Tuesday, May 24, 2016

From the pulpit


Last week, one of the guys on the board asked me if I'd be interested in doing some reviews/critiques of Preacher, since it's based on the comic of the same name by Garth Ennis.and Steve Dillon. I said that I was a little reluctant, since the series, while good, had failed to really reach "classic" status with me because the story ended up being less about the high concepts that initiated it and more about "being cool" and/or shocking. The story began with Jesse Custer, the preacher in question, asking essential questions about human nature and its relationship to the unknowable and how that combination generated things as disparate as kindness and savagery, righteousness and hypocrisy. But what it ended up veering into was more like a parade of shocking moments, handled with blasé aplomb by most of the main cast, that didn't really invest in any of those high-minded concepts.

If you've ever seen Ocean's Eleven (either version), you'll know what I'm talking about. The film(s), while entertaining, are basically just an excuse for a dozen A-listers to get together and hand scenes off to each other and have a good time. Their entire reason for being on screen is to "be cool." That might be fun to watch, but it's also not much of a story. Preacher, the comic, ended up being a lot like that. I read the whole series, but I can't tell you anything about the last year of it because it really didn't matter by then. So when I saw the trailers and ads begin appearing for AMC's Preacher adaptation, I kind of cringed at the thought of what they could and couldn't do. AMC has been pretty reliable in developing intelligent shows that stick to their overarching themes (Breaking Bad, Mad Men, etc.) and in keeping the writing and story pretty intelligent. Would they be able to do that with what I considered an entertaining but essentially flawed product?


Right off the bat, I was a little cagey about Dominic Cooper as Jesse. When the show opens, the impression I got wasn't that he was questioning himself and his place in the world but more that he was... weak. This wasn't the supremely self-assured Jesse Custer that I remembered, who used that confidence to mask so many stories about his past and his family that he'd rather forget. This was someone who was on shaky ground, period. But by the time he was beating the shit out of Donny (Shut the fuck up, Donny!; What happens when the Confederate Army is beaten by a Texan?), I was more comfortable with him. I still think he lacks a bit of the gravitas necessary to really pull off the moments when he uses The Word, but we'll see how he does. As much as Tulip and Cassidy play major roles in the story, it revolves around Jesse and the entity inside him, which makes for a big role to carry. Nothing that he's done before will compare to this.


Similarly, Ruth Negga as Tulip struck me as an odd choice. The key to Tulip was that, although she was hard as nails, the way that Dillon drew her in the comic simply screamed "femininity". The two aren't completely exclusive but, again, it would be a difficult role to pull off for a TV audience. I actually like that writers/directors Seth Rogen (yes, that Seth Rogen) and Evan Goldberg used what may be interpreted as a gratuitous shot of Negga's shapely ass in a shadowed window to express some of that femininity, since the rest of her appearance was nothing but hardcore, including her opening as she struggled with and murdered two men in a speeding car over a meth deal. I think that display of the feminine arcs more toward "sexuality", but there's nothing wrong with that, especially since her relationship with Jesse in the earlier part of the story is fairly combative and creates dramatic tension between the two that will only become more obvious if she's presented as a woman, rather than the boy her father raised. It just so happens that this woman can beat you in a fistfight, if she doesn't decide to kill you first.


And Cassidy, well... I think Joe Gilgun actually hit the mark right away. It takes a while for Cassidy as a character to become something other than a stereotype, as weighted down as he is by so many things (vampire, drunk Irishman, parasitic addict) that we've seen time and again. In that respect, yes, Gilgun was those things. Does that make him more or less appealing for future episodes? I guess that depends on just how interested the showrunners are in retaining the tragedy of the storyline that he embodied in the comic (Can you tell I'm dancing around spoilers here? Yes, I am.) Believe me when I say that there's a lot more to Cassidy than his panoply of stereotypes, but it will heavily depend on AMC and the writers' willingness to engage.

The rest of the cast was decent for the limited time they had and, yes, it was thrilling to see W. Earl Brown (Dan Dority from the long-lamented Deadwood) make his return to a role (Sheriff Hugo Root) that might actually have some meat on it, as opposed to the boilerplate he was given in the utterly forgettable True Detective, season 2. The most interesting development may have been the introduction of Emily Woodrow (Lucy Griffiths) as the apparent lone "straight" among the crowd of the disjointed. There is a fair amount of story that can be mined from having a character who reacts to things with some degree of shock/fear/disdain so that we can be introduced to the world of the disjointed along with her. But that also removes the show from the realm of things like Carnivale (to name another long-missed HBO production), where everyone was weird and you were just invited to look in to their world. Perhaps Emily is the showrunners' way of keeping to the themes that I felt that Ennis lost in the comic? That's feasible, since she does seem to be intended as a grounding element for Jesse. I just hope it doesn't descend to something pedantic.


In the end, my only real complaint was about Arseface, which seems appropriate for the guy who's suffered the most among the cast. The actor (Ian Colletti) was fine, but I think the production kind of dropped the ball on the prosthetics. What we got wasn't nearly as interesting as what we'd seen before although, admittedly, trying to translate Dillon's artwork to "reality"


is going to be a difficult task for just about anyone and would involve a much larger time investment on the part of both makeup and the actor (and a lot more money) to pull off in a way that would be fitting. "Don't mind losing a section of your jawline for this role? Great! You'll be famous!"

So, yeah, overall not a bad start. It's definitely worth watching a second episode, unlike, say, Constantine. Or TD season 2.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Paradox


There's a favorite Orwell quote of mine from his novel 1984 that represents the political ideology of Oceania, known as Ingsoc: "Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past." It's meant to represent the idea that people will usually hew to tradition if faced with a problem that they can't solve and that "tradition" will typically be defined by whoever can declare what "tradition" has always been. If historical revisionism is the order of the day (witness the current image of Ronald Reagan as basically nothing close to who he was and what he actually did while in office), then you can dictate how things will evolve based on myths and legend. I give you Brandon Stark and his trusted compatriot, Willas Hold the Door.

Now, that's one small event that Bran altered and which led to the current future. Obviously, Hodor has been key to Bran's survival and his reaching the last Greenseer, Bloodraven, in order to learn how to slip back in time in order to create Hodor from Willas (Walder in the books) so there's a certain element of time looping taking place here in that one respect, but that seems to revolve solely around Bran himself and we've yet to see him impact any other major events. It's been suggested around the Web that Bran could have influenced some of the key elements of the story, such as driving Aerys Targaryen mad, but I don't think that either D&D or GRRM will go quite that far or we'll end up in Matrix-land and no one really wants to go all the way to the Land of Allegory (hopefully.) There's a limit to how much symmetry can be applied before everyone assumes that everything is simply one more trope.


For example, the revelation that the Others were created by the Children of the Forest as a way to defend themselves against the First Men is an element of storytelling that has been seen before, assuming that they were created as a weapon that the Children later lost control over. OTOH, they could have been created as a tool of Armageddon that the creators had no interest in controlling, deciding that the future world was simply one that nothing should be living in. The fact that the locale shown where the first of the Others was created is the same one that the Night King uses to create new members of the tribe from the babies that Craster was giving to them might mean that there's some element of power in the locale and not just the ceremony that the Children initiated. But if the root of the Others lies with the Children, why is their leader, Night's King, a former member of the Night's Watch that was created to man the Wall, which was raised to resist the Others in the first place? He was the 13th commander of the Night's Watch, which means he was there long after the Others had first appeared and the Wall was even built. Why is he the leader now? Somewhere along the way, the myth, the "tradition", has been either misunderstood or perhaps intentionally altered by those who wished it to be seen in a particular way.


That perspective informs much of the rest of the episode, as Sansa and Jon (a female heir in the land of primogeniture and a bastard oathbreaker who's been raised from the dead) try to stake a claim to the North; as Tirion and Varys make reluctant alliance with a religion that neither believes in nor trusts but which also seeks to stamp a new outlook on the ancient Ghiscari culture and the world; as Asha and Theon try to assert control, again in the land of primogeniture, in the name of finally making the Ironmen something other than simply reavers clinging to the rocks with what they've been able to loot from wealthier peoples; as Arya tries to follow a path that she knows she cannot walk, as she'll never be able to leave behind her personal traditions that define her as a Stark and, in fact, as Arya, the strongest personality amongst all her siblings.

Indeed, those searching for greater symmetry in the story may not even have the animal totems of the two central houses, Targaryen and Stark, to look to. There are only two direwolves left from the five introduced at the beginning. While Grey Wind and Robb were doomed from the outset and it seems somehow appropriate that Summer died defending Bran who has now become the last Greenseer, if untimely (ahem), Ghost and Nymeria survive; the former still being the rogue element that his master, Jon, represents as the male Targaryen heir, and the latter being the living tie that embodies Arya's inability to ever leave herself behind, as the wolf that was sent away in the Riverlands but can never truly abandon who and what she is. But Sansa endures while Lady, her wolf, was the first one to die. Lady's death was symbolic of the death of a dream, while Sansa continuing is testament to the endurance of the real world and her role in it. Bran is outside of it, Robb is past it, Jon and Arya are skirting the edges of it, but Sansa persists. Is that still symmetry? It's hard to say. All we know is that what seemed to be uncharted waters, post-books, for the first 4 episodes of the season have now firmly become a path of their own. We're on the back 9 of the season and while some roads still seems fairly clear, others have become that much more difficult to predict. That's a good thing.


And, in some sense, the time paradox that represents everything simply happening again (Those who do not learn from history...) was thematically present from the opening moments, when we see Sansa sewing again, just as in her childhood, and eventually making a garment for her brother that she remembered her father wearing. Kinvara wears a necklace just like Melisandre's. Another illusion about defying time? Or an acknowledgment of the unified vision for what's to come? The past is the present is the future. Is this what Benioff and Weiss were trying to say? That we can't escape the past even as we change the future? Maybe. But I'm still hoping that there's something more to it and that Bran's personal adventure isn't the defining element of the entire story, but continues to be just another part of the whole. Similarly, while I certainly appreciate the somewhat faster pace of this season in comparison to the semi-torpor of some storylines that was pulled from similar circumstances in Feast and Dance, I admit to feeling a little rushed. The culmination of some of these stories has been a long time in coming and I really hope that Bran's adventures up and down the timeline aren't used as a shortcut around any of them.

Side notes:

It was interesting to see Littlefinger under real pressure again for the first time since Cersei instructed him on what she felt was the real definition of power. It was also inevitable that he'd be able to play mindgames with Sansa by mentioning the Blackfish, even as she was as determined as anyone has been to kill him. One questions why Sansa was willing to lie effectively on Littlefinger's behalf (Brienne's pointed question being the same as mine), but the appeal to family may have been what Baelish was counting on to spin her head around and make he still a useful asset at some point. I still almost guarantee that Littlefinger will escape with his life when this is all over, even if it means going back to being just the lord of one of the smallest of the Fingers. On a technical note, they sure like to play fast and loose with the massive distances in the North. Baelish casually mentioning that he left the knights of the Vale in Moat Cailin while he strolled up to Mole's Town means that he left them WEEKS ago.


I wonder, perhaps, if they're overdoing it a bit with Arya. Her unceasing anger in her training with the other girl is making it more obvious than ever that she'll never become a Faceless Man because she simply can't abandon who she is. The overly lengthy scene of her observing the play (although I did appreciate the parallels to Hamlet: the play within a play) and having an emotional reaction to the representations of Eddard and Sansa drove that point home a bit too much. I mean, we get it. She's Arya. She'll always be Arya. As much as she's becoming an assassin, she'll never be able to make the commitment to the religion of the Many-Faced God anymore than Tirion will become a devotee of R'hllor. Having a good chunk of season one acted out in parody took up a lot of the episode to little real end, other than to give the audience the first real gratuitous shot of full frontal, male.

The Kingsmoot scene unfortunately fell completely flat to me. It would have been much more dramatic and interesting had it taken place inside the castle on Pyke. There was some good tension in Theon's moment of truth, but Pilou Asbæk was completely uninspiring as Euron, either in the moot or as he recovered from the drowning ritual. The actor simply lacks the air of menace combined with gravitas that the character carries in the books. People want to follow this guy, why? Also, no eyepatch! WTF? Finally, with Theon and Asha having stolen what looks to be the bulk of the fleet, Euron's inspiring plan is to build a whole new one? That's going to take months, at least. And who's going to man this new fleet? Furthermore, how are there enough trees left on the islands to make it? The reavers have been operating for centuries. The books mention that the islands are largely denuded as a consequence of the shipbuilding that's been a habit for those centuries. This just seems like a really ill-considered tangent, especially since Euron of the show isn't half as interesting as Euron of the books.

I'm not sure what happened to Emilia Clarke but she looked the most assured and imperious that she ever has on this show. Change of makeup and/or hair? It was something. Up to this point, even in the scenes where she had complete control of the situation, as when she became queen of Meereen amidst the screams of the crucified, she'd still looked somewhat uncertain. Her scene with Jorah tonight was the first time I can remember thinking that her gaze had real impact. She looked like a queen.

Lines of the night (not many, as the events were more important):

"Did you know about Ramsay? If you didn't, you're an idiot. If you did, you're my enemy."
Get some!

"Does death only come for the wicked and leave the decent behind?"
We should be so lucky.

"I may not know the North, but I know men. They're the same in pretty much any corner of the world. None of them want to see their wives and children skinned for a lost cause."
There is that...

And the winner:

"You want your queen to be worshiped and obeyed. And while she's gone you want her advisers to be worshiped and obeyed."
"I'd settle for obeyed."
Me, too. Most of the time.


And, of course, it's hard to leave without including:
"Hodor."

Monday, May 16, 2016

The Book of the not-so-strange Women


As a writer, it's always fun to see a long-term theme finally reach the payoff. When you plant the seed of a story and finally get to show everyone the fully-bloomed tree (or even just finish writing the scene in which the tree is presented in all its majesty), there's a certain relief that comes with that moment, as well as a great deal of pride in being able to finally reach the point where most of your audience, be they readers or viewers or both, should be giving you the "A ha!" response. I'd like to think that Benioff and Weiss have reached that moment with this episode, not because there's been the huge reveal of one of the many, many long-running mysteries (or not so mysteries) in the series, but rather because the latest episode finally became an implicit response to the recent criticism about their (and Martin's) treatment of women.

Martin created his world to emphasize some of the more deplorable aspects of the Middle Ages, especially in regards to women essentially being treated like property, from the nobility all the way down to the slaves. Many viewers objected to this in various ways, from rolling their eyes at the sexposition (which has been overwhelmingly dominated by female exposure) to outright rage-quitting over the treatment of Sansa by Ramsay Bolton last season. Anyone actually paying attention should have recognized the fact that Martin has never shied away from exposing his characters to the harshest of circumstances and D&D have, of course, followed suit. But in all the outrage and indignation, some people were clearly missing the point: despite having abuse of all kinds and degrees heaped on top of them, the strongest characters in A Song of Ice and Fire are the women, without question. Tonight's episode, "The Book of the Stranger", is where that underlying reality begins to come to fruition.

Reunited for the first time since episode 1, season 1
We've seen 6 seasons of Cersei trying to prove that she's as good, if not better, a player of the game as any of the men around her. Similarly, we've seen Arya prove that she's more canny and able on her feet than most of the targets on her list. But, with few exceptions, most of the other female characters have played the role of the victim, even those as prominent as Daenerys. Most inflicted upon, of course, has been Sansa which has led many to assert that she's annoying because she never stands up for herself. My response near the end of season 4 was that she is, in fact, the strongest character of the show because of how much trauma she's been put through and the fact that she's kept going. Tonight's reunion with Jon, in addition to being a rather heartfelt moment, was the first time she's been in a position of feeling some kind of relief in six years (something like three in show time.) That's endurance, man, and she wasn't the only one.

Sansa convincing Jon that they must fight, Margaery being the strong one for Loras, Cersei still being the (Casterly) rock for Tommen, Asha rubbing Theon's nose in his weakness (he, uh, did used to live with the dogs), and Dany's assertion of control over the entire Dothraki horde are all demonstrable examples of how times they are a changin', not just in the meta perception of the show and its tendencies, but in Westeros and Essos as a whole. The women are finally asserting control over the chaos that the world has descended into and are ready to make real changes to the way things have always been done. It's interesting that most of them are all different methods of demonstrating the will and power to move forward, as well: Sansa (justice), Margaery (sibling love), Cersei (manipulation), Asha (contempt), Dany (destiny?) It's to Martin's and D&D's credit that all of those motivations are completely believable and multi-faceted the way any human's responses to crisis can be. Cersei's manipulation of the King is still tied up in her devotion to her one remaining child. Asha's contempt for Theon's condition is still propelled by her pride for what her house can be, what the Ironmen are, and what she knows Theon was.


There are, of course, no guarantees (this is Game of Thrones, after all.) I fully expect Asha's efforts to come to naught since they have brought Euron into the show and one obviously can't expect Ramsay Bolton to wilt in the face of the oncoming Wildling and Arryn not-quite-a-horde. The one person keenly aware of how to take steps in less dramatic fashion is, as always, Tyrion who proposes a rather Lincolnesque deal with the rest of Slavers' Bay ("Yeah, we don't want slavery but, y'know, take your time.") in the hopes of avoiding the virtually guaranteed war, just as Lincoln hoped (and failed) to do. In this one instance, the female voice which is typically the more reasonable and inclusive (look at our own world for any number of examples of the wiser, gentler hand of leadership often being female), Missandei, is one of those that is still outraged while Tyrion attempts to reason with her. Being close to the topic can give one determination, like Sansa, but it can also create roadblocks and Missandei is in one of those, not least because she believes in the principled mission of the woman who brought her to where she is today: Daenerys.

With that in mind, the final scene was fully expected, since this has been Dany's path since the moment she was married to Drogo. Bringing the horselords across the sea to champion her cause has always carried an air of inevitability. I expect many fans to react in the same manner that they did to the "Mhysa" scene from season 3, in which a white woman is treated like a god by a bunch of brown-skinned folk in true colonial fashion. However, instead of the "you've saved us when we couldn't save ourselves" perspective, this was clearly a power play. Burning up all the khals and the hall in which their women were traditionally trapped (albeit sort of ruling from, at the same time) is a demonstration both of her personal ability and how she's still dispensing with all kinds of tradition (remember, Westerosi society is still largely dominated by the idea of primogeniture.) That said, I was still less impressed by this display than I was the "Dracarys" scene from season 3, which established her as a figure to be feared, and not just because the CGI attaching her head to her body double was a little off (Edit: I stand corrected. See below.) Is it because I'm still a little reluctant to accept that strength can also come with a certain degree of sensitivity, especially in this world? Maybe. It's tough to break the habit of always looking for where the next dagger is coming from. Hey, I did politics. That's how it works. Ask Tyrion...


Side notes:

Speaking of daggers, we couldn't get through a whole review without bringing up the man responsible for the vast majority of this whole situation: Petyr Baelish, who once again proved that his ability to control the weak-minded (Robin Arryn) gives him a leg up on the strong in almost every situation. Littlefinger is, by far, the most intriguing character of the story when thinking ahead to how everyone might end up, since it seems pretty unlikely that either Martin or D&D will give many fans the satisfaction of seeing the master schemer end up receiving any kind of real retribution for his many acts of perfidy.

With that in mind, it has stuck out to me that, in this, the first season nominally without the guiding hand of GRRM's novels, 3 of the 4 episodes have been written by Benioff and Weiss. If you want to make sure the ship comes home, no better hand to steer it than the captain(s), I suppose.


Amusingly, in an episode about female empowerment, before they closed on Dinklage here, the establishing shot was half taken up by an image of Missandei's ass. Now, it's not like I object, since (Lecherous mode, activate!) I could probably stare at Nathalie Emmanuel's ass for a good, long time in any number of contexts, but did they really need to take that angle just to make sure that everyone was in the shot? They had Tyrion climbing stairs, after all, so they don't have the height disparity as that much of an excuse.

On the topic of bodies, I find it amusing to note the change in status of the various actors employed by the show. Lena Headey arrived as an already established star and, thus, has never had to disrobe for the camera. It was problematic for the producers, anyway, since Headey has a considerable amount of ink while, uh, Cersei does not. Thus, the Walk of Shame from last season was conducted with her in a skinsuit (not a stillsuit. Nerd.) and a body double. Emilia Clarke, OTOH, arrived on set with exactly one credit: a British PSA. Thus, when she was showing skin in the first season, it was her skin (amusingly, she wasn't quite 18 when she was first cast, so they had to wait a bit to shoot moments like the bathtub scene in episode 1 of the first season.) Now, of course, she's established and, thus, no longer does that. The first time she stepped from the flames at the end of season 1, it was all Clarke. This time, it was someone else. Rebirth? [Edit: And this entire section is apparently just me musing on the possibilities, because apparently Clarke did her own work.]

In contrast to Littlefinger, the character who has the most predictable end but remains intriguing is Jorah Mormont. He's now the equivalent of a leper (not that leper. Nerd.) and knows that he's doomed. And still he pursues the goals of a woman that he apparently deeply believes in, above and beyond the role of unrequited lover who feels he might yet prove himself, since he can never make contact with her again. The last honorable, yet dishonorable, man? There's pathos there. I just hope that they don't send Iain Glen on too many more "adventure to save the princess!"-type storylines that will diminish that.


While I've loved almost every moment with the High Sparrow to this point (I'm an atheist with a fascination for religious fanaticism; no, I don't really get it, either), today's parable about the cobbler who decided he couldn't stand the smell of sex left me with an expression similar to Margaery's up there: "Wut?" I mean, leading the poor and downtrodden against the rich in the name of virtue? I'm right there with you, man, even if it's for sorely different reasons. And it's not like there hasn't been plenty of evidence for just how poorly the common people are treated to know that they didn't even need the blessing of the gods to start fighting back. If he uses religion as the motivator for justice, be my guest. It makes sense (as history has shown, repeatedly.) However, the whole "I can't stand that icky sex thing" routine threw me off something fierce. It's not like I expected a rational response from a fanatic and the Seven know that the most natural of acts has been a sticking point with the gods-fearing bunch for a long time. (We can get into the whole "is it because the power of creation lowers the estimation of God or is it that sex makes you feel better than kneeling and praying?" thing some other time.) But are we learning a bit more about the petty motivation of the Sparrow? There had to be something that drove him a little harder than all the other things. I'm just sorry that it's because he had to fall in line with the rest of Westeros and demean half the population ("The women we used..." as if the women at the party couldn't be having sex of their own volition and enjoying it?) while carrying on his crusade.

And the little things: the look of absolute venom between Cersei and Pycelle, plus Tormund making eyes at his perfect match, Brienne. There are still any number of priceless acting moments in the show. It's held up well in that respect, in that the actors can still mine little bits like these.

Lines of the week:

"Can you forgive me?"
"There's nothin' to forgive-"
"Forgive me!"
"OK. I forgive you."
Ma'am, yes, ma'am!

"He admitted it, you know?"
"Who did?"
"Stannis. Just before I executed him."
Of all the badass moments for women in this episode, this was one of the badasseriest.

"You will cut off your support for the Sons of the Harpy."
"We do not support the Sons of the Harpy."
"Fine, fine. But you'll cut it off all the same."
Let's talk like we know each other is lying, OK?

"Slavery is a horror that should be ended at once. War is a horror that should be ended at once. I can't do both today."
The voice of reason in the land of passion.

"If I win, I'm the shit who killed an old man. If I lose, I'm the shit who was killed by an old man."
The solution is to stop fighting old men, I guess, Perhaps switch to old women since today they seem tougher...?

"Were you expressly forbidden from standing down?"
Don't just do something! Stand there! Sounds like Congress.

"So we don't spill blood."
"Well, there's always a little blood."
Get three Dothraki in a room and you'll get four murders.

And the winner:

"You've seen my banner?
"The flayed man. Do you eat them after?"
"... No."
"Then I've seen worse."
I'm sorry to see Osha go, simply for lines like that. When you've lived alongside Thenns, Boltons don't seem that impressive.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Conversations


As I've mentioned before, there are frequently episodes in continuing series that are defined as "bridge episodes", in which momentous events don't really happen, but a lot of smaller ones do that link together the momentous events of other episodes. In any lengthy story, you need those lower points so that your readers have peaks and valleys and you can maintain a certain rhythm to your story. After all, even car races have pit stops, since you can't be going full bore for the full 500 miles. Characters, if they're going to be real, have downtime that gives them an opportunity to show how they've been affected or grown from the events in those peaks. "The Oathbreaker" was one of those bridge episodes. The difference here is that there are now so many storylines with so many events of impact taking place, that even the supposed bridge episodes are loaded with impressive moments. This was one of those and it made this latest episode into the best of the season, by far.

A frequent technique for bridging segments of a story together is the use of conversations between the major players, as they attempt to sort out what's happening around them. That happened quite a bit tonight, from Sam and Gilly discussing the realities of their situation and reaffirming their pledge to one another to Smalljon Umber stating just how far he was willing to go (not very) in cooperating with the new Warden of the North. Clearly, those are setups for what's to follow, but they're also key storytelling moments in both small ways (Gilly declaring that Sam is the father of her child) and large (the Umbers setting up what has to be a power play; I'll get to this in a moment.) Tyrion, above, was just attempting to make small talk, but the smallest talk often has great ripples, be it in Vaes Dothrak with the only person in the world who commands the beasts of legend, or in Castle Black where average people attempt to comprehend the miraculous while the tide of reality seeps in all around them.


For book readers, of course, one of the best conversations was one that didn't even have to do with the future, but instead the past and everything that has followed from it: young Eddard Stark and Ser Arthur Dayne at the Tower of Joy. By this time, most people should be familiar with the theory about Jon Snow's parentage. The confrontation at the Tower, between Eddard, Howland Reed. Dayne, and two more members of the Kingsguard is intimately involved in that theory. In the books, the scene appears as a fever dream of Eddard's while in the Black Cells beneath the Red Keep. Here we're treated to it as part of Bran's education by the last greenseer. It was the culmination of the trigger event (Rhaegar's "kidnapping" of Lyanna) that precipitated everything in the story except the return of the Others; most notably the fall of House Targaryen. Fittingly, the TV audience finally sees it as we're now on the precipice of witnessing the return of that house. One question that stands out, however, is why the greenseer would have been so concerned about Bran learning what happened inside the Tower. There's nothing that Bran can do to change the past or affect the current situation. Or can he?


Appropriately, one of the simplest conversations, with the least immediate effect on the overall game being played, was one of the most transformative for one character and the best scene of the episode: Arya's training. She's finally reached the goal she's been focused on for years: finding a way to take vengeance on those she feels deserve it. The price is that the reason for that vengeance, her family and the wrongs done to them, will be lost to her as she has become no one but a faceless assassin serving the obscure motivations of the Many-Faced God. Given that she was punished for acting out one step of that vengeance, there's little guarantee that she'll ever be given the opportunity to enact more of it, such that he transformation into one of the Faceless Men becomes little more than a way to channel her aggression which she's not even permitted to embrace in her own interest. Those conflicting agendae seem to guarantee that Arya is engaged in a long-term game of her own, using the Many-Faced God and its servants to empower her own personal crusade. What kind of blowback occurs as a consequence remains to be seen. Maisie Williams' face after drinking the water of life was one of blank ferocity and speaks well of her (and Arya's) ability to play a delicate role.


Speaking of running the long con, I can't see what happened in Winterfell in this episode as anything but. If you know anything about the backstory of the North, you know that the Umbers have always hated the Boltons, since both houses were among those competing to be the next best thing to the Starks (and because many of House Bolton's customs are... quaint.) The Smalljon reinforced that last night by delineating exactly how House Umber would be cooperating with Ramsay Bolton, the new Warden of the North; that is, not at all. Not all conversations are about improved communication, clearly (Tangent: This is putting aside the fact that, in the books, the Smalljon died at the Red Wedding, while the Greatjon is still a captive at The Twins, while in the show, the Greatjon died at the Wedding and the Smalljon is back at The Last Hearth.)

Despite telling the lord of the North to essentially piss off, the Smalljon then delivers a gift: the heir to Winterfell, Rickon Stark. Why? On the one hand, it could be a method of ingratiating House Umber with the new lord, despite the personal antipathy of the Smalljon. OTOH, it could also be a way to get both the people of Winterfell and the rest of the North to rise in revolt, now that they know an heir to the true owners of the castle has returned. In this sense, the Smalljon playing up his disdain for House Bolton is simply playing to form. If he had come in the room making nice, Ramsay and the Karstarks would have known something was up. But acting like a typical Umber and then delivering a way for Bolton to seemingly cement his power is something else.


But the conversation of greatest philosophical impact brings us back where we started. Clearly, the title of the episode was intended to highlight Jon's final words and his departure. Of course, the oath of the Night's Watch has certain limitations, one of them being death ("... and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death.") Since Jon did die, it's an open question as to whether his oath has been fulfilled. Obviously, he intended to carry on until he witnessed the dead, purple face of Ollie a few moments after receiving the venomous glare of the same boy (played excellently by Breneck O'Connor.) I suppose there's only so many mental traumas one can endure in a short time (betrayal, murder, being raised from the dead with wounds still present, and then executing one's sworn brothers) before you simply reject everything and try to escape. Jon has always struggled with the idea of sitting on the sidelines while his family is embroiled in the game (and, it has to be said, mostly losing it.) Having given everything he has to the Watch, this is as a good a moment as any to declare that he's done his bit and decided to move on before he genuinely betrays the principles of that commitment. It's also a convenient stepping stone to his activity (bridge episode, remember?) as he enters the fray for the first time. What gives this moment special impact is the large number of spheres it enters and questions. Jon's been raised from the dead, a miracle in almost any situation and culture, by a priestess who no longer believes in her own god. He's surrounded by people that now regard him as some holy icon, a few of whom were happy to see him die, as they felt he'd betrayed the very identity of their sworn order by allying it with their historical enemies which is, in itself, kind of misaligned thinking, since the real enemies aren't the Wildlings, but the Others, and the Wildlings themselves are common people, beneath the notice of the elite, like most of the Watch. Jon's walking away from his role because he feels like he can't properly lead the order after his betrayal and the necessary justice inflicted on the betrayers, but likely also because he feels like he's better suited at this point to getting involved in the game to the south. Meanwhile, the real threat that diminishes all of the petty human squabbles is still looming and the foremost leader against that threat has just stepped away from it. If that whole thing feels like a great setup for later action, then the writers did their job.

Side notes:

I thought Young Eddard looked a little too young, but then I recalled that, during Robert's Rebellion, both he and Robert were all of 19 years old, so I guess it was appropriate for him to appear that callow. Part of the problem may be that the actor that plays Eddard, Sebastian Croft, lacks the same expressive eyes that Sean Bean has that tend to give him and his various roles a certain degree of emotional depth that simply wasn't in the Tower of Joy scene. Also, Croft's voice doesn't match even a younger version of Bean. That said, the swordplay of the battle, while, uh, highly unconventional on the part of Ser Arthur Dayne, was great to watch. It was also interesting to note that Eddard's oft-noted claim that Howland saved his life at the Tower was a result of the latter stabbing the greatest knight the Kingsguard had ever known in the back. Not exactly the stuff of legend, but those always seem to diminish when you get that close to them, anyway.

Why is the giant Kingsguard suddenly Ser Gregor again? When Qyburn mentions him last episode (and in the books), he's always Ser Robert Strong. Has everyone just openly abandoned the fiction and acknowledged the fact that Qyburn has turned what was a semi-mindless brute into a fully-mindless brute? Why the fiction for one episode?

The last greenseer shepherding Bran through his training is Bloodraven, former Hand of the King during the Blackfyre Rebellion. Upon their return from the Tower of Joy, he makes a comment about being stuck in the tree for 1000 years, which is odd, given that said Rebellion and Bloodraven's taking the black only happened several decades before the present day. Was he speaking as the seer and not Bloodraven? Maybe.


It's hard to include everything that went on in this episode, but I have to drop in a mention for the return of Olenna Tyrell (Dianna Rigg) to the series and the fascinating events in King's Landing. Watching the Lannister twins maneuver around only to be stonewalled by their uncle was interesting, especially since Jaime and Cersei's relationship is more akin to "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" at this point. Watching the High Sparrow use the concept of unknowable faith, despite his personal insight to same, on the finally angry King Tommen was a good eye-rolling moment for me, as well.

Lines of the week (a lot this time; once again, the best episode of the season so far):

"I failed."
"Good. Now go fail again."
Davos, ever the pragmatist, delivers a line that a lot of people (including me) should heed more often.

"I'm not a god."
"I know that. I saw your pecker. What kind of god would have a pecker that small?"
Tormund Giantsbane, always ready to bring giants back to earth.

"Is that still you in there?"
"I think so. Hold off on burning my body for now."
"That's funny! You sure that's still you in there?"
Ben Crompton as Dolorous Edd has only been getting better with each passing season.

"Torture does provide answers, but they're usually the wrong answers. My job is to find the right answers." Most intel people would agree with this sentiment. It's good to see Conleth Hill back in a role of influence. Ethics and intelligence.

"My master, Krasnos, would sometimes make us play games."
"There! That's a start!"
"Only the girls."
"No. Not that."
Tyrion is sometimes outflanked by the realities of slave life.

"You're not the queen. You're not married to the king. I do appreciate these things can get a bit confusing in your family."
The Queen of Thorns with a Kelso.



"It's not what I want. It's what the gods want."
Said every religious leader trying to convince someone that they know best because they have a closer relationship with an unknowable power.

"That's a short list. Are you sure you aren't forgetting someone?"
"Which name would you like a girl to speak?"
Says the assassin. Somewhere, someone in the Lannister family felt a chill.

"Your father was a cunt and that's why you killed him."
Ramsay's hesitation and mild acknowledgement here was priceless.

And the winner because... yeah:

"And now it begins."
"No. Now it ends."

Monday, May 2, 2016

Portrait of contrasts


The strange interweaving of the stories of A Feast for Crows and A Dance of Dragons led to some weird timelines for the readers, in which events that were supposed to be happening simultaneously or even sequentially, were shown out of order. Part of the problem was that what was supposed to be one book was split into two. The other problem was that the two volumes that made up that formerly one book were written, re-written, and finally published almost six years apart. But that was all just part of digesting the story as a whole, so most shouldn't have been too concerned with it. Now, of course, we add in the timeline of the TV show, which also has had to jump around to satisfy the vagaries of production schedules and the limitation of 10 episodes per season.

What makes that interesting in this, the Age of Past the Books, is that the show storyline is now, essentially, the dominant one (uWoWid) and yet they've had to do the largest leap backward in this latest episode to date. The funny part is that they did so with a scene that wasn't actually in Feast: the assassination of Balon Greyjoy. In the books, no one is actually certain if Balon was pitched over the side of one of the inter-island bridges or if he simply fell. It's strongly implied that he was killed by his brother, Euron, but no one can prove it. So, not only do we have a case of uncharted territory in material that isn't yet published, but we also have it in a book that's 11(!) years old. This isn't taking a different turn or moving into new territory. It's just confirming what everyone already assumed and making a fairly dramatic moment out of it. Was this a scene that Martin had written and then eliminated to just cut to the chase (aka the Kingsmoot)? Or was this just Benioff and Weiss deciding that it was a far more dramatic way to introduce the menacing character of Euron? If it was the latter, wouldn't it have been prudent for the non-readers to know that Balon's brother's name was, in fact, Euron, since neither man says it during the whole confrontation?

But never mind that. The theme of the episode was clearly a study in contrasts. Bran, trapped in the utter north, is still able to travel farther than anyone, both in terms of distance and time. (Just like the Balon/Euron scene, we traveled back in time. Meta!) The fact that he's now accompanied on his journeys by the redoubtable Max von Sydow makes it all the better. Melisandre has lost faith in the Lord of Light, but is being asked to commit an act that requires an ultimate test of that faith. Tommen is trying to assert himself, not to gain control, but to protect his mother, the repeated loss of whom to the church would probably break him and the throne. Meanwhile, Cersei can't force the hand of her pliable son, but is now joined by the most implacable member of the Kingsguard to ever exist and whom is willing to fulfill every whim of the queen mother (a terrifying prospect in and of itself for most of the population of King's Landing, one would think), even down to hunting down the exhibitionists from the Walk of Shame (Ding!)


Nowhere is this study in contrasts more evident than in the confrontation between the High Sparrow and Jaime; one of the best scenes of the episode. As the Sparrow repeatedly points out, he may be the head of the church but he fears many things, including death, as even his faith isn't strong enough to assure himself that there is a next world after death. Jaime, used to resolving problems with the little people in the most direct manner possible, attempts to wield the intimidation of the armed and armored warrior, face to face with the peasant in his simple robes. But the implication of what his actions may do stays his hand. No matter how powerful the one, the many will eventually win out. It doesn't take faith to make that a reality.

That said, it may have been Melisandre's personal struggle that sent the most powerful message. Here is the arrogant, imperious priestess reduced to confessing to the lies that carried her to her station in life alongside the pretender, Stannis. But the priestess with the lapsed faith is begged to perform a "miracle" by one who lacks faith of any kind in the first place (Davos). In order to complete this act for a bunch of non-believers (including the man she aspires to return to life), she must overcome not only her own disenchantment with R'hllor but also the lack of faith in herself to perform any action on behalf of the Lord of Light, much less one that she states should be impossible by those whose results she has seen. This pairs up nicely with the question of magic in most fantasy presentations. ASoIaF has been called "the Middle Ages, but with dragons" because of Martin's insistence on sparing his audience nothing in terms of how Hobbesian (nasty, brutish, short) life can be, even if one is among the societal elite. But even though magic and the dragons exist, both are regarded as something essentially mythical. In the same way that JRR Tolkien's stories largely kept magic (or "lore") firmly in the background, as an element of history that could easily be myth, GRR Martin's stories do the same. The contrast there is that the wonderful escapes that the concept of magic (or flying away on a dragon) present are extremely rare, as opposed to the rough end that so many of our cast have met and will continue to meet. The limited amount of fireworks means that those moments that involve something otherworldly continue to be special for the audience and for the characters involved.


Despite all of that, the conclusion of the episode was the most expected moment in the series, to date, I think. My girlfriend even said: "And Jon Snow wakes up and... credits." even before Ghost knew what was happening. The big question had always been not whether Jon would return but how (Melisandre, warging into Ghost, etc.) I don't know that that diminishes said "magical" moment because it was so obvious, but I still have a bit of "OK, get on with it." puttering around my head. Some of that may have come from the way the scene was initiated, with Davos, the man lacking faith, asking for an impossible task from the sorceress who's given no indication that such a thing is possible. Plot hole? Another small stumble was the scene with Tyrion and the dragons.


While I understand the motivation behind the scene, as it will be much easier for the World's Most Unlikely Ruling Council (2 former slaves, a eunuch, and a foreign dwarf) to rule the city of Meereen backed up by Rhaegal and Viserion (if they're going to be "intelligent" characters in the story, we might as well refer to them by their names, rather than "the dragons", yes?) than it would be otherwise. But that scene had me arching an eyebrow or two. Tyrion isn't given to flights of fancy, outside his choice of women. He's a careful planner who is willing to use his considerable knowledge as an advantage, but usually to avoid getting killed. The idea that he'd be willing to take this considerable gamble without an equally considerable amount of time thinking about it and/or consulting with others seems off to me. In fact, it kind of seems like D&D took my previous advice ("get on with it") and left out some time in Meereen where Tyrion would have made this discovery. Yes, he did something similarly brave in the Battle of the Mud Gate, but that was in a moment of crisis where he knew it was do or die. This was a plan with even higher prospects of "die". So there's my own personal contrast: Yes, more magic and dragons is fine, especially this late in the game. But keep it real, man.

Side notes:

The return of Bran was welcome and the time travel back to the point of the ably intelligent Willas (nèe Hodor) was interesting, although why they decided to call him "Willas" instead of his name in the books (Walder) is open to question. Too close to the name of Walder Frey? And did they make a return to Iceland for that scene? It seemed a bit more studio-ish than previous sets in the utter north.

Speaking of unnecessary name changes, one of the best parts of the episode for me was the reappearance of the Greyjoys, including Asha (no more of this "Yara" business, please; it's Asha. Not Osha. Asha.) While the interaction between her and Balon was pretty pro forma, the appearance of Euron is exciting, as he's one of the most intriguing characters of the later books. Also, the Kingsmoot scene in the next episode or two should be pretty fascinating. Also also, was the grey-haired man in the water, reminding Asha of the rules of the 'Moot, supposed to be a stand-in for Aeron Damphair? While I wouldn't mind it if it were so, as I like the character (as I like most of the Greyjoy stuff), he was a bit too sane to be the priest of the Drowned God. And that's still the best fireplace in that or any other world.


There was a certain amount of symmetry in a couple of the casualties tonight. The giant smashing one of the Watch against a wall only to toss him to the ground, creating a line of blood and gore in front of Thorne's men that he was clearly daring them to cross, was an excellent bit of violence. It was mimicked a few minutes later when Ser Robert Strong decided to avenge the queen mother's honor on one of her taunters from the Walk. Clearly, they'll put your head out.


In a similar vein (ahem), we finally see Roose Bolton meet the sad end of having played with fire (aka Ramsay) for so long. That was a bit of a disappointment, as I thought he might hold out a bit longer until the changes in the North finally cracked a bit of his ultra-cool facade. But it was inevitable and Ramsay clearly has more political savvy than Roose expected, since the former knew what strings to pull to get the Karstarks on his side. Now they seem to think that the Umbers will fall right in line. Good luck with that.

Even more interesting was the impact of Ramsay's actions on Ramsay. I'm sure there will be people that will begin the wailing and the gnashing of teeth about Ramsay having fed Walda and the Bolton heir to the dogs, as it was a pretty brutal scene. But the interesting part was seeing the flicker of emotion on Ramsay's face, as if he was uncomfortable with the atrocity he'd just committed (as opposed to all the rest.) Don't go Helen Lovejoy on me now, Ramsay. On second thought, go for it. It certainly adds another, to date unknown, dimension to the character.

Despite all of that interesting stuff, perhaps the most heartfelt scene was one of the shortest, as Theon plans to leave Sansa in the hands of Brienne while he goes off to rediscover himself and perhaps atone for some of what he's done. Alfie Allen and Sophie Turner have really been among the best performers of the show and too often overlooked.

Lines of the week:

Tormund Giantsbane, admiring Jon Snow's corpse: "Took a lot of knives." That's a Wildling compliment if I've ever heard one.

"You would spill blood in this holy place?"
"The gods won't mind. They spill more blood than the both of us combined."
Jaime and the High Sparrow debating perspective.

and

"Every one of us is poor and powerless. And, yet, together we can overthrow an empire."
He's just singing to my Marxist heart.

"If I lost my cock, I'd drink all the time." As opposed to now... when he drinks all the time.

"That's what I do. I drink. And I know things." And that's why he remains one of the best characters in the show.

"I'm not asking the Lord of Light for help. I'm asking the woman who showed me that miracles exist." The confrontation between the disbelief in what you can't see and the belief in what you've seen but still don't want to believe.

And the winner:

"I don't mock the Drowned God. I am the Drowned God. From Oldtown to the Rock, when men see my sails, they pray." Euron. Always Euron.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Blind leading the blind?


I think we're going to have to get used to a couple abbreviations around here, since Game of Thrones is now the first TV show based on another property that has exceeded the bounds of said property while the latter is still running. Since fans of both books and show are familiar with ASoIaF (A Song of Ice and Fire), new phrases reduced to acronyms should be easy to digest.The first one is uWoWid. (unless Winds of Winter is different.) I'll be tossing that in there when it comes to talking about where the story is going, since we have a pretty good idea of its direction, but not the path that each medium is going to take to get there. Some things that seem bad or good in the show may be different in the book (and some we already know are quite different.) The other is "nits", as in picking them because they're "not in the show." We'd like to think that, finally, book and show fans are united and essentially as blind as Arya up there, but that's not entirely true. Benioff and Weiss are leading everyone into the wilderness as they attempt to finish George's story long before he ever will but many of the book fans will have a better handle on what's to come because we've been living with this story for 20 years and so much grondwork has been laid that it's hard to miss. That's part of what made this first episode utterly predictable, with one exception. Most of the trails have been blazed and the major players are just following them as they hurtle toward the inevitable confrontation between Fire (big lizards) and Ice (the Others.)

From Dany's condemnation to being one of the crones of Vaes Dothrak to Davos finally taking the reins of a situation to Arya's blindness being just one more step in her training to Brienne finally saving the day on behalf of Sansa, every event has been eminently predictable if people were paying attention. That's not to say that I'm able to lay out every detail of where the story will proceed from here, but I guess I did expect a bit more from the first episode without George's presumed guiding hand. Then again, since it is the first episode, there is a lot for much of the audience to re-familiarize themselves with yet again, so there's a limit to how much story progress can be made. Even so, I was a bit disappointed that the reunion of the World's Greatest Odd Couple, Tyrion and Varys, was so mundane as to be little more than them spelling out exactly how difficult things are going to be for them in Meereen, as if anyone needed to be reminded of that.


The lone exception to this general state of affairs were the events in Sunspear (Yes, Sunspear. The city. It has a name as the capital of Dorne.) I definitely didn't expect to see Doran assassinated by Ellaria and the Sand Snakes. This is certainly not something I'd expect in the books, uWoWid. Doran has a much larger role in the most recent books, but that's like saying the sun has a larger role in warming the earth. Given his five minutes of screen time in season 5 and 2 minutes in season 6, I think it's safe to say that the talents of Alexander Siddiq were completely wasted on the show. (Some book spoilers in the next few words. Highlight if you want to read them.) Given that Doran and Varys were behind the sheltering of Aegon Targaryen, Daenerys' nephew, who is making a claim to the throne at the end of Dance of Dragons and that Doran is attempting to make good on his promise to wed his daughter Arianne (nits) to Viserys by having his son, Quentyn, attempt to marry Daenerys. So, there's a lot more going on that the show has definitively closed the door on with the deaths of Doran, Trystane, and Areo Hotah. Of course, that also means that the eminently hostile Ellaria and the Snakes are now ruling Dorne, which has its own interesting angles, regardless of whether uWoWid or not.

There were definitely a few character-oriented highlights, such as Pod putting up a substantial fight against the Bolton outriders, and Dany's confrontation with Khal Moro, who initiated what has to be an homage to the modern era's foundational fantasy epic, Conan the Barbarian:



Khal Moro trying to get an answer from his lieutenants about what could be better than seeing a woman naked for the first time (Killing another khal, breaking a horse, etc.) is so redolent of the famous Conan question about life that I was laughing as soon as he started asking the rhetorical question. And there were good moments, such as Arya slowly infecting her anguish over being beaten/trained while blind with the frustration and determination that it won't stop her. That shot of her face with the Titan of Braavos in the background was well done. She's as constant as the statue and about as implacable.

OTOH, there were also some questionable bits of Jeremy Podeswa's direction. Jorah and Daario finding Drogon's landing site where Dany was picked up by Moro's khal, followed by the discovery of the ring in the grass, was about 30 seconds of melodrama that could have been shortened to five of exchanged glances. "They have her!", ominous drums and the crescendo of the orchestra... No, thanks. We knew this would happen as soon as she dropped the ring at the end of last year's episode 10. Hamming it up is not necessary. But, again, is that the difference between a book reader and a show watcher? It's hard to tell, but my girlfriend hasn't read the books and she was kind of rolling her eyes at that moment, too. One assumes that the longtime divide between fans is going to end once we get into the meat of season 6, but it will be a hard bridge to cross if the heretofore excellent writing is going to revert to bog standard TV drama. Shows that sit at the pinnacle of what television has to offer, like The Wire and Breaking Bad, didn't engage in this much handholding of the audience. Granted, neither of those had a story that was quite as complicated as Game of Thrones. But, to date, the show has treated its audience with a certain degree of respect. I'm hoping that's maintained even as D&D are charting their own course.

Interestingly enough, a similar question of faith is still being presented in the show, as well, since Melisandre's visions are again proved wrong and she finally reveals one of the main illusions that she's been presenting to everyone else since she entered the story. Is she a crone because of the Red God or has he been maintaining her as a favored servant? Is the show able to stand on its own legs from here on out or will we start to see the cracks in the story that even some readers are questioning after this long?

Lines of the week:

Hypothermia is a far better way to die than what's waiting back at Winterfell.
"He thrust a terrible choice upon us. And we made it." Alliser Thorne, late of Nuremburg.

"It was a good victory. Do you feel like a victor?" Roose Bolton with the constant reminders that Ramsay will never truly be the accepted son.

"She's not suffering. She's gone. No one can hurt her anymore." Is it a comforting thought that the safest place in Westeros might be in a crypt?

"Fuck prophecy. Fuck fate. Fuck everyone who isn't us." That was, uh, kinda the High Sparrow's complaint about Cersei, man.

"Sinners don't make demands. They make confessions." Jonathan Pryce continues to be a revelation as the High Sparrow, even when he's trying to play the good cop with Margaery.

"You're a greedy bitch, you know that?" There's sibling rivalry for you: arguing over who gets to be the one to kill their cousin.

"I like to talk when I'm finished. Otherwise, we might as well be dogs." Dothraki perspectives on sex, even if the one being talked to might have been mounted like a dog?

"What's one redhead going to do against 40 armed men?"
"You haven't seen her do what I've seen her do." Sounds like my girlfriend. Don't underestimate, man.

And the winner:

"Buried? Burned? She's good meat. Feed her to the hounds." The tenderness of Ramsay Bolton and the fitting end to the houndmaster's daughter.


Some technical notes:

You're seriously telling me that they couldn't alter the opening just a tiny bit and call it "Sunspear"?

They're going to have the same problem with Ollie that they did with Bran, as the former looks massively older after just one year since last season. Similarly, Theon looks much more together than he did even at the end of last season. Is that intentional on the part of D&D, demonstrating how he can't look as decrepit as he has been as Reek and still be Sansa's semi-savior?

The presentation of Melisandre seeing the warped vision in the metal before finally revealing her true form was well done, similar to the shot of Arya with the Titan. Podeswa has a good sense of visual storytelling and it served him well here.

The continued presence of Podrick isn't just a matter of providing comic relief or a contrast to the eternally stiff and socially awkward Brienne. Given the massive amount of lore contained in the story, it's nice to have someone who's had reason to be a walking encyclopedia, since a squire knowing the heraldry and customs of the people his lord (or lady) might encounter is eminently understandable. Pod stepping right in and helping Sansa finish the oath of fealty ritual with Brienne was perfectly natural and an easy way to both help exposition without seeming obvious and add to the cultural density of the world.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The teevee and the moving picture shows

Bird watching.
The finale of Better Call Saul was excellent. The best thing about that show is the fully-formed characters, in that you can see a number of different possible reactions and/or paths for them to take and all of them seem valid to one degree or another, such that none of them are easily predictable. You can't look at decisions that Jimmy, Chuck, Mike, Kim, Nacho, or Howard have made and say that they were obviously linear storytelling or that the actions were obvious because there was only one instinctive response to a situation. In many ways, I think Vince Gilligan's storytelling has only improved since Breaking Bad and it was already excellent there. I watched a few minutes of Talking Saul with Gilligan, Peter Gould (the other showrunner), and Jonathan Banks (Mike) as the guests. Gilligan was talking about the fact that Chuck had ended the season pulling a con on the ultimate con man (Jimmy) and he turned to the studio audience and asked: "Did you like that?" The response was a muted chorus of boos. Is that an example of the low expectations of much of the audience or of a writer willing to travel the rough road with his characters, or both? I think it, again, shows the well-rounded nature of these characters, in that it was perfectly reasonable for Chuck to have given in by now or, in fact, be taken in by his brother's shenanigans, given how disoriented Chuck has become. Instead, Gilligan and Co. have kept Chuck alive and in the game and given Jimmy a much larger hill to climb in season 3.

Also, despite the knowledge that nothing is going to kill either Mike or Hector (since both are still alive in Breaking Bad), there was a great deal of tension in the sniper scene, both in terms of Mike's target (Is he trying to take out Hector? Is Hector's condition in BB an aftereffect of being shot through Nacho?) and the car horn and note event. Even if Mike isn't going to be killed, being cornered by someone who's been able to stalk the canny Philly cop is enough to leave the scene with the eerie sensibility I think they were (ahem) aiming for. Plus, Mike's role in the show is one of slow transformation, just like Jimmy. You see how, step-by-step, his overwhelming pragmatism slowly erodes the moral barriers he puts in front of it and transforms him into the efficient fixer of Breaking Bad. As Banks said, he's not there yet, but this is the story of how it happens. Because we know the end result of both Jimmy/Saul and Mike, one of the more interesting characters of the show turns out to be Kim, the end result for whom we don't know at all. Does she finally get disgusted with Jimmy's excesses and leave before he becomes Saul or does she ride the con job and stay attached when he's in full flower? Does she get caught up in the Mike/Saul world and get killed? Some good things to think about while we await the return of Gus Fring to the TV world. Also, it still remains amusing that calm and cool Mike was once this guy:

"Don't you do it, Jack!"
Of 48 Hours and Beverly Hills Cop fame.

Who's "House Martell"?
I've been rather studiously avoiding most of the previews and trailers for Game of Thrones, mostly because my demeanor at the end of last season was pretty similar to Jon Snow's above, but I suppose I'll watch them this week and then write up a preview of sorts before Sunday. I was fairly demoralized by last season, since the problems with the storyline and its presentation (Dorne!) were numerous, which was new for this series. It is interesting to see the amount of Flounder coming from the cast during the promotional tour/interviews this year. Are they trying to reassure TV fans disenchanted with last season (of which I was far from the only one) or book fans worried about the uncharted waters without GRRM? Both? Was last season the point where GoT descended from being a cultural event to another series that dragged out too long?

What? Again?
On that note, I think I'm over The Walking Dead. It's not that this past season was bad or even worse than those before it. It's just that it's basically more of the same. I appreciate some of the moral introspection that Rick's group went through when they were slaughtering the Saviors, but it's not really that different from the "kill or be killed" quandary that they've been facing for 5 years now. While fans of the comic are enraptured by the introduction of Negan, I look at him and his band and see just one more charismatic menace, just like the Governor or even whatshisname from Terminus. Just because the threat to survival now has a new name and a weapon named after a famous blues guitar (Base Ball (bat) King...?) doesn't make it much different from the last one. That point was driven home when I tried to watch the first episode of the second season of Fear the Walking Dead and realized it was true for that series, as well (i.e. they're about to run into the true threat in the midst of the world being overrun by zombies: other living people.) It's basically the Gilligan's Island principle, right? How long can you keep making stories about the threat that the environment presents before you have to resort to the coconut radio or bring in aliens/crashed cosmonauts to introduce some variety to the situation? Except that said cosmonauts just want the same thing you do and are willing to step on you to make it happen. I mean, in the broader sense, that's the competitive perspective on the human condition in the first place. But it also reaches a point where one charismatic sociopath is the same as any other: they're both a threat that Rick's going to have to shoot if the show wants to continue.

I've been catching up on Oscar-season films lately, too, courtesy of the omnipresence of our Amazonian overlords.

Guess who the crazy twin is.
Legend was decent. There was a ton of story to try to pack into two hours and you could certainly tell where the editor had pulled out the machete. Tom Hardy, per usual, was brilliant as both of the Kray twins (the mannerly-looking one above is actually the less socially stable of the two.) But it seemed like there were too many stories to tell, so that many of them got shorted by the necessities of the medium. The fact that they didn't skimp on the Cockney slang at all is to their credit, as it originated as a way for East End gangs to keep the police from figuring out what they were saying, but it also slowed the pace of the film for the viewer, as you occasionally had to try to dissect what was being said. The fairly muddled shifts from the perspective of Reggie Kray to his girlfriend/wife, Frances (Emily Browning), didn't help. I was tickled to see Christopher Eccleston looking like a very senior Scotland Yard inspector, as he will forever be the Duke of Norfolk to me, but that's about the only genuinely memorable thing about the film. Except for Tom Hardy, of course, who is worth seeing in just about anything.

"Operator, I'm trying to reach some place without a bland ending."
Bridge of Spies... Ugh. Nathan and Kate tried to warn me off of this, but I was like: "Cold War themes! Good reviews! Dude won Best Supporting! I have to try-! ... Oh. Spielberg." There was a day when Spielberg films were actually progressive. When he was making things in the late 70s and the 80s, it seemed like he was willing to take risks with his storytelling approach and cinematography. I mean, he's never been a visionary, but it takes real drive to do something like his magnum opus, Schindler's List, with all of its stylistic approaches to a very sensitive topic. Most of what he's made since then have basically been him killing time. "Hello? Oh, hey. How ya doin'? Me? Just livin' on the residuals, man. Something new? Well, I guess that sounds like a middle-of-the-road topic. I could do that for a few months, sure." Hence, Bridge of Spies. There are no risks here. It's a completely linear story that finishes with the perfect Hollywood Spielbergian ending: hero safe, marriage secure, world and picket fence perfectly painted. Bleah. Admittedly, Mark Rylance's performance was the absolute highlight of the film and I can see why it earned him the nod for Supporting Actor, but the fact that his performance was so low-key and subtle may give you a clue as to how the rest of the film feels (and I still say Hardy got robbed for The Revenant.)

Unlike you and me, these people were actually working.
I liked Spotlight. I think it's a worthwhile film. I don't quite get the accolades it's received, since I have a feeling it could have worked almost as well as a documentary about the investigation and its aftermath. Yes, there was a fair amount of emotional tension and, yes, most of the performances were quite good. But I don't get the raving over Mark Ruffalo's role as the emotional guy on the investigatory journalist team. He was good, but the role was pretty much paint-by-number. I thought Michael Keaton's role had much more meat on the bone, even though Keaton preferred to handle it in his usual "I can out-subtle you without even trying" manner. When it came time for his character's turning point confession about an error in judgment from years before, it fell completely flat because he'd played an awesome statue to that point. Oddly, I thought the best performance was from Liev Schreiber because of its understated nature (and he's, uh, not the first guy I'd associate with the word "understated" in most films to date.) And it was nice to see John Slattery still doing semi-Roger things, post Mad Men.

Advantage of smoking: you can burn that damned blank page if it stares too long.
Likewise, I liked Trumbo. It's a topic that's kind of near-and-dear to my heart (both screenwriting and persecution for one's Marxist ideas) and Bryan Cranston has earned one of those passes that means I'll likely not regret losing the two hours of my life simply because he's onscreen. But, like Legend, I think there was a bit too much story here to really elaborate upon what needed to be told. Plus, the overall subject matter is one that's somewhat difficult to portray in a dramatic sense. Is there real tension between starting a screenplay and finishing one? Does the audience rise in anticipation as the last few keys on the typewriter are struck? No. Writing is a long and solitary process that doesn't really present moments of accomplishment until you're winning an award or someone's handing you a check; both of which in this story were muted because of the blacklist. It's an interesting quandary to be in as the writer of a screenplay about screenwriting and I'm glad that John McNamara was able to get something workable out of it. I just think the end result was kind of tedious because that's what watching a writer work can often be (no matter how cool it may be for the writer.) I thought Helen Mirren was her usually capable self as Hedda Hopper and Mark Stuhlbarg's turn as Edward G. Robinson deserves mention for some of the most emotionally-affecting moments of a film which didn't have many. Recommended for writers, at least.

Too small to be one of the actual plot holes.
I've gone on record before as stating that the Daniel Craig Casino Royale is the best Bond film every made, full stop. When I saw it (and saw it again. And again.) and realized that, for once, a screenwriter and director may have actually read a Fleming novel, I thought perhaps we were on our way to a new era with Daniel Craig able to shoulder the responsibility of being the ruthless assassin for the good guys. Quantum of Solace doused that fire almost instantly, as he went from ruthless to monotonous in very short order. Skyfall rescued it a bit, but not that much, and Spectre has now put the last shovelful of dirt on it, since it's obvious that they've decided that what works is Bourne over brains. I wanted so much more from this film, since they had run the gamut of old Bond schticks in new format with Skyfall and now were finally introducing his most famous nemesis, played by Christoph Waltz. But, no, it's just Bourne and, even worse, Bourne with added layers of technological improbability that induce installations in the middle of the Moroccan desert to spontaneously explode when their owner's plans go awry. Said owner's plans being universal control of all surveillance and information networks around the world, naturally. Didn't we leave this shit behind with Moonraker? Waltz really has nothing to do but look menacing and we can confirm that Lea Sèydoux is perhaps the least-convincing Bond romance of all time, since she and Craig have the chemistry of lead plus formica. Conclusion: Back to the books for the real Bond.

Hopefully, that's not something I have to say about GoT season 6 (especially since there is no book yet, George!)