drogon, to claustrophobic shaky cam and tracking shots, as we follow Jaime Lannister and Bronn through the fiery battlefield.

The tracking shots keep us close to the characters, allowing us to see the approaching army as they see it, and it is terrifying. The landscape shots of Drogon let us know what is happening and are immensely beautiful. Fans are calling this scene the Field of Fire after another battle from Westeros history. It’s easy to see why. The fire engulfs soldiers and explodes wagons, creating enough smoke to blot out the sun. the CG work with the dragon and the flames are extraordinary, especially for a TV show, and blend seamlessly with the live action. The practical makeup and props are also incredible, and the shots of men burning alive in agony are enough to make us wonder if Daenerys is really the good guy here!

The pace of the battle is quick and tension building. Rather than the slow slog of the Battle of the Bastards, where two armies pushed at each other until one gave way, this battle is decided fast. The pace keeps us from relaxing, creating tension, especially as we are unsure who to route for here. After all, both sets of characters are important to the viewer. All of this gives us a sense of dread as the Dothraki charge at us, and everything in this scene is tailored to increase that dread. From the moment we first hear the horde coming, we feel awestruck. The thunder of hooves, the eerie shriek of the Dothraki before we see them, and the roar of a dragon all feel bowel-loosening. The stunt work by the horsemen is sheer brilliance; the men stand on the back of the horse and shoot bows. Now we can see why many advise never to face the Dothraki in an open field.

There are many elements that can make part of a battle scene memorable, but rarely do all these elements come together so perfectly. Each aspect of the scene is honed to the highest standard, and I caught myself actually sitting on the edge of my seat as it went on. I can give Matt Shakman no greater praise than that this scene has affected me in a profound way, and it’ll be long while before I see anything so good again.