My 2013 Media Highlights

I wasn’t planning on doing any sort of year in review post, mostly because (unlike 2010-12) I haven’t been keeping an active list of my favorites. But as the time drew nearer and everyone began posting their respective retrospectives I thought I might as well take stock and see what I came up with.

As it turned out, my top tier of all the year’s media contained exactly thirteen items, and since hey this year had a thirteen in it too I figured I’d arbitrarily rank them and do a little write-up.

There’s plenty I didn’t get around to, not to mention a couple of things I’m probably forgetting, but these were more or less the new releases (across all media, so the ranking is very arbitrary) that had the strongest effect on me over the last twelve months.

13. Orange is the New Black

This prison drama—er, comedy? Either way it’s by far the most impressive Netflix original content, and the first of their offerings that can deservedly stand beside the best of what the cable networks put out. It’s often described as a secret ensemble piece, with Piper Chapman as our conduit to the rest of the women, and while that’s true to an extent (and the rest of the women are all so fantastic) I still never lost interest in the central narrative’s sometimes predictable but always enthralling trajectory.

There are some amazing casts on TV right now, but in terms of gender diversity Orange dominates them all. A trans character with depth and nuance? And she is played by a trans woman? The air, it is so very fresh.

I’m not sure how the second season will be affected by the departure of Laura Prepon, whose Alex Vause is far and away my favorite character, but for now let’s be optimistic and appreciate a damned fine season of incarcerated splendor.

12. Captain Phillips

From the so-so trailer to the bad-bad title I wasn’t expecting much from Paul Greengrass’s latest, but even if I had been this maritime thriller would have floored me.

With incredible direction, a performance that stands out as one of Hanks’ best, and a near-hypnotic debut from Barkhad Abdi as lead pirate Muse, Phillips ratchets up the tension early on and never lets up until a climax that subverts expectations by foregoing catharsis for daringly realistic trauma.

This is a movie that could have taken the easy way out, but instead gave nuance to a simple story without compromising its breakneck pace. While by no means the more impressive cinematic achievement, when I look back on the year I can’t deny that I found it more exciting than Gravity.

11. Sex Criminals

The current run of Hawkeye proves that Matt Fraction is a pretty excellent comic book writer. But this new series—only three issues in at the moment—pretty much marks him as a genius.

He takes an absurd premise (what if your orgasms could stop time?) and comes up with a story that has a healthier, more honest view of sexuality than almost anything else being produced in popular media today.

It is also laugh-out-loud-yes-audibly-so hilarious. From the intentionally overlong recaps to the background jokes in a sex shop to the wickedly irreverent letters column and the insane fourth-wall-shattering consequences when they couldn’t get the rights to a certain song in time for print, this is easily the funniest comic I’ve ever read, with two of the most believable, likable lead characters you could ask for.

10. Masters of Sex

And on the dramatic end of explorations into human sexuality, we have this Showtime series about pioneering sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson. At first I was worried it would just be an obvious period piece, an attempt by Showtime to piggy back off some of that sweet Mad Men acclaim, but it achieves far more than that.

The show ignores the easy-reach conflicts of its conceit (It’s SEX, everyone! At a time when people were WAY MORE REPRESSED ABOUT ALL THAT) by grounding everything so heavily in character that, yes, their lives and problems are just as relevant today as they were then. Tremendous credit due to all the actors. Lizzy Caplan is so very human as Johnson, who could have easily been little more than a manic pixie dream girl. Instead it’s other characters who objectify her and learn (or don’t) the errors of their ways. Sheen’s Masters effects stoicism, but you can always see the well of emotion just below. Every moment where he lets the wall down really counts.

They gave a great foundation, but this season was never more confident than when dealing with the marriage of Dean Scully and his wife (Beau Bridges and Allison Janney, the latter in particular owning every second of her screentime). It was tender, tragic, and beautiful.

But even without that I’d have to give special mention to the the fifth episode, which just about destroyed me. Let’s hope Showtime doesn’t ruin this series too.

9. The Act of Killing

Documentaries can be powerful, earth-shattering, life-changing. But I’m not sure I’ve ever seen any that evoked an intense, horrific fever dream. This beyond-chilling exploration of former enforcers of Indonesian genocide shows just how true it is that history is written by the victors.

After slaughtering roughly 1,000 people (like cattle, as he’s happy to demonstrate) in the communist purges of the 60s, Anwar Congo went on to live a perfectly consequence-free life, revered as one of the forefathers of the paramilitary organization that came to power in the aftermath of the killings. And compared to some of his friends he seems like an ok guy.

The stories director Joshua Oppenheimer got out of these retired killers are unlike anything I’ve ever heard. Some of the men are boastful, and some are trying to downplay it, but the worst ones? They shrug and tell it like it was.

The good news is this movie is creating some real change in Indonesia, but it still contains some of the most unsettling truths and upsetting quotes I’ve ever heard. It’s proof that we can soak in blood and go right on living.

8. BioShock Infinite

Not a big year for gaming on my part. I especially regret not exploring all of the indie titles that seem to have stolen the spotlight from many of the AAA releases.

But of those releases, I’m happy to say my expectations were more than satisfied by the sequel to Irrational’s modern classic tale of a man behaving kindly. The world of Columbia was strikingly realized, with an opening hour or so that served as such brilliant immersion that I never wanted it to end. But when it did, in the best introduction to combat I’ve ever witnessed in a game, I was more than ready to shoot a lot of sky-racists.

Beyond the world, I adored Elizabeth and the infinitely quotable Luteces, as well as a story that was comfortable exploring some truly complex ideas. Perhaps I could have flipped a coin and put The Last of Us here instead…and maybe in some other universe I did.

7. Short Term 12

Brie Larson gets most of the credit for this one (because she’s amazing) but the whole cast really was perfect in this unflinchingly honest look at the staff and residents of a halfway house for troubled youths. It’s a straightforward movie, but one that grabbed me pretty much immediately and took me so far within the lives of the characters that it felt like an intimate experience.

It contains some of the best scenes of people telling each other stories that I’ve ever witnessed, with the fable of the octopus and the shark just about tearing me in half.

6. Game of Thrones

The season I’ve most anticipated since first reading the books, I feel like the show really came into its own this year. Mixing faithfully adapted moments (Jamie in the bath, the Hound and Lord Beric, the liberation of Astapor) without being afraid to flesh out some characters (Margaery Tyrell, Varys, Stannis) for the adaptation, Weiss and Benioff really distilled the lion’s share of Storm of Swords to ten episodes of thrilling television.

And the Red Wedding was exactly the cultural event I was hoping for. In the age of Netflix and binge watching, this is one case where you still need to gather round with friends (be they book readers or no) for some real event viewing. Season four’s going to be wild.

5. Saga

The comic that even people who don’t read comics should be (and many of whom are) reading, Brian K. Vaughn’s weird yet somehow familiar tale of star-crossed lovers trying to keep their daughter safe might be the most compelling piece of graphic media currently being published.

Every character and idea explodes onto the page in strokes of mad genius, a thousand disparate elements blending together flawlessly into a pseudo space opera that manages to be epic, personal, riveting, heartbreaking, and hilarious in equal measure. And that’s not even getting started on the incredible art from Fiona Staples.

This bears every mark of a classic in the making.

4. The Ocean at the End of the Lane

I moved this around the list a lot, because it’s almost impossible for me to compare something from Neil Gaiman to the works of others with any kind of objectivity.

This is a short book, but a brilliant one, and in many ways encapsulates the themes of memory, magic, bravery, childhood, and story that Neil’s explored for his entire career. It can be read in one sitting, making it so easy to return to, and I can confirm that rereading it does yield some very nice discoveries. An elegant and near-perfect tale that I can recommend to basically anyone.

Full disclosure: I type this as I’m looking up at the three signed copies on my shelf.

3. Hannibal

Just when you thought we’d had our fill of serial killers, here comes a take on Hannibal Lecter (of all the tired-out properties) that gives us something we’ve never seen before.

It’s Gothic horror on the small screen, a psychological assault on the senses that manages to transcend exploitation by elevating its violence to the realm of the artful grotesque, with killers who seem to have far more in common with the monsters of Grimm fairy tales than with their would-be contemporary psychopaths on other procedurals.

The most striking visuals on television, a deeply sympathetic Will Graham by way of the stellar Hugh Dancy, and a Lecter whom Mads Mikkelsen plays as if he were the Devil himself. It all adds up to the biggest surprise of the year: A franchise re-imagining that has the potential to become the definitive take on the material (provided NBC keeps it around long enough).

It’s like Bryan Fuller was given an abandoned, hollowed-out gold mine, and with the first swing of his pick-axe struck black oil.

2. Her

Adaptation has forever solidified Spike Jonze as one of my favorite directors, but even then I was unprepared for the brilliance of his latest effort.

So much more than just Joaquin Phoenix falling in love with his phone, this is a sci-fi masterpiece that exemplifies the best of the genre by focusing on entirely believable characters and using their relationship with technology (haha) to show some of the essence of what it means to be human.

Funny, true, devastating, and ultimately life-affirming, I believe there’s every chance we’ll look back on this movie decades from now as it becomes increasingly relevant to the times.

1. Breaking Bad

The cultural event of the year. As far as I’m concerned, nothing was more satisfying than seeing this final batch of episodes from one of the best shows of all time enthrall millions and dominate the public discourse…except for the episodes themselves.

Walter White’s saga came to its tragic and inevitable conclusion, as we knew it had to, but the way it got there was just as compelling as it’s always been. Perhaps Jesse didn’t get as much of the spotlight as he deserved, but aside from that this was a final act that will cement the show’s classic status for all time.

“Ozymandias,” in particular, was one of the best hours of television I’ve ever seen, and I’m confident in calling Breaking Bad my favorite thing released in 2013, as well as the greatest show I’ve had the pleasure of watching.

And that just about does it for 2013. Special shout-out to Dexter for the worst final season and series finale ever unleashed upon a civilian populace. As usual, here’s to the stories of 2014, and all they have to teach us.

Why “Blood Kiss” Deserves Your Attention

Hi. I didn’t want to do that thing where I don’t blog for months at a time. Really, I was going to be Mr. Blogs a Couple Times a Week at Least. That’s what they were going to call me.

But then I started a podcast with some friends and it was (and is) a great way to get my opinions on current media things out there in a way that I enjoy. Plus, hey, talking is easier than writing. I should know; I’ve been writing a lot more this year. Yeah that’s right, semicolons. I’m on my game. Except this blog has fallen by the wayside a bit, and that’s unfortunate because blogging is cool, or at least cathartic. What an age we live in, eh? You can express yourself and ramble and get off topic and oh that’s right I had a thing to discuss and that’s why I’m back here.

Blood Kiss is a movie from Michael Reaves about 2/3 done with its Kickstarter campaign. The good news is it’s reached its minimum funding goal, so it’s definitely happening. The bad news—not even bad, really, more of an addendum—is that making a feature length film with only $60,000 isn’t easy. Especially a 1940s noir period piece about vampires. Costumes, effects, locations, behind-the-scenes tributes to the Beast, craft services. Moviemaking is some tricky stuff! And there’s a world of difference between sixty and a hundred thousand where indie budgets are concerned.

So the more people who donate to the Kickstarter campaign the better. I like Kickstarter a lot. There’s been some controversy recently over the studio affiliations of the Veronica Mars project and Zach Braff’s thing, and I certainly have my opinions where those are concerned, but that’s not relevant here. Blood Kiss is as indie as they come, the exact sort of project crowdfunding was originally supposed to be about. The money it raises is the money that will be onscreen, so if you want to see it, hey! Give it some money, and you will. Just to be clear for those new to or wary of Kickstarter: This isn’t a charity so much as a preorder service. You can contribute however much you want, but at $17 you’ll get your own copy of the film. The more you give the cooler the rewards. Nothing weird or charitable about that. You’re paying for things that don’t exist yet, but they will, because the goal’s been reached.

So why this project? Well you should read this or watch this to find out all the details straight from the source, but it’s been written (and will be directed) by Michael Reaves, who I didn’t realize until now was responsible for improving my childhood a fair amount by penning episodes of Gargoyles and Batman: The Animated Series—both formative works when I was a wee thing. He’s suffering from Parkinson’s disease, but because the creative urge transcends such limitations, that hasn’t stopped him from writing. Blood Kiss is a passion project, a vampire noir film set in 1940s Hollywood. Beyond that I only know two things: Its vampires aren’t the loving kind; they feast and murder and repulse major studios. And secondly, the script is good enough that Amber Benson (Tara, from Buffy. As in, that show I just blogged about extensively over seven months? Yeah) and Neil Gaiman (GAAAAAAAAAAAH. Gah) have agreed to act in it. Yeah, that’s Neil “My favorite author/role model/reason for living/I’ve pre-ordered three signed copies of his next book” Gaiman, as the kids are calling him these days.

So I’m INTERESTED. Just a little. You know. It’s not in my top ten movies of all time…but that’s pretty much just because it doesn’t quite exist yet. Wait never mind, stop the presses, just saw in an interview that Amber Benson is singing in this thing, like she did in “Once More with Feeling,” the Buffy musical episode. Her song “Under Your Spell” was a beautiful, catchy number about love, magic, and cunnilingus. And Neil’s a vampire? Yeah wow, screw it, top ten.

Which is why I donated a little money, and if anything I’ve discussed here (or linked to) has intrigued, inspired, or excited you, I’m sure it would mean the world to everyone involved with this project if you were to do the same.

Buffy Reflections: Season 7

All journeys come to an end, now don’t they? Well there are still comics to get to and all that, but this journey, the actual series, and chiefly my experience of watching it over seven beautiful months is through.

So what have we learned? That I like Buffy, mostly.

And that I do not understand how so many people say the show loses it’s way in the final two seasons; I considered them both entertaining as hell.

True, the setup for this last year had me apprehensive, what with the premiere’s chief concern being the reopening of Sunnydale High. I felt we’d moved past that, and while the fourth season was the weakest, since then the series had found a clear identity outside of its secondary school origins.

My concerns were soon put to rest, as the season’s overall theme of going back to the beginning tied in nicely with the new and improved annex of learning and its notoriously high body count. It helped that—save for the hilarious “Him”—not many episodes actually utilized the setting in the same way as the first couple years of the show might have.

Instead it was all about the Hellmouth, and the incorporeal big bad trying to open it. The First Evil was a risky move, and there were many ways the idea of an antagonist who took on the intangible form of the deceased might have failed, but instead it made for some great viewing. Buffy as its default form (she’s died twice, after all) was a perfect conceit that made sense and no doubt lessened the burden on the guest star budget.

More than any other, it seemed like the seventh season was driven entirely by its central conflict, yet it still managed to have fun and do all of the characters justice.

Willow had to adjust to her life after nearly ending the world, and did so with the adorable charm I’d come to expect (not to mention her incredibly attractive new love interest). Xander never had too much of the spotlight, but anchored the group like always. Giles might as well never have left the show at all, since he was the special guest for something like half these episodes. Spike was far more damaged than I thought he might be after getting his soul back, and the final progression of his relationship with Buffy was absolute beauty. Andrew endearingly and awkwardly earned a place for himself amongst the scoobies after he reached his darkest point earlier in the season (RIP Jonathan). Anya had a sad final few months as she became human for good, but managed to admit her genuine love for our species before the end. Faith returned to take part in the climactic episodes in a manner that felt completely natural and fitting, even if she hadn’t been on the show in three years.

Oh, and Dawn didn’t get in the way too much.

The new characters were able to find places for themselves as well. Principal Wood was a great addition following his wonderfully over-the-top mystique before we learned his history. And though he only had a few episodes, Nathan Fillion’s Caleb was an incredible villain.

Naturally, Buffy herself was the focal point as she became general of a slayer army in order to defeat the forces of evil once and for all (for now). I’m not sure I bought everyone rejecting her leadership at the eleventh hour, but the inevitable reconciliation meant it didn’t matter too much.

This was a fun, thrilling final season to a show that I loved almost from the start. It’s grown to become one of my favorite TV series, and something I now regard as near-essential viewing. Watching it was long overdue, and I’m not sad at all to have finished. Merely grateful I got to go along for the ride.

Buffy Reflections: Season 6

I think I expected a lighter tone. A decline in quality. Some fun, some tragedy.

I was wrong about everything, especially the tragedy. There wasn’t some; Buffy’s sixth season is dripping with it.

I knew we were in for some real darkness from the two-part premiere alone. It was bleak stuff, with Buffy resurrected amidst an assault on Sunnydale by a group of demon rapist bikers. They were not playful, but even the gut-churning threats one made about “incompatible anatomy” couldn’t compare to the shock of seeing Buffy’s decaying corpse right before Willow’s spell took effect. I knew she would be ok, but actually witnessing our beloved heroine’s rotted face? Not pulling any punches, there.

Coupled with the ending reveal—that Buffy was at peace in heaven (or something like it) and her friends pulled her away to suffer on Earth—made for a pretty tragic set-up. I was worried Buffy coming back to life would feel like a cop out, but no, it took her the entire season and a lot of pain to come to grips with her renewed mortality.

The overall arc was less cohesive than last year, but that was for the best. After fighting off a god for twenty-two episodes it would have felt a bit forced to try and top the threat level right away, so they went in the opposite direction with the Trio. The nerdy losers teaming up to take over Sunnydale? Hilarious, and because it was Buffy I knew it was only a matter of time until things got real.

But before that, the goddamn musical episode. I knew it was coming, and somehow resisted listening to any of the songs until my first viewing. Since then I’ve played the soundtrack every day, and don’t anticipate stopping anytime soon. “Once More with Feeling” was a wonderful gift from Joss that celebrated everything great about the world he created.

Luckily such a high came right before Giles departed, something that could have easily upset me considering he’s been my favorite character since season two. But even I admit it was the right decision—they didn’t really know what to do with him any more. And we even got some last laughs with “Tabula Rasa.”

Then Spike and Buffy got together, and oh my god it was hot. Sorry, visceral reaction. Their relationship this season was destructive, abusive, and awful for the both of them, culminating in a near rape that I still don’t know whether or not they should have depicted. It was believable without ruining either character, but still a very extreme place to go. And as to the “hot” thing, yeah, I can’t think of a TV relationship with more sexual chemistry, which was crucial. As bad as it was for them to be together, I completely understood why they kept going back to each other.

There was a short lull after the fantastic “Dead Things”, with perhaps the worst episode of the series “Older and Far Away” and the unfortunate return of Riley in “As You Were.”

But things picked up from there, with the heartbreaking collapse of Xander and Anya’s relationship as well as “Normal Again,” the episode that suggests the entire show is Buffy’s elaborate, schizophrenic delusion.

Then the season’s endgame was sublime. Tara’s brutal and sudden death unleashed Dark Willow, who proved a phenomenal big bad to wrap everything up. The whole “magic is a drug” thing grated at times, but to actually see the danger realized in such a powerful way was worth it. I don’t think a single moment of violence on the show has shocked me like Warren’s flaying, and the fact that sweet, lovable Willow of all people was the one to do it just made everything more horrible.

Oh, and Giles’ big damn heroes moment? Beautiful. Almost surprising that he lived through the finale, but I suppose they never could have had Willow forgive herself if she’d murdered him.

Only one season left now, and of course it’s a bittersweet feeling. I don’t want it to end yet, but I need to continue on my journey with these wonderful characters. Hey, at least there are still comics to read afterwards.

The Best Fictional Moments of 2012

Ah, the new year. Of course you just know that means it’s time to look back at 2012 and arbitrarily list our favorite media. BUT WAIT! After an absolutely exhaustive 2011 Facebook note ranking the movies and everything else I’d seen, I decided that this time I wanted to mix it up. So while I’m sure to collaborate on a best/favorite films list on my podcast sometime in the coming weeks, for now I’m going to do something a bit more unique and discuss all of my favorite moments from movies, television, video games, and books that were released in 2012.

Naturally there was plenty that I missed out on, but if I watched, read, or played it in the past twelve months and it had a moment of brilliance that left an especially strong impression on me, then I’ll discuss it here. I’m not ordering them by quality, only by the general sequence I came upon them.

As an arbitrary rule, only one moment from each property (film, TV series, etc.) is allowed.

Oh, and **SPOILERS FOR THINGS FOLLOW** Don’t worry though, I won’t blatantly ruin anything in the titles.

So with that, let’s begin.

The Grey: “Once more into the fray…”

I was a far bigger fan of the “Liam Neeson vs. Wolves” movie than just about anyone that I know. I expected complete nonsense, but instead found a deeply affecting story of survival (and lack thereof) in the face of impossible and admittedly unrealistic odds. Wolves aren’t like this, silly movie. That said, I’m sure it’ll always hold a special place in my heart as the first film I ever reviewed, something I really enjoyed doing this year.

Its closing scene was spoiled by the trailer, but that didn’t stop it from being a ridiculously cool, glass-knuckled tribute to the human spirit, with lone survivor Ottway taping shattered bottles to one fist and a knife in the other for his final showdown with a vicious pack of canines. Live and die on this day. Live and die on this day…

Kill List: Hammer Time

This movie came out of nowhere. I didn’t have a clue what it would be going in, and whenever I thought I had a grasp on things it completely redefined itself. I guess it’s a horror film, but there’s so much going on that I’m uncomfortable even confining it to a genre. It might be the most disturbing thing I’ve watched all year, especially at the halfway point when a man is gruesomely murdered with a hammer. Everything I’ve implicitly learned about film led me to believe the camera would cut away right before metal met skull. I’m pretty sure everyone in the theater jumped when it didn’t. If brutality isn’t a turn off, I can’t recommend this one highly enough.

Journey: Sand Surfing in the Sunset

For anyone who thinks video games are filled with nothing but zombies and people shooting each other in the face, this downloadable title from That Game Company might be the ultimate counterexample. A simple game about a hooded figure trying to reach a distant mountain, it happens to be one of the most beautiful things the medium has ever produced. No combat, no spoken words, no bonus missions or explicit instruction. Just a creature with a magical scarf and a random online companion walking, jumping, and flying to their destination through a series of gorgeous environments.

While the ending was amazing, no sequence had quite as strong an effect on me as the part where you glide across an ocean of sand as it shimmers in the setting sun. Simple, elegant, and totally jaw-dropping.

The Raid Redemption: The Final Fight

Nonstop insanity from start to finish, this Indonesian martial arts film was almost immediately hailed as one of the gold standards for what an action movie can be. What it lacks in a complex or thoughtful narrative it more than makes up for with some of the most incredible fight scenes ever put to film.

The last battle between the two brothers and “Mad Dog” is just relentless, going on well past the point of reason. I saw this movie in a stuffy room full of film critics, but even that couldn’t really stifle the energy of the scene. Once the final blow was struck, I’m pretty sure everyone would have clapped and cheered if I’d only started them off. Still kind of regret it.

The Cabin in the Woods: “Let’s get this party started.”

The first hour of Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s deconstruction of the horror genre is good, solid stuff. It’s what I was expecting from the movie, but admittedly not quite everything that I wanted. While undeniably funny and well-put-together, I spent most my first viewing hoping it would manage to somehow attain that extra level of brilliance that I knew its creators were capable of reaching.

And boy, did they ever. Dana and Marty’s infiltration of the facility and subsequent unleashing of the nightmare army escalated the stakes to exactly the insane degree that I was craving. It’s ten minutes of beautifully orchestrated mayhem with so many monsters shoved onscreen at once that it demands repeat viewings just to fully appreciate how much is going on. From the terrifying (psychopathic masked arsonists) to the hilarious (death by unicorn) it was everything the movie was building towards from moment one. Easily the second-best thing Joss Whedon put his name on this year, because after all what could beat…

The Avengers: Puny God

I’m not ranking this list except for the following exception: The Avengers was my favorite thing this year. I’m not sure I’ve ever had more fun watching a movie than I did this long-awaited superhero team-up. Its existence is an anomaly, its quality a miracle, and make no mistake there are about thirty moments from this masterpiece that I consider as good as anything else in this post, so picking one isn’t exactly easy…but that said there’s no way I can really go with anything other than the Hulk cutting off Loki’s speech to smash the ever-loving hell out of him.

It’s such an astonishing, unexpected, flawless moment of crowd-pleasing ecstasy that not until my third viewing could anyone in the theater actually hear Hulk’s line over the sound of their own cheering. No other moment of 2012 validated the things I love quite like that.

Game of Thrones: The Battle of the Blackwater

If there was one thing from A Clash of Kings—the second book in George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series—that HBO absolutely needed to get right with their adaptation, it was this. They’d already avoided showing major battles a couple of times before, but budget restrictions be damned there’d be no excusing the exclusion of the most pivotal conflict in the war that the entire second season was built upon.

Lucky for everyone they stepped up to the challenge and depicted the Baratheon assault on King’s Landing in a way that not only lived up to the text, but may have actually managed to transcend it. Thanks to the legions of extras, Peter Dinklage’s awesome speechifying as Tyrion, the stomach-churning violence, Cersei’s drunken breakdown, and the Hound promising he’d rape the corpses of any man who died with a clean sword, this may have been the year’s best episode of television. Focusing on a singular event was a huge departure for this show, and it couldn’t possibly have worked better. No surprise George Martin himself penned the script.

The Legend of Korra: Amon a Boat

The sequel series to Avatar: The Last Airbender might not be the flawless work of genius I had hoped for based upon my devotion to the original, but it still had a lot to love. I found its greatest triumph in the antagonist Amon, a forceful revolutionary who unified the disenfranchised nonbenders of Republic City behind his Equalist movement.

I was sure his storyline would be resolved by the end of the season, but I wasn’t sure how. Just when it appears he’s going to escape towards the end of the finale, his brother Tarrlok blows up the both of them after a hauntingly beautiful scene that suggested the possibility for redemption. But no, instead this Nickelodeon series went with a murder-suicide. After dozens of pilots parachuted to safety from their exploded planes over the previous couple of episodes, I was unprepared for so bleak a turn. The scene’s music really sold it.

Killer Joe: K Fry C

While I missed out on Magic Mike and The Paperboy, I can state based on this film alone that Matthew McConaughey had an excellent year. The totally amoral hitman might not be the most original trope, but here he proves that there’s still so much fun that can be had with compelling killers who will do anything for what they’re owed.

Take the last fifteen or so minutes of this movie, in which the titular murderer forces the woman who double crossed him to suck on a fried chicken drumstick like it’s his penis. He certainly acts as if it is, in what makes for one of the most disturbing “can’t look away” scenes I’ve ever borne witness to. And the violent aftermath was superb. This film is rated NC-17, by the way.

Breaking Bad: “You’re Goddamn Right.”

I’m fairly certain that if most people were asked to pick the standout moment from the eight episodes making up the first half of the greatest show on television’s fifth and final season, they would pick either the train heist, its terrible and immediate consequences, or perhaps something from the installment that Rian Johnson directed—say, Skyler wading into the pool.

Yet I can’t help but choose Walt’s cocky as all hell “negotiating” that opens the seventh episode. To me it’s the apex of his journey, the moment where he so fully embodies an intimidating drug lord that it’s almost impossible to remember the sad little man he was at the start of this story. In some ways it’s everything the series had been building towards. Now all that’s left is for Walt to fall.

The Master: Processing

Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman were both incredible in the latest work of genius from Paul Thomas Anderson, and never more so than in the early scene where cult leader Lancaster Dodd subjects budding disciple Freddie to an intense question and answer session as a way of forcing him to confront his past. Hypnotic stuff.

Looper: Temporal Mutilation

Rian Johnson’s third feature film wasn’t quite the mind-fucking cat and mouse game I was hoping for, but as a totally original science fiction story with grit and personality reminiscent of a bygone era of high concept filmmaking, it’s still one of the year’s highlights. Its most memorable contribution to the time travel mythos is the scene in which Paul Dano’s older self tries to flee from the mob after the younger version is captured. A faded scar on his arm appears telling him where to go, and then parts of his body start disappearing as the bad guys cut them off in the present day.

It’s something that’s never really been done before (outside of an episode of Invader Zim, technically) and though of course it suffers the logical flaws of any fourth dimensional narrative, it’s so chilling and memorable that I couldn’t have cared less. Perhaps I would have preferred the latter half of this movie to go in a different direction, but there’s still so much here to admire.

Seven Psychopaths: The Insane Climax That Wasn’t

I found very few things this year more delightful than Martin McDonagh’s second feature film. Perhaps not as resonant as In Bruges, it was nevertheless a crazy ton of fun with some of the year’s best performances from Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell.

The latter really shined, especially when he described/acted out a hypothetical shootout between all of the movie’s characters. By showing us an over-the-top conclusion as a deranged fantasy, McDonagh got to give us our cake without any of the calories. Some might see it as a cop out, but I thought it worked perfectly. I just wish that dog had fired the flare gun in the actual showdown.

The Walking Dead: Postpartum Depression

Still a little shocked at how impressively this show turned things around this year. If you told me a scene involving the horribly unlikable Lori would almost make me cry I never would have believed you, but then I also didn’t think they would actually be bold enough to kill her off.

And she doesn’t just get eaten by some zombie, oh no. She undergoes an emergency c-section with no anesthesia or medical resources of any kind, 100% sure that it’s going to kill her. And her son watched. Brutal stuff, even if you find Carl a worthless, annoying character. I say they’ve improved him a lot this season, but even if they hadn’t, watching him perform a coup de grace on his own mother so that she wouldn’t come back as a walker wouldn’t have been easy.

And then she gets eaten by a zombie, as Rick discovers when he tries to find her corpse. Now that’s what they mean by adding insult to injury.

Boardwalk Empire: Van Alden Irons Out Some Problems at Work

Though it’s never been the most talked about series, for me Boardwalk Empire was the one I most enjoyed following on a week-to-week basis this fall. Maybe that’s because it was the show I always watched with friends on the night it aired, but I still think it’s not as appreciated as it should be.

This year they were telling a very specific story with a great antagonist in Gyp Rosetti, but the highlight of the entire season had almost nothing to do with that. The show’s greatest resource might very well be actor Michael Shannon, who was sidelined for much of this season to the point where it felt like he was only in about half of the episodes. Maybe that was because he was busy filming Man of Steel or something, but it’s still unfortunate considering how he can utterly bring the house down when he needs to. Case in point: The scene where he’s finally had enough of his asshole coworkers and presses a hot iron into one of their faces, then freaks out and destroys the office as they all scream and cower in terror. His hideous grin is what really brings it all together. I want to see a new version of Frankenstein just because of how obvious it is that Shannon was born to play the monster.

Flight: The Crash

One of the most unifying theater experiences of the year was the palpable, edge of your-seat tension the entire audience shared during the harrowing catastrophe that kicks off Robert Zemeckis’s surprisingly explicit exploration of a man who will do (almost) anything to avoid confronting his addiction. Though the film is all character drama after the plane goes down, Denzel Washington’s performance manages to hold it together. I admit I found it less impressive on a second viewing, but for those first few minutes I was spellbound.

Red Country: Cosca Tells it Like He Sees it

EVERYONE GO READ EVERYTHING BY JOE ABERCROMBIE RIGHT NOW STARTING WITH THE BLADE ITSELF HERE’S A LINK. And with my requisite attempt to get more people to discover the genius of the greatest fantasy author working today, I can say that his latest—a fantasy western—does indeed continue in the incredibly good vein I’ve come to expect. It may be my least favorite of his in a while, but understand that of those words I’m still very much emphasizing the “favorite.”

The passage I reread twice immediately after I’d finished it is a beautiful piece of cynicism from infamous soldier of fortune Nicomo Cosca, who lays out a world-weary philosophy on the inevitability of change that’s as heartbreaking as it is true. It’s a cruel world Abercrombie has crafted, and I may never get enough of it.

Homeland: The Interrogation

The second season of this series was completely insane. Put six former showrunners in a writer’s room together and the result is that they all try to stave off boredom by burning through four seasons of potential plot development in about as many episodes. I was excited just to see what Homeland would be with each new week. By no means did it always succeed, but when it did it was astonishing.

The highlight was the confrontation that the entire show had been leading up to, a face off between Carrie and a captive Brody with everything more or less on the table. Claire Danes and Damien Lewis already got Emmys for their first season performances, but this one scene was good enough to warrant another for each of them. Just flat out amazing work.

Django Unchained: The Shootout at Candie Land

In a year mostly defined by the way my expectations were exceeded, subverted, or all-too-often disappointed, I was just thankful that this Western (well, actually a Southern) from Tarantino was precisely what I thought it would be: Two hours and forty-five minutes of luxurious dialogue, bloody action, and badass movie-going glee from the undisputed master of…whatever the hell it is that Tarantino does.

The whole thing was great, but I knew I would walk out satisfied once the two biggest supporting players’ deaths lead seamlessly to one of the goriest gun battles I’d ever seen. Curiosity, attention, devotion, adoration…as far as I’m concerned Tarantino can have it all.

Zero Dark Thirty: SEAL Team Six Goes to Work

This movie was an experience. In the spirit of the war it portrays, it left me shaken and awed on a more profound level than Bigelow’s similar Hurt Locker from three years back, and I loved The Hurt Locker.

Yet by focusing on true events and presenting them with an unflinching matter-of-factness, this film rose even higher. It’s a testament to the talent of all involved that the raid at the end—in which I knew everything that would happen ahead of time—was the most nerve-wracking, suspenseful twenty-five minutes I spent in a theater this year. Impressive, especially considering how weird it was to see Chris Pratt from Parks and Recreation in such a stark environment.

The Walking Dead (video game): The Final Farewell

Perhaps the most affecting video game I’ve ever played, I don’t hesitate one instant to say that it’s a better story of survival horror than the television show. Over its five episodes players are taken through the wringer as they make incredibly tough choices affecting their place within the linear narrative. You may not always be able to affect who lives and who dies (in fact most of the time you can’t), but your choices surrounding these events—how you react and make other people feel—all matter. The way it tells you how your decisions compared to all other players after each episode is a fantastic touch.

SPOILERS HERE, Seriously I’d feel bad about ruining this one

And this game doesn’t compromise. No matter what happens,  the main character Lee will die. It’s inevitable, and the fact that he’s bitten at the end of the fourth episode fills the final chapter with incredible purpose. Whatever happens, it’s the last thing you’re ever going to do. And it ends as emotionally as it could, with a heartfelt and tearful goodbye to Clementine—the adorable little girl who you’ve watched over and protected for the entire game. Your final choice is whether or not she shoots you in the head to keep you from coming back. I didn’t make her. But what mattered more to me was what you choose as your last words. I told that poor child not to be afraid.

This is what games are capable of, people.

Well, that would be that. A pretty good year, I’d say. Here’s to the next one. Now everybody go party.

Adapting the Governor, Sexual Assault, and the Mishandled Aftermath Thereof on The Walking Dead

Screen shot 2012-12-23 at 3.16.56 PMWhen it comes to killing zombies, The Walking Dead is the best show on television. Judged by most other criteria—writing, acting, characterization, storytelling—it’s certainly alright, but to put it kindly, airing on the same night as Boardwalk Empire and Homeland doesn’t do it any favors. That said, this year it’s definitely stronger than ever thanks to some new characters (who we’ll get into shortly) and a plot with far more forward momentum than all that nonsense on the farm from last season. All told, the recent improvements have done just about enough to raise it from the level of guilty pleasure to a viewing experience that, if not quite transformative, is at least plenty interesting. It also can’t be overstated that the zombie killing really helps hold my attention.

Not to say it’s shallow per se, but I can’t deny that most of my appreciation for the series can be attributed to its world class make-up and effects team. Thematically, it’s not going to challenge anyone too deeply, and previous attempts at doing so haven’t been anything to write home about (“Should we kill this guy?” “Yes.” “But what would that make us?!” “BUT WE HAVE TO!” “NO! ” Repeat for five episodes). So when a recent installment featured a scene of sexual assault, I was more than a little nervous. That’s not an easy event to tackle. In fact there are a litany of reasons that make it one of the most difficult: Trying to give it the desired impact, realistically portraying both perpetrator and victim, taking every measure not to exploit the act in the interest of titillating the audience or as a quick and easy way to provide character motivation. It’s not something to approach lightly, and needs to feel both necessary and natural to the story being told or else it’s just not worth the risk.

All that said, I was actually impressed (if that’s at all the right word) with the way they went about it. Before getting into specifics, though, I need to set the stage a bit.

With its third season The Walking Dead has been adapting the most renowned storyline from the comic book source material. Integral to these events is the Governor, leader of a group of survivors in a town called Woodbury. In the comics he’s a complete monster. A long-haired biker type who’s clearly bad news from the moment you see him, he’s an unrepentantly sadistic psychopath with no redeeming qualities. In bringing him to the screen, however, the makers of the show decided to add a few shades of grey. Played by David Morrissey, AMC’s take on the Governor is older, kempt, and charismatic. He shows compassion towards those who depend on him for protection, and though his methods are extreme enough to leave no question as to whether or not he needs to be taken down, he’s not quite the soulless villain from the comics.

Yet the show has this really weird thing going on where the writers want the Governor to be more believable, but aren’t willing to entirely sacrifice any of the bizarre, over-the-top character traits that made him so memorable in the first place. So on the one hand he seems stable enough that eighty or so people would put their trust in him, but on the other he has a giant aquarium full of silently moaning zombie heads that he stares at to unwind. It’s strange. Thankfully, at least one change was handled well.

The Governor as originally written is a violent rapist. After capturing Michonne (a total badass zombie slayer with a katana, of all things—as far as I can tell she’s nearly identical in the comic and the show) in the original version of the story, he repeatedly rapes and beats her as a means of torture, and there’s no question that he enjoys it. Robert Kirkman’s original comic, if it needs to be said, is some really bleak stuff—gut-wrenching on a level that I doubt the television series intends to fully embrace. Not that the show can’t be intense (one character death this season actually was darker than I’d ever thought they’d go), merely that the comic reaches a level of graphic brutality that sets it apart from just about anything else.

So the show’s dilemma here becomes how to keep the Governor less entrenched in the moral black zone than his comics counterpart while still including the proclivity for sexual violence that made him stand out as a villain in the first place. The way they go about it works quite well.

First of all, in the show it’s not Michonne who’s captured, but Glenn and Maggie—a romantically involved couple who, unlike the aforementioned katana-wielding badass, are not modern day samurai. They lack Michonne’s near-superhuman fortitude and, as such, it’s much more nerve-wracking to see them in danger (sidenote: Glenn was also captured alongside Michonne in the comics, as well as the lead character Rick. In that version, Glenn makes it through with the least trauma). The Governor and his men interrogate the two of them in an effort to learn the location of the rest of their party. Glenn is savagely beaten by the Governor’s Number 2 man Merle, and then has a zombie let loose on him while still tied to a chair (he kills it—awesome).

Screen shot 2012-12-23 at 3.16.41 PMMeanwhile, the Governor interrogates Maggie. After untying her, he opts first for the diplomatic approach, cordially asking for the information he’s after. When that fails, he asks her to stand up. She refuses, and he drops the polite facade, now ordering her to stand in a voice so icy you can practically see his breath. He tells her to remove her top, or he’ll chop off Glenn’s hand (a shout-out to the comics, where the Governor does just that to Rick). Once she’s standing there half-naked, he gets out of his chair, very deliberately removes his holster, and strides over to her. He brushes her hair with his fingers before forcefully bending her over the table and asking one last time whether she’s going to talk. But Maggie won’t break. She tells him to do whatever he’s going to do, and that he can go to hell. At that, the Governor backs off. He was bluffing.

The contrast between the two versions of the Governor is fairly clear. They’re similar in that they both find sexual assault an effective means of torture, but whereas the original had no qualms about raping Michonne, the live action version predominantly uses the threat of rape to get what he wants. He makes it apparent that he has absolute power over Maggie and could do to her whatever he pleases. It’s pure intimidation. He draws out the process, forcing her to strip and gradually building up to the moment when he actually touches her. The scene isn’t about what he does to Maggie, it’s about what he could do. It’s an exercise in suspense, made effective thanks in large part to strong performances from both actors—David Morrissey’s Governor dominates the room while Lauren Cohan as Maggie tries to stay strong in a situation where she’s utterly powerless (incidentally, much of The Walking Dead’s cast has some degree of British accent in real life, and these two follow suit—Morrissey more so). The anxiety from watching it play out is guaranteed to make even a mildly empathetic viewer’s skin crawl.

With this scene the show did exactly what it wanted to. The season’s antagonist is further established as a loathsome fuck who sexually assaults one of the female characters, but the way he goes about it allows them to avoid showing or implying graphic rape. There’s also no question that it makes the Governor more interesting, specifically because of the subplot involving the relationship between him and another female character with whom he has consensual sex. That he has no trouble behaving romantically one minute and using sex as a weapon the next might make him just as despicable as his original incarnation. In the scene with Maggie, his own physical gratification isn’t a factor. He does it purely because he knows it will hurt her. If he enjoys it on any level, it’s due to the rush of power he gets from threatening a defenseless woman.

Essentially, while the Governor on the show is different from the comics, that doesn’t mean he’s any better a person just because his actions are less explicit—he’s simply a bit more complicated. Does that complexity arise in part from the writers trying to have their cake and eat it too? To give us a grounded, charismatic antagonist with so many touches of over-the-top villainy that he isn’t quite believable if we try to take him in all at once? It’s possible, but I’d argue that at least in this one instance he’s been perfectly adapted into a Governor who, while less intense than in the comics, is just as big a threat and every bit as twisted as the source material dictates.

Now forgive me, but none of what I’ve just discussed inspired this post. I’m not trying to waste everyone’s time (purely incidental); that was all necessary set-up and contemplation better taken care of before we dive into the actual scene that got me thinking so intently about how The Walking Dead‘s adaptation process has affected its sexual politics.

It’s a scene of aftermath that occurs a few minutes into the next episode, which also served as the mid-season finale. Glenn and Maggie sit together, trying to hold it all together after their respective interrogations. When they were reunited, Maggie was still topless, shoved over to Glenn by a disturbingly affectionate Governor. Glenn knows nothing else of what she went through, so naturally the horrible mystery of it is killing him. More than anything he wants Maggie to be ok, and to know the specifics of whatever the hell she suffered. So he breaks the silence, starting to ask “Hey, did he—”, when she immediately cuts him off with, “No, he barely touched me.” She’s more concerned that Glenn’s alright—understandable, considering that Glenn looks much the worse for wear. But then Maggie, after briefly reflecting on the potential cruelty of man, comments on his appearance, to which Glenn answers “It doesn’t matter. As long as he didn’t…” and Maggie once again interrupts, assuaging his fears. “No, I promise.”

As I was watching it, their entire exchange simply didn’t sit right with me. I could tell the writers were trying to be as tactful as possible, but that they’d definitely made some misstep. By all rights I should have shrugged and moved on (especially considering a moment later Glenn rips a bone from a corpse’s arm to use as a weapon GAH have I by any chance mentioned that this show handles violence in a highly compelling manner okjustchecking), but I just couldn’t help contemplating the scene and its exact choice of dialogue over and over again and now here we are.

The problem is that the phrasing of Glenn’s questions puts the emphasis on the exact logistical nature of the Governor’s actions. It’s not “Are you ok?”, it’s “What did that man do to you?”. Now don’t get me wrong, his behavior is incredibly realistic. In terms of accurately portraying how most men in his situation would word their concerns, that’s spot on. And Maggie’s response also makes sense. All of the characters on this show have gone through a hell of a lot just to survive, and while the sexually threatening nature of the Governor’s interrogation was a different kind of trauma than the series has previously depicted, Maggie being able to hold herself together jibes well with the fact that, frankly, if these characters weren’t all incredibly level-headed in a crisis they’d be dead.

Not to mention she could even be feeling guilty, in a way, as Glenn certainly had to endure more physical punishment than she did. Her language backs up that interpretation. In her own words she was “barely touched,” while Glenn is drenched in his own blood. One objective of the scene that I wholly commend is how it establishes that they’re both primarily concerned for each other’s well-being. I must admit it makes their relationship more involving; I never really had strong feelings about the couple either way until they were put in danger, whereas now my response to a small portion of their arc has just crossed the two thousand word mark. My issue, then, isn’t with the portrayal of the characters, but with the way the show executes what I perceive to be the scene’s other objective.

This is a big episode, with a lot of moving pieces. Rick is leading a group into Woodbury to rescue Glenn and Maggie, Michonne is out to kill the Governor*, and a new group of survivors are introduced in an entirely separate storyline. Juggling it all isn’t easy, and if there’s one thing that viewers need to have clear it’s the emotional and physical state of the characters. Primarily, this means establishing that recent torture victims Glenn and Maggie are able to cope with the action to come.

Screen shot 2012-12-23 at 3.17.10 PMAnd that’s admirable. It’s important that Maggie’s emotional state wasn’t taken for granted, but instead communicated to the audience. Unfortunately, the language of the scene suggests that Maggie is ok specifically because she wasn’t actually raped. The questioning is emphasized in such a way that I couldn’t help but feel like the writers were popping their heads out and letting me know everything’s really alright, don’t worry, because a penis never went inside her, you see, so she was only violated in a superfluous and tasteful manner.

Now once again, the fact that she’s able to cope with the event is perfectly acceptable, but the implication here is that Maggie is still functioning because the Govenor spared her. It’s not about her personal reaction to the assault, but rather where her experience belongs on some scale of objective sexual trauma. As if, purely by knowing what happened to her, we’ll somehow suddenly understand how she feels. In no way is that the case. There is no easy way to deal with trauma because it isn’t a routine, predictable thing that can be easily assessed. Every scenario is different because the people involved are different. Knowing what happened is next to useless when compared with how the person actually feels, and though the scene is clearly concerned with Maggie’s reaction, it goes about it the wrong way, using the event as an indicator for what she’s “supposed” to be feeling instead of assessing her reaction as a consequence of what happened. It goes backwards. “This is what happened, ergo Maggie will be ok.” instead of “Maggie is ok because this is how she feels in regards to what happened.”

It’s an easy, all too common mistake. The scene was done with the best of intentions, and the characters were behaving realistically. In terms of sexism and misogyny on TV there’s infinitely worse content every day, and there’s just as many things to praise about the way The Walking Dead handled the subject matter as there are to criticize. Maybe even more.

But fuck that’s why it’s so damned upsetting. Here, even in one of the most supposedly mature series out there, in a scene where they were obviously conscious of the difficult ground they were walking and trying to get things right, they still wound up with dialogue that could be uncharitably interpreted as “Now be honest with me, were you legitimately raped, or can I stop worrying?” So that’s kind of not good.

Of course, I didn’t actually want a twenty minute scene of heartwrenching empathy with Glenn and Maggie baring their souls and weeping into the night. Like everyone watching, I wanted them to get the fuck out of there and kick some ass. But that could have just as easily happened after Maggie said she was fine for now. Or that she wasn’t fine but they had more immediate things to worry about. Or that she was more worried about him. The fact that she had to swear to Glenn that nothing had happened to put his mind at ease, of all things, was just so frustrating. Just think about what it actually means for Glenn to have said, “As long as he didn’t—”. Well hey, what if he did? What if he had raped her? Then what? Then that’s not ok, she’s doomed, there’s no coming back from that?

I understand that his character wouldn’t be thinking—in that particular moment—about everything that his statement could possibly imply and that he has no experience with a situation like this. But the authoritative perspective of the show seemed to me to suggest that it was the right thing for him to say in his position and it wasn’t.

Why is that a big deal? Why do I care? Because no one watching The Walking Dead is ever going to have to survive the zombie apocalypse. And that’s alright. Few people believe in the value of the fantastic more than I do. But if you’ll permit me to take a moment to step away from heightened reality, genre fiction, and gleeful carnage to say this:

I guarantee that hundreds—hell, make that thousands—of people who watched this episode are, at some point in their lives, going to have to help someone cope with sexual assault. Like Glenn, there’s a very good chance they won’t be sure what to say in whatever scenario they may be facing. It’s not something we prepare for. As minimal as it might have been, there was an opportunity for this show to do a bit of genuine good simply by depicting positive, supportive behavior. I’m not saying it should have been a wholly didactic scene, or a “very special installment” of The Walking Dead or anything remotely that extreme. I’m only saying that stories matter. We learn from them, even (and especially) when we don’t realize it. They influence our behavior. So it upsets me when this scene, which could have been truly progressive, instead propagated what I perceived to be mostly negative attitudes in response to sexual assault. I’m sure that wasn’t their intention, but if we want to make things better it’s most important to address the passive errors, because they’re the ones that we have the greatest chance of fixing.

It’s possible I’m overreacting—that I misinterpreted things, or even that they plan to explore Maggie’s feelings in greater depth. But I doubt it. Believe me, I don’t relish the chance to be offended. This isn’t the sort of thing I go looking for. It was just there,  and I couldn’t ignore it. I can’t deny that it got my head absolutely spinning about the adaptation process the series has gone through (something I thoroughly enjoy pondering) and at the very least it allowed me to start what I hope can be a useful dialogue. Because ultimately, if such a short scene—so innocuous at first glance—can contain so many upsetting implications, the odds are we’ve got a long road ahead if we want to make things better.

So please, share your thoughts whether you have a response to this specific example or to some other story where you couldn’t help but notice the ways in which it dealt with attitudes towards gender, feminism, assault, sexuality, or anything that this post brought to mind. Because really, the only thing I know about improving this stuff: We have to talk about it.

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*Another interesting point: The fact that the Governor doesn’t rape or torture Michonne in the show is notable considering that she kills his zombified daughter and gouges out his eye at the end of this episode. Whereas in the comic she was getting revenge (and did far, far more damage than David Morrissey’s portrayal suffers here. Oh he loses the eye, sure. But from a glass shard. In Kirkman’s black and white pages she scooped it out with a goddamn spoon. After she nailed his genitals to a board. Yeah, really can’t stress this enough: Comic is fucked up), on the show she beats him in a fair fight. A brutal one, but it’s not torture. And at the end of it, she’s done more to him than he ever did to her. A much different conflict from the way it was originally depicted, and all because of the route they decided to go with the characters in regards to sexual assault.

Buffy Reflections: Season 4

After adoring the second and third seasons, I was more than ready for Buffy to continue dazzling me as the slayer embarked on her freshman year at UC Sunnydale. Unfortunately it wasn’t quite as graceful a transition as I’d hoped for.

I’d gotten so used to the strength of the central storyline—from everything with Spike and Angel to Faith and the Mayor—that it was hard not to be somewhat let down by the new developments centering around Riley, Adam, and the Initiative. There was simply a lot less momentum to everything. At first there was the mystery over what exactly the Initiative was, then once we discover that Riley and Professor Walsh are part of it (a great reveal, actually) it takes longer for Buffy and the others to catch on. Walsh’s inevitable betrayal followed that, no surprise to anyone familiar with Joss’s mistrust of shadowy government conspiracies. Then finally Adam murders Walsh and becomes the season’s Big Bad…only he barely does anything until the finale and in the mean time he has a stupid green face.

It likely would have been a more compelling backbone for the season if Riley had more going on, but as a love interest for Buffy he can’t really hope to compare to the drama Angel stirred up, and at his worst he came off like an irritating farm boy.

Aside from the main plot, the rest of the season was wildly uneven in terms of quality. All of the “getting used to college” episodes at the beginning felt like a waste of time. The show didn’t seem to know what to do with Giles or Xander anymore, though at least the latter got to keep dating Anya, who’s quickly become one of my favorite characters. Spike is now a main cast member, and of course he’s a very welcome addition, but he spent far too much of this season whining and moping around. Let’s hope he gets a bit more proactive, because right now the once terrifying threat has been reduced to comic relief. He’s effective comic relief, sure, but I like him with teeth.

It also felt like their were fewer standout episodes compared to last season. “Hush,” “Who Are You,” and “Superstar” ranked up their with the best of the series, but they were the exceptions in a season that—despite having no shortage of enjoyable moments, with characters as consistently well-written and acted as always—felt like a step down whether assessed as a whole or in terms of its individual installments. “Doomed,” in particular, might have been my least favorite episode of Buffy ever. I couldn’t even enjoy it on a camp level like I do so many of the sillier episodes (“Beer Bad” and “Where the Wild Things Are” being this season’s brilliantly heavy handed misfires).

There was, however, one major bright spot in Willow. Everything about her was fantastic; her relationships with Oz and Tara broke and warmed my heart, respectively, and she truly felt like the character the writers best knew how they wanted to grow over the season. Her arc was wonderful.

I also watched a few episodes of Angel, which certainly has some growing to do, and by God its flashy scene transitions are idiotic, but there’s obvious potential there.

Though I was a little disappointed with this season, it was still enjoyable and, most importantly, still Buffy in all the ways I’ve come to love. I might be wary for the immediate future were it not for season five’s sterling reputation.

Onwards we go.