“Halt and Catch Fire” thoughts, Season Two, Episode 6: “10BROAD36″

July 5th, 2015

There’s no surer sign that a show is doing something very right than when even its most plot-heavy episodes leave you thinking not about what happened, but how it happened. Sure, you can recount where Mad Men‘s final episode left all its leading players — but the real magic lies in the way Don Draper’s climactic breakdown and breakthrough is presented. (You’re craving a Coke right…about…now.) Game of Thrones‘ Season Five finale similarly stranded nearly all its major characters in the direst of straits, but weeks later it’s the sound of the crowd surrounding Cersei Lannister’s walk of shame that sticks in your mind.

This is the enviable position in which Halt and Catch Fire finds itself with the latest installment in its season-long hot streak: “10BROAD36.” It’s an episode that bursting with big story beats: the Mutiny crew found out about Cameron and Tom’s romance; Donna hid both her pregnancy and abortion from her husband Gordon, who was busy cheating on her half a continent away; and Joe MacMillan used his “simple” plan to provide server space to Cam’s company as an entry point for taking it over entirely. (Bad Joe is back!) But it’s how these characters interacted, and how everything was shot and staged, that made for a fantastic hour of television.

Might I suggest that if you’re disappointed by this season of True Detective, you make the switch to Halt and Catch Fire, which rules? I reviewed tonight’s episode for Rolling Stone.

“True Detective” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Three: “Maybe Tomorrow”

July 5th, 2015

…this isn’t the first time True Detective has lacked the courage of its convictions. Rust Cohle spent the first season spouting the bleakest arguments about life and death ever advanced by a primetime drama, only to see the light and put his pessimism aside in its final minutes. The show could have broken important ground, depicting a person who believes the worst about the world yet still does good in it, with neither feature canceling out the other. (Faith in humanity is not required to be a decent human being.) Instead, Rust played the hero and got a hero’s reward, psychologically anyway.

Reviving Ray leaves similarly challenging and exciting territory unexplored. The idea of a good-cop/bad-cop narrative forced to live on past the death of its bad cop is an intriguing one indeed. For starters, it would have shaken up the story’s seen-it-all-before structure. It could also have been an opportunity for Pizzolatto and company to examine the toxic masculinity the show alternately (and perhaps unwittingly) critiques and embodies. Dodging an entire seasons’ worth of comparisons between the Harrelson/McConaughey and Farrell/Vaughn stunt castings wouldn’t have hurt, either.

And while we’re playing the What If game: If Velcoro were gone, maybe there’d be room to signify the psychological hang-ups of the other characters outside of bedroom-related problems. Take the trio that rounds out the core cast: Ani Bezzerides’ sexual assertiveness, Frank Semyon’s failure to perform at the fertility clinic, and Paul Woodrugh’s physical rejection of a romantic overture are used to advertise their overall dysfunction like a neon sign. Pimps and prostitutes are everywhere, each one a more leering stereotype than the last. Hollywood types talk about risqué parties like middle-schoolers who just looked up the word “orgy” on wiktionary.com for the first time. The evil mayor has a house full of hustlers and harlots, including his son and wife. The murder victim himself is a garden-variety perv. Factor in Marty Hart’s philandering, his teen daughter’s promiscuity, and his wife’s weaponized seduction of Rust back in Season One, and it’s as if True Detective believes anything short of having seamless, zipless sexual experiences is a signal that your life is about to fall apart.

“Death is not the end,” but maybe it should be? I reviewed tonight’s kind of baffling True Detective for Rolling Stone.

“The Brink” thoughts, Season One, Episode One: “Pilot”

July 3rd, 2015

What if an actual crazy person got his hands on Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, and only America’s horniest men could stop him? That’s the basic premise of The Brink, HBO’s alleged new comedy. In theory, it’s not a bad set-up for a satire. If anything, this country’s gang-who-couldn’t-drone-straight foreign policy in the Muslim world deserves an even more ruthless roasting than its comedians have given it, and anxieties about the so-called “Islamic bomb” and the impenetrable nexus of militant groups and secret agencies that surround it on all sides are ripe for Strangelovian spoofing. Homeland Season Four, but funny on purpose? Starring Jack Black, Tim Robbins, Aasif Mandvi from The Daily Show, and Pablo Schreiber from The Wire Season Two? Sure, this could work.

Alas! “Pilot” (the default title for a series-premiere actually fits the story) gets no closer to Kubrick than the trisected structure that creators Roberto and Kim Benabib cribbed from the good Dr. Looked at in the most generous light imaginable, Black’s low-ranking Islamabad-based diplomat Alex Talbot is a bawdier version of Peter Sellers’s Colonel Mandrake, Robbins’s even randier Secretary of State Walter Larson is a less macho take on George C. Scott’s General Buck Turgidson, and Schreiber’s Navy fighter pilot Zeke “Z-Pak” Tilson is a pill-popping, civilian-casualty-avoiding echo of Slim Pickens’s Major Kong; together, it seems, they’ll have to help Esai Morales’s President Julian Navarro—handsomer than Sellers’s Merkin Muffley but just as ineffectual—keep a powerful general with paranoid delusions about enemy plots against his nation’s reproductive capabilities (yep, it’s that direct a swipe) from igniting World War III. I don’t remember Strangelove having this many dick jokes, though. Okay, this many bad dick jokes.

Strangelove on the rocks: I missed linking to it at the time, but I reviewed the series premiere of The Brink for the New York Observer.

“Hannibal” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Five: “Contorno”

July 3rd, 2015

“Contorno,” last night’s action-packed, bowel-unpacked episode ofHannibal, took visceral (no pun intended) pleasure in kicking the living shit out of Hannibal Lecter. Physical opponents — that psychopathic mental-hospital orderly, Mason Verger and his goons, and of course Jack himself — have gotten the drop on the Doctor in the past, but in each case the action was elegant and elevating, whether Hannibal was being trussed up for the perfect death or engaging in an expertly choreographed hand-to-hand battle with a worthy opponent. None of that this time. This was just a decent guy who’s getting too old for this shit handing an asshole’s ass to him. And man, it felt good, even if he got away in the end. The split from the show’s usual operatic setpiece-violence in favor of this down-and-dirty fight was striking, and provided a surprising and welcome break from the claustrophobic, symbolism-laden slaughter.

And maybe it’s the latent class warrior in me — okay, not so latent, the expropriation of the wealthy really can’t begin fast enough — but it seems as if the show relied on a certain slobs-vs.-snobs schadenfreude to fuel the climactic town-vs.-gown beatdown. After all Hannibal’s posturing, his expensive clothes and fine wine and gourmet meals and high culture, he was for all intents and purposes beaten in a bar fight by a working stiff. Hannibal revels in the perversity of immersing us in this aristocratic killer’s mind and world, but a scene like this shows it’s still wisely attuned to popular desire to watch the effete elite taken down a peg. (The use of Rossini’s “The Thieving Magpie” as the soundtrack for this scene smartly recalls its accompaniment of Alex DeLarge’s anti-aristo rampages in A Clockwork Orange.)

He takes a beating and keeps on eating: I reviewed this week’s Hannibal for Decider.

“Halt and Catch Fire” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Five: “Infiltrator”

June 29th, 2015

Halt’s got many strengths besides its characters, of course; its period pop-culture reference game has rarely if ever been as on point as it was tonight. Cameron and Tom’s rental of The Terminator, for example, takes on any number of roles within the narrative. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s voice gives them funny accents to flirt in. Renting the video provides Tom with a convenient excuse for one of his many sudden “I gotta go”s, which seems to suggest a secret at home. The film’s totally-Eighties nightclub-massacre scene is beautifully recreated in Gordon’s own visit to the local hotspot, with a zonked-out computer engineer substituting for the gun-toting cyborg. The Mutiny crew watches the scene featuring the famous line “And it will not stop, ever, until you are dead,” which echoes Clark’s understanding of his disease. And the first-person shooter the company wants to develop will, in all likelihood, owe a lot to the visceral violence and implacable antagonists of James Cameron’s classic.

Ditto the just-imported Nintendo Entertainment System that Gordon’s kids can’t wait to play. Like the Macintosh that appeared at the end of last season like one of 2001‘s monoliths, the NES will create a massive cultural explosion that Cameron and company will have to deal with. The children’s prophetically passionate response shows how important the characters’ family lives can be to their professional ones, if only they pay attention. The bemused way Donna’s mother describes the game they’re playing (“A bunch of little men fighting turtles”) illustrates how easy it is to ignore a Super Mario Bros–sized forest for the trees. It also indicates the weird alchemy required to create a world that gamers will want to immerse themselves in again and again, which is Cameron’s current quest for her theoretical online multiplayer game. Maybe it’s a coincidence that so many shots in this episode showed characters as small figures against big backgrounds, Mario-style — but if so it’s a coincidence that counts.

Halt and Catch Fire is super good, everyone. Here’s my review of tonight’s episode for Rolling Stone.

“True Detective” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Two: “Night Finds You”

June 28th, 2015

Let’s get a little Rust Cohle-ish for a second: There’s a theory among physicists that any event with multiple possible outcomes is essentially a root from which parallel universes grow. If you’re reading this recap, for example, you probably decided to watch True Detective tonight — instead of, say, playing World of Warcraft, or writing to your congressional representative about the cancellation of Hannibal. But according to the “many-worlds interpretation” of quantum mechanics, the timelines in which you leveled up your orc mage or explained the twisted relationship between Dr. Lecter and Special Agent Will Graham to a member of the House Ways and Means Committee are just as real as this one.

Tonight, True Detective 2.0 itself reached a multiversal branch point. Either it killed off its top-billed main character in its second episode, thus crafting the quickest course correction in TV history, or it didn’t, creating one of the most obnoxious bait-and-switch cliffhangers ever. This makes Colin Farrell the TV-antihero version of Schrödinger’s cat — simultaneously alive and dead, at least until next week. Time may be a flat circle, but it’s sure-as-shit better to be on one side of the interdimensional disc than the other.

Did True Detective just do what it looked like it did? And does it matter? I tried to answer these questions for Rolling Stone.

“Hannibal” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Four: “Apertivo”

June 26th, 2015

It will be left to scholars to determine whether opening “Apertivo,” this week’s ep, with a slow-motion closeup of a bullet entering a man’s face and exiting through the back of his head in a geyser of viscera influenced NBC’s decision to cancel the series days before it aired. But the fact remains: Hannibal is, without exaggeration, one of the most visually and narratively audacious shows in the entire history of television. It’s to the Peacock Network’s credit that they let it get away with murder for as long as they did.

I reviewed this week’s astonishing Hannibal for Decider.

“Halt and Catch Fire” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Four: “Play with Friends”

June 21st, 2015

Directed by Boys Don’t Cry’s Kimberly Peirce, this week’s Halt made extensive and ostentatious use of canted frames, handheld cameras, and most memorably a GoPro-filmed dart-gun battle. These immersive techniques made for a constructive contrast with the clean-machine opening titles. The credits and their accompanying theme music portray technology’s advance as orderly, antiseptic, and unstoppable; meanwhile, the camera work conveys just how haphazard, shaky, and human things really are beneath the surface.

Speaking of being human — hoo boy, do Cameron Howe and Tom Rendon have sexual chemistry to burn. Mark O’Brien has been dynamite in the role from the start, equally convincing as an arrogant hacker and an overworked, underpaid kid trying to make ends meet. He brings that same easy naturalism to his scenes with Mackenzie Davis, making their characters’ physical and romantic connection so convincing you feel like you’re watching a perfect-for-each-other couple make out at a party for the very first time.

The hour-long buildup to their first kiss is killer, too. First Cameron reprimands him for showing up late and half-asleep. Next, she goes out of her way not to make him feel embarrassed when she discovers him working a supermarket night shift to pay the bills. Then they share a platonic  moment in a closet during the dart-gun war, and brainstorm the idea for multiplayer online gaming as a sort of sublimated seven-minutes-in-heaven. Finally, in the middle of cleaning up Mutiny’s beercan-strewn backyard, they stop for a giggly hookup that’s clumsy with passion and excitement. It’s super sexy stuff, and not an item of clothing is shed.

I reviewed tonight’s Halt and Catch Fire for Rolling Stone. It was good. This is a really fun show – you should watch it!

“True Detective” thoughts, Season Two, Episode One: “The Western Book of the Dead”

June 21st, 2015

Vince Vaughn hands in some of the episode’s best work; watch his eyes, which radiate genuine unspoken concern over Velcoro’s sorry state when the two of them meet up near the end of the episode. Yet he’s also asked to deliver gangster dialogue that sounds cribbed from a video game cut scene: It’d take a Brando to make clunkers like “This filth hurt your woman” or “This place is based on a codependency of interests” or “A good woman mitigates our baser tendencies” sound halfway passable.

As two of those three examples indicate, True Detective’s woman trouble has hardly improved. McAdams’ character is introduced in her underwear, storming out of the bedroom after freaking out her boyfriend by apparently requesting something a bit too wild. Both she and Kitsch’s character experience sexual dysfunction as a shorthand for their psychological issues, but in his case he can’t get it up without Viagra; it’s telling how the worst problem a man can have in the series’ world is failure to perform, while for a woman it’s performing too aggressively.

Certainly that’s reflected in the women Woodrugh encounters: a speeding starlet who gets him suspended with false accusations of soliciting sexual favors, and a girlfriend (also introduced in her underwear) who we’ve barely seen for 30 seconds before she says “It’s been a week, Mr. Policeman — get that dick over here.” Can’t she see he’s suffering?! Well, no, because he saves that for his long solo night rides on his bike, the wind against his face making for the hour’s most unintentionally hilarious visual.

Worse still is the emotional contract the show asks us to sign regarding Velcoro and Semyon. A flashback shows the pair first connecting when the latter provides the former with information about the suspect in his wife’s rape — hence the “this filth hurt your woman” bit. Given what we’ve seen of Velcoro’s subsequent behavior, it’s easy to imagine what he did with this knowledge. It’s much harder to know how the actual victim felt, given that we never see his wife, hear her, or even learn her name in the episode. The show asks us to believe that a rape is fundamentally the story of the abusive man who avenges her (when he’s not menacing children himself), a repeat of Season One’s unfortunate white-knight theme. Why must we accept stories about violence in which its perpetrators are its heroes? Unless and until it answers that question, True Detective risks simply being a one-season wonder.

I reviewed the True Detective season premiere for Rolling Stone. It was not good.

“Hannibal” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Three: “Secondo”

June 19th, 2015

What ultimately keeps “Secondo” from sinking under the weight of its contradictions is the strength of the statements its central characters make about who, and how, they are. Even in a series as quotable as this one, last night was a real power hour. Hannibal on what happened to him as a kid that made him the way he is: “Nothing happened to me. I happened.” Will on why he wants to find Hannibal, a mission that obviously means more to him than just an attempt to catch a killer: “I’ve never known myself as well as I know myself when I’m with him.” Bedelia on the bond between these two mad geniuses: “Forgiveness is too great and difficult for one person. It requires two, the betrayer and the betrayed….Betrayal and forgiveness are best seen as something akin to falling in love.”

Indeed, Will and Hannibal speak about each other with a seriousness and intensity that, while neither romantic nor even sexual, is undoubtedly erotic, even to those of us not given for making lovey-dovey Tumblr gif sets of every pair of fictional characters we enjoy. Which gives his concluding declaration about what it will take for him to forgive Will for deceiving him — the same way he “forgave” his sister for awakening his urges — the thrill of the perverse as well as the horrific: “I have to eat him.” Well, you know what they say: You are what you eat.

I reviewed last night’s Hannibal — shakier than usual, sensuous as ever — for Decider.

Alison Bechdel on “Fun Home”‘s Tony-Award Triumph

June 18th, 2015

What is it like for you to walk into that theater? It’s like being in your living room.

It’s overwhelming. I haven’t found a way to express the super bizarre surrealness of seeing my life on the stage and watching it play out multiple times. It’s a very strange ontological position to occupy. It both is and isn’t my life. I don’t really understand my relationship to the play. I’m still trying to figure that out.

The book received a lot of attention and acclaim as well, but with the musical, there are warm bodies on stage and in the audience. Does that make the enthusiastic reception of the show feel different?

That’s definitely part of it. The amazing risk involved in live theater? I could not bear that. You just count on so many people to get things right. You’re working with this giant team, from the prop manager to the actors, and they all go out on that tightrope every night together. That’s a very intense experience for the audience.

But also, a musical is something designed to have broad appeal. There’s a lot of money invested in this thing. It’s very difficult to get a show produced. What’s amazing to me is that this very weird, very particular, very risky story that’s not conventional Broadway fodder by any means has made it on Broadway! I feel like there’s always a trade-off between the size of your message and the size of your audience — they’re in inverse proportion. But in this case, there’s no skimping on the message. It’s not airbrushed in any way. It’s kind of just gritty and real. And it’s reaching these big Broadway audiences.

Did the sheer size of the collaborative effort involved seem a world away from sitting at your drawing table?

I was struck with that all along. Lisa [Kron, the writer/lyricist] and Jeanine [Tesori, the composer] had to be open to so many people’s input. That would have driven me absolutely nuts, but that’s part of what they love about it. Comics is about as far on the other end of the continuum as you can go. I do all my own set design and costumes. I do all the acting. That’s all me, and that’s the way I like it.

I interviewed the great Alison Bechdel about the success of Fun Home, the Tony Award–winning musical based on her graphic memoir of the same name, for Rolling Stone.

The Characters of Game of Thrones’ Saddest Season, Ranked by Happiness

June 16th, 2015

5. Sansa Stark

Sansa’s got the potential to be happy. First of all, she’s matured a lot. She actually liked Joffrey at the beginning! And given how terrible it’s been for her, she’s not doing too bad. I think that for her, it’s possible to recover from trauma. They show her to be that type. I mean, she’s pretty tough. She never got to the point where she just gives up. She thought everybody in her family was dead, but when it looked like Theon would light that candle and she would be saved, she really thought she was going to be okay. It didn’t go well, but even now she’s got hope again, now that she’s found out her little brothers weren’t killed. And also, she chewed Theon out, but then when she found out her brothers weren’t killed, she backed off. She’s not so angry and vindictive that it’s destructive. She’s appropriately so.

4. Samwell Tarly

This guy has peace. With his background of being bullied, he’s unusual because he doesn’t seem overly insecure. He’s not trying to prove to people, “I’m not really such a wimp!” He does stuff when he has to, not just to prove things. It’s not the usual outcome of his whole set of features for him to be comfortable with himself, but he is. He loves his girlfriend, he loves the baby she named after him, he has purpose, and he’s very comfortable with that. It’s not the overly driven ones who are happy, it’s the ones who find peace within. It sounds so trite, but it’s true.

I talked to my therapist about Game of Thrones – I mean, I always do, but this was for Vulture – to help rank the characters of GoT’s saddest season by happiness.

Does No Good Deed Go Unpunished on “Game of Thrones”?

June 16th, 2015

Certainly, roads to Hell paved with good intentions are as easy to find inGame of Thrones as reanimated corpses at Hardhome. Tyrion Lannister did his best to mitigate the cruelty of his psychopathic nephew King Joffrey and wound up framed and sentenced to death for his murder. Daenerys Targaryen put aside her quest for the Iron Throne to emancipate the people of Slaver’s Bay and ignited an insurgency that forced her to flee on the back of a dragon. Brienne of Tarth swore to serve relatively decent sorts, like Renly Baratheon and Catelyn Stark, but couldn’t stop their murders, and she vowed to protect Cat’s daughters Arya and Sansa, only to be rejected by both. Their brother Robb broke a pledge to his weasel-y ally Walder Frey in order to marry his true love, Talisa, resulting in the Red Wedding slaughter of himself, his mom, his pregnant wife, and his entire army. Sunday night, his half-brother Jon Snow saw his humanitarian campaign to save the hated Wildlings from the far greater threat of the White Walkers lead to his own assassination. The Ur-example of all this, of course, is Ned Stark: He risked his own life to warn Cersei that he’d uncovered her crimes so that she and her kids could escape before her wrathful husband Robert killed them, but it’s Ned’s own head that wound up rolling. Time and time again, the better angels of characters’ natures are precisely what caused them to give up the ghost. As Ser Jorah Mormont — who, by the way, contracted a fatal disease when he risked his life to save Tyrion’s — put it when discussing the defeat of Dany’s apparently benevolent big brother: “Rhaegar fought valiantly. Rhaegar fought nobly. And Rhaegar died.”

Does this make Game of Thrones a fundamentally nihilist series — a work where, when it comes to the evil that men do, resistance is futile? Seven hells, no.

For starters, that would only make sense if the Game players who cheated consistently came out on top, and that’s hardly been the case. Stannis Baratheon’s decision to burn his daughter to death led directly to the collapse of his army. Joffrey Baratheon’s career as the Mad King 2.0 came to an early end when he was poisoned to death at his own wedding by the family of the bride. Theon Greyjoy betrayed the Starks and conquered Winterfell, but wound up forsaken by both his biological and adoptive families and tortured into madness by the Bastard of Bolton. The Warlocks of Qarth and Good Masters of Astapor tried to fuel their dirty deeds with Dany’s dragons and got roasted for it. Nearly every name on Arya Stark’s hit list of murdering shitbags — from child-molesting Meryn Trant to Gregor “the Mountain” Clegane, arguably the biggest sociopath in the series (literally and metaphorically) and now a mindless zombie — has been crossed off, whether or not by her hand. Cersei Lannister brutalized and betrayed her way to the top of the Seven Kingdoms’ power structure, yet it was her own scheming that led to her downfall when she was arrested, imprisoned, and ritualistically humiliated by the very fanatics she’d empowered in the finale’s most excruciating scene. And what of Lord Eddard’s rival patriarch, Tywin Lannister? The archetypal avatar of ruthless realpolitik who orchestrated the Red Wedding and sentenced his own son to death wound up dead on the shitter, with his pants around his ankles and an arrow in his gut.

While it may look like any choice leads to a slit throat or squashed skull, this is in no way an argument that morality doesn’t matter. The constant cruelty of Game of Thrones’ world only increases the importance of doing good deeds while you still occupy it: If all men must die, as the saying goes, this makes the decision to do the right thing anyway all the more valuable. Jon Snow’s murder does not take away the lives he saved by rescuing as many Free Folk as he could from the army of the dead. Ned may have been foolish to trust Cersei to flee rather than fight, but if he’d guaranteed their deaths by narc’ing to Robert right away, he’d have been little better than she was. Tyrion’s brief reformist reign over King’s Landing likely saved hundreds of lives from the madness of King Joffrey before it ended, and now he has the chance to repeat the feat in Meereen. Dany’s drive to free the slaves of that city and its neighbors is perhaps the most complex political question the series poses — its white-savior overtones and occupier/liberator dynamic are uncomfortable to contemplate, and deliberately so — yet it’s hard to imagine that the world would be better off had she marched straight for Westeros on an ocean of fire and blood instead of literally ending the slave trade in one of its most entrenched enclaves.

Does No Good Deed Go Unpunished on GOT? I examined the show’s epic-fantasy ethics for Vulture.

“Game of Thrones” Season Five: What Did We Learn

June 15th, 2015

Take a look at the political game that gives the show its title. Things may be bad now, but the season began with the possibility of setting up something better, as a quartet of newly minted leaders took charge and tried to shape the system to suit their vision. The Night’s Watch elected good-hearted Jon Snow as their 998th Lord Commander. Daenerys Targaryen settled in as the monarch of Meereen, attempting to rule through diplomacy rather than dragons. Stannis Baratheon became the new King in the North, following up his daring rescue of the Wall from a wildling invasion with a plan to defeat the even more dangerous forces of House Bolton. And after a lifetime of playing second fiddle to the men in her life — her husband, her father, her son Joffrey, and her brothers Jaime and Tyrion — Cersei Lannister found herself in almost complete control of King’s Landing, ready to rule more or less openly on her own.

But as Lady Sarah of House Palin once put it, “How’s that hopey-changey thing workin’ out for ya?” Jon governed nobly, Cersei ruthlessly; Stannis and Dany somewhere in between. Yet all four fledgling regimes ended in roughly the same place — with their leaders dead, deposed, defeated, or stuck between a Dothraki and a hard place. In fact, each was undone by events they themselves had set in motion. Jon fell to the men who’d elected him after ignoring their concerns about the Free Folk in their midst. (Et tu, Olly?) Dany’s attempts to moderate and mollify her divided city by reopening its fighting pits led to a massacre that required a last-minute dragon-assisted exit. Stannis executed his own daughter to preserve his messianic image; he then lost his dignity, his army, his wife, his war, and quite likely his life in return. And Cersei empowered religious fundamentalists to eliminate her rivals, only to become their biggest victim.

I took a big-picture, big-theme look at ‘Game of Thrones’ Season Five for Rolling Stone.

“Game of Thrones” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Ten: “Mother’s Mercy”

June 15th, 2015

…Each death was written and shot to feel unique, and uniquely awful.

Cersei Lannister’s walk of shame, however, felt even worse.

The Lannister lioness was shaven and shorn (much like another literary lion of note, Aslan from C.S. Lewis’ fantasy-classic Chronicles of Narnia), then forced to march naked through the streets of King’s Landing for a full five minutes of agonizing screen time. For critics of the series who believe that its repeated depiction of misogynistic sexual violence is, if not endorsement, then at least exploitation, Game of Thrones will have done itself no favors by preserving this punishment, drawn straight from Martin’s books. (Certainly, its track record with regards to female nudity is decidedly mixed.)

But too much art that purports to address uncomfortable topics does so by making them comfortable to encounter, leaving audiences feeling good about their own moral choices without ever asking them to confront anything deeper. This is not that kind of art. Terrible though her crimes might be, Cersei deserved this no more than Theon Greyjoy, murderer and traitor though he is, deserved to be tortured and mutilated. But as a male victim of sexualized violence, “Reek” is an exception; females, from the little girls purchased and abused by the late, unlamented Meryn Trant to the Queen Mother herself, are the rule. The gendered epithets hurled at her along rotten vegetables and buckets of shit demonstrate that as a woman, her fate was guaranteed to be worse than if she were a man. You certainly didn’t see her cousin Lancel, with whom she committed the crime, subjected to the same fate. Game showed us the screeching, leering face of patriarchy in all its ugliness and wouldn’t let us look away.

In doing so, it took one of its most unsympathetic characters and, in the space of five minutes, made her a person most of us would have bodily thrown ourselves in front of to protect. By the time the Queen started crying for her loss of basic human dignity, it’s likely viewers were crying too. Great art will do that to you. Maybe it must do that to you.

I reviewed the Game of Thrones season finale for Rolling Stone.

“Halt and Catch Fire” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Three: “The Way In”

June 14th, 2015

You know that old saying about how you can’t judge a book by its cover? Halt and Catch Fire seems hellbent on puncturing the proverb; it’s a show that’s always taken pride in how it communicates about its characters through their appearances. Tonight’s episode — “The Way In” — is a case in point: Success story Gordon Clark suits up and shaves to show he’s enjoying his current victory-lap life. Former silicon-prairie gunslinger Joe MacMillan dresses casual in a plain white tee to signify his simple new outlook. And, more subtly and perhaps most importantly, punk coder extraordinaire Cameron Howe is letting her chopped-off, bleached-blonde hair grow long and dark. The founder of Mutiny is, literally and figuratively, putting down roots.

This latest rock-solid installment is striking for doubling down on the stability of its leading ladies. That may be an odd thing to say when Cameron threatens to fire her partner/resident voice of reason Donna after a company-wide meltdown — and then has a panic attack that only the abrasive Tom Rendon can rescue her from. But think about it: The dynamic duo of Clark and Howe are building an pre-Internet powerhouse from the ground up, and all their arguments stem from how seriously they’re taking it. It’s the men who find themselves locked out of where they want to go, forced to devise workarounds to get back in.

Halt and Catch Fire was terrific tonight, you guys! I reviewed it for Rolling Stone.

‘Game of Thrones’: Why Knowing Nothing (About the Show) Is Great for Book-Readers

June 14th, 2015

Now I get to feel all the nervous anticipation, stomach-churning dread, and jaw-on-the-floor shock everyone else does each Sunday at nine—or that I did, for that matter, every time I sat down to watch new episodes of Breaking Bad or Mad Men or The Sopranos or any other seminal New Golden Age drama you’d care to name. Much has been made of the excesses of spoiler culture, and complaints about the constant demand that not so much as a peep about the plot be uttered in advance of a viewer’s initial encounter with it are thick on the critical ground. But deciding what to reveal and when to reveal it is a core component of narrative fiction, every bit as deliberate and valid an aesthetic choice as the casting or cinematography or score — doubly so for a show that derives as much of its artistic heat from spectacle and shock as Game of Thrones does. Only now that the TV version has jettisoned its rocket-booster books and truly taken off, in other words, are book readers like myself genuinely seeing the show the way it was meant to be seen.

In practical terms, this is nerve-wracking as all hell. I greeted the ominous avalanche that signaled the arrival of the army of the dead with the same what-fresh-hell-is-this bewilderment as Lord Snow. I watched the White Wedding of Sansa and Ramsay with a mounting mix of queasy repulsion and vain hope that the coming catastrophe could be avoided. And by the time poor Princess Shireen took her long walk to a tall stake in the snow after an episode full of foreshadowing and fakeouts, I felt like I was being marched to the flames along with her. On the flipside, I got to witness the big When-Dany-Met-Tyrion moment with its full holy-shit power preserved. This is a show that’s all bass and treble — as Cersei put it, “you win or you die; there is no middle ground” — and I feel like I’m hearing it for the first time.

You know nothing, book readers: I wrote about Game of Thrones going gloriously off-book this season for the New York Observer.

“Hannibal” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Two: “Primavera”

June 13th, 2015

Il Mostro’s crimes were crazy, albeit not quite as crazy as NBC censors blurring out nudity in Botticelli’s paintings while letting people be graphically mutilated onscreen. But they also show that even this criminal supergenius had a period where, like any artist, he learned by copying from the best before moving on to make his own masterpieces. Case in point: the gigantic heart Hannibal fashioned out of the twisted limbless corpse of stupid sexy Antony Dimmond, the smarmy scholar who saw through Lecter’s false identity last week. Though impressive enough on its own, like all great art its full potential is only unlocked when it’s put in front of its intended audience, Will Graham. He envisions its transformation into a repulsive antlered avatar of Hannibal, in a sequence that’s part Hellraiser’s rebirth scene, part Beetlejuice’s sculpture garden, and part Salvador Dalí’s Soft Construction with Boiled Beans.

I reviewed this week’s typically marvelous episode of Hannibal for Decider.

Art, empathy, and Hal’s Emerald Attack Team

June 11th, 2015

mramgine asks: Are you familiar with the controversy surrounding what happened with Green Lantern back in the 90s, where Hal Jordan was turned into a supervillain and fans got so pissed that some sent death threats to DC? Why do you think certain creative decisions in media cause such reactions? Are some of these people mentally disturbed or is there some other reason for such behavior?

I have a grand unifying theory here that I’m keeping my powder dry on unless and until I have the time and inclination and monetary offer to flesh it out, but briefly: For a lot of people, experiencing art is less about seeking empathy with others than seeking reinforcement and comfort for oneself. That sounds harshly pejorative, and I suppose it is pejorative, but it’s certainly understandable given the nightmare hellscape we all live in that people look to fiction for amelioration. As such characters are less important in and of themselves – as potential vectors for information and transformation forged in the space between the artist, the artist’s ideas, the communication of those ideas in the art, the art’s reception by the audience, and the audience’s ideas in turn – and more important as reflections of audience desire. Toys, to be blunt. People don’t like when other people break their toys. Factor in geek culture’s chip-on-its-shoulder sense of entitlement and it’s a recipe for trouble.

Welp, George R.R. Martin knows who I am.

June 11th, 2015
“Meanwhile, other wars are breaking out on other fronts, centered around the last few episodes of GAME OF THRONES. It is not my intention to get involved in those, nor to allow them to take over my blog and website, so please stop emailing me about them, or posting off-topic comments here on my Not A Blog. Wage those battles on Westeros, or Tower of the Hand, or Boiled Leather, or Winter Is Coming, or Watchers on the Walls. Anyplace that isn’t here, actually.”