This is why complaints that Ramsay was too one-note in his cruelty miss the mark. Does he have a “character arc”? Not unless you count his legitimization by his father, which only made him more of what he already was. Does he grow, change, surprise? Nope — once he led Theon back to that X-shaped crucifix, we knew what he was, and he never challenged that knowledge. But there’s more to a character than this kind of by-the-numbers analysis lets on. There are the intangibles of Iwan Rheon’s performance — how he made the Bastard’s demented mirth feel so striking and singular amid an ocean of comparably cruel characters. There are the themes he helped articulate better than any other character — the inherent unfairness of Westeros’ class system, the way rich and powerful men can quite literally get away with murder. And there’s the spectacular nature of his brutality — how his extreme bloodlust forced every viewer to confront our own complicated feelings about violent stories, on-screen and off. We’re glad the bastard’s gone, but it’s good we got to know him.
Like the Mona Lisa removed from da Vinci’s verdant landscape and plunked in front of Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, Sansa Stark’s smile at the end of “The Battle of the Bastards” is all the more enigmatic for the madness of its context. Here is the young woman who’s endured the attentions of a long succession of the worst people in Westeros: Joffrey Baratheon, Cersei Lannister, Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish, Lysa Arryn, Roose and Ramsay Bolton. Here is the heir to House Stark, so far as anyone knows — the torchbearer for Ned’s decency in the face of injustice and Catelyn’s tenacious defense of those she loves. Here is a survivor, who made it out of murderously abusive conditions under which her hot-tempered siblings would not likely have lasted half as long. Here’s the generational hope for the North, the way Daenerys Targaryen and Yara Greyjoy represent similar paths to a better future. Here she is … grinning as a man is eaten alive by dogs.
What’s wrong with this picture?
When it comes to the Big Four, the most obvious difference is directorial. “Blackwater” and “The Watchers on the Wall” were both helmed by Neil Marshall, the auteur of intelligent big-screen genre fare from The Descent to Centurion. As much a tactician as a technician, Marshall made his battles things of terrible beauty and precise calibration. He gave his attackers concrete goals – storm this wall, breach this gate – and based his battle choreography around them, making the spacial relationships and physical stakes involved in each physical clash easy for audiences to grasp. Nothing demonstrated Marshall’s clarity of action better than the stunning 360-degree swing around Castle Black during the fight for the Wall – shot in a single unedited take that revealed the location of every major character mid-battle, it involved moving the camera so quickly that the director worried someone might be struck in the head and killed. But his use of CGI is every bit as ambitious as his more practical effects; from the massive scythe and chain released from the Wall to sweep away its attackers to the enormous emerald-green wildfire explosion that sets Blackwater Bay alight – in terms of sheer scale, it’s still the show’s most jawdropping special effect – Marshall is a master of spectacle as well as mise-en-scène.
As the man behind the camera of “Hardhome” and “The Battle of the Bastards,” Miguel Sapochnik has taken a different approach. Some of this is no doubt necessitated by the scripts: Unlike Marshall’s battles, Sapochnik’s share screentime with other scenes throughout Westeros and the world beyond, with the nearly simultaneous fight for Meereen last night the most obvious example. But if “Blackwater” and “The Watchers on the Wall” are about control, their successors are chaos incarnate. In these episodes, it’s not a matter of one side attempting to dislodge the other from an entrenched position, with all the logistical challenges and physical beats that entails – it’s a Hobbesian struggle of all against all, a swirling morass of the living and the dead and the bloody blades that turn one into the other. Whether it’s the Watch and the Wildlings fleeing for their lives amid a swarm of zombies, or the forces of House Stark and House Bolton being sandwiched together in a solid mass of violence and vulnerability, these battles rely on being fundamentally incomprehensible in their fury.
I went in-depth on Game of Thrones’ four big battle episodes, “Blackwater,” “The Watchers on the Walls,” “Hardhome,” and “The Battle of the Bastards” – how they’re shot, how they work, what they mean – for Rolling Stone. If there’s been a driving force behind how I’ve written about visual art for 20 years now it’s my interest in how spectacle articulates meaning, so this one’s close to my heart, and I hope you enjoy it.
And in the end, the late Lord Bolton dies in a manner sadistic enough that even he’d approve of it, had he not been on the receiving end: fed to his own starving dogs by Sansa, who walks away smiling from the carnage. It’s a complex and unsettling set of images, even putting aside the shot of a gigantic hound tearing a man’s jaw off. Everything about it uses the cinematic hallmarks of badassery: the poetic justice of the method of execution; the exchange of quips and one-liners that eventually leaves the loser speechless; the blasé, almost slow-motion stroll away from the carnage; the vengeance-is-mine smirk. Certainly no one would begrudge Lady Stark her satisfaction, especially given the codes and customs of the place and time.
But righteous revenge is almost always an oxymoron. That goes double on this show: Theon’s betrayal of Robb Stark was repaid by a fate worse than death; Tyrion’s payback against his awful father Tywin also involved the Imp strangling his ex-girlfriend to death; the murderers of both the Hound’s religious community and Jon Snow himself died slowly at the ends of nooses; Arya’s kill-list victims have gone out in unpleasantly gruesome fashion one by one; and on and on it goes. Seen in that light, Sansa’s smile over her abuser’s hideous death is far from the simple “fuck yeah” moment it might seem. Again, there’s some question as to whether the series sees it this way, or if we’re intended to take her “cool guys don’t look at explosions” exit at face value. Given the unsparingly awful battle that preceded it, it seems safer to assume that it’s intended to make you uncomfortable. What kind of world would it be, what kind of people would we be, if we weren’t?
I reviewed last night’s Game of Thrones, which made me uncomfortable like a show’s supposed to, for Rolling Stone. My advice for processing this episode: 1. Don’t read the comments; 2. Don’t complain that Aquaman’s wife doesn’t have gills.
I had the impression going in that this is “Lisa Hanawalt’s Food Book,” but having read it’s like your real subject is how it feels to inhabit a physical body. The food angle is just there to whet your appetite. So to speak.
You totally found me out. This book is an edible Trojan horse? But yes, it could have been called Here’s a Pile of Stuff Lisa Felt Like Making Over the Last Few Years and Most of It Is Related to Food, but people tend to want a tighter concept before committing to reading an entire book.
One aspect of physicality it doesn’t address much is sex. There are a couple of allusions, and a lot of sex-adjacent body parts, but it’s much more about eating, shitting, peeing, menstruating, traveling, riding, feeling full, getting sick…
That’s a good point, because I haven’t been one to shy away from sex in the past. Maybe it’s a subconscious attempt at making something sliiiightly less creepy, and to let people dig for my hornier work if they’re true fans? Maybe I’m just going through a bowel phase, the way Picasso had a blue period? I’m also a little grossed out when food and sex are combined, honestly.
All of this is what makes boiling Jaime and Brienne’s relationship down to “You think they’re fucking?” so silly. It may be ex-prosecutor Marcia Clark, of all people, who’s best put this into perspective. She and former colleague Christopher Darden formed this year’s other great star-crossed-romance story line in FX’s stunning docudrama The People v. O.J. Simpson. Clark has spoken eloquently of their bond, marked by similar forced intimacy, breaches of trust, and mutual understanding: “Fact of the matter is, Chris Darden and I were closer than lovers. And unless you’ve been through what we went through, you can’t possibly know what that means.” I’m guessing Jaime and Brienne would have more than an inkling.
Which is not to deny the actual erotic potential of those two big, beautiful, blond-haired, brokenhearted warriors going at it. Repurposing the ideal physicality and emotional intensity of your favorite fictional characters into the stuff of sexual fantasy is an entirely righteous enterprise, or at the very least a harmless one. If your goal is to get off, by all means hop on that ship and sail off into the postorgasmic sunset. It can even provide readers or viewers, particularly those whose sexuality has been marginalized, with vital grist for imagining and thus understanding their own needs and desires. The problem with shipping arises when the entire spectrum of intimacy between adults is reduced to the romantic or the sexual. It does a relationship like Jaime and Brienne’s a tremendous disservice to flatten it into “will they or won’t they.” In the ways that matter most, they already have.
In other words, here’s the problem with Preacher: Its tracking shots, title cards, and go-for-broke mirth and mayhem make the show a lot more entertaining than a show by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg based on a retrospectively cheesy ’90s “comics aren’t just for kids anymore” series has any right to be. But being entertaining is a lot different from being interesting. Preacher talks in a language all its own, but that doesn’t mean it has anything to say.
9. Stannis Baratheon
To some fans, he’s Stannis the Mannis, the guy whose uncompromising will to win — and last-minute rescue of the Night’s Watch at the Wall — makes him the one true king of Westeros. To others he’s a glowering goon whose pursuit of the Iron Throne cost him his humanity — and his brother, wife, and daughter their lives. In the end, he himself seemed to take the latter position, surrendering to Brienne of Tarth’s sword as if he accepted her guilty verdict. “The good does not wash out the bad, nor the bad the good,” he once said of human behavior. He was living proof.
I ranked the 30 best villains on Game of Thrones for Rolling Stone. On this show, “villain” can be very broadly defined, which is what made the assignment so interesting.
“The things we do for love.” When Jaime Lannister says this to Edmure Tully, his prisoner and bargaining chip, he’s quoting no less an authority than himself. These were the same words he uttered just before he tossed Bran Stark out the window to cover up his sexual relationship with his own sister, Cersei. Now he’s using them to describe the intensity of his love for her — confident that his prisoner’s feelings for his own family (especially the young son he’s never seen) will lead him to surrender the castle of Riverrun to save them. His gamble pays off, of course. If there’s one thing that tonight’s episode of Game of Thrones — “No One” — gets right, it’s how much our desire to see the people we care about one more time can motivate us. That, and how much leaving them behind can hurt us.
In its latest episode, Game of Thrones carved the heart out of one of its central story lines. When “The Broken Man” revealed that Sandor “The Hound” Clegane had put down his sword and taken up with a religious community in the Riverlands, it was echoing a passage from A Feast for Crows, the fourth volume in author George R.R. Martin’s epic-fantasy saga A Song of Ice and Fire. But in that echo, something sounded very different. The antiwar monologue known as “the broken man speech” that made this section of the books so crucial to understanding the whole series was removed and replaced, with a much darker outcome for its participants. And that change demands special scrutiny.
So when we consider the show and the book’s treatment of this plotline, it’s worth resisting the instinct to pit the two approaches against each other. Snap judgments do a disservice to the challenging, upsetting, and ultimately rewarding themes that Game of Thrones has chosen to tackle. Yes, while it’s difficult for even the biggest skeptic of the “but this isdifferent!” book-to-show style of criticism to resist an apples-to-apples comparison, there are whole orchards to consider.
These are the opening and closing paragraphs of an essay I wrote on how Game of Thrones handled Septon Meribald’s “broken man speech,” and what conclusions we can or should draw from it, for Vulture. I hope you’ll read the rest.
There’s a hole in the Jennings home. Literally: a big black circular void right up near the roof, presumably a window into their unlighted attic. You can see it plain as day in the center of the final shot of The Americans’ extraordinary fourth season, as Philip leads his recalcitrant daughter Paige back into their house’s cloying confines after catching her immediately post-makeout with the son of his FBI-agent neighbor Stan Beeman. “Don’t do this, Paige,” he barks at her of the potential teenage tryst. “You have no idea. No idea.” Meanwhile the black hole in the house looms like a gigantic zero, or an entry wound — an absence of visual information, in a show structured around the deliberate obfuscation of information, around hiding, lying, covering up, and ultimately killing to keep the truth from exposure. As season finales go, “Persona Non Grata” was not of the explosive variety, and nor was its Season Three predecessor; The Americans is not, or is no longer, that kind of show. Rather, it’s a story about the holes in things, including stories themselves. You never know what might leak out, or fall in.
I reviewed the season finale of The Americans for the New York Observer. An absolute marvel of restraint. While I’m skeptical of the notion that the New Golden Age of TV Drama is over — there’s still a shitload of great TV out there — I do view The Americans as part of a quartet of shows, along with The Affair, The Leftovers, and Halt and Catch Fire, that have a quieter, more intimate tone. If you like one, I see little reason you won’t like the others.
Sansa Stark (1:10)
The Queen in the North! From her head-in-the-clouds early days to her current role as a realpolitik rallying point against the Boltons and the White Walkers, Ned’s eldest daughter has learned from the countless torments she’s suffered to be strong while still being decent. If anyone will lead Westeros into its post-apocalyptic future, it’s her.
Jon Snow (10:1)
He’s the prince that was promised, to hear Melisandre tell it — the man to lead humanity against the Long Night. Here’s the thing about messiahs, though: They tend to sacrifice themselves to save the world. Granted, Jon’s done so already, falling to the blades of the Night’s Watch mutineers but returning to fight another day. Unfortunately, his supernatural luck can’t last forever. Expect Lord Snow to go down swinging in the final battle against the Night King.
Arya Stark (Even)
More like Arya Questionmark: Now that she’s spurned the Faceless Men, will the Starks’ wild child pick up where she left off with her kill list and make a kamikaze run into King’s Landing? Will she reunite with her old running buddy the Hound, or her siblings Jon and Sansa — or maybe even her direwolf Nymeria, who is still roaming around out there somewhere after she shooed the beast away way back in Season One? The answer will help determine whether her story is a cautionary tale about children in a violent world or a moving message of rescue and redemption.
Over at Rolling Stone I predicted the odds of survival for every major character on Game of Thrones. As always when I predict things, these are definitive and not subject to debate. Don’t @ me.
While we’re on the subject of explosives, let’s talk about Joe Gilgun as Cassidy, lovable Irish vampire. This dude is a fucking supernova in this role, for real. He has the rangy physicality of a guy who’s had just enough to drink to give his every movement a tiny bit more momentum than required to get the job done — he always seems to be leaning, slouching, lunging, weaving, careening, even when sitting still. This serves him well in his comedic exchanges with Jesse and his major domo Emily, and even better in his fight scenes, which are fast becoming among the best choreographed and bloodiest on the small screen. His gory churchhouse slobberknocker with the two mysterious Brits who’ve been tracking the entity that has possessed Jesse is some Evil Dead-level splatstick, right down to the chainsaw, with severed arm still attached at the handle, crawling itself down the aisle toward the preacher’s passed-out body. Cassidy’s such a welcome presence every time he shows up that you half-forget he’s a vampire and thus oddly superfluous to the central storyline, like if Game of Thrones had a character who was an alien.
When Game of Thrones does a cold open, you know something big is about to go down. Tonight’s well-paced and well-packed episode — “The Broken Man” — is only the third time in the series’ history that the show has started with a pre-credits scene, the others being the Season Four premiere and the pilot. What warranted the break from tradition? The presence of two of the most intimidating actors in HBO history: Deadwood‘s Ian McShane, making his first (and only) appearance as a cheerfully profane man of the cloth called Ray, and the return of Rory McCann as Sandor Clegane, the motherfucking Hound himself. It turns out the mad dog of Westeros survived and joined a religious community in the Riverlands. After a lifetime of violence, a new life of peace was within his grasp. Seen in that light, the episode’s final shot, of Sandor reaching down and picking up the Axe of Vengeance, is crushingly depressing.
But more than that, it represents a surprising lapse on the part of the show itself — a Walking Dead style conflation of principled nonviolence with fatal naïveté. Ray’s belief that “it’s never too late to come back,” functioned as, well, a ray of sunshine in GoT’s bleak world. There’s no reason such faith in humanity need be portrayed as Pollyannaish; as Ray himself explains, it’s the result of bitterly earned shame in having participated in war atrocities himself. But the extreme sanction he and his flock face for this belief — slaughtered in minutes, with the septon hanging from the eaves of his own house of worship — makes him seem like a sucker, not a sage. He looks idiotic for leaving his followers defenseless, and Sandor’s Rick Grimes–style decision to murder the perpetrators seems like the just and moral choice.
You can say “Violence is a disease — you don’t cure a disease by spreading it to more people” all you like; you can even sincerely believe it. But actions speak louder than words. And by wrapping up this subplot in such spectacularly grim fashion, the series is shouting “kill or be killed,” at least in this circumstance.
I’m excerpting this part but you should really read the whole thing, because I had both negative and positive feelings about tonight’s Game of Thrones, which I reviewed for Rolling Stone.
Paige Jennings may be broken, but she doesn’t break. After watching her mother Elizabeth stab an assailant to death and leave him for dead in a parking lot on last week’s episode of The Americans, the girl says she feels sick, but she doesn’t get sick. She asks her mother if she had to kill the man, and accepts that her answer is yes. Even when Elizabeth admits that she’s killed more people than she can remember — in self-defense, of course — her pacifist daughter simply asks if she was scared, not “how could you do that” or “how do you live with yourself.” Her primary concern appears to be that the dangerous nature of her parents’ work was kept from her, not that it’s dangerous, primarily to others, in the first place. The day after witnessing her first kill, she has her first kiss, barely breaking stride from the normal course of adolescent life; she keeps this a secret from her parents, but duly reports the latest batch of information gleaned from her new beau Matthew Beeman about the goings-on at the office of his FBI agent father Stan, and is taken aback when her folks discourage her from further fact-finding despite having pushed her in that direction with Pastor Tim and Alice. A lifetime of being lied to, and a year of being made complicit in the lie, has prepped Paige to contextualize her mother’s murder of a man not as a catastrophic breach of safety and morality, but a rung on a ladder leading her closer to the secret truth.
Undoubtedly timed to coincide with our landmark 50th episode, George R.R. Martin has released, or rather read, a brand new sample chapter from The Winds of Winter, and Sean & Stefan are tackling it in our third podcast in a month! Suitably, it’s a biggie: Entitled “The Forsaken,” it’s told from the perspective of Aeron “the Damphair” Greyjoy as he’s held prisoner by his increasingly frightening brother Euron Crow’s Eye. How does this chapter function as prophecy, as plot mover, as horror fiction, as Lovecraftian homage? How far are we willing to go with predictions as to what it all means for the future? What is Euron’s true motivation? Is the apocalypse now? Listen and find out!
There’s a lot going on in tonight’s episode of Game of Thrones, entitled “Blood of My Blood.” Isn’t there always? With so many characters involved in so many storylines spread across so many locations, the sprawl is simply incomparable to anything else on television. But that backstage sequence stands out because it demonstrates how nimble this series can be, despite its massive scope. Writer Bryan Cogman and director Jack Bender took time out of their busy schedule of zombies, dragons, and Dothraki hordes to craft an intimate exchange between two strangers, both of whom know the advantages and disadvantages of playing the role of someone they’re not. Yes, this gives the audience a big stand-up-and-cheer moment when Arya returns to stop the assassination she’d set in motion, but that’s almost beside the point. Revealing character through conversation, even if it’s buried deep beneath layers of deception, is what matters here.
11. The Prisoner (1967-1968)
When mercurial writer-actor-director Patrick McGoohan parlayed his experience playing a secret agent on the British show Danger Man to create an espionage thriller of his own, he unexpectedly created the prestige drama 30 years ahead of its time. The Prisoner is a frightening, funny, philosophical, absolutely mesmerizing allegory in which McGoohan’s nameless title character, a retired spy dubbed Number Six by his mysterious captors, is imprisoned in a bizarre place called the Village. While crafting an escape plan, he’s subjected to psychological experiments designed to break him by a series of interchangeable superiors all named Number Two. It’s one of the mot visually striking and bracingly bleak shows ever; everything from Lost and Twin Peaks to The Americans owes it a debt.
Is it the Word of God that has come unto Jesse Custer, or is he merely possessed by the spirit of the ‘90s? Preacher, AMC’s new readymade blockbuster series — it’s got the nerd pedigree, the nonsensically titled Chris Hardwick postgame show Talking Preacher, a superstar co-creator in the form of Seth Rogen, the whole nine — is based on the comic book series of the same name by writer Garth Ennis and artist Steve Dillon (and, though he’s not credited, tone-setting cover artist Glenn Fabry), which ran for 75 issues or so during the pre-millennium tension of the last five years of the 20th century. This was perhaps the last era during which taboo-busting for taboo-busting’s sake could get a comic over with an audience; a quick visit to the Preacher wikipedia page reveals more inbreeding, cannibalism, anal rape, and Kurt Cobain references than you can shake a crucifix at.
And judging from the pilot episode, the TV show is just as indebted to the signature filmmaker of the era, Quentin Tarantino, as were the “cutting edge” mature-readers-only comic books of the day. There’s a redneck-laden setting, a madcap vampire, a soundtrack full of hipster-revered square singers, a series of self-aware title cards (OUTER SPACE / AFRICA / TEXAS / ETC.), and mutilation galore. If you mashed up Natural Born Killers, the “bring out the gimp” sequence from Pulp Fiction, and the “Stuck in the Middle With You” scene from Reservoir Dogs, then sprinkled in some post-9/11 elements like the Budd segment of Kill Bill Vol. 2, the Death Proof half of Grindhouse, and the cartoonish graphic design of Scott Pilgrim (itself a comic-book adaptation) and Zombieland (starring Natural Born Killers leading man Woody Harrelson in what I insist to this day is a reprisal of his role from that Tarantino-story-credited film), you’ve got pretty much the whole show nailed down. To paraphrase a conversation I had about the show with critic Eric Thurm, you’re a Bill Hicks monologue away from reliving the second half of the Clinton administration.
So is the bloody thing any goddamn good?
I’m reviewing Preacher for the New York Observer, how about that? I started with last weekend’s pilot, which was audacious and entertaining but at times worryingly glib.