Aiming for genuine mystery, tonight’s episode — “Two Boats and a Helicopter” — feels instead like an extended Mad-Lib. Key information is repeatedly withheld just for the sake of making people scratch their head, only to be filled in later in the most predictable way possible. It mistakes intricacy for insight, sleight-of-hand for magic. It makes you jump through a series of knee-level hoops to arrive at nowhere special at all. And because it relies so heavily on a structure that showrunner/co-creator/co-writer Damon Lindelof honed during his work on Lost, it’s a worrisome indication that perhaps he’s learned precious little since that show’s conclusion.
The episode resembles nothing so much as a flashback segment from Lost‘s earlier seasons, filling you in on the life of one of the mysterious island’s many castaways before the plane crash that put them there. Only Matt, and all of the other characters, have no magic, monster-stalked tropical paradise to return to every few minutes. When those cuts happened on Lost, they revealed compelling contrasts between the people the castaways used to be – generally damaged in surprising ways – and the people the Island was enabling them to become by forcing them to confront their past. The cuts also told us something thrilling or chilling or both about the science-fantasy nature of the Island itself, showing us that crippled men could walk or that seeming strangers were connected by fate rather than coincidence.
But if you’re gonna tell your story as a series of unlockable riddles instead of as, you know, a story, you’d better have a damn good reason. We know from the start that The Leftovers takes place after the unexplained disappearance of millions of people, and that it follows survivors who struggle to move on and find meaning in their lives. There’s no real mystery about the plight facing Matt – it’s the same plight facing literally everyone else. So what’s the point of this Easter Egg hunt through his life? What does revealing the truth about his wife, his philosophy, his relationship to the four-times-bereaved Nora, his experience on the day of the Sudden Departure in this backwards, clue-finding, code-cracking way actually communicate? Does it advance the themes of the story? Does it show us something about Matt and his world we couldn’t learn in some other, more straightforward way – a way that could actually allow us to dive deep, instead of skimming along the surface until the end of the episode?
Certainly very little else in the episode is any of those things. Of course the church where Matt gave his impassioned sermon about his cancer-stricken youth and the comatose little girl that reminded him of it was gonna be near-empty. Of course the church’s mystery buyers (the show made a big point out of the banker not knowing exactly who they were) were gonna turn out to be the Guilty Remnant. Of course Matt’s wife’s coma was gonna be caused by a Departure-related accident, launching his vendetta against the sanctification of the Departed. Of course the drunken dirtbags who shouldered into Matt’s roulette hot streak were gonna jack him for the cash in the parking lot. Just in case you couldn’t see it coming – which anyone, especially that casino’s abysmally lax security team, should have been able to do – the camera spent a pointlessly long time just staring at Matt in his car, building up a pointless calm before the predictable storm. Like the rest of it, it’s a failed attempt to wring shock and suspense out of a foregone conclusion.
We don’t wanna jinx it, but…has Halt and Catch Fire started to become an interesting show?
“Interesting show” is about as far as it goes, mind you. If each episode weren’t still stuffed with predictable plotting, semi-cringeworthy dialogue, endless hostility, and scenes as joylessly functional as the boring beige box containing Cardiff’s portable PC, “good show” might roll more easily off the tongue. But there’s enough in tonight’s wildly emotional episode — “Giant” — to indicate that last week’s stormy spectacle wasn’t a one-off fluke. The performances are improving. The relationships are deepening. And the likelihood that Halt will show us something we haven’t seen before is growing.
Halt and Catch Fire is still full of time-wasting drama-by-numbers shit, but it’s at least getting emotionally sticky. I reviewed tonight’s episode for Rolling Stone.
Another chapter from the GRRMArillion? You betcha! Rogues, the latest cross-genre anthology edited by George R.R. Martin & Gardner Dozois, is out, and you know what that means: another long short story/novella set in the world of Ice and Fire and written by Martin himself. As was the case with Dangerous Women‘s “The Princess and the Queen,” Martin’s contribution this time around is an excerpt from the larger history of the Targaryen dynasty eventually to be published in expanded form as Fire and Blood. And it turns out it’s a direct prequel to “The Princess and the Queen”‘s tale of internecine Targaryen civil war — like, it ends the moment “TPatQ” begins. As such, it casts many of the events and characters of that story in a whole new light. And like that story, it strrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrretches the boundaries of the rubric for its inclusion in the anthology in which it appears. Is it worth it? Listen and find out! (And try not to be perturbed by the sounds of chaos in revelry in the background, as Stefan’s native Germany defeats a rival in the World Cup whilst we record. Just imagine we’re discussing this over a bowl o’ brown in the stews of Flea Bottom. I know I always do!)
Perhaps it’s perverse, then, to claim the show itself got real in the very episode where it laid on the artifice the thickest. After all, one of its standout sequences was a dream, and the other was an unexpected visual-effects hurricane freakout that would look at home in Game of Thrones‘ Westeros. But both Gordon’s nightmare about a flower growing in his precious circuitry and his real-world run-in with the storm gave heft and flair to his same-old struggles with work, family, and white-collar frustration.
They were surprising and funny, for starters. The sight of a man in glasses staring at the tiny flower amid all the electronics recalled similar moments of tiny untameable elements driving the obsessive Walter White entertainingly batshit in Breaking Bad; meanwhile, the escalating fury of the weather and the soundtrack alike hilariously highlighted the absurdity Gordon’s standoff with the Cabbage Patch Kid display window. The latter was almost Sopranos-esque in how it turned the stuff of suburban life into the stuff of quixotic vision quests.
And they were simply beautiful to look at, too. Who needs Gordon’s umpteenth harried conversation with Donna when we can watch him grasping for a flower growing just out of reach? Who needs another shot of Joe in his underwear silhouetted against his window when you can watch for several seemingly endless seconds as Gordon steps into the middle of the street to see the full electric-gray majesty of nature at its most malevolent? Even as good as Joe’s revelation wound up being, doesn’t the wordless sight of a father, dolls clutched in his arm, coming face to face with an electrocuted corpse communicate just as much about the frailty of family? Don’t forget how Gordon’s dream ended: His finger touched the machine’s innards, and he electrocuted himself awake.
Over at Rolling Stone I explain why I liked tonight’s Halt and Catch Fire, which was visually inventive and featured a stronger than usual performance from the heretofore disappointing Lee Pace.
Despite its fundamentally supernatural premise, The Leftovers posits a world in which it’s precisely this proof of powers-that-be that renders human life finally and fundamentally meaningless. Whatever’s responsible for the Sudden Departure, it’s not answering our phone calls. Things still just happen, and no one’s responsible. But when you’re a writer, the opposite is true. Everything you put on the page got there because you decided it belonged. You’ve got the power to take any stock character who serves a purpose, any rote plot point that exists to get you from A to B, and twist it into some new shape before soldering it into place. Meg’s indoctrination could be unique. Holy Wayne could be a kind of cult leader we haven’t seen before. Kevin Sr. could have simply been crazy, instead of the umpteenth potential prophet-in-disguise. But Lindelof and series writer/source-material author Tom Perrotta didn’t bother. Where were the Guilty Remnant and their protest placards when we needed them?
Over at Rolling Stone I explain why I didn’t like tonight’s episode of The Leftovers, which suddenly started doing stuff we’ve all seen a million times before. You never have to do that.
No, The Leftovers is not easy viewing. But nor is it callous or thoughtless in how it ladles out the misery, or in how it asks you to view the misanthropes. Unlike so many of its recent prestige-TV competitors, the story is not about its protagonists’ greed, but their grieving. Shot with handheld-camera immediacy and enlivened by visual details that are creepy, moving, even darkly funny – sometimes all at once – the show keeps its focus on those who feel pain, not those who cause it, and is much the better for it.
Set three years after the sudden, unexplained disappearance of two percent of the world’s population on October 14 – a date that lives in 9/11-style infamy in the show’s just-slightly-science-fictional America – the pilot further distinguishes itself by avoiding the usual themes of post-apocalyptic fiction. The society that the New York suburb of Mapleton represents has not disintegrated: school’s in session, reality-TV dating shows are still a hot topic of conversation, people sing along to oldies on the radio. This, it seems, is exactly what’s making everyone so miserable. When you’ve lost so much and the world doesn’t end, it’s almost insulting to be forced to go on.
To my surprise, I thought the pilot of The Leftovers was very good. I reviewed it for Rolling Stone and also talked quite a bit about co-creator/showrunner Damon Lindelof’s last show, I dunno, maybe you watched it.
Moments of cooperation and admiration are vital in workplace dramas, no matter how contentious things get. Breaking Bad‘s spectacular middle seasons would have failed if Walt, Jesse, Gus, and Mike had always been at each other’s throats without ever establishing the well-oiled machine that made their empire hum. Mad Men wouldn’t work if Peggy and Pete didn’t genuinely respect Don’s talent, or if Don didn’t overcome his selfishness to support his protégés. People make animated GIF sets out of the moments Don and Peggy have held hands for a reason, you know?
On my A Song of Ice and Fire tumblr boiledleather.com the other day, a reader asked me:
I’m sure that someone has asked this before, but what are your thoughts on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings-adaptations? Especially compared to Game of Thrones (different medium, I know, but still).
In May of 2001 I received an invitation through my job as associate editor of the A&F Quarterly (“the lifestyle publication” of Abercrombie & Fitch) to a screening of the 20 minutes or so of footage of the then-unreleased The Fellowship of the Ring that had screened at Cannes. This was from the Mines of Moria sequence — the discovery of Balin’s tomb, the fight with the cave troll, and the flight down the stairs. It was obviously crackerjack action filmmaking, but I’ll tell you what really hit me the hardest. As the Fellowship flees down that first flight of stairs, orc arrows start raining down on them, bouncing off the stone steps. Legolas turns and returns fire, and the camera gives us an arrow’s-eye-view of its flight across the chasm and into the forehead of an orc archer. At the moment of impact the camera cuts to a shot just above and behind the orc’s shoulder as he falls from his perch into the pit below, and suddenly we can see the enormous distance we’d just traveled on the head of that arrow. Fresh from film school as I was, I was blown away by this. Peter Jackson had used the flight of the arrow to describe the space it was shot in, using its physical movement to convey a sense of scale to us that would not have been possible if he’d simply cut back and forth between the vantage points. This of course is what all action sequences in visual media ought to do — root you in an environment, use the action beats to move you around in that environment, give as many beats as possible palpable physical stakes you can grasp and contextualize immediately. It also showed that Jackson was going to use the full force of the cinematic medium to tell this story — he wasn’t just going to line up a bunch of CGI critters and throw them at one another, nor was he going to whirl and twirl haphazardly, he was going to paint the story with the camera and the editing bay like brushes. It showed that the soon-to-be-legendary attention to detail he and the Weta team paid to every prop and set and costume had a storytelling purpose as well, that a bow and arrow and a stone chasm and a hero-orc makeup job would not just look cool but help us understand where we were and what kind of world it was and why it mattered. Finally, it showed that for the first time ever, a fantasy film was actually going to capture the scale of epic fantasy, the sheer physical awe-someness of it all above and beyond the striking images that plenty of fantasy films before it had dealt in without that ability to convincingly situate them in a world as large as our imaginations. Not a single moment in the entire trilogy contradicted these initial impressions. They’re magnificent films and I love them to pieces.
Sorry Kid folds out like a 22×17 broadsheet. When examined closely, it reveals itself to be two 11×17 pages, their surface murky with black xerox ink, joined together by sparkly rainbow-silver tape. This juxtaposition in its construction encapsulates the eight-page whole, which sees Clark alternate heartrending grappling with the overpowering grief of her father’s death and small welcome gestures in the direction of comfort.
All of the text is borrowed from apparently much-loved sources: Inside, writer Hélène Cixous’s novel on this theme; Ursula K. Le Guin’s fantasy classic The Farthest Shore; the Cocteau Twins song “Know Who You Are at Any Age”. It’s a tacit acknowledgement that recognition of your pain in painful work is often as comforting as can be.
The human resources file on this episode is gonna be a doozy, folks.
The good men and women of Cardiff Electronics are working overtime to create the fastest, most portable PC on the market. What does this entail? Project manager Joe MacMillan steals whiz-kid programmer Cameron Chase‘s back-up files, fries her computer, gives her a panic attack, and convinces her and everyone else that all the work is lost. Engineer Gordon Clark physically assaults Cameron in response. Joe, his boss John Bosworth, and a reporter from the Wall Street Quarterly repeatedly threaten each other (off the record) over the contents of the reporter’s eventual article. Cameron responds to being insulted by Gordon and his data-retrieval expert wife Donna by teaching their kids how to make a homemade flamethrower, breaking into their home, and preparing to trash the place. She’s interrupted only by her former coworker, Brian — who’s also broken into the house and is wielding a shotgun. Finally, Bosworth has Joe pulled over, beaten, and arrested by friendly cops to teach him a lesson.
When that Wall Street Quarterly reporter writes his eventual tell-all book Cardiff: The Little Computer Company That Could and the Sociopaths Responsible, this single day will require a whole chapter, and no one will believe it anyway.
And frankly, neither should we. The pointless and instantaneous hostility between the characters has been one of Halt and Catch Fire‘s biggest flaws since the pilot. In “Close to the Metal,” the show uses the company’s dire straits and high-stakes visit by the press as an excuse to ratchet that hostility up even higher. The question they don’t ask: Who cares?
I reviewed last night’s Halt and Catch Fire for Rolling Stone. I feel like this show is what the people who complain about Game of Thrones being a relentless downer think Game of Thrones is, only, you know, no one gets stabbed in the mouth.
The bodies haven’t even been removed from the battlefield of our last podcast, but Stefan and I are back already with a brand-new BLAH! Today we’re talking about the excerpt from George R.R. Martin, Elio García Jr., and Linda Antonsson’s The World of Ice and Fire about the Rhoynar, which was posted a few weeks ago on the latter two writer’s seminal Westeros.org website. Its title, “The Ten Thousand Ships,” is somewhat inapt given that it doesn’t in fact cover the naval exodus of the people of the Rhoyne from that Essosi river to the southern lands of Dorne in Westeros. But there’s plenty to talk about up until that point, from the sudden revelation that an entire water-based form of magic exists (or existed) to the wartime conduct of Old Valyria and its allies. Saddle up a turtle and enjoy!
Our biggest episode! Game of Thrones Season Four is over, and in this mega-sized BLAH, Stefan and I analyze it for damn near 90 minutes. Every major storyline is covered, every big controversy is addressed, every substantial change from the books is explored, and every complaint we have about the fandom is given an obscenity-laden airing. Hey, we told you it was a big episode!
Below, we’ve included some links to pieces on the show that we mention in the podcast. Read, listen, enjoy!
Like the superheroes of a post-Christopher Nolan world, fantasy in the era of Game of Thrones could too easily become a genre where “dark and realistic” is automatically equated with quality. Thank goodness this show realizes that when you make an epic fantasy, you sometimes need to hack “realistic” to pieces with a small army of sword-wielding reanimated skeletons. The final obstacle in Bran Stark’s vision quest, the skeletons — like the giants, the mammoth, the 50-foot ice scythe, the dragons, the direwolves, the White Walkers, and the Wall itself — was a reminder that fantasy can speak to us with pure spectacle, the way great music conveys something that just reading a song’s lyric sheet can’t touch.
I listed the best moments from Game of Thrones Season Four for Rolling Stone, trying to capture a range of moments and moods.
Cameron’s joyless episode-ending booty call to Joe is yet another example of Halt‘s dire depiction of sex solely as a means of marking territory or venting aggression. Ditto Joe’s left-field tryst with Travis, the closeted arm candy for the would-be investor played by Jean Smart: What seemed at first like both a revealing character development and a refreshing fuck-you to the relentless heterosexuality of TV antiheroes was quickly revealed to be just another business maneuver.
While displays of dominance and lack of emotional investment are inexplicably popular drivers of TV sex scenes, they have almost no bearing on sexual relationships (however brief) in the real world, which result from a complex cocktail of emotional compulsion. To make a comparison invited by AMC itself: From its very first episode, Mad Men made its sex scenes sexy by using them to show its alpha males at their most vulnerable. Even at the apex of his ladies’-man days, Don Draper still looked flushed and moony-eyed every time he made a move, not like some kind of dead-eyed sex shark. Sex is everybody’s weakness. If you turn it into armor every time, you lose a chance to reach your characters where they really live.
Halt and Catch Fire got not-so-good again this past weekend; I reviewed it for Rolling Stone.
Intimacy and grandiosity, empathy and brutality – Game of Thrones doesn’t just straddle these lines, it water-dances on both sides at once. So you get a skeleton-army attack out of a Ray Harryhausen Saturday-matinee movie and a domestic-violence murder out of a Michael Haneke art-house joint. You get an elf lobbing magic fireballs at zombies like something out of Dungeons & Dragons, and a man getting shot to death in a bathroom like something out of a mob movie. Jon Snow strides into the wilding camp, allowing himself to be surrounded and subdued — then Stannis and Davos charge into it on horseback, killing at will. Beautiful, peaceful, dead Ygritte on her bier or comatose, rotting, living Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane on Qyburn’s mad-science operating table — take your pick. You get the Hound repeatedly begging for death, and Tyrion repeatedly apologizing for causing it.
And it’s never stronger than when the care feeds the cruelty. Look at the episode’s two strongest sequences: Tyrion’s escape and the Hound’s last stand. Tyrion is the more or less undisputed fan-favorite character of the series; his framing and trial for murder was the season’s central storyline. The Imp’s emergence from his family’s hideous shadow has been crucial to the whole series since Peter Dinklage got top billing at the start of Season Two. But his great escape first sees him choke his ex-girlfriend to death, then murder his own father while the elder man takes a shit. Now he’s locked in a box literally and figuratively – set to stew in rage, resentment, and regret most likely for the rest of his life. This, it argues, is the inevitable consequence of greatness.
By contrast, Brienne and the Hound should theoretically be spared this kind of final reckoning. They’re both ronin, masterless misfits who don’t fit in with any side in the War of Five Kings. They even have the same motive: protecting the Stark sisters. Yet the show concocts a confrontation for them that’s nowhere to be found in the source material, taking two beloved characters and crushing them against one another until only one’s left standing. It basically weaponizes the affection we feel for them.
A lot of viewers bang their heads against this kind of dichotomy. Sometimes Game of Thrones is a widescreen epic fantasy, other times it’s a small-scale study of violent lives, and it’s a struggle both to anticipate and appreciate whatever you wind up getting. The answer is to stop struggling. At its best – and “The Children” is certainly this show at its wide and wild best — Game of Thrones is all of these things, simultaneously.
How did you do that big shot of Castle Black?
When I walked onto the Castle Black set for the very first time, I noticed that it’s a 360-degree set. You walk into that courtyard and it’s standing all around you. Immediately, I thought the best place to have it all to take place was the catwalks and steps — it’s more interesting than just two guys in a flat courtyard. At some point the idea came to me of doing a 360-degree shot of the battle going on all around.
Slowly but surely, the idea to motivate the shot came to me. What was the point of the shot, other than to show off? I realized you had five major characters involved, and at this point you needed to know where they were and how they were all interrelating with each other. That gave birth to that shot in thematic terms. It very literally put you in the middle of it.
In practical terms, it was the first shot we did for that night. We set it up for about an hour, positioning everybody, practicing the camera moves. We got it on the seventh take. When I said we had it, we all gave each other a big round of applause. [Laughs]
No CGI? That was actually one single take?
It was one take. It was all the work of the ADs — and the stunt guys, for keeping out of the way of the camera. The camera was on the end of a crane arm and swinging around at high speed. It doesn’t necessarily look it from the camera’s point of view, but if the camera had hit someone in the head, it could have killed them — it was moving that fast. That was one of the worries. But nobody got killed by the camera, so that’s good.
What about that scythe on the ice wall?
David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss, the showrunners and writers] came up with that idea. I don’t know how, but it certainly was a fun idea. [Laughs] When I came in, I wanted to make it as logical as possible, to design it so it would look scary and practical. There was discussion early on as to whether we needed it, but myself, David, and Dan really fought for it. It was a really cool idea to end [both] the episode and the attack.
In “Blackwater,” some book readers complained that the massive chain Tyrion uses to block Stannis’s boats from escaping didn’t show up in the episode. Well, here’s a chain.
[Laughs] I remember those questions. The chain for the boats was gonna be way too expensive to do. This chain was a lot simpler in that respect. Maybe that was the idea — to get a chain in to keep people happy.
Halt’s first proper installment plays in many ways like a response video to the pilot: It does to the pilot’s hackneyed presentation of alpha-male antihero tropes what Joe apparently did to IBM’s data center before he disappeared — damage, and lots of it. And just like IBM, who cashed in on an insurance windfall after Joe’s top-secret rampage, the series emerges from the rubble better off.
This time, we watch Joe reap what he’s sown. The smirking, swaggering arrogance that made him so grating in the pilot turns out to be just that – grating (and, we find out, unearned) arrogance. He’s so fixated on his grand vision of a new era in personal computing, so focused on coercing and cajoling his underlings and accomplices into playing ball, that he completely misses the totally obvious tools of retaliation at his former employer’s disposal. We later learn from IBM’s chief goon that he’s not just overconfident; he may be actually crazy. Hell, the best line in his pep talk, the bit about putting a ding in the universe, is stolen from Steve Jobs. “You were just pretending,” his mousy engineer Gordon Clark marvels. “You’re like one of those guys who goes out and reads The Catcher in the Rye too many times and then decides to shoot a Beatle — only in this story, I’m the Beatle.” This is the show stomping all over its own lead character’s sophistry and sociopathy, and it’s glorious to watch.
I reviewed last night’s Halt and Catch Fire for Rolling Stone. I liked it a lot more than the pilot.
In the middle of its biggest battle since Season Two’s carnage at Blackwater, Game of Thrones takes us on a tour, via tonight’s episode, of Castle Black. Our guides just happen to be busy killing people.
We start with Jon Snow. He’s just brought reinforcements to the castle’s courtyard from the top of the Wall, and after killing his way through half a dozen wildlings, he pauses to survey the carnage. As he runs down the stairs to resume the fight, the camera leaves him, swooping across the chaos of the courtyard until it finds Jon’s former lover and would-be killer — the archer Ygritte. She draws and looses, and the camera moves on again to the axe-wielding, bald-headed barbarian Styr, leader of the cannibal Thenns. The camera moves again, and it’s back up another flight of stairs with Tormund Giantsbane, the red-headed ringleader of the raiding party. Then we take one last pass across the courtyard and its countless killings until the camera at last finds Sam Tarly, on a mission to free the great white wolf Ghost and even the fight.
It takes 43 seconds to make the circuit of Castle Black – 43 seconds involving dozens of performers and stuntmen arrayed across a multi-level set, shot without a single cut. Like all great action filmmaking, that shot rooted us in a specific environment, and did so clearly enough that you could practically give a tour of it yourself now if you were paying close attention. The stakes of every sword stroke were crystal clear – kill your man or you lose this patch of ground, and this one, and so on until there’s no more left to lose. It’s not just a choppily edited jumble of indistinguishable hacking and slashing; it’s the battle for Castle Black, and you are there.
My review of last night’s Game of Thrones for Rolling Stone also doubles as a sort of “How to Make Action Cinema and Why” manifesto. I hope you like it.