A blog of ice and fire: Thoughts on Game of Thrones seasons 4 & 5

1200I’m still mad about the infamous “red wedding,” but nevertheless, my first-time viewing of Game of Thrones continues with seasons 4 and 5.

I’m really starting to pick up speed now — I watched the first season in about a month, but I finished season 4 in a week. It’s interesting because even though I heard what I thought were a lot of spoilers about this show, there’s still a lot of details I don’t know, and I’m dying to find out what happens to certain characters. (Also, they had better not let any harm come to poor Samwell Tarly — he has such a lovely, kind soul and at least ONE PERSON on this show deserves to find happiness, darn it!)

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Revenge and forgiveness

***Warning: Spoilers ahead!***

The Stark family keeps running into worse and worse luck, but at least now it’s time for the Lannisters to have a little taste of their own medicine. Karma finally catches up with King Joffrey and he’s poisoned at his own wedding. Also, Tywin’s days of manipulating his family are over, as the patriarch also meets his end, at the hands of his son Tyrion.

While Joffrey’s death comes as a relief to viewers (and just about everyone in Westeros), his absence doesn’t really settle the political tensions in the realm. In fact, it kicks off a murder “trial” (I’m putting “trial” in quotation marks here because there’s nothing particularly just or impartial about it), which eventually leads to Tyrion first killing his father, as referenced earlier, and then officially joining #TeamTargaryen.

As viewers we’ve been waiting a long time to see Joffrey get his comeuppance. He’s both a terrible ruler and a terrible person, and he was bad news for the future of Westeros. And yet, it’s interesting how revenge is never really as satisfying as you think it’s going to be. Joffrey’s death doesn’t erase all the evil things he’s done; Ned Stark is still dead, and there’s still a war going on. The legacy he left continues to poison those around him.

Speaking of revenge, I’m curious to see how Arya Stark’s character continues to develop, and how her feelings regarding her quest for vengeance may or may not change. (Side note: Her time training with the shape-shifters is super interesting, and I’m excited to see more magic making its way into the show.)

Arya has experienced far too much trauma and tragedy for someone who’s still so very young, and I don’t blame her for wanting to avenge her family. Still, there’s a very fine line between justice and revenge, and a good person who’s consumed by a desire for vengeance can easily cross over to the dark side themselves.

The opposite of revenge is, of course, forgiveness, and I’m curious to see what Game of Thrones has to say in regards to this theme. We haven’t seen much forgiveness at work, which is a shame because redemption and forgiveness are two of my favorite themes in stories (it’s why I love Star Wars so much, and it’s also why “Return of the Jedi” is one of my top favorite Star Wars movies). I believe that forgiveness and healing are an important part of the human experience.

Game of Thrones is challenging, though, because there are some characters that I really, really hate, and who seem beyond redemption. Some of the villains on Game of Thrones display a level of evil and cruelty that force me to look away from the screen. How does a character like Arya reach a place of forgiveness and peace within herself, while also ensuring that justice is done and that corrupt leaders are prevented from harming others in the future?

Daenerys is also wrestling with these same questions, as she tries to cement her status as queen and end corruption in the realms she encounters. What kind of punishment should she dole out in the lands she conquers, to the people who have done genuinely bad things? How do you mix mercy with justice?

I don’t think the show has really revealed what it thinks the answers to these questions are yet, but I’m sure this will continue to be explored in coming seasons.

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A dangerous dynasty

Even though I’m very much #TeamStark (a fact I’ve probably mentioned too many times already in this series of blogs), a character who has really grown on me throughout this series is Tyrion, and it was hard to watch almost all his friends and family abandon him during the trial where he is falsely accused of murder.

Peter Dinklage puts so much emotion and depth into his performance, and you can’t help but empathize with him. And what an epic speech when he tells off the entire courtroom full of people from King’s Landing; it didn’t exactly go over well with his audience, but I was definitely cheering!

It’s interesting to watch how the Lannisters regularly serve as the architects of their own doom. Jaime Lannister started this whole mess all the way back in season 1 by pushing Bran out the window. Joffrey’s selfish cruelty paints a giant target on his back. Then, Tywin’s repeated mistreatment of his son Tyrion leads to his own death and the loss of one of King’s Landing’s best strategists.

Well, the capital’s loss is Dany’s gain, as Tyrion takes his clever wits and political prowess to the Mother of Dragons, lending his support to the Targaryen dynasty. I can’t wait to see how their partnership plays out.

Tyrion will also be extra glad that he got out of King’s Landing when he finds out about the dumpster fire that place has turned into. Cersei gambles on an alliance with the High Sparrow, only to have him turn on her and throw her into prison. Cersei really can be a nasty person, but in the end I do pity her, because her life, on the whole, has probably been a very unhappy experience.

Cersei is smart and capable, but in the male-dominated world of Westeros, she’s treated dismissively. She has to fight for whatever power she does wield. If both she and Tyrion had been treated with more respect, and were placed in a more welcoming environment that allowed them to truly flourish, it’s interesting to ponder what they may have accomplished.

There are way too many other character arcs to cover in one blog, but it’s also cool to see Jon Snow emerging as a leader and trying to combat the growing threat of the White Walkers. Brienne of Tarth continues to be one of my favorite characters, and I love that we get to learn more about her backstory. Plus, Podrick is a great sidekick for her, and I love seeing their adventures together.

Also, in the beginning I really hated Theon Greyjoy, and I’m surprised to admit that I now genuinely feel sorry for him. He’s done some bad things, but seeing the way Ramsay Bolton has broken him physically, mentally, and emotionally is just gut-wrenching.

Speaking of Ramsay Bolton, he now joins King Joffrey on my list of most hated fictional characters of all time. I flinch every time he’s onscreen, and I’m getting mad just writing about him. Ugh ⁠— it’s time for him to go!

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Responsibility in storytelling

This leads me to the final point I’d like to discuss, and it’s one I’ve heard other viewers talking about throughout the series. Does Game of Thrones sometimes go too far in its depiction of violence, particularly its focus on sexual violence against women?

There’s a scene in season 5 involving Ramsay Bolton and his new wife, Sansa Stark, that so deeply troubled me that I don’t even really want to write about it. I don’t cry a lot while watching movies/TV, but his horrible treatment of Sansa really got to me. We’ve seen many female characters who have been sexually mistreated throughout the series, including Cersei, Dany, and nearly Brienne.

Is this something that should be shown onscreen? I’m sure that events like this happened in the real-life medieval era; however, any time you portray a sensitive topic in fiction, you have to do it responsibly. Hopefully Ramsay will be called to account for all the awful things he’s done, but that won’t erase the trauma Sansa has experienced.

I love Game of Thrones, but I believe it is perfectly fair to call out the writers, and to wish that they’d handled these sensitive scenes with greater care. Also, the scene of Jaime forcing himself on his sister Cersei felt out of character and has made it tough for me to root for a redemption arc for him anymore. According to an article I read, that scene wasn’t even in the books, which makes its inclusion in the show all the more frustrating.

This issue is more complex than can be covered in one article, but I think it’s good to talk about it. Fiction can raise awareness about the realities of sexual violence throughout history, and motivate people to take action against it. But this topic should never be sensationalized or used for mere shock value, which is sometimes the case in Game of Thrones.

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Closing thoughts

I am now over halfway through this series, and pieces of the narrative continue to fall into place. Also, thank goodness I have heard some spoilers about season 6, because the ending of season 5 is definitely a shocker. The Night’s Watch turns on Jon Snow and leaves him bleeding out on the ground, presumably dead.

I definitely would have been raging at “red wedding” levels of angry, but thankfully I already know he comes back, so the scene wasn’t as traumatic as it otherwise would have been. Still, I’m definitely going to be in a hurry to get to the library after work today to pick up a copy of season 6!

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TV review: My belated thoughts on ‘Arrow’ Season 4

arrow-s4ep12The fourth season of “Arrow” wrapped up a couple weeks ago on The CW, so I apologize for this rather belated review. I’m actually still stuck in season 1 of “The Flash” and season 2 of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” so I sense some catching up on superhero shows is in my future this summer. 😉

I started watching “Arrow” after reading a preview about it in Entertainment Weekly and found the show got better and better throughout its first season. The show reached its pinnacle in a strong second season, but some fans expressed disappointment in season 3. The flashbacks — which were an intriguing part of the first two seasons — began to feel a little old, and a little forced; the same thing could actually be said of the drama between some of the characters. However, a new season is always an opportunity for a fresh start — is “Arrow” now headed in a better direction?

Overall, I think season 4 was an improvement for “Arrow,” even though it didn’t rise to the heights of season 2. The show featured an intriguing new villain, Damien Darhk, and this season’s flashbacks felt a little more relevant, even though as a whole the flashbacks are weighing the show down and should probably be retired.

(Warning: Some spoilers ahead!)

In season 4, Damien Darhk uses the supernatural powers he gained from a cursed idol to attempt to “cleanse” Star City and the entire globe (and by “cleanse” he actually means “destroy”). I thought Neal McDonough did a great job with the character, and he brought a lot of personality to the role, making Darhk charismatic, dangerous, and intimidating. Although when the show first started, I liked that it had a more “realistic” tone and didn’t involve any actual super-powers, I think they’ve integrated these new supernatural elements fairly well. Supernatural detective John Constantine (Matt Ryan) even has a brief but fun cameo this season; I’d love to see him return to “Arrow” or some of The CW’s other superhero shows since the NBC show featuring this character was canceled.

“Arrow” isn’t a show to shy away from shocking plot twists, and this season we had a major one: the death of Black Canary/Laurel Lance. I’m sad that Laurel will be leaving the show, even though I wasn’t really a huge fan of the character in the beginning. She and Oliver’s romance always felt too forced, but I liked that the past few seasons the show let them return to being friends and Laurel joined the superhero team as a full-fledged member. While I feel like there were still interesting stories they could have told with the character, killing off a major character does build suspense and make the show feel a little more real.

Another character that has improved throughout the show is Thea Queen, Oliver’s younger sister. I wasn’t a big fan of her either at first, but I think the character has really grown and matured the past couple of seasons. She was a great addition to Team Arrow in season 4 and she’s interesting in that she battles a different kind of inner darkness than Oliver. At the end of season 4 she says she needs to take a break from vigilantism but I hope she’ll be back in season 5.

Season 4 doesn’t definitively resolve Oliver and Felicity’s on-again, off-again relationship, and it left me with mixed feelings about their romance. Felicity was one of my favorite characters in the first couple of seasons, and I admit I was one of those fans who really wanted her and Oliver to be together. However, I’m not a big fan of how their relationship has been handled on the show so far, and I almost feel that — as much as I want them to end up together — they are better apart. The show needs Felicity’s quirky, sassy banter, and some of that went away due to her relationship drama with Oliver. It might be nice if in season 5 they both tried dating other people who aren’t a part of Team Arrow.

Going forward, while the show’s experiment with supernatural elements has been interesting, I’d like to see “Arrow” return to its roots and go back to being a gritty vigilante drama for a season, especially if season 5 is its last. The show’s villain has been global in scope the past two seasons; why not have a powerful crime lord (similar to “Daredevil’s” Wilson Fisk) whose focus is just Star City? I’d love to see how Oliver would handle this both as the Green Arrow and as the city’s mayor. It would be great to have a season focused on crime and politics. I’d also love to see Oliver finally reveal his secret vigilante identity to the public in a pivotal moment, maybe telling the villain, on TV, that “You’d better not mess with Star City — not because I’m the mayor, but because I’m the Green Arrow.”

So, what do you think? If you’re a fan of “Arrow,” what do you hope to see in season 5?

TV review: Season 4 of ‘Downton Abbey’ brings new challenges for characters

Downton Abbey Season 4  Part EightFans must once again bid farewell to the glittering halls of Downton Abbey, as another season of the popular British period drama draws to a close. Whereas season 3 brought a number of dramatic and often tragic changes to the Grantham estate, season 4 was more about the aftermath of those changes, as characters sought to overcome challenges and build a new life beyond their tragedies.

One of fans’ biggest questions this season was how the show would survive without two of its best-loved characters, Matthew Crawley and Lady Sybil, who both died in season 3. However, the show seemed to remain as popular as ever, continuing to draw plenty of buzz for PBS.

So, is the most recent season as good as the seasons that came before it? Critics have been a bit tougher on the show this season, its Rotten Tomatoes score dropping from the almost perfect score of the first two seasons. Overall, I would have to agree that yes, the first two seasons are the strongest in terms of writing and plot development, and season 4 may not be show runner Julian Fellowes’ strongest offering. And yet, the show continues to be just as much fun to watch. By now we’ve developed connections with all the characters, and I can’t imagine not tuning in every Sunday night to catch the latest intrigues. It’s a show that’s meant to be watched and then discussed, sharing those “I can’t believe that just happened!” moments with other Downton addicts and speculating about what will happen next.

This season pushed many characters out of their proverbial “comfort zones.” The often overlooked middle daughter, Edith, took steps to become more independent and finally seemed to have a turn of good luck. However, the sudden disappearance of her love interest, Michael Gregson, devastated her, leaving her faced with the scandal of being pregnant and unmarried. Tom Branson still mourns the loss of his wife, the youngest daughter, Lady Sybil, and he feels trapped between his lower class background and the higher class world of the Crawleys, wondering where he actually belongs. Lady Mary also grieves for her husband, Matthew, but gradually learns to live and laugh again, although she’s unable to choose between her two new suitors — Anthony Gillingham and Charles Blake — neither of whom are willing to give her up easily. These issues were explored in season 4 but still remain unresolved and undoubtedly will continue into season 5.

Some of the other highlights of the season included the development of the begrudging friendship between the Dowager Countess and Matthew’s mother, Isobel Crawley, who supplied some of the best banter in season 4; watching Mrs. Hughes take charge of the downstairs drama and (maybe?) flirt with Mr. Carson the butler 😉 ; seeing kitchen maid Daisy Mason gain more confidence and grow as a person; and the return of Cora’s American mother (played by the great Shirley MacLaine), as well as the introduction of her brother (Paul Giamatti).

The show did generate some controversy this season with a plot line involving a violent tragedy that happens to lady’s maid Anna Bates. It was a dark and shocking plot twist, but I felt it highlighted an important issue of the time that was probably often overlooked and under-reported. How Anna’s husband, valet John Bates, responded to this tragedy generated another one of the unsolved mysteries from season 4 and introduces a possible darker side to his character. His desire for revenge is understandable, but will audience members still like his character if he did take vengeance, especially if he’s trying to cover it up?

In the next season, I’m looking forward to seeing what decisions Branson makes about his future; I want to see him find love again, though I’m not sure if I like Sarah Bunting, a school teacher who seems to be developing a romantic interest in him. I’m also enjoying the love triangle plot line with Lady Mary. I know a couple weeks ago in my blog I ranted about love triangles 😉 , but I think this one has been handled well. It’s tough to replace Matthew, but I like the contrast between the Gillingham and Blake characters (Gillingham is a soft-spoken gentleman, while Blake has a sharper wit and keeps Mary on her toes) and the different sides of Mary they bring out. I’m also curious to see what happens to Edith, as she tries to provide for her new daughter but also keep her existence a secret.

So, what did you think of the latest season of “Downton”? What parts did you like/dislike? What do you hope to see in season 5?

TV preview: Changes ahead for ‘Downton Abbey’ in season 4

downton-abbey-season-4-spoilers-featuredA shadow has fallen across the halls of Downton Abbey, and tragedy has struck the Grantham estate. Last season, the popular British period drama shocked fans by killing off not just one but two well-loved main characters. In season 4, the wealthy Crawley family will have to deal with the fallout of these losses, as well as the rapidly accelerating societal changes that are bringing an end to the way of life the British upper class has enjoyed for centuries. 

My local PBS station hosted a sneak preview screening of “Downton Abbey” season 4 earlier this week, giving fans a chance to watch the first episode before it airs Jan. 5. As a diehard “Downton” fan, I couldn’t pass up this opportunity. 😉 Although I wasn’t sure how well the show would survive after the deaths of Matthew and Sybil ― two of my personal favorite characters ― the preview has me excited about the show and new developments for the characters.

The series has followed the rich Earl and Countess of Grantham, Robert and Cora Crawley, and their daughters, Mary, Edith, and Sybil, who occupy an elaborate estate in England called Downton Abbey. The show highlights both the “upstairs” and “downstairs” residents of the abbey, incorporating storylines about the wealthy Crawleys and their servants.

Season 4 picks up six months after the death of Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), who would have been the heir to the Downton estate and was married to Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery). I’m glad the show runners chose not to start the season immediately after Matthew’s death. Fans were very upset by Matthew’s death, even though it was a necessary plot point since the actor playing the character decided to leave the show. If too many of the early episodes of season 4 had focused on the Crawley family’s grieving process, I think it would have made accepting Matthew’s death that much harder on the fans.

I was a bit concerned how the show would work without Matthew and Sybil, but even though I do miss the characters, there are still many reasons to love the show. The changes in season 3 offer several interesting character development possibilities for season 4.

downton-abbey-season-4-lady-mary-bransonTom Branson (Allen Leech) ― the family’s former chauffeur who caused a scandal when he married the youngest daughter, Lady Sybil ― has emerged as one of the most intriguing characters on the show. Although he still holds onto political ideals that are radical for his time and are in sharp contrast to the Crawley family’s more traditional ways, he’s learned to temper his political passion with compassion. The loss of Sybil brought him and the Crawley family closer together, and he’s taken a more active role in managing the family estate. However, he still must deal with the challenges of being caught between two worlds ― his lower-class past and the upper-class society of the Crawleys ― and I think this struggle will occupy much of the plot in season 4, especially if the show runners decide to introduce a new love interest for Branson. Will it be a girl from his own social class, or will the Crawleys fully accept him into the upper class and expect him to remarry within that class?

Lady Mary also finds herself in a unique position this season. One of the show’s most complex characters, Lady Mary at times seems cold and unfeeling, but her sharp tongue often serves as a defense mechanism to make herself appear stronger than she really feels. In the first few seasons, she was pressured to marry well, and then when she did marry, to quickly produce an heir. Now that she has a son but has lost her husband, she feels hopeless and adrift. Branson has been encouraging her to become more involved in the management of the estate, and I’d like to see the two of them become friends and for Mary to take on more of a leadership role.

Societal change has always been a major driver of the plot in “Downton Abbey,” and the Crawley family will be confronted by more shifts in the new season. Roles for women are changing, and Lady Edith is taking advantage of these changes to become more independent. She has found success as a writer for a newspaper and is traveling on her own more frequently. Roles for servants are changing too, and the abbey’s “downstairs” residents are beginning to dream of careers other than waiting on a wealthy family. Even the family’s staunchly traditional butler, Carson, has a surprising moment of boldness in the season 4 premiere (a moment that got a round of applause at the preview screening). 🙂

I know many “Downton Abbey” fans were upset about some of the plot developments in season 3, particularly the deaths of Matthew and Sybil, but I’d encourage you to still tune in to season 4. The first episode teased quite a few possible story lines this season, and I’m excited to see what happens to the characters.