“Halt and Catch Fire” thoughts, Season One, Episode Ten: “1984″

August 4th, 2014

The final Halt and Catch Fire of Season One begins with the show’s single most likeable sequence: Things are tense in the Clark household, where Gordon and Donna have evidently not recovered from the COMDEX debacle. Dishes are washed, beers are drunk, TV is watched, all joylessly, silently. Finally, Gordon attempts to settle in on the couch where he’s been sleeping – but Donna has had enough. “Get in there!” she demands, directing Gordon to the bedroom she insists she’ll be sharing with him tonight. “I’m still very mad at you,” he replies, pointing at her, and surrendering. She giggles. They walk off to bed, Gordon stomping and swinging in faux-fury. The two of them have decided that their fight about Donna’s borderline infidelity and Gordon’s job-related neglect was about real issues – ones that pale in comparison to the even realer love and respect they share. As Donna puts it in code later in the episode, when Gordon presents her with the engagement-slash-decoder ring he promised her nine years back, “I darf you very gerp.”

The Gordon-Donna scenes in this late-blooming show’s season finale — ‘1984” — aren’t just the show’s most human moments to date. They echo the legendary Apple Super Bowl ad that gives the episode its title, and like the Cameron lookalike who smashes the oppressive IBM machine in that commercial, they represent the triumph of imagination, emotion, and empathy over cold hard calculation. Gone is the Halt that forced its characters into empty confrontations week in and week out to drum up drama on the cheap – the equivalent of the Cardiff Giant’s faster-cheaper computing model. In its place? A handsome, clean-shaven, confident, self-actualized Gordon, now head of the company where he was once just another face in the crowd. But more importantly, he’s a Gordon we actually give a shit about.

Much to my surprise, Halt and Catch Fire wound up being a pleasurable, emotionally sticky show — and it’s the rare prestige drama in which the women are happier and more fulfilled than the men. I reviewed its season finale for Rolling Stone.

“The Leftovers” thoughts, Season One, Episode Six: “Guest”

August 4th, 2014

We also see Nora reject a number of possible paths to closure when she heads to Manhattan for a conference on Departure-related industries. This begins when a bro-tastic bereavement specialist — the one who works for the company that makes “Loved Ones” simulacra of departed family members for burials or cremations — comes on to her. She enjoys his hospitality suite and his attentions, admitting he’s not the soulless creep he might seem, and still chooses to make out with his real-doll doppelganger rather than the genuine douchebag article. Watching Nora writhe atop the mannequin is the series’ sexiest moment to date, and no wonder – here’s a person deriving an erotic charge from the very concept of closure, making a public show of pleasure out of something intended to be a private totem of grief.

Next, she blows up the spot of the activist/conspiracy theorist who impersonates her at the convention, and appears to blow off her warnings about the Department of Sudden Departures. That’s harder for the audience to do, of course; when she warns that the DSD’s “questionnaires are sent to incinerators outside of Tallahassee, Florida,” we know that the government’s burning much worse things than that. But she’s even harder on Patrick Johansen, the conference’s star attraction and author of What Comes Next, a self-help book for “legacies” of the Departed. Calling him a fraud who’s faking his grief, she drunkenly screams at him “What’s next? What’s fucking next? Nothing is next! Nothing!”

It’s this nihilism that attracts Holy Wayne’s acolyte to Nora. He knows she’s right about Johansen, because the writer didn’t work through his grief at all – he had it magically sucked out of him. And when Wayne meets Nora, the healer recognizes that she’s not rejecting happiness out of hopelessness, but because she does have hope — and she wants to get rid of it. “If [your pain] starts to slip away, you seek it out again, don’t you?” he asks her, knowing the answer is yes. “Hope. It’s your weakness. You want it gone because you don’t deserve it.” There’s a certain strain of depression that internalizes and personifies misfortune, that sees it as the natural state of things, that sees happiness as fraudulent in the face of the shortcomings the depressed person knows better than anyone. This is as accurate an encapsulation of that kind of depression as a TV show is likely to deliver.

Last night’s The Leftovers was smart about sex, depression, guilt, and grief — plus, tons of Carrie Coon as Nora Durst. I reviewed it for Rolling Stone.

10 Biting Lessons We Learned from “Sharknado 2: The Second One”

July 31st, 2014

4. Watching sharks attack annoying celebrities isn’t as much fun as you’d think.
When the first shark soars through the aisle of an airplane and bites off Kelly Osbourne’s head, it’s funny. When another one chows down on nerd-media icon Wil Wheaton, it’s amusing. By the time Perez Hilton shows up on a subway platform, you’re just counting down the seconds till an unconvincing splash of CGI bloodspray signals his departure from your TV screen. Hell, several of the most irritating d-listers who show up – Andy Dick, Billy Ray Cyrus, Subway’s Jared – don’t even give us the satisfaction of dying.

5. Watching sharks attack actually pretty cool celebrities isn’t that much fun either.
Shot on a shoestring and intended to be just another widget cranked out by the Syfy Originals schlock factory, the first Sharknado had a cast to match its ambition. When the dust settled and the sharks landed, it’s not like the careers of Ian Ziering and Tara Reid were gonna take a huge hit — only Sopranos and Home Alone veteran John Heard was gonna have to answer to his god for appearing in that thing. This time around? Comedians-slash-character-actors Richard Kind, Judd Hirsch, and Robert Klein all get fake shark blood on their hands, as do bona fide hip-hop legends Sandra “Pepa” Denton and Biz Markie. (Stick with Yo Gabba Gabba!, Biz.) If you’ve ever wanted to watch Robert Klein make stage chatter with WWE Superstar Kurt Angle while they play the Mayor of New York and the Chief of the FDNY respectively, or see Pepa get squashed by a whale shark while riding a Citibike, this is your big day, you weirdo.

6. The Today Show is awkward even when it’s being attacked by sharks.
Ukraine, Gaza, ebola, sharknado. In these troubled times, we turn to trusted news anchors like Matt Lauer, who has almost as much Sharknado 2 screentime as Tara Reid. At one point, he and genial weather guru Al Roker have a weirdly passive-aggressive back and forth about whether to call them “shark storms” or “sharknados,” arguably the most uncomfortable morning-TV moment since Lauer asked Anne Hathaway about her wardrobe malfunction. Later, the pair stab a shark to death live on camera, handling its exit just slightly better than Ann Curry’s.

As the world shakes off its collective Sharknado hangover, please allow me to help you make sense of it all over at Rolling Stone.

Comics Time: Configurations

July 30th, 2014
 I hesitate to use the formulation “more than just a comic” in describing “Configurations”, the recent webcomic series Aidan Koch published through TCJ contributor Frank Santoro’s Comics Workbook tumblr. Comics are whatever you put into them, and “Configurations,” certainly a comic, puts in plenty. But it feels less like a strip you read and more like a participatory event. It’s the rare experimental work that makes you feel as though you’re there in the lab with its creator, conducting that experiment yourself.  I reviewed “Configurations” by Aidan Koch, originally published in comicsworkbook, for The Comics Journal.

I hesitate to use the formulation “more than just a comic” in describing “Configurations”, the recent webcomic series Aidan Koch published through TCJ contributor Frank Santoro’s Comics Workbook tumblr. Comics are whatever you put into them, and “Configurations,” certainly a comic, puts in plenty. But it feels less like a strip you read and more like a participatory event. It’s the rare experimental work that makes you feel as though you’re there in the lab with its creator, conducting that experiment yourself.

I reviewed “Configurations” by Aidan Koch, originally published in comicsworkbook, for The Comics Journal.

The Rise of ‘Guardians of the Galaxy”s Rocket Raccoon

July 30th, 2014

“You can only take these characters so far before it gets ridiculous,” Gunn admits. “Honestly, some of the latest superhero movies take themselves so seriously, they feel like a joke. This desperate, angsty need for ‘coolness’ is sort of pathetic. Guardians is a big reaction against that.” Will the grim-and-gritty-loving fanboys go along? Gunn laughs. “Who the hell knows?”

I interviewed Rocket Raccoon co-creator Keith Giffen and Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn about Marvel’s answer to Mickey Mouse for Rolling Stone. What a world!

“The Leftovers” thoughts, Season One, Episode Five: “Gladys”

July 28th, 2014

“I don’t understand your faith,” the Reverend tells the Guilty Remnant when he comes to their houses to pray for Gladys. “But I understand commitment, and I respect it.” His understanding and respect are undermined in the very next sentence, though: “But we are all of us, no matter how we’ve suffered, still alive.” As if they didn’t know! Rev. Jamison believes that by stripping away their friends, families, clothes, voices, even their health, they’ve cut themselves off from life itself. But to the GR, these acts of sacrifice are living. Whether they’ve chosen the slow-motion martyrdom of chainsmoking or had the fast track of stoning chosen for them like Gladys did, their sacrifices have made their individual lives literally the only thing they have to give anymore. What could be more valuable?

The episode itself implicitly sides against Rev. Jamison in this matter long before he even shows up. In its harrowing, unflinchingly gruesome stoning of Gladys, it forces us to witness every blow, every terrifying and disorienting moment of her abduction, every vulnerable and humiliating moment of her execution. Violence and gore on film are often held up as crass and dehumanizing — many examples of these things often are. But when done properly, their repulsive spectacle is as humanistic as filmmaking can get: This is how vulnerable we are as humans, and this is how incredibly wrong it is to exploit that vulnerability. In this sequence, The Leftovers sees Rev. Jamison’s claim that the GR are “already dead” and preemptively calls bullshit.

But it’s not just the value of life that martyrdom highlights – the martyr’s unique philosophy about life gets its shot at the spotlight as well. Such is the circular logic of martyrdom’s emotional appeal: If you are willing to die for something, you must have found something worth dying for, right? Whether it’s faith, family, country, or love, your devotion to that something is inarguable – and that’s the kind of connection, real and true and deep and meaningful, that everyone searches for in a world where such connections are so frequently shattered. That the GRs voluntarily did much of that shattering to themselves is immaterial. They found something that gave them meaning amid the meaninglessness, something so meaningful they’re willing to die for it as a demonstration.

That demonstration is the highest calling of the true believer, because it’s a way of demonstrating that there are, indeed, true things to believe in. Black-and-white thinking exerts a powerful attraction because it implies an order within the chaos: No matter what it looks like, there is a right thing and a wrong thing, there are ideas that are objectively correct and objectively false. The martyr makes the argument with her body that she has found the objectively correct position, and that it is now easier to die than knowingly embrace the false one. What a relief it must be to know you’re right about anything! We speak of the courage of our convictions, but the comfort of our convictions is just as important.

“Enjoy” is a weird word to use about tonight’s episode of The Leftovers, but it made me think hard about hard things, and I enjoyed it. I reviewed it for Rolling Stone.

“Halt and Catch Fire” thoughts, Season One, Episode Nine: “Up Helly Aa”

July 28th, 2014

In a rare move for, well, pretty much any drama on television, Halt gave its characters a complex personal, professional, and perhaps even moral choice to make in which neither outcome was the clear-cut “right thing to do.” When Gordon guts Cameron’s forward-thinking, interactive OS to cut costs and increase speed, what should Joe do? Siding with Cameron would honor her genuine vision, preserve the one thing that made the Giant unique, keep the hope of an eventual reward for their cutting-edge tech alive, and maintain the romantic relationship that clearly matters a lot to both of them. But it would cost them the only competitive edges – speed and cost – that matter in the face of the Slingshot knockoff’s debut earlier that day, which in turn would cost them the entirety of Cardiff Electric. Fiction in general (and prestige TV dramas in particular) conditions us to root for the maverick, the underdog, and the visionary, so our initial inclination is to pull for Cameron. But Joe’s face as the elevator doors close on her speaks volumes. He knows that her computer would be better. But her better computer likely will never get the chance to exist unless they act now. And the sacrifice their love requires is too steep.

When we see the results of Joe’s decision play out on the convention floor, the issues remain just as complex. His speech about the reprogrammed Giant joylessly champions all-business values, at times echoing Alec Baldwin’s legendary Glengarry Glenn Ross monologue (“Good father? Fuck you! Go home and play with your kids”) in its cynicism and intensity. Finding Cameron’s ketchup stain on his notes would normally be a sign he’s about to have a change of heart; watching him power past his qualms, then quietly close the notes away in his briefcase undermines all the expectations a moment like that naturally raises.

Yet there’s genuine fervor in the speech – a chance for Joe’s skill as a salesman to shine, which is his art as much as coding is Cameron’s or engineering is Gordon’s and Donna’s. The presentation is a hit, scoring the Giant a big order with a major retailer. There are even personal victories to echo the loss of Cameron – a loss which, importantly, Joe and Gordon honor during their presentation. Joe’s decision may have cost him Cameron, but it made possible the rapprochement between Gordon and Donna, who at last is credited with her role in the computer’s creation. It also drove a stake through the heart of Hunt and Brian’s sleazy Slingshot project – which is a bit rich, given the similarly unscrupulous way Joe and the gang have gone about everything, but is no less satisfying for it.

In the end, Halt still sends signals that Joe made the wrong choice, if for the right reasons. He and the Clarks share the world’s saddest champagne toast, with the camera lingering on the popped bottle long after such shots normally cut away, transforming its celebratory effervescence into just a spill to be cleaned up. Gordon and Donna are back together, but the events of the day make their demeanor seem miles away from their sweetly sexed-up chemistry of the night before.

Tonight’s Halt and Catch Fire told a morally and emotionally sophisticated story with actual sophistication. I was really impressed. I reviewed it for Rolling Stone.

Comics Time: This One Summer

July 24th, 2014

At the beginning of This One Summer, its main character, Rose, splashes down into her bed, holding her nose and falling backwards as if leaping off a dock into the lake nearby. At the end she and a friend dig a hole in the beach big enough to contain her, and she lies in it, posing for her last picture of the summer — this is how she wants to remember it. In between, nature, as drawn with preposterous skill by Jillian Tamaki, proves capable of enveloping her without her help. Big summer-night skies, full of stars and moonlight. Bright summer sun, hanging overhead like it will never set again. Wet, heavy summer rain, seemingly just as endless, pouring into puddles drop after drop. Trees and vines and bushes and grass and undergrowth, verdant, overripe to the point of hysteria. The lake, which is alternately drawn dominating a spread vertically like a monolith, suspending the joyous bodies of tumbling teenagers in its inviting murk, and enveloping them like a sunlit shroud when they no longer wish to be found. Against this brush-stroke backdrop stand Rose and the other impeccably cartooned characters, whose stylized simplicity (relatively speaking; no sense that these are real people is lost) when juxtaposed with those wall-of-sound environments makes them feel like inner tubes bobbing in the water, or stones tossed in it. Immersion is This One Summer‘s strength, and it works alarmingly well for the story that cousin-collaborators Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki are telling. It’s a young-adult graphic novel, and young adults are constantly tossed into new circumstances by forces beyond their control, from puberty to parents. Out of their depth, do they sink or swim?

I reviewed This One Summer by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki for The Comics Journal.

Comics Time: How to Be Happy

July 24th, 2014

The first moment — but certainly not the last — that made me stop reading How to Be Happy, turn back the pages, and immediately re-read them came early. “In Our Eden”, the lead-off piece in Eleanor Davis’s masterful new collection of short stories, concerns a back-to-nature commune driven to dissent and dissolution by its founder’s purity of vision. Some members chafe at the convention by which every man is called Adam, every woman Eve. Others fall away when the leader, a towering and barrel-chested figure with a ferocious black beard like something out of a David B. comic, takes away all of their prefab tools. The rest depart when he insists they neither farm nor kill for food, literalizing and reversing the Fall’s allegory of humanity’s move from hunter-gatherer to agrarian societies. At last it’s just this one Adam and the Eve he loves. By the next time we see them, Adam’s gargantuan physique has been pared away, his ribs visible, his nose reddened for a sickly effect, demonstrating Davis’s remarkable ability to wring detail and expressive power out of the simple color-block style of the piece. He comes across Eve, nude and stork-skinny, washing her long hair in a river. He goes to her, nude himself. “I’m ready for the bliss to come,” he says right to us in one of the recurring panels of first-person narration that have been peppered through the comic. They embrace. “I’m ready for the weight to lift.” They kiss.

I turned the page, curious as to how the story would end. Some final irony? Some subtle but biting indictment of utopian folly? A widening of the view to deny the lovers centrality in their world? None of the above: the story had already ended. The build-up I’d read into it — a crescendo of extremism that would end with Adam’s hubris exposed and exploited — didn’t exist. The easy climax, the stacked-deck scenario so common in stories about true believers in which author and audience get over at the expense of the characters when the latter are made to look foolish for foibles the former recognize instantly, never comes. The climax had come two pages before, when I turned from one page to the next and reached a splash-page image of the moment when Eve turns to see her Adam. This moment of connection is the story’s resolution. The use of Adam and Eve’s human bodies to communicate to one another, to seek the bliss that’s coming, to lift that weight, is the image Davis wants us to leave with. No moral, no punchline, no muted epiphany — discarded along with all the other distractions, they leave only Edenic bliss behind.

I reviewed Eleanor Davis’s masterful comics collection How to Be Happy for The Comics Journal.

“The Leftovers” thoughts, Season One, Episode Four: “B.J. and the A.C.”

July 21st, 2014

Then there’s the Chief, who when he’s not busy hunting down Jesus gets the best stuff this episode has to offer. His confrontation with GR leader Patti featured the darkly funny line “If you come, I’m not gonna protect you. It’s the holidays.” (This is The Leftovers‘ answer to Dr. Strangelove‘s “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the war room!”) Meanwhile, a new romance was a given for the show’s leading man, and the obvious sexual chemistry between Justin Theroux’s Kevin and Carrie Coon’s Nora was a very pleasant surprise. Props to directors Carl Franklin (One False Move) and Lesli Linka Glatter, who as a veteran of Mad Men knows her way around hot romance between damaged people. The staging in particular was terrific, with Kevin standing resplendent in his uniform while Nora lounges languidly against a high-school locker, suggesting intimacy and authority and innocence and experience all at once.


To get to that point, though, he had to endure an excruciating “conversation” with his estranged wife Laurie. Sworn to silence by the Guilty Remnant, she brings along a rookie as a ringer, having Meg read Kevin her big Dear John divorce letter so she won’t have to. In the show’s best single exploration of post-Departure relationships to date, Kevin and Laurie are the proverbial unstoppable force and immovable object. Amy Brenneman radiates both exhaustion and conviction through Laurie’s face and body language; her eyes say the only thing that could hurt her more than doing this to Kevin is not doing it, and pretending nothing’s changed. But of course this behavior is completely infuriating, and Theroux funnels that fury into a ferocious performance, first barking at Meg to shut the fuck up, then demanding Laurie speak for herself. It’s multifaceted, empathetic writing, all beautifully acted. And though I wouldn’t wanna live there, it made Mapleton a nice place to visit.

I (mostly) dug tonight’s The Leftovers; Theroux’s scenes with Carrie Coon and Brenneman/Tyler were dynamite. I reviewed it for Rolling Stone.

“Halt and Catch Fire” thoughts, Season One, Episode Eight: “The 214s”

July 21st, 2014

It turns out that “recovery from a mild psychotic break” is a good look for Gordon Clark. For the first time all season, his hair’s groomed and his beard’s neat; he looks comfortable in his clothes instead of like a living mannequin for Short-Sleeved Dress Shirts Warehouse. Actor Scoot McNairy is a handsome guy, after all; now we can see that beneath the beard and the big glasses and the flop sweat, Gordon had something to offer Donna back in the day besides their shared love of electrical engineering.

What’s more, this is a case where you can judge a book by its cover. Now Gordon is able to turn on the charm, bantering effortlessly with  JoeCameron, and Bosworth as they plan for the big COMDEX computer convention before the bank-hacking bust that drives the episode. Even the camera seems captivated: As he reminisces about the party scene the last time he and Donna attended the big show, grinning ear to ear, the camera doesn’t cut away for a second.

Yes, he freaks when he finds out Joe is not taking him, but lots of people would. Plus, he quickly recovers – Gordon has the presence of mind to steal key components of the computer they’ve officially christened “The Giant” when the feds swoop in. He’s also got the vision to keep the project going anyway, the balls to break into the office and steal the rest of the computer, and the charisma to convince both Cameron and Joe to come along for the ride. Pay attention to the way he reassembles the team. It doesn’t just mean good things for Cardiff Electric — it means good things for tonight’s episode, “The 214s,” and for the series itself.

I thought tonight’s episode of Halt and Catch Fire was the best so far, by far. I reviewed it for Rolling Stone. Special shout-out to actor Toby Huss, who’s doing phenomenal work in this show as John Bosworth.

“The Leftovers” thoughts, Season One, Episode Three: “Two Boats and a Helicopter”

July 13th, 2014

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.

It’s difficult to overstate the failure of tonight’s episode of The Leftovers, which I reviewed for Rolling Stone.

“Halt and Catch Fire” Thoughts, Season One, Episode Seven: “Giant”

July 13th, 2014

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.

The Boiled Leather Audio Hour Episode 32!

July 8th, 2014

Going Rogue: Discussing “The Rogue Prince, or, A King’s Brother”

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!)

Stefan’s review of “The Rogue Prince” for Tower of the Hand

Mirror here.

Previous episodes here.

Podcast RSS feed here.

iTunes page here.

Sean’s blog here.

Stefan’s blog here.

“Halt and Catch Fire” thoughts, Season One, Episode Six: “Landfall”

July 6th, 2014

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.

“The Leftovers” thoughts, Season One, Episode Two: “Penguin One, Us Zero”

July 6th, 2014

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.

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

June 30th, 2014

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.

“Halt and Catch Fire” thoughts, Season One, Episode Five: “Adventure”

June 30th, 2014

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?

I reviewed tonight’s Halt and Catch Fire for Rolling Stone.

The arrow that made me love The Lord of the Rings

June 26th, 2014

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).

Here’s how I responded:

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.

Comics Time: Sorry Kid

June 26th, 2014

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.

I reviewed my first comic in ages, Sorry Kid by Katrina Silander Clark, for The Comics Journal.