“Halt and Catch Fire” Thoughts, Season Two, Episode Two: “New Coke”

June 8th, 2015

But the funniest thing about this episode: It was genuinely funny. Halt 2.0 appears to have included a serious humor upgrade, a welcome development given the clenched-jaw tension of Season One. There are great little visual gags, like Gordon using SEXYBEARD as his Mutiny username. There are lol-worthy throwaway one-liners, as when a Mutiny’s code monkey crams all the free pizza he can eat into his face while saying “I don’t even want this anymore!” Even the music gets in on the act: When Joe shows up for his first day at work, the one-time wunderkind’s stylish synthpop soundtrack cuts out the second he sets foot in his dingy new digs. It’s a perfect sonic spit-take, and a sign that the show’s sophomore evolution away from self-seriousness may be the best way to get people to take it seriously.

I reviewed tonight’s Halt and Catch Fire, which has become a fun show, for Rolling Stone.

“Game of Thrones” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Nine: “The Dance of Dragons”

June 8th, 2015

The difficulty of telling true from false, of choosing sides, is precisely why the show burned Shireen. Why risk kneecapping Daenerys’ triumphant reunion with her dragon and the primal thrill of her first ride with this horror? The answer lies in the look in Tyrion’s eyes as he watches Drogon torch insurgents and bystanders left and right. The Imp, it turns out, is a true idealist (the biggest cynics often are; constantly being let down will do that to you). He had high hopes that the Khaleesi truly would “break the wheel” on which humanity has suffered for so long. Now, faced with the wrath of a literal monster, he sees what that the flames of war consume ally, enemy, and innocent alike. “You can stop this,” he told her minutes earlier when Ser Jorah Mormont fought for her favor in the arena. “She can’t,” Hizdahr said. Indeed she couldn’t.

This is the antiwar point the show is making even amid the wonder of Dany’s wild ride, just as surely as it did during the horror of Hardhome last week, when a literal avalanche of corpses rained down upon the living. This is the point it makes every time it shows us some all but unwatchable atrocity, no matter how hard we wish they didn’t. The elemental force that is war has one purpose and serves one god: death. Ice freezes. Fire burns. And as a wise woman once said, “When this kind of fire starts, it is very hard to put out. The tender boughs of innocence burn first, and the wind rises, and then all goodness is in jeopardy.”

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

“Hannibal” thoughts, Season Three, Episode One: “Antipasto”

June 5th, 2015

Hannibal captures the strange, very adult phenomenon inherent in relationships between you and your coworkers or you and your therapist: Within these fixed confines you become truly important to one another, yet you only ever see each other’s forward-facing parts. Hannibal’s psychosis, Will’s unclassifiable disorder, Dr. DuMaurier’s years-long manipulation by Dr. Lecter — these factors make them unknowable, but stand in for the mysteries we all choose to leave unexplored in the people we work with, because separation is safer than immersion.

This is the one-two punch that makes Hannibal haunting. At the same time its story pokes and prods at our most intimate and complex connections with one another — often through the work of its protagonists, profilers and psychiatrists for whom this is literally their vocation — its grand guignol imagery loosens your moorings and sets you adrift in the realm of pure nightmare. The human element forces you to lower your guard; when the wall is down, the horror is poured into your brain like a black liquid, pooling in the creases of your cerebellum till it’s impossible to get clean again. Once you let this devil in, he’s there to stay.

I’m covering Hannibal for Decider this season! Here’s my review of the season premiere.

“Hannibal”: The Sick Genius of TV’s Darkest Show

June 4th, 2015

This is a show that leaves you thinking that maybe the world is a little bit worse for its presence — a mark of all great horror. And whether you’re a fan of the genre or a practitioner, you’ve got to be like Will Graham voluntarily connecting with the worst humanity has to offer. You must be willing to turn to the work and say “just fuck me up.” In this series, that thrillingly self-destructive impulse is invited — and then rewarded a hundredfold with some of the most gorgeous visuals of murder and cooking you’ve ever seen. When you binge on HannibalHannibal binges back. Bon appétit.

I wrote about the visual and narrative brilliance of Hannibal, the most soul-deep sinister show on TV, for Rolling Stone.

DQ25

June 2nd, 2015

I interviewed the great editor and publisher Tom Devlin in this beautiful book about Drawn and Quarterly, one of the best and most important comics publishers of all time. It’s out today, and it’s filled with comics by wonderful cartoonists. Check it out!

June 2nd, 2015

“Game of Thrones” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Eight: “Hardhome”

June 1st, 2015

At its best, fantasy — like horror, science fiction, and the whole spectrum of genre storytelling — uses unreality as a key to unlock aspects of reality that the reason and logic of the workaday world keep hidden. Simply put, the White Walkers are the series’ vision of war itself: death breeding death breeding death until nothing living is left. Sansa and Theon, Daenerys and Tyrion, newly minted pit-fighter Jorah Mormont and fledgling hitwoman Arya Stark have each caught their own glimpses of this truth. Tonight we saw that vision with crystal blue clarity, in the metaphorical form of a literal avalanche of bodies, and the creature responsible. Jon Snow saw it too. Now he carries its message, and the game — the real game — begins.

I reviewed tonight’s fucking magnificent Game of Thrones for Rolling Stone. The ending gave me the chills and made me cry.

“Halt and Catch Fire” thoughts, Season Two, Episode One: “SETI”

June 1st, 2015

Across the board, Halt’s great leap forward makes for a breezier, better show. Though the painstaking process of chronicling the group’s personal-computer empire-building last season gave the show a sturdy core, it was also exhausting for the audience as well as the characters. Jumping ahead means skipping past the back-and-forths that bogged the series down just as surely as calling a ceasefire on the constant hostility does.

And it clears some space in the hard drive for much cooler stuff. There’s some just-this-side-of-showy stylistics, like the opening sequence in which a hand-held camera follows Donna around the chaotic Mutiny office for minutes on end. There’s a nifty metaphor for Cameron’s “where you see a wall, I see a door” thinking in her customer-service call, where she coaches a gamer trapped in a room full of holograms to escape by simply walking right through them. There’s a more playful sense of humor, from the goofy mid-Eighties commercial for the “Giant” to the sight of a coked-up Gordon reading William Gibson’s cyberpunk classic Neuromancer and muttering “What the hell??” with a bloody tissue up his nose. There may even be a new structure, since for all we know each season will focus on a brand-new aspect of the tech biz — like how The Wire handled Baltimore, but with joysticks.

I reviewed tonight’s season premiere of Halt and Catch Fire v2.0, a superior model in every respect, for Rolling Stone.

“Outlander” thoughts, Season One, Episode 16: “To Ransom a Man’s Soul”

June 1st, 2015

This is the problem with Outlander, really: It always feels like just a TV show. Rooting Randall’s torture of Jamie in the undeniable facts of physical — their nude bodies streaked with blood and spit and tears and sweat and lube — may have alleviated this fact, or obscured it if you want to be less charitable about it, by creating a sense of terrible intimacy. But who are they, really? Randall’s a one-dimensional sadist and Jamie’s a heroic hunk with more scars than facial expressions. The take-no-prisoners treatment of rape in all its horror, the sociopolitical ramifications of its emphasis on masculinity or recovery — neither factor matters all that much if the characters are ciphers, their story stays so predictably linear, and music and voiceovers tell you exactly how to feel about all of it at all times. Grading it all on a curve because the sex scenes are strong, or this sexual assault sequence was strong in an entirely different way, does no one any favors.

I reviewed last night’s Outlander finale, an ambitious failure, for the New York Observer.

“Under the Skin” Is the Best Horror Movie You’ve Never Seen

May 27th, 2015

Like comedy and pornography, horror is a practical art with a concrete aim; it exists to frighten. This utilitarian aspect makes horror a genre that constantly interrogates its own past, examining how other scary movies scared people in order to refine and surpass them. So like almost all of the great horror films,Under the Skin exists in conversation with its forerunners. The main character’s pattern of luring lonely, horny, pasty men to a decrepit house to be consumed by some nightmare secreted from the floor evokes the plot of Clive Barker’s similar meditation on agony in the UK, Hellraiser; a late-game makeup effect recalls its even more uncompromisingly brutal sequel, Hellbound: Hellraiser II. The circular, ocular forms that dominate the movie’s abstract opening sequence recall not only the baleful gaze of the killer computer HAL 9000 in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 (a frequent point of comparison in reviews) but also the similar combination of curvilinear shapes and unnerving musical dissonance that kicks off Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (a film with which UtS shares an unarticulated but brutal meat-is-murder subtext, one that’s a lot clearer in the source novel).

Another Kubrick masterpiece, The Shining, earns a visual echo in the bird’s-eye-view shots of the characters driving the curvy roads carved through the rugged region. Its long silent passages, in which our sole window into the world of the film is the monster at its center, force us into her skin in a fashion reminiscent of Norman Bates’s clean-up and disposal in Psycho. Indeed, the ominous hums and screeching strings of Mica Levi’s score place it with Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho, John Williams’s Jaws, and the Ligeti/Penderecki/Wendy Carlos/Rachel Elkind–dominated soundtrack of The Shining at the top of the horror movie music pantheon.

The list could go on—seriously, I cut several entries for space—but it’s important to note this: None of these elements exist to be spotted, per se. They’re not overt references or homages, but rather a bedrock on which the film can be built into something new and unique. Under the Skin uses our shared vocabulary of horror tropes and techniques to create a new language, just like the disembodied syllables we hear the main character murmur over the stunning, dissociative opening sequence evolve into the words she uses to seduce and destroy.

Under the Skin is one of the best horror movies ever made, and one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, period. I make the case for it over at Decider.

May 26th, 2015

I was sexually abused when I was three or four years old. The exact date, like some of the specifics, is lost to my memory. As far as memories go I suppose this is one of my earliest, actually. My brain gives me gifts unasked for, sometimes.

I came under the care of two teenagers my family trusted. The elder of the two spent a week humiliating and abusing me. (The younger of the two saw everything and did nothing.)

She locked me alone in a room for hours, and forced me to work around the house, whatever that could have looked like for a three year old, when I was released. She fed me food she had rendered inedible through means I’m glad remain a mystery to me, and when I inevitably could not bring myself to eat it I went hungry. (At the time the only available category for bad food my brain had access to was “stale,” so that’s the description of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich she made me that I remember formulating. Whatever was wrong with that sandwich, which I can still taste in my mouth over 30 years later, it wasn’t stale bread.) She made fun of me constantly, exclusively. She made me wear diapers, which like all children I’d stopped using with pride, and when the time came to relinquish me back to my parents’ care she threatened that they would put me in diapers and keep me in them if I told.

On the day she gave me a bath, she made me stand naked while she examined and ridiculed me. I can’t remember if she touched my penis, honestly I can’t, but she must have: I had a birthmark or freckle on it at the time, which she mocked. I was a freckly kid, and my mother had told me freckles were where the angels kissed me before I was born. “Did the angels kiss you there?” my abuser asked, laughing. I didn’t recognize what was being suggested, obviously, fortunately, though I sensed it was bad. I looked down and saw something that, while neither repulsive nor ridiculous, was now alien to me. What I understood most clearly was that my private parts were no longer private. They could be seen and touched and kissed and made fun of and laughed at. I had no more power to stop it than I could force my mouth to chew and swallow the tainted food my abuser served me. Here was another plate.

I knew what had been done to me was mean, which is a child’s word for wrong. I knew I’d done nothing to deserve it, so I had nothing to fear if I divulged it. When this time period drew to a close I told my parents what I could immediately, without hesitation. That put an end to it.

Until recently I hadn’t thought much about this incident, or its impact on my life. I didn’t think there’d been one. After all, I was lucky in many respects. The abuse occurred over a discreet time period, rather than an ongoing one. The physical component could have been much worse. I was so young that I didn’t understand the sexual component to be sexual; certainly no one presented it to me as such after the fact. I didn’t yet feel shame, thank christ. Authority figures believed me and not my abuser. I know so many people who went through so much more. I am not the kind of person to cut himself slack for suffering.

Fifteen, sixteen years ago I rifled through my dad’s files and found a gifted-children evaluation that had been done on me prior to kindergarten. The evaluator noted that when given animal toys to play with, I had the predators menace the smaller animals until other, bigger animals came to fight the predators and rescue the prey. The evaluator ascribed this to the incident, but I’d always thought it was just how kids play. Isn’t all narrative conflict-driven? I put the report aside. I put the abuse aside.

I am currently at what I hope to be the tail end of a years-long bout of depression, and my life now is very different than my life before it began. My depression’s worst depths roughly coincided with the start of a period of intense sexuality. Given my interests as a critic and artist, this combination has been pretty fucking good for me, professionally. I write to figure things out; I figure things out when I write; this is true even when figuring things out is not the goal. I can’t help it. I am also fortunate enough to be in both a romantic relationship and a therapeutic one in which figuring things out is the goal. And so, inevitably, I’ve wormed my way back into this soil.

I’ve known for many years, because it’s been screechingly obvious to me even at my most oblivious, that sex is part of a cycle of humiliation and redemption for me. I was bullied badly in elementary school, and by middle school the teasing and mockery had hardened me into a fist of resentment against my social betters. By my sophomore year in high school it became apparent to me that I was now attractive to girls. This was great fun for all the usual healthy reasons, but I also saw it as slam-dunk evidence that I wasn’t the faggot and loser and geek and baby the male jocks said I was. Indeed, another human being need not be present for this catharsis to take effect: I felt a thrilling flash of “that’ll show them!” the first time I masturbated, because my body worked the way a man’s body should. Sex as a proving ground.

I identified this feeling early, but it never occurred to me to ask why I felt it. Why does the successful exercise of sexuality validate me as a person? Why does the mere fact of my sexual autonomy mean anything? Why does the concept of the body as a machine the operation of which exists outside normal social strictures of shame and propriety turn me on and get me off, ever since the very first time? If sex has taken on such importance in calibrating my personality, and if that calibrator was damaged by my abuse, were the parts of my personality that aren’t directly sex-adjacent able to be damaged as well? I don’t know.

I suspect, though. I suspect now. I suspect that at an age when I couldn’t imagine anything worse than being made to be a baby again, powerless and devoid of self-control, my abuser rooted my private experience of my body in a diaper. I suspect that at an age when every word from my mother’s mouth was love, my abuser used a story she’d told me to make me feel good about my body and hurt me with it, turned me against myself. I suspect that my baseline self-evaluation was reset at “not okay,” and that I grab what I can from outside and stand on it as long as I can to stay above it, which is never long enough. I suspect that anything that demonstrates that my body is my own and that my body is good is a balm to my soul but that its palliative effects only last so long. I suspect that I was conditioned to believe myself a shameful excess, a burden to everybody, and that my personal life has been an endless, futile scramble to make myself as unobtrusive and inoffensive as possible, to find solace only in hiding my own need.

I’ll never know, though. That’s the thing that bothers me the most: I’ll never know. This thing that happened to me, that was done to me, is dark matter. I know it’s there, but that’s all I know. Even if it were to have shaped me the way I suspect it might have, it’s convinced me I have no right to claim it as such — that the story’s not worth telling even if it’s mine to tell, since everyone has a story, don’t they, and if I went for all these years not thinking about it, not noticing it, even now I should just shut the fuck up about it, it’s vanity to pretend I have any reason to complain, you will be laughed at again, you are laughable again, how bad could it be? How bad could it be? I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.

“Game of Thrones” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Seven: “The Gift”

May 25th, 2015

As with solitaire or Angry Birds, we tend to think of the Game of Thrones as a single-player pursuit. We focus on the lords of ancient houses, like Daenerys Targaryen and Stannis Baratheon. We monitor the behind-the-scenes schemers, like Cersei Lannister and Littlefinger. We watch the dark horses moving along the margins, like Jon Snow and Tyrion the Imp. In each case, it seems like power is a weapon only one person can hold in the end. But tonight’s episode — “The Gift” — showed just how much this game is a team sport. Friends and family matter at every step, and if you lose them? Game over.

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

May 20th, 2015

One thing you don’t realize until you have a child is that stories about redemptive, heroic violence are omnipresent. Once a child is past toddlerhood and demands narrative media of greater complexity, violent conflict becomes an inescapable requisite. Having a daughter adds a layer of complicity: Boys are fed this stuff automatically, but with a girl you so often deliberately expose her to violent stories that would not reach her otherwise for the sake of egalitarianism. To send the message to your kid that the boy/girl binary is false you’re stuck showing her “boy stuff,” invariably involving punching or lasers, or “girl versions” of “boy stuff,” which port over those values as a cost of increased dynamism on the part of the female protagonist.

Every story I love from childhood involves solving problems with heroic violence. How can I share that love with my kid without imparting that view? It took me three decades to shake loose of it myself. Even when I thought I was out, I was in, as people who knew me ten, twelve years ago know. I’m sure smarter, better parents of daughters than I have figured it out, but I’m fucking stumped.

I’ve been playing The Legend of Zelda with my daughter, age four. She is viscerally thrilled by the scope and the mystery, and it’s a joy to behold. She wants to know why the monsters are mean. I don’t know what to tell her.

That’s overdramatic, of course. As my dear friends Julia Gfrörer and Stefan Sasse pointed out to me, monsters are a vital embodiment of several crucial ideas — the beasts of nature, harmful everyday things you can’t negotiate, meanness itself. And it is delightful to have raised a child of such industrious empathy, a child so perturbed by meanness and rudeness as her tiny conception of cruelty that it’s the lens through which she views evil itself. But still: the guilt I feel when she chooses the sword.

This weekend I saw an okay movie called “Mad Max: Fury Road”

May 20th, 2015

I liked it fine. It wasn’t bad, and it was never mindless which sets it a cut above 90% of action blockbusters, but it wasn’t great. It was okay.

And it was spectacular, but the spectacle added nothing but scale.  This is particularly true of the many chase sequences, which despite the well-publicized commitment to practical stuntwork had little of the white-knuckle claustrophobic about-to-break intensity of The Road Warrior. It was The Road Warrior but MORE, which in the end meant less. To be fair, The Road Warrior is flawless, a wholly original and alien vision, poetry in motion, probably the greatest action movie ever made, one of the best movies of any kind. Fury Road feels like George Miller took his masterpiece and added a bunch of unconvincing prosthetics to it, which in a sense he literally did.

To me the enthusiasm for Fury Road’s fantastical grandiosity is an echo (perhaps via influential cartoonist Brendan McCarthy, who storyboarded the film back in the day) of recent years’ fixation within the alternative/indie-comics world on Moebius and similar genre-comics artists who combine great technical ability with vivid visual imaginations; this attempt to realign the canon away from the Ware / Clowes / Doucet / Brown / Hernandez / Spiegelman / Crumb axis has been baleful for the artform in most every particular. (Simon Pegg was right.)

Miller also gave it an unambiguously happy ending, a big step back from the marvelous, singularly simultaneous gutpunch and uplift of The Road Warrior’s conclusion. A happy ending of this sort is fun, don’t get me wrong, but you can’t live off it.

Moreover, the sociopolitical praise for it, as is usually the case when people go berserk for giant pop-culture artifacts, is further evidence of the soft bigotry of low expectations. (Anita Sarkeesian was right.) You’ll be happy to hear that Mad Max: Fury Road takes a bold stand against the enslavement of women as broodmares by insane albino warlords, and that tough women with hip haircuts shoot guns in it. It’s a strange sort of progressivism that lionizes violence so long as it’s sufficiently badass and nominally egalitarian in its participants. It leaves us wishing Game of Thrones into the cornfield while demanding a Black Widow action figure in every pot.

Everyone in it was good, though, I’ll give it that as well. Tom Hardy is a god, Nicholas Hoult seems a very lively talent, Charlize Theron was rock solid. Like I said, it was fine, I enjoyed it I guess. It’s just that the existence of The Road Warrior renders it superfluous.

Q&A: Clive Barker on Almost Dying, Hustling, and Killing Pinhead

May 19th, 2015

You’ve been so unequivocal and public that this book is about the death of Pinhead — full stop, no spoiler warning. Why?

Why not? If I’d been sly about this and not even mentioned the fact that Pinhead — excuse me, the Hell Priest — was going to die, that would have seemed really dumb. It’s actually a really important element of the book, the element of the book which will draw the most attention. He will not be coming back, by the way. That I promise you. There will be no return, no posthumous Frank Sinatra concerts from him.

In reading, I couldn’t help but think about your own life. You’ve been working on this book for years—

Yes, I have been working on this book for years. But I also had a coma, and lost my mother, my father, and the young man who was almost my son, and a lot of other terrible things in the meantime. Even though it might seem that I’ve been diddly-daddling instead of actually writing, a lot of that daddling has been because I was unconscious. I, uh … I take the Fifth. [Laughs.] I’m making a joke of it, but there have been some pretty damn horrible times of late. I’m only just now, after some many years, priming to leave the house. I’ve only been out of the house five times in the last few years. I am now well enough to, actually, finally leave the house. [Sardonically.] Hey, what about that!

In the midst of all this, you revealed that you supported your writing career in the early days by working as a hustler.

Was that really such a revelation? I was surprised. Maybe I hadn’t talked about it in the past, but I didn’t think I’d hidden it too much.

I got the sense that that was a painful time in your life to revisit.

It was, and yet it wasn’t. It was humiliating many times. It was stultifyingly boring much of the time. And it’s bad sex, mainly. [Laughs.] But you can’t have everything. It kept me in bread and cheese through a bad time in my life, fiscally. But do I want to go back to hustling anytime soon? Nope.

For my Grantland debut I spoke with Hellraiser director Clive Barker about his life, his health, and the death of Pinhead. His new book The Scarlet Gospels, which contains exactly that, is in stores today, and it is furious and empathetic and takes no prisoners.

Spoiler Alert: The Mad Men Series Finale

May 18th, 2015

I discussed the Mad Men finale with the New York Observer’s Drew Grant, the Guardian’s Brian Moylan, and the Huffington Post’s Ricky Camilleri on HuffPost Live’s Spoiler Alert today. It’s a contentious and productive discussion.

“Mad Men” thoughts, Season Seven, Episode 14: “Person to Person”

May 18th, 2015

I remain agnostic about whether Don made the ad, as I believe the show intends. At any rate, it’s largely immaterial. We’ve spent seven seasons watching Don grow, shrink, succeed, fail, move forward, stagger back, and generally struggle with his inability to fill the void inside him with things pulled in from outside, whether that’s money, sex, love, wanderlust, creativity, or industrial quantities of alcohol. There’s no reason, really, to assume the struggle would end when the show does — that Don’s grin marks, for certain, the beginning of a more grounded, more centered new life completely separate from the old one.

What’s more, an uncomfortable overlap between his current self and his ad-man past would in no way wipe out the losses and gains he experiences here. Don’s grief over Betty’s diagnosis and his subsequent realization that his absence from his children’s life is, to them, “normal life” is real. So is his litany of unforgivable sins, recited in the sardonic lilt that should be familiar to anyone who’s taken a similar vebal inventory of their failings and found the results to be a crippling psychological wound: “I broke all my vows. I scandalized my child. I took another man’s name and made nothing of it.” Don once told Peggy that despite seemingly having it all, he’s still gripped with a terrible worry: “That I’ve never did anything, and I don’t have anyone.” Crumpled by the payphone at the retreat, he’s realized his worry has come true. I envy anyone who doesn’t find this story, this show, completely devastating.

But it’s not just his collapse that remains real, but his catharsis as well. Sitting in the encounter group, he listens to a man named Leonard, a square in every respect, describe a life that’s very much like the ideal all-American one Don himself had at first tried to create before going on to constantly undermine and eventually destroy it. This, Leonard hasn’t done; it doesn’t matter. “I’ve never been interesting to anybody,” he says. “I work in an office—people walk right by me. I know they don’t see me. And I go home and I watch my wife and my kids—you know, they don’t look up when I sit down. It’s like no one cares that I’m gone. They should love me. Maybe they do, but I don’t even know what it is. You spend your whole life thinking you’re not getting it, people aren’t giving it to you, then you realize they’re trying and you don’t even know what it is.” He describes a dream that sounds like an ad, about living in a refrigerator, thrilling to the smiling faces he sees when people open its door and the light switches on until he realizes they’re not looking for him at all and the door swings shut. At this, Don stands, walks over, kneels down, and embraces the man, a total stranger, as they cry. In this moment he realizes there are many ways to Have It All, and that so long as you see this as your goal, they all leave you with nothing.

I reviewed the finale of Mad Men for Wired. This was a show, folks. This was a show.

“Game of Thrones” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Six: “Unbent, Unbowed, Unbroken”

May 18th, 2015
“Game of Thrones” Recap: Stark Reality

Few of these developments hold a candle to the episode’s most upsetting and controversial development: the wedding night of Sansa and Ramsay. In the books, Lady Stark’s place in this storyline is held instead by a childhood friend, groomed to impersonate Arya and dupe the Northern lords into believing House Bolton has wed itself into Winterfell’s ancient line. What befalls her is no less awful than what happens to Sansa, but because she’s a comparatively minor player in the saga rather than one of its most prominent and beloved figures, the events hit even harder here. The groom’s sadistic grin, the bride’s look of resigned and mounting agony (so reminiscent of Daenerys on her first night with Khal Drogo all those full moons ago), the tears of Theon Greyjoy as he’s forced to watch —  these faces will be hard to forget.

So yes, Sansa’s rape by Ramsay is of the show’s own devising, and it feels every bit the violation it is. But by involving a multidimensional main character instead of one introduced primarily to suffer, the series has a chance to grant this story the gravity and seriousness it deserves. The novels present this material through Theon’s eyes, relegating Bolton’s bride to a supporting role in a man’s story. Sansa has a story of her own, of which this is now an admittedly excruciating chapter — but she, not Theon, is the real victim here, and it remains her story nonetheless. The next chapters will be hers alone to write.

I reviewed last night’s Game of Thrones.

“Outlander” thoughts, Season One, Episode 15: “Wentworth Prison”

May 18th, 2015

There’s a quote attributed to Star Wars impresario George Lucas via his ex-wife, Oscar-winning editor Marcia, that speaks directly to what you and I and everyone who watched Outlander this week subjected ourselves to. As Peter Biskind tells it in his classic history of American cinema in the ‘70s, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, “Emotionally involving the audience is easy,” George is said to have remarked. “Anybody can do it blindfolded, get a little kitten and have some guy wring its neck.” No kittens, I’m happy to report, were harmed in the making of “Wentworth Prison,” this week’s installment. But what happened was just as lopsidedly sadistic and nakedly manipulative, the only difference being that the target wasn’t a housecat, but a character with all the three-dimensionality and disposition of one. Like an episode of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys directed by Hostel auteur Eli Roth, “Wentworth Prison,” tonight’s installment of Outlander, is an experiment designed to see how badly cheese can bleed.

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There’s no sense in pulling punches here: It’s infuriating to be asked to suffer through the extended torture and humiliation of characters who, at every other juncture save perhaps their creatively choreographed sex scenes, are trotted around like action figures and posed like romance-novel covers. Outlander’s insistence that Jamie Fraser as a character, or Sam Heughan as the actor playing him, possesses the smoldering and unpredictable charisma required for him to make sense as the anchor of a crazy centuries-spanning love is as wholly unsupported by the on-screen evidence as the show’s claim that he has red hair. (It’s brown! We can all see it!) The man doing the humiliating and torturing has no shades of grey (ironically), no characteristics that make him feel human, or even just interesting as a complete black-hat villain. The less said about the legion of interchangeable dudes in beards and kilts, the better. Only Claire herself stands out, which makes watching her cry for this cipher a surefire way to undermine her power, and a genuinely maddening act of “emotionally involving the audience” by the Lucas definition. Dump her into a pile of corpses, make a mute goon sexually assault her, subject her to whatever indignity you can come up with in lieu of creating characters who equal her depth — it’s not going to suddenly make the show worth taking seriously. Quite the opposite! Calling Outlander soft porn has never been a fair critique. Now it’s torture porn, too, though. And it’ll leave you limp.

I reviewed this week’s Outlander for the New York Observer. Turns out torture and sexual violence aren’t a shortcut to seriousness.

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3. Game of Thrones: Cersei Lannister
Westeros’s queen of mean, currently using religious fanatics to menace the family of her kingly son’s wife.

“When it’s a parent who’s trying to drive a wedge between spouses, one [of which is their] child, in a sense, that’s no longer parenting. They’re just being … evil. Now they’re manipulating, they’re interfering, they’re purposefully going against another person who happens to also be their child. In a sense, it’s compounded by the fact that it’s a loved one. For a parent to go against their child in that way, I would say, is the ultimate in betrayal.”

Over at Vulture, I interviewed Dr. Donna Tonrey, director of the Counseling and Family Therapy Master’s programs at La Salle University, about bad TV parents.