“Fear the Walking Dead” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Four: “Blood in the Streets”

May 9th, 2016

Every time I think Fear the Walking Dead has hit bottom, out comes some big steampunk subterranean drillmobile to dig even deeper. On “Blood in the Streets,” this week’s episode, it comes in the form of Reed, the leader of the trio of pirates who’ve been following our heroes since they hit the high seas. He and his mates, Alicia’s ersatz shortwave-radio boyfriend Jack and a very pregnant woman named Vida, bluff their way aboard the Abigail by faking a bloody pregnancy complication. Chris, standing guard duty on deck with Ofelia, is paralyzed with indecision about whether or not to shoot them, shouting to anyone who’ll hear for advice, but it’s too late — though not too late to spare us the obscene spectacle of a teenager pointing a gun at a pregnant stranger and wondering aloud whether he should shoot her to death.

But this is Fear the Walking Dead, so of course the answer was yes: Once on board, the newcomers drop the ruse, quickly overpower everyone aboard, shoot Strand’s raft and leave him for dead as he tries to escape, help their pirate leader Connor kidnap Alicia and Travis, and nearly kill everyone else before an unexpected rescuer (more on him later) kills them instead. Before he dies, Reed drives the point home by taunting Chris for his hesitation to, and I stress this, shoot and kill a pregnant woman in distress and the two panicked men trying to help her. “‘Should I shoot ’em?’ Piece of advice: If you have to ask the question, someone should already be dead.”

Folks, if I sat around and tried, I could not possibly have come up with a better illustration of what makes this show such an appalling, fascistic spectacle. Like I keep saying over and over and over, because the show keeps doing it over and over and over, the correct choice in any given situation is always cruelty and violence, without exception. Anything less — helping children, aiding a wounded person, not shooting a pregnant woman to death — is foolhardy to the point of suicide. For the preservation of your people, you must act without mercy. I dunno about you, but I liked it better in the original German.

I reviewed last week’s Fear the Walking Dead for Decider, and you’re damn right I linked to a speech Himmler delivered to the SS.

What Jon Snow’s Return Means for ‘Game of Thrones’

May 3rd, 2016

But what does Jon’s supernatural survival mean for the show itself? First and foremost, it means you are, indeed, watching a fantasy show. Melisandre’s shadow-demon babies, Arya’s shape-shifting assassins, that FrankenMountain monster, last week’s reveal of the Red Woman’s true form, the White Walkers and their undead army, Dany’s freaking dragons: The rules of reality have already been bent left, right, and center, up to and including several resurrections. Our boy in black’s big comeback makes perfect sense within the genre; the idea that this represents some unforgivable breach of audience trust has got to make you wonder what show people have been watching. On the flip side, the complaint that this was too easy to see coming is equally bogus: Isn’t that what foreshadowing is for? Fiction isn’t a magic trick designed to keep audiences in the dark until the big reveal; it works on levels of categorical conventions, theme, tone, character, and plot that can all trump the need for a perfect surprise.

I went deep on Jon Snow’s comeback for Rolling Stone.

“Game of Thrones” thoughts, Season Six, Episode Two: “Home”

May 1st, 2016

SPOILER ALERT

A crippled boy walks again, a smile on his face as he walks around the place he once called home. A lonely girl sits isolated against a vast frozen field, mourning her brother and wondering if she has a purpose without him. A giant bursts through a gate, cowing a small army into submission. A drunk in the middle of pissing on the wall turns to face a masked killer, who crushes his skull and walks away without a word. A sullied knight and a man of god(s) face off in a holy place, the body of a princess in front of them, daylight shining through a seven-pointed window behind them. A dwarf ventures into the darkness to face dragons, illuminated only by the light of his torch and the fire in their mouths. A new mother clutches her baby as a madman releases his hounds to kill them. A broken man hugs the woman he rescued, and who rescued him, as they say goodbye. An aging king faces off against his own brother on a bridge above the ocean, blown back and forth by the storm.

And oh, yeah … Jon Snow comes back from the dead.

I reviewed tonight’s Game of Thrones for Rolling Stone.

The Boiled Leather Audio Hour Episode 47!

April 30th, 2016

Ice and Blackfyre (A Patreon Production)

What impact did the Blackfyre Rebellion have on the characters of A Song of Ice and Fire’s view of bastards? What impact might the Blackfyre Rebellion have had on our understanding of those views, had these civil wars of succession been introduced earlier in the series? What role will they play now that they’ve entered the story in a relatively big way, via “Young Griff” and Varys,The World of Ice and Fire, and A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms? They’re good questions – so good, in fact, that we didn’t think them up ourselves at all. This episode, we’re tackling a topic specifically chosen for us by Rosie Gleeson of Dublin, Ireland, our first Patreon subscriber to donate at the $50 a month level. This earns her an episode of her own choosing, and so at her request we’ll be delving into the Blackfyres, bastardry, and both the in-story and meta reasons for Martin’s treatment of both. Thank you so much for your generosity, Rosie! And if any of you other listeners would like that kind of clout – or would care to pitch it at any level at all – our Patreon page is still accepting donations to make this a better podcast. Thanks for listening, and for supporting us any way you choose! (Moral support counts.)

Download Episode 47

Additional links:

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The 50 Best TV Duos of All Time

April 29th, 2016

50. Arya Stark and the Hound, ‘Game of Thrones’

Sure, their partnership began with a kidnapping, ended with one of them leaving the other for dead, and only lasted for 10 episodes. So what? For the duration of Game of Thrones’ fourth season, the unlikely team-up of feral Arya Stark and her much older mentor in murder Sandor “The Hound” Clegane made them the Bonnie and Clyde of Westeros — both ultraviolently badass and a challenge to the very concept of ultraviolent badasses in the first place.

I wrote about the 50 Best TV Duos of All Time for Rolling Stone. I love pieces like this because I get to write a wide variety of things about a wide variety of work — seriously, this goes back to The Honeymooners and goes up to Broad City, hitting every conceivable kind of pairing and every genre of show (sitcoms, Britcoms, sketch comedy, prestige dramas, procedurals, kids’ shows, animation) along the way. Apples-to-oranges comparisons are good for the brain now and then.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Four, Episode Seven: “Travel Agents”

April 29th, 2016

Like the spies it chronicles, The Americans plays the long game. Back when it cast Alison Wright as Martha Hanson, the lonely FBI secretary main character Philip Jennings began to work and woo in an attempt to gain access to the Counterintelligence office’s inner sanctum, there was no reason to believe she’d have a bigger part to play than any of the other marks and assets the Jennings and their rivals targeted. Now Martha’s at the center of the story, arguably the series’ most exciting and excruciating one to date. And like she’s done for several seasons now, the actor playing her is delivering one of the finest performances that prestige drama as ever seen. Martha’s own career as an agent may be going up in smoke, but it turns out Wright was just the right woman for the job.

I reviewed this week’s wonderful episode of The Americans for the New York Observer.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Four, Episode Six: “The Rat”

April 29th, 2016

The Americans is that special kind of good television where you know it’s good–and I mean this sincerely–because it’s nauseating to watch. With each passing moment the dilemma into which Philip and Elizabeth Jennings have placed themselves feels more and more intractable, and the violations of others for which they are responsible more and more unforgivable, to the point where my reaction is one of literal physical revulsion. There were times during “The Rat,” this week’s episode — such as when, in the safe house to which they’ve retreated believing her cover to be blown, “Clark” held Martha’s hand and told her everything would be alright, “I promise, I promise” — where it watching felt less like spectatorship and more like complicity. It leaves a bad taste in your throat, which is as high a compliment as I can pay it.

Another one lost in the Game of Thrones shuffle: I reviewed last week’s The Americans for the New York Observer.

“Empire” thoughts, Season Two, Episode 15: “More Than Kin”

April 29th, 2016
‘Empire’ Recap: When Life Gives You Lyons…

If Lemonade exists in the Empire-verse, the Lyon family must be wondering what the fuss is about. An R&B record that uses extremely thinly veiled autobiographical tales of family turmoil as fodder for art? That’s pretty much every song Lucious, Jamal and Hakeem have ever made. Here in the real world, though…well, once you’ve heard Beyoncé’s latest, “Boom Boom Boom Boom” sounds a whole lot less impressive. Now her cathartic confessional album is threatening to do to this series musically what the presidential primary already kinda did to it politically: take a show that depends on feeling utterly of-the-moment and make it feel out of date. Like, can a coffee-house performance of a song called “Good Enough” really compete as a statement of personal freedom with, er, “Freedom”?

Maybe this is an undue burden to place on “More Than Kin,” this week’sEmpire episode. It could just as easily have been a comparison with fallen genius Prince, whom Jamal evokes with his live-band presentation, high falsetto, and “am I straight or gay” sexuality, and that wouldn’t have been fair either. As fun as the music on this show has been, it’s not really meant to go toe-to-toe with the titans of pop, Timbaland production notwithstanding. But – perhaps due to the season’s two-part structure and longer total running time than the short, surprise-hit Season One – the story is getting a bit soft, or more than a bit. That’s when you start noticing problems you might otherwise have overlooked, or never even thought of as a problem at all.

I reviewed this week’s uncharacteristically weak Empire for Rolling Stone.

“Empire” thoughts, Season Two, Episode 14: “Time Shall Unfold”

April 29th, 2016

Say what you will about Lucious Lyon, but the man does not lack for chutzpah or cajones. Pushed to the margins of his company by his (seemingly) united family, lined firmly behind youngest son Hakeem, he takes a page from Karl Rove’s political playbook and attacks his kid’s perceived strengths. The fashion line that’s slated to open up a big new market for Empire? Send in a few goons with guns and trucks and make every item of clothing disappear. The Teyana/Laura tour that’s minted not one but two superstars for the Lyon Dynasty sub-imprint? Plant drugs on the tour buses, call the cops, and watch them haul away everything from the lighting rigs to the instruments. The music-streaming service that’s making the record label a major player as well? Sabotage it (with a little help from double-agent eldest son Andre, aiming for the throne himself) so it fails to launch on time. And the kicker? Show up at the big shareholders meeting and personally bring up all these problems. Voila: His son is deposed, leaving him the Emperor once more. That’s the kind of razor-sharp intrigue that made last night’s episode — “Time Shall Unfold” — the best since the show’s spring comeback.

I forgot to link to this in all the Game of Thrones chaos, but I reviewed last week’s Empire for Rolling Stone. The contrast in quality between that one and this week’s is striking.

“Fear the Walking Dead” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Three: “Ouroboros”

April 29th, 2016

The first rule of Fear the Walking Dead Club is kill or be killed. The second rule of Fear the Walking Dead club is there is no other rule. Three episodes deep into its second season, the Walking Dead spinoff demonstrates no clear raison d’etre other than demonstrating how vitally important it is to stamp out any people who stand in the way of your tribe’s survival without mercy. Every other rule of survival? Who the fuck cares? Certainly not the creators, who pepper the story that surrounds the punishment of empathy with death and the vicious treatment of outsiders with decisions a shitty slasher movie couldn’t get away with. In this regard, “Ouroboros,” this week’s installment, is as lazy as it gets.

I reviewed last weekend’s Fear the Walking Dead, which finds new ways to be infuriating every episode, for Decider.

“Game of Thrones” thoughts, Season Six, Episode One: “The Red Woman”

April 25th, 2016

If Game of Thrones were a Netflix show, there isn’t a man or woman in all Seven Kingdoms who wouldn’t have plowed right into episode two after watching tonight’s Season Six premiere. So many of the big storytelling beats went unresolved that the inability to binge-watch the next hour (or more) is an almost Ramsay Bolton–level torment.

We don’t get to witness the final showdown between Ser Davos and Ser Alliser. We don’t see the triumphant return of Dolorous Edd leading an army of wildlings (with or without a giant or two in tow) to his black brothers’ rescue. Neither of Cersei Lannister’s most loyal nights, her incestuous brotherJaime and her Frankensteinian bodyguard Ser Robert Strong (aka an undead Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane), face off against the fanatical forces of the High Sparrow. Tyrion Lannister and his buddy-comedy advisor Varys don’t free the dragons chained up in the basement of their Meereenese palace. Daenerys Targaryen’s dragon, the black beast called Drogon, doesn’t swoop in to save her from the clutches of Khal Moro and his Dothraki horde. Bran Stark, his wizardly mentor the Three-Eyed Raven, his M.I.A. kid brother Rickon, schemer par excellence Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish and the ne’er-do-well rulers of the Iron Islands from House Greyjoy don’t show up at all. Most importantly, to paraphrase Chevy Chase, Jon Snow is still dead—if his psychic baby bro, his telepathically connected direwolf Ghost or the apparently ancient sorceress Melisandre are going to bring him back from beyond, we’ll have to tune in next week, same Stark time, same Stark channel.

Shit, we might not even get to find out then.

So how come “The Red Woman,” tonight’s long-anticipated comeback ep, felt so satisfying regardless?

I reviewed the Season 6 premiere of Game of Thrones for Rolling Stone, where I’ll be covering the show weekly once again. Yay!

The Essential Guide to ‘Game of Thrones’ Character Betrayals, Alliances, Schemes, and More

April 19th, 2016


Huge thanks to editor Neil Janowitz for tapping me to help put together this massive Game of Thrones character relationship guide for Vulture, written by Jennifer Vineyard and assembled by their crack interactive team. You’ve really gotta see this thing to believe it. Enjoy!

‘Game of Thrones’: 11 Questions We Still Have

April 19th, 2016

5. What’s going to happen in King’s Landing?

Seriously, is there any place here that isn’t a ticking time bomb going into Season Six?! Like Jon and Dany, Cersei Lannister started last season in charge and ended up in deep shit. After empowering the extremist religious leader known as the High Sparrow — in the hope that he’d take down her rivals — she wound up in the crosshairs as well. Now she’s endured a horrifying walk of shame but will still have to stand trial … and we’ve all seen how trials in King’s Landing go. Her brother Jaime’s back in town, bearing the bad news of their daughter Myrcella’s murder, and her undead bodyguard Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane is running around too. There could well be a three-way bloodbath in the streets between Lannister, Tyrell, and Faith Militant forces before it’s all said and done — four-way, since Dorne’s Prince Trystane is a newcomer to the city this season. It’s a recipe for disaster potent enough to make Meereen look like Des Moines.

I wrote about 11 of the biggest unanswered questions facing us in Game of Thrones Season 6 for Rolling Stone.

“Better Call Saul” thoughts, Season Two, Episode 10: “Klick”

April 19th, 2016

SPOILER ALERT

Throughout its second season, Better Caul Saul has chronicled the parallel paths of Jimmy McGill and Mike Ehrmantraut, and those paths lead nowhere but down. Jimmy blows his shot at the bigtime on the partner track at a prestigious law firm with the corner-cutting, dirty-tricking, mildly felonious behavior his older brother Chuck always said was innate in his character, culminating in a vengeful act of forgery that could cost not only him but his girlfriend and quasi-partner Kim their budding careers in independent practice. Meanwhile, Mike’s moonlighting as low-level muscle in the meth trade slowly draws him into a blood feud with the Salamanca cartel, in which both his stubborn pride and his natural criminal skill bring him ever closer to the line of cold-blooded murder that he’ll cross time and again in the years to come. We know where both these paths lead, of course: to Walter White, Jesse Pinkman, Gus Fring, and disgrace and death respectively. But by the time “Klick,” last night’s season finale, drew to a close, their paths had neither once again intersected nor reached the point of no return. Chuck caught Jimmy admitting to a felony on tape (“I woulda made Nixon proud!” he humble-brags, the tape proving him righter than he knows), but the episode ended before he could play it back to anyone. Mike had Hector Salamanca in the sights of his sniper rifle, but a mysterious message from an unseen interloper — “DON’T” — kept him from pulling the trigger. In its restraint, its quietude, its geometrically precise shot compositions, and its overall lack of anything but hints of its predecessor series Breaking Bad’s white-knuckle mayhem, Better Call Saul Season Two was a strong statement from creators Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan, but that statement ended with a question mark.

I reviewed last night’s Better Call Saul season finale for the New York Observer. This was quite a show this season.

“Vinyl” thoughts, Season One, Episode 10: “Alibi”

April 18th, 2016

The emotional climax of Vinyl‘s first season is the performance of a fake punk band fronted by the son of Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall. Songs by the Stooges and the MC5 — bands that did the Nasty Bits’ pseudo-proto-punk better, and years before the fact, IRL — bookend it on the soundtrack. The New York Dolls watch from the side of the stage, beaming with approval even though their very real, and also superior, music kicked off the season by literally tearing the house down. The individual members of the Ramones are in the audience, apparently so impressed that they go out and form a band, the way the Sex Pistols’ 1976 gig in Manchester begat Joy Division, the Buzzcocks, the Fall, and the Smiths (and, uh, Simply Red). The concert ends when the police shut it down on obscenity charges, like a Jim Morrison reboot. It’s supposed to be the second coming of pure rock and roll and the salvation of American Century — excuse us, Alibi Records; instead, it comes off like a needle scratch.

I reviewed the season finale of Vinyl, a huge disappointment, for Rolling Stone.

“Fear the Walking Dead” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Two: “We All Fall Down”

April 18th, 2016

“Ring Around the Rosie” is not about the bubonic plague. It’s not a song invented by medieval children about carrying posies to ward off infection, or about how the disease’s rash takes the form of a rosy red ring, or in which “ashes to ashes” is a corruption of the “ah-choo” sound of sneezing, or in “we all fall down” refers to death. The idea that it is is pure fabrication, an urban legend spread around by people who get a thrill out of inserting fake-deep, phony-dark meaning into entertainment for children. So naturally, it’s the perfect chunk of horseshit for Fear the Walking Dead.

Fear presents the fake factoid with a straight face in this week’s episode — actually named “We All Fall Down,” for god’s sake — as a way a doomed little girl to get schooled by sadder, wiser teenager Alicia, despite the fact that the Snopes page debunking the claim is “Ring Around the Rosie”’s second fucking google hit. I never thought I’d tell a show as tryhard as FtWD to try harder, but seriously, Fear writers, Let Me Google That For You.

I reviewed last night’s Fear the Walking Dead for Decider. What a contemptible show.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Four, Episode Five: “Clark’s Place”

April 15th, 2016

The way some people talk and write about The Americans, it’s like they’d never listened to New Wave or had sex until Elizabeth & Philip Jennings did. This is a great show, one of the best shows, and there’s no question its astute pop-music cues and explicit sex scenes factor prominently into that. But is the combination of Yaz and oral really all that exotic? Jeez, just put the kids to bed early and put on some Berlin already. It’s the grim morality play, not the Big ’80s hits and the cowgirl position, that are irreproducible elsewhere.

This, I suppose, is my way of saying that the desperate “Under Pressure”–soundtracked fuckfest that concluded “Clark’s Place,” last night’s episode, left me a bit deflated. This is not entirely The Americans’ fault: Fear the Walking Dead shit the bed so badly with its try-hard use of “Five Years” during last weekend’s season premiere that David Bowie is going to be very difficult to enjoy on any other series for quite some time, especially in light of the likelihood that the late genius’s catalogue will be every TV show’s go-to for EMOTIONAL RESONANCE for the rest of the year. I can’t lay that at the show’s feet, any more than I can in good conscience protest that the lyrics were, to use the single worst phrase in any TV critic’s vocabulary, “too on-the-nose” — not after The People v. O.J. Simpson proved time and time again that when it comes to period-appropriate pop, blunt can be beautiful.

No, in this case, the problem is unique to the song itself, I think. Simply put, “Under Pressure” is so perfect, such a marvelous showcase of both Bowie and Queen’s equally sorely missed Freddie Mercury, that an intensely personal relationship and a set of associations with the track are almost impossible not to form. Invested though I may be in Philip, Elizabeth, Stan, Martha, Paige, and the rest of the gang, I’ve also drummed along on my car steering wheel to the “Can’t we give ourselves one more chance?” so hard and so often that my hands can feel the sense-memory as I type this; the emotions it brings up can’t help but drown out the ones the story demands. A strategically deployed anthem can be a knockout blow on a show, as it was last season with Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain,” for instance, or on Mad Men when Don Draper listened to “Tomorrow Never Knows” like he was trying to decode a message from an alien culture. (Which, in effect, he was.) In this case, though, the song overwhelmed the sequence whose spine it provided, Keri Russell’s bare ass be damned.

I reviewed this week’s episode of The Americans for the New York Observer. I think I write well about this show, for whatever that’s worth, same way I thought I wrote well about Downton Abbey.

“Empire” thoughts, Season Two, Episode 13: “The Tameness of a Wolf”

April 15th, 2016

In the immortal words of Drake, “this ain’t what she meant when she told you to open up more.” Throughout tonight’s episode of Empire (“The Tameness of a Wolf” — what is this, Game of Thrones?), Lucious Lyon has been prepping a music video that will tell his true life story, warts and all. This includes the childhood trauma he’s kept secret: the abuse he suffered at the hands of his bipolar mother, who shot herself in front of him over what she’d done. Proud of her ex’s honesty, Cookie screens a rough cut for her whole family at her birthday party. But instead of bonding them, it blows them apart. Andre explodes, lambasting his dad for hiding his grandmother’s illness — the knowledge of which could have helped him cope with his own. His father responds by calling both grandmother and son embarrassments. When it comes to being a bastard, psychiatry has yet to devise an effective treatment.

I reviewed this week’s Empire for Rolling Stone.

“Better Call Saul” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Nine: “Nailed”

April 13th, 2016

The parable of the Good Samaritan is in effect our culture’s first tale of AAA roadside assistance. After several more respectable types pass by a man who’s been mugged and left to die by the side of the road, a Samaritan, seen as an outcast demographic by Christ’s audience, stops to rescue him. Tonight’s episode of Better Call Saul is a rare case in which a Good Samaritan is true to his namesake. Nacho, Mike’s man in the cartel, uses the moniker to describe the nameless do-gooder who pulled over and came to the aid of the trucker and drug courier Mike Ehrmantraut hijacked and hogtied on a remote stretch of highway. For his good deed, he gets killed and buried out there, so that the cops Mike was counting on investigating the Salamanca outfit won’t be alerted to the hijacking. Do right and suffer for it? Hmmm. Put aside the homemade spike strip Mike pulls across the road like a snake-charmer to stop the truck—there may be another, more biblical reason this episode is called “Nailed.”

I reviewed this week’s tight, grim episode of Better Call Saul for the New York Observer.