Sunday, June 29, 2014

You Know That Scene in the Game of Thrones Season Finale You Really Hate? It's actually awesome. Here's why.

The Bear and the Maiden Fair

We're in that fallow period between seasons now, when winter looms but we've left Westeros behind until the snow melts in the spring. And with the threat of a hiatus on the back of everyone's mind, it makes even more sense to savor what we've seen thus far.

Sometimes, with Game of Thrones, it's the sweeping spectacle that sets your imagination soaring. Other times, you crash harder than a Stark kid thrown from a window, your spirit pulped like so many swollen heads in King's Landing. There are a few scenes, though, that raise the hackles of casual fan and Martin connoisseur alike. In the season 4 finale, "The Children," amidst daring escapes and far-less-cliché privy piercings, an enormous, hulking knight faced off against a hideous, loyal guardian in an impromptu dance-off to the death that felt as visceral as watching one of those "how McDonald's makes their beef" shock vids.

Widely derided, the scene sparked a brief tweetplosion that was quickly forgotten once Tyrion tracked Tywin to the toilet. Still, ask just about anyone their impression of the scene and as soon as they picture it, they'll make a face like someone just offered them raw seaweed from the Hudson, and grumble some monosyllables.

But those people are idiots. Here are five reasons why.

5) The scene is the culmination of a dozen allusions and symbolic foreshadowings.

Because the scene departs dramatically from the books, it actually came as a bit of a surprise to some tome-knowledgeable viewers. But within the show itself, there were several references to what was going to happen.

You can guess from the title that the repetition of the ballad "The Bear and the Maiden Fair" throughout the credits and closings, and as one of apparently the only two songs any bard in Westeros knows, are all interpreted as hinting towards the showdown of scary swordmasters.

But there's more, circumstantial, allusions as well. The long Samuel Beckett homage where the Hound and Arya met a dead man in the road directly mirrors the way Sandor meets his own unlikely end (and yes, I'm aware "we didn't see him die" and things-and-stuff-books-but-and). Waiting for Godot is many things, but a typical aside in a high fantasy murderfest it is not. All the more reason for us to have paid better attention to it.

4) Benioff and Weiss take great pains to show off scenes of Westerosi brutality, this short encounter does it better than any of them.

From the pilot to the season four finale, the showrunners behind our annual excursions in the wilds of George RR Martin's imagination avail themselves of nearly every opportunity to remind us that in this world, life is not only brutish and short, but as much of both of those things as possible. Regicide, fratricide, patricide, good old fashioned homicide, a hint of suicide, and tales of infanticide cover just about every Latin-inflected word we have for killing people.

But so many of those scenes hinge on a kind of violent voyeurism. Shock porn for the sake of social media impressions. From the first surprise beheading to the last bolt-interrupted bowel movement, the torturous eviscerations and bloody conflicts and headzit-poppings all elicit gasps and groans but go too far to linger beyond a graphic, crimson-smeared image.

When Brienne of Tarth and Sandor Clegane, the Hound of House Lannister face off in the rocky outerlands of the Lords of the Eyrie, over a not-nearly-helpless Arya Stark, they do so with the words of heroism and glittering knights, but wearing the ill-fitting armor of soldiers aching their way through the last years of a war. The lack of music, the heavy clangs and thuds as the titans clash, the scene finds its song in the roughness of its intercourse. There is no great triumph to be found here. No medals or gold for the victor. Just two tortured souls battling each other and themselves while clambering over the boulder-strewn heather.

3) It freed Arya to become herself

The Arya Stark who turned over her coin with a quip and a wink and found herself sailing across the Narrow Sea is not the Arya who served Lord Tywin at Harrenhal. Nor the Arya who watched her direwolf die at the hands of a cruel butcher. Nor the Arya who looked on in horror from the crowd when her father was slain by an even crueler mockery of a king. In all of those situations, she was under the "protection" of someone. 
Only through Brienne's errant gallantry was Arya freed of her final captor.

Inversely, by failing Arya in her duel with Sandor, Brienne was chained by the oath she'd given Catelyn Stark. Yes, the scene labored on long enough to be uncomfortable, and it's true that dying atop a jagged piece of granite was a death unworthy of the Hound. But it happened in a way that allowed Arya to recover from the untimely passing of her aunt and the morbid catharsis she'd giggled away in the canyon during episode eight. It happened in a way that severed the shackles around Arya's wrists. She has no more ties to the Seven Kingdoms, only a life she has to figure out how to live.

2) It's aesthetically beautiful, the perfect microcosmic summary of the entire western storyline.

Yeah, this is the art-house, slightly pretentious entry. But, you can't ignore the symmetry in the scene. Or you could, but that'd make it infinitely harder to prove this point. Podrick and Brienne; Sandor and Arya. A Lannister and a Stark-by-oath, a Lannister and a Stark-by-blood. An ugly lady knight against an ugly male ex-knight. A young boy who thanks to Tyrion's pampered-at-least-before-prison lifestyle acts more like a lady-in-waiting. A young girl whose unfortunate circumstances and karma-stockpiling left her pretending to be a squire. There's also the parallel, probably inappropriate anywhere-but-Westeros tension in each pair.

The mortal combat adds another dimension by symbolically reflecting the plot of the show thus far. The older Stark narrowly defeats the Lannister only to lose what she was fighting for. Like every victory we've seen up to this point, this one rings hollow in the end. The giant was defeated, the Mountain toppled, the Lion put down on his throne. As Daenerys freed Slaver's Bay,  Arya was freed. She'll sail upon the waves, albeit headed in the opposite direction.

The cinematography frames the fight perfectly. Eschewing the hectic jump cuts from Mance's assault on the Wall, the ponderous, lumbering camera clunks along with each crushing blow. There's no commentary, just a glum, almost voyeuristic look at the kind of ordinary violence that happens every day in the world of ice and fire. It's pretty much the best "Previously on" ever.

1) It was two monstrously strong fighters beating on each other like a platemail-clad heavyweight main event at Wrestlemania

So what if it was more late-career, less-agile Undertaker versus never-agile, somehow-late-career-only-like-two-years-in Brock Lesnar, and not an epic Warrior vs Hogan clash. The fight, for all its tracking, silent cinematography, bears rewatching for how intricate the choreography is.

If you've never tried to duel with broadswords before, you probably don't appreciate how much harder it is to fake a realistic showdown than to perform a swooping, leaping blade-ballet. Dirty, rough; lit with the grime and grit of the barren Eyrie-environs, the plodding pace of the confrontation underscores how banal one on one combat can be. There's no weeping orchestral score or blazing-white Gandalf charging down a hill. Just two herculean soldiers, smacking each other with swords and spilling black blood on blacker soil.

Ben Snyder is a writer at Riot Games who spends most of his time trying to master the dying art of calligraphic Sanskrit. That's not true at all, and he's even pretty sure that's not even a thing. Follow him on twitter, @RiotExLibris, or find him on the Riot community sites with the same tag.

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