Clashing Kings: Blackwater

Best Game of Thrones ever.

I’d say the greatest weakness the series has had so far comes from the nature of the books. When each episode has to advance something like five or six plotlines that frequently have very little to do with each other, it means that while the overall product can be great (and it is), individual episodes lack a certain narrative coherence.

It’s like each scene is a chapter in a book, and every week we see a few more of those chapters. The whole story is advanced, but there’s rarely much of a reason to viewers (who don’t know all the events that need to be covered) exactly why the writers are deciding to show which storylines and how much of those storylines every week.

So while nearly every scene is well-structured, most of the time they don’t connect to the scenes immediately before and after (albeit thematically, i.e. “The dragons are all dead,” says someone is Westeros. CUT TO: First Dany scene of the week).

This was the only episode so far where that wasn’t true. We got the Battle of the Blackwater, from build-up to conclusion, and that’s it. So while, over the next few years, there are going to be some amazing moments, and fans will have varying opinions as to their favorite individual events, I’m pretty sure that for the vast majority of viewers, Blackwater will stand tall as the best single installment of the series until we’ve arrived at the point where the show is adapting big, climactic things that George RR Martin (who penned this episode, by the way) hasn’t even written yet.

And that’s well-deserved praise, because “Blackwater” was a landmark piece of work. I have never seen a TV show go for something so massive in scope and actually pull it off convincingly. The first few scenes were wonderful, with Tyrion vulnerable in bed with Shae, Cersei dismissing Pycelle, and Bronn leading the soldiers in a rousing rendition of “The Rains of Castamere,” to the delight of readers of the books. Then the Hound showed up and it was immediately obvious he’d be playing a huge role in the battle.

Bells sound, and the Tyrion/Varys/Podrick scene was really damn good. I just love the level of respect Varys has for Tyrion, and the hints that, though the spy master keeps his true allegiances hidden, there are specific forces in the world that he works against for truly personal reasons.

Great exchange with Bronn and Tyrion afterwards (friends forever!) and then Sansa beautifully seeing off her king.

I liked all the stuff with Davos and his son (who he actually talks to in the show) and the impressively realized fleet.

Great banter on the battlements (“Lancel, tell the Hound to tell the King…”) and the wildfire explosion was masterfully done. I reread that chapter in the book, and honestly, they barely lost anything by cutting out the whole naval battle that happened beforehand.

The action was great. I mean it was a way lower budget version of the same kind of siege battle we’ve seen in a thousand other movies, but peppered with five or six moments of gratuitously brutal violence that made it feel uniquely Game of Thrones. Not to mention we cared more about the characters.

A little ridiculous that Stannis would so recklessly put himself on the frontlines, but then again it fit with the show’s take on him. The Hound was amazing (“Any man dies without blood on his sword and I’ll rape his fucking corpse!”) and I loved that we actually got to see him break, whereas in the book he just shows up really battered and Tyrion realizes he’s gone.

Then all the stuff in Maegor’s Holdfast was perfect. More and more this season I’ve become convinced that Lena Headey’s performance is neck and neck with Peter Dinklage as the show’s best. I didn’t even realize this, but until watching her act out Cersei’s dialogue and actions I never really “got” the character.

The Sandor/Sansa scene delivered. I loved his monologue about killers, and he was definitely less rape-y in the show. I got the sense that, if Sansa hadn’t at that moment assumed Stannis would win, she would have gone with him.

Tyrion’s rousing speech was everything I could have hoped for, and no surprise there because it pretty much condensed all the great stuff he said across two chapters of the book into a minute. Ser Mandon cutting his face actually kind of shocked me. I was so sure he’d keep his nose (loses it for good in the book) that I hadn’t considered that, obviously, he’d still be wounded somehow.

And then yeah, Tywin saves the day along with Loras (in Renly’s armor, great touch) and stops Cersei from killing herself and Tommen.

I watched with five other people, and we all just sat in silence as “Castamere” played over the end credits. Then we freaked out for a while.

It’s all the more impressive a piece of storytelling after reading about how they actually made it all happen. The episode almost showed none of the battle. As in: no wildfire, no siege, no fighting, with our only knowledge of what was happening outside related secondhand to Cersei and Sansa in Maegor’s Holdfast. Mind-boggling, and major kudos to the showrunners for fighting for their vision, HBO for trusting them, and Neil Marshall for bringing it to life.

I look forward to rewatching it many, many more times. Game of Thrones has cemented its position as the most ambitious show on television.


Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

I recently finished Susanna Clarke’s massive novel about two magicians (the fantastical, spell-casting type) who bring their craft back to England in the early nineteenth century.

I’m honestly not having the easiest time articulating a strong opinion, but that’s not because I found it a mundane read. On the contrary, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything quite like it. It’s written like a piece of English literature from the 1800s despite the fact that it’s less than ten years old, with spectacular occurrences described matter-of-factly and a huge emphasis on what exactly it means to be English.

The magic doesn’t follow too many hard and fast rules, with a much greater emphasis on the thematic underpinnings of the fantastic than the logic behind exactly what is and what isn’t possible.

The world, though, is very well-established, with a gradually explored alternate history in which a child called the Raven King built a magical empire in northern England which he ruled for centuries before disappearing, slowly taking the magic with him.

Now two men, the arrogant, timid Norrell and the younger, romantic Strange, use their own magical prowess (Norrell’s developed through decades of careful study and Strange’s manifested through innate talent) in service of their country.

The relationship between the two men is, naturally, the novel’s focus, so to say it starts off slowly is an understatement considering Strange doesn’t show up for a few hundred pages. But when he does, things get more interesting, and gradually build to a very satisfying final hundred or so pages.

The exploration of reason and madness as related through the behavior of the totally amoral fair folk, here represented by the enigmatic gentleman with the thistle-down hair, is another highlight.

If this sounds like your kind of thing, you definitely won’t be disappointed. It’s an investment, but you certainly won’t regret it.

Clashing Kings: The Prince of Winterfell

This was probably the best (predominantly) set-up episode the series has had so far. Sure, some things happened, but mostly it was in service of preparing for the final two installments of the season.

Theon’s just digging himself in deeper, further sealing his fate with every transgression against the Starks. It’s weird to think about, but his storyline has been the most straightforward of the season. He’s the easiest character to follow week to week, with the most tangible arc. He just happens to be awful.

Beyond the Wall I like the changes made to Jon’s narrative. Not much really moved forward, but the visual design for the “Lord o’ Bones” (Rattleshirt in the books) was great.

We finally got Lady Telisa’s back story, which put to rest the suspicions I had since she was introduced. Her character really is a completely original invention of the show, whereas up until this point I thought it possible she was another character in disguise. But no, unless there’s some massive deception going on she is who she says, here to give us more to care about as we follow Robb more closely than the books ever did. It’s not the most revolutionary subplot, but there’s certainly nothing wrong with it.

Jaime and Brienne also get started on their little quest sooner than expected, which just further goes to show what the creators have been saying: The goal of the first season was to do a straight adaptation of the first book, but second season onward they’re adapting the saga as a whole, whatever way works best. More power to them.

It’s a bit disappointing that the Tywin/Arya relationship ended so abruptly, but realistically he’s got a war to fight and she’s a prisoner, so I guess a heartfelt parting wasn’t in the cards. And while we’re nearly done with Harrenhal, Jaqen is phenomenal. Much funnier than I expected him to be.

Then we’ve got King’s Landing, which had nothing but spectacular character interactions the whole episode. The Tyrion/Bronn/Varys scene was amazing, and exemplified that if there’s one thing the show does better than the books it’s humor. The little gesture Tyrion made to Bronn after Varys gave the correct pronunciation of that Maester’s name? Brilliant.

This week was about putting everything exactly where it needed to be for the most ambitious single episode yet, which will feature the Battle of the Blackwater in most of its glory. Now all that’s left to be seen is whether they can pull it off. It’s time to win or die.


A House Retrospective

It’s weird to think about, but House was probably the first network television show I really got into. I’m the last person you’d expect this of, but truth be told I started watching dramatic television fairly late in the game, and House was a lot of the impetus. That and Lost, I suppose, but something about the medical procedural focused on the brilliant asshole (and by something, I of course mean the brilliant asshole) really hooked me.

I started watching at around the end of season 2, and bought the DVDs of what I’d missed between the second and third seasons because I just couldn’t get enough of it. Actually that’s the first time I ever bought the box sets for any TV show. Wow. I kept buying them through the first four seasons for the sake of completion, but the show kept going and my desire to rewatch the episodes waned, so…

Damn what a great show this was. Thinking back to those first few seasons I’m reminded why procedurals are so popular, and House, at its peak, was pretty much the perfect procedural. An incredible main character with some truly amazing weekly stories just made it so fantastic to follow.

It was really revolutionary at the beginning, the idea that the medicine would be the focus of a medical show. They made diseases into a puzzle that you loved watching the characters try to unravel. I still maintain that the best ever diagnosis was in the third episode: the patient had a cough, and the pharmacy accidentally gave him gout medication instead of coughing pills. Brilliant. Not to say they never came close to topping that one. A wife poisoned her husband, a guy swallowed a toothpick, a girl had a tick in her vagina. All wonderful stuff, and that’s barely scratching the surface. Just in terms of medical mysteries there are at least a couple dozen episodes so clever that they merit viewing just for the path to figuring out what the hell is actually wrong with the patient. Put the ten most intelligent sicknesses on House up against the ten cleverest deaths on CSI and we’ll see which were actually the most satisfying to see figured out.

Then there’s the character himself, and really, does anything more need to be said? Long before RDJ or Benedict Cumberbatch appeared in straight adaptations, Gregory House defined the modern day Sherlock Holmes (a character actually based on a Doctor in the first place). It’s deeply upsetting that Hugh Laurie never quite managed the Emmy win, because damn did he ever deserve it. Even when the show faltered, he was still insanely watchable. Unquestionably the best episode of the series is Three Stories, wherein House teaches a class of med students by giving them three hypothetical scenarios that all, in the end, turn out to be variations on the same patient: Himself. It’s House’s origin story, in which we find out exactly what happened to his leg and his life in general that made him the way he is.

It was a great show through Season 4 (which, though truncated by the writer’s strike, boasted the amazing search for House’s new team through a mad, reality competition-style interview process that combined the guilty pleasures of that genre with the intelligence of fully scripted television and then concluded in a two part finale that proved to be a stronger season ender than the series had before or since), but then the age began to show. The same themes were getting explored. They ran out of great ideas for the patient/mystery of the week. The cast rotated just a bit too much.

In fact I didn’t actually have the time or drive to keep up with the final season, and from what I hear I didn’t miss too much. And viewing the final two episodes…well, I more or less confirmed that I didn’t. The new team members, in particular, seemed awful.

But going out, they chose to focus on the House/Wilson relationship, and that was the right decision. They’ve been through a hell of a lot, those two. Giving Wilson cancer? Cruel as hell, but a pretty good idea. The best thing I saw in the last couple installments was House lashing out over Wilson’s choice to die.

And then the finale…left something to be desired. It was all just very understated, ending in more of a whimper than a bang (even though there was a literal bang). Never did House get passionate, and that was sort of what I was hoping for. All the former cast members reappearing was fine (especially seeing Stacy again; a huge part of his life that they haven’t really talked about since the second season, it was great to have her back), but only made it more egregious that Lisa Edelstein didn’t reprise her role as Cuddy. I mean…it’s Cuddy. After House and Wilson, she’s the most important character to the show. House could have lived or died, but faking his death? Not sure they made that feel truly earned. And I have to admit I disliked the song they went out on, even if it was Hugh Laurie’s suggestion.

The highlight was easily Wilson’s eulogy. He starts off calling House a healer, above all else, but out of both frustration and respect (House’s character, after all, represents the search for an objective truth) he can’t go on with all that “dearly departed” bullshit and calls House an ass who made others miserable and died a pathetic, selfish death. That was phenomenal, and I really like Chase taking over the team in the wrap-up montage (he’s probably my favorite of House’s fellows). Beyond that, though, it wasn’t that amazing an ending. It lacked a lot of the spark that made this show what it was, and just kind of left me feeling glad they didn’t keep it going any longer (and maybe that they’d stepped out of the spotlight a couple seasons ago).

But I’m grateful to the show for what it was. It gave us a truly iconic character, and captured my interest like no live action television had before. Everyone should at least see check out a few of the best episodes; there’s more than enough wit and pathos to justify the time.

Goodbye, Dr. Gregory House. You were a magnificent bastard.


So Clearly I Spoke Too Soon…

Yeah, that bit of rejoicing over Community’s finale and renewal? Disregard all the positive feelings I had about the show’s upcoming fourth and final season, because Dan Harmon has been fired as showrunner.

Considering he’s the guy whose vision for the show has utterly defined everything great about it, it’s pretty safe to say that Greendale will barely resemble the mecca of inspired televisual might that it has for the past three years.

Harmon’s replacements, David Guarascio and Moses Port, have no history working on Community, and I can’t help but suspect they’re the sort of dependable hacks that Sony is relying on to make a product that the general masses will find more relatable.

Not to mention that several of the series’ most prominent writers are also departing.

So…yeah. Good thing this season went out strong, because the final thirteen installments of the former best comedy on television will be fortunate to contain a fraction of the wit and daring that fans have come to love it for.

I was so thrilled I got on board a few months ago, and now my heart will get ripped out with everyone else. Let’s brace ourselves for next year. This one could be excruciating.


Community Finale

I’m of two minds about NBC airing the last three episodes of Community’s third season on one night. One gets the sense that they’re dumping them all at once to get it over with…but then again we got three new episodes of Community, which made for a fantastic little marathon.

The first, “Digital Estate Planning,” put the characters in a virtual race against Giancarlo Esposito to try to win Pierce’s evil dead father’s inheritance. It was every bit as spectacular as I might have hoped, especially in a world where shit like this used to be emblematic for how NBC shows regarded video games.

Then there was “The First Chang Dynasty,” which elevated the already psychotic Chang to his most megalomaniacal yet and gave us the show’s take on the heist movie. Even more so than Arrested DevelopmentCommunity builds upon itself to the extent that, by this point, if you aren’t a diehard fan then you’re not going to understand about five layers of callbacks that are getting woven into every scene. That, plus the writers’ penchant for innovating upon the same jokes until they achieve this frighteningly inspired stupidity (Chang calling the fake Dean a Dean-el-Changer, for instance) is some of the most committed and aggressive entertainment I’ve ever seen.

With every episode, Community’s motto comes closer and closer to “Either you’re with us or get the fuck out of here.”

Then “Introduction to Finality” portrayed what I’ve been dying to see since the brilliant “Remedial Chaos Theory” earlier this season: Evil Abed actually invaded the main timeline and tried to destroy everyone. It might not have been an all-out war between the Universes, but it was still just so freaking daring a storyline to try to pull off, even if it wasn’t the main focus. I mean it actually gave definitive proof that Abed is dangerous. Is it bad that I was praying for Jeff’s arm to actually get cut off?

Not to mention the amazingly bizarre conclusion to everything going on at the air conditioning school. Yes, a man was murdered.

I’m thrilled that it got renewed (even for a truncated thirteen episode season) and almost scared to see how crazy it’s going to get now that there’s truly no reason to hold back.

Here’s to one more year at Greendale.




Clashing Kings: A Man without Honor

There’s very little question in my mind that with last week the stride has well and truly been hit: Nothing but greatness in store for the rest of the season, and if this most recent episode is anything to go by.

Theon’s gradual descent into merciless, angry asshole has been pitch-perfect in its portrayal; we understand how he got there while lacking pretty much any true sympathy for his actions. The young, charred corpses he produces at the end were wretch-inducing.

Beyond the Wall, Ygritte’s first delivery of “You know nothing, Jon Snow,” easily one of the greatest catch phrases from the books (and there are a lot) couldn’t have been more satisfying. Wonderful casting choice, there. I’ve never been that engrossed by Jon’s storyline in any medium, but this is where it starts to really go somewhere. Next couple seasons are going to have some very interesting happenings up North, and it’s this first encounter with the wildlings that sets off everything. Nice to see it’s going well so far.

I was already hugely fond of the Arya/Tywin scenes, and here they got even better, somehow. Why oh why won’t he just adopt her? It’d be so very perfect. These two are pretty much my highlight of the season.

Sansa gets her period without setting anything on fire (that happened in the book, right? I’m pretty sure she set a few things on fire) and the scene that followed with Cersei was pretty grand. Then Cersei and Tyrion? Damn that was powerful stuff. Lena Headey is every bit as suited to her role as Peter Dinklage, and watching the two of them just gets better. In the books I dread Cersei’s appearances; she’s a great character but so very loathsome. Here she’s amazing just to sit back and watch.

The Qartheen coup was a fantastic, thoroughly eerie moment. Pyat Pree is such a delightful freak, and though I’m still not sure how the whole stolen dragons thing will pan out, I’m very willing to go with it for now. House of the Undying next week? Let’s hope so.

And finally we get a healthy dose of the Kingslayer. I wasn’t sure how the show would handle having a main character from the first season in captivity for so long, but it hasn’t been a problem at all. He’s talked about frequently, while kept mostly out of sight until getting a great spotlight here. His chat with Alton was more than well done, and though I could tell where it was going it’s just great to see Jaime be a total bastard. Great things to come for him in the near future, no doubt.