Posts Tagged ‘Rolling Stone’
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.
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.
Best: ‘Battlestar Galactica’
Divine intervention, voluntary space-fleet destruction, the incredible disappearing Starbuck — the decisions made in the final episode of this politically charged sci-fi reboot baffled viewers at the time. Hindsight, however, has been extremely kind to Commander Adama and his crew. The show’s long-simmering supernatural elements paid off with the daring idea of a deity whose actions are just as unpredictable and unfathomable as humanity’s. And the joint human-Cylon decision to jettison their ships and live out their days planet-side — in what turns out to be our own Earth’s pre-history — bucked a core tenet of post-apocalyptic SF, arguing that individual lives are more important than the preservation of a culture at all costs. Risky? You bet. Rewarding? So say we all.
I wrote about Battlestar Galactica, Cheers, Dexter, Lost, Roseanne, and The Sopranos for Rolling Stone’s list of the best and worst series finales. But which are which? The answer may surprise you!
Try to imagine the endgame for this series. Seven, eight seasons, at 22 episodes apiece, of half-assed references to various Bat-villains before Bruce finally puts on the cape and cowl? Gotham needed to do a lot more than it did this year to justify that kind of investment. Some shows just want to watch the world burn.
At least Harvey Bullock gets to dress up nice for his ignominious adventure tonight. The grizzled vet un-grizzles himself for a visit to the Foxglove, a supposedly swanky sex club that plays Suicide songs about Marvel Comics characters on its sound system — thank God it wasn’t “Frankie Teardrop,” or things would have gotten really weird — for the entertainment of a clientele decked out in fetish gear to a hilariously explicit degree. (When Harvey finally placed everyone under arrest, here’s hoping he started with whatever Foley artist decided to add the squealing pig to the mix.) Looking around this Eyes Wide Shut meets the Gimp hellscape, it’s hard not to wonder who the target audience is — perverts who thought Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy was too intellectual, maybe? Perhaps some mysteries are best left unsolved.
Forgot to link this at the time, but I reviewed the penultimate Gotham episode for Rolling Stone.
Widescreen battles on one hand, intimate one-on-one dialogues on the other: Game of Thrones has long excelled at balancing the macro with the micro, the grand and sweeping with the up close and personal. Tonight’s very strong episode, “Sons of the Harpy,” is a case in point. Even as major political plotlines start bloodily barreling forward, simple scenes of odd couples in conversation more than hold their own amid the melées.
Let’s start by focusing on the High Sparrow, who’s as adorable as his fanatical followers’ actions are appalling. It’s his clout, not his cuddliness, that Cersei is counting on. With the Tyrell patriarch Mace on his way to bargain with the Iron Bank in Braavos — and the Queen Mother’s brutal kingsguard lackey Meryn Trant riding shotgun — nothing’s stopping her from making her move on her rival Margaery. Our lady of Lannister is a shrewd enough operator to do it indirectly, tipping the religious leader off to the homosexual leanings of Marge’s brother and letting intolerance take its course. Sure enough, King Tommen’s inability to bring his brother-in-law home drives the first serious wedge into his marriage.
In the long run, though, Tommen may have worse problems to face than sleeping on the couch thanks to his mother’s meddling. Sure, arming religious fanatics to fight your own cold-war enemy seems like a good idea at the time, but ask the CIA how they feel now about giving the Afghan mujahideen Stinger missiles to shoot down Soviet aircraft. A mass religious movement with a charismatic true-believer leader has just been empowered to assault and arrest the brother of the queen. Think they’ll stop there? This is not your father’s Faith of the Seven — it’s the ISIS of Westeros.
The episode starts on the spiritual side, as Arya Stark’s old “friend” Jaqen H’ghar takes her inside the House of Black and White, home to the fearsome Faceless Men. With apologies to the Wu-Tang Clan, these residents appear to be an order of killer priests, worshipping death as a single god that wears different faces depending on your denomination. (The show doesn’t aim for your inner middle-school fantasy nerd very often, but it sure hits the D&D/Frank Frazetta paperback-cover bullseye here.)
Equally appealing to your seventh-grade psyche, albeit in a completely different way: the wedding of King Tommen and Queen Margaery. Or more accurately, the wedding night, a wet dream come true in which a kind, beautiful older woman teaches an eager but innocent young lad exactly why the Gods gave him man parts. It’s hard to pull this off [ahem] without seeming creepy, but that’s part of the fun, and actors Natalie Dormer and Dean-Charles Chapman handle the material with charm and humor as well as heat.
None of this sits well with Tommen’s mom. The Small Council may be firmly under Cersei’s control, but her son is slipping through her fingers and right into Margaery’s…uh, let’s go with fingers here as well. Even a “friendly visit” (#airquotes) to her daughter-in-law earns her veiled insults (“I wish we had some wine for you — it’s a bit early in the day for us”) and tales of ribaldry about her baby boy’s bedroom antics So when the Queen Mother sees an opportunity to acquire influence over church as well as state, she grabs it with both hands.
But in the words of Crosby, Stills & Nash, “How can you catch the sparrow?” As indicated by his casting alone — Jonathan Pryce is the biggest name to join the show since Sean Bean, or at the very least, Diana Rigg — the High Sparrow may prove a more slippery customer. Sure, the holy man makes self-effacing jokes about his unusual alias: “Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Like Lord Duckling, or King Turtle.” Yet he’s presiding over a bona fide fundamentalist movement, one capable of marching the High Septon naked through the streets and converting the Lannisters’ lanky lord cousin Lancel into a true believer. Humiliating some pampered bastard who stages perverted rituals with prostitutes (it’s sacrelicious!) is all well and good, but does Cersei strike you as someone who’s sinless enough to avoid incurring the judgment of her pious new BFF for long? The High Sparrow could be every bit as dangerous as the undead monstrosity that the Queen’s crony Qyburn is keeping under wraps in his lab.
Gordon’s not the only member of the GCPD trying to save a member of the fairer sex from herself. (Ugh.) When twitchy Eddie Nygma loses his cool with the macho cop who’s beating his beloved, it’s the first time the Riddler-to-be has seemed like anything more than a cutesy comic-book character. Beyond that, however, Ms. Kristen Kringle’s abuse is handled so perfunctorily that it barely qualifies as a subplot at all. Actual dialogue from the victim: “He didn’t mean to. I said some things I shouldn’t have…It’s none of your concern.” Actual dialogue from the abuser: “Women…they need a firm hand.” So you’re going to write domestic violence into your Batman show, and that’s the best you can do?!? There’s no effort to rise above the most basic clichés, and less than none to actually make Kringle the subject of her own story. Put it together, and the eventual archvillian’s debut murder to defend her honor falls flat. (And would it have killed them to involve a riddle in it somehow?) There’s a term in comics, coined by writer Gail Simone, for treating female suffering as a means to a male character’s ends:women in refrigerators. Writers of superhero shows, we beg you: Close the damn icebox door.
Speaking of the Wall, it’s there where Jon Snow, alone among his surviving siblings, may still have a way to retain his humanity. Arya has entered the House of Black and White, a training temple for elite assassins. Sansa has embraced her position as the apprentice of Littlefinger, rejecting the help of the increasingly unhappyBrienne of Tarth in the process. Bran is off-screen learning to become a psychic sorcerer, and Rickon is god knows where doing god knows what. So when Stannis Baratheon offers to make Jon the new Lord Stark of Winterfell, the offer’s not just hard to resist — it’s likely to work.
But there’s a different road ahead for Lord Snow. Led by good-hearted bookworm Samwell Tarly and ancient Maester Aemon, the brothers of the Night’s Watch vote him their new Lord Commander in one of the only democractic processes Westeros has left. Instead of seizing power by force or gaining it by decree, he’s earned it through hard work, kindness, trust, and sacrifice. He’s got a chance to start a new cycle, right at the place where it counts the most: humanity’s last line of defense against the cold to come. We’ll see how that works out.
It feels weird to complain that a TV show is too violent the day after the new Game of Thrones season premiere was eagerly consumed by thousands (some of them legally, even). But since neither Batman nor Tyrion Lannister got where they were by playing by the rules, neither will we. “Beasts of Prey,” the aptly named episode that marks Gotham’s return to the airwaves after a number of weeks off, is a boringly brutal affair. It’s stuffed with bloodletting that wastes time on characters we’ve got no attachment to and, in the process, tarnishes those we do.
It begins in the mud. A girl who would be queen trudges through the muck toward a witch who sucks her blood and sees her future — and if you want to tap that kind of magic, you’ve gotta get your hands, (and your feet) dirty. By the sound of things, young Cersei Lannister is used to having her way. But she has no idea that getting exactly what you want can be the worst thing in the world.
Cersei will be queen alright, the witch named Maggy tells her, but she’ll marry a loutish philanderer to get there. Her reign will only last until another queen, “younger and more beautiful,” sweeps her aside. And her three royal children? “Gold will be their crowns,” the witch coos, before adding her cackling kicker: “and gold their shrouds.” She’ll get to the top, but the royal won’t like what she finds there.
Like all of Game of Thrones’ season premieres, this episode — titled “The Wars to Come” — is a largely utilitarian affair, showing us who’s alive, who’s dead, who’s on top, and who’s on the lam. But Cersei’s flashback (the first in the show’s history) both sets the tone and provides the theme for the big Season Five kickoff. Once you’ve seized the power you’ve spent a lifetime fighting for, what do you do with it — and what does it do to you?
I reviewed the Game of Thrones season premiere for Rolling Stone. Back on the beat, baby!
The shit didn’t hit the fan. It just slid through the sunroof.
Nothing shocking happened during Better Call Saul‘s season finale. No one was murdered and no one was betrayed; no one poisoned a kid, caused an aircraft collision, or blew a drug lord’s face off. The show’s inaugural go-round ended not with a bang but a guitar riff, as Jimmy McGill sped away from the square life and toward “Saul Goodman, Attorney-at-Law,” singing “Smoke on the Water” all the while. Ironically, this refusal to be daring is the most daring thing the show could have done. Written and directed by Peter Gould, the co-creator of both the character and his solo series, tonight’s episode — “Marco” — played out with the confidence that we didn’t need to see fireworks to enjoy the show. And you know what? That’s probably right.
Back in King’s Landing…
In the words of Ser Paulie Walnuts, bannerman to House Soprano, it’s fuckin’ mayham out there. King Joffrey is dead, courtesy of a conspiracy between Littlefinger and Lady Olenna Tyrell, leaving his kid brother Tommen to take the crown and his uncle Tyrion Lannister to take the rap. Tyrion nearly escaped his death sentence when he tapped Prince Oberyn “The Red Viper” Martell to take his side in a trial by combat — a resident the Southern kingdom of Dorne who, you’ll remember, had come to the capital seeking vengeance against the Lannisters. (His previous go-to guy, Bronn, was bought off with the promise of a castle and a lordship of his own.) Oberyn mortally wounded his opponent, the towering murder machine Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane — but the big man ended up squashing the Viper’s skull.
In the aftermath, Oberyn’s girlfriend Ellaria Sand fled to her native city. (Which is where, you might recall, Tyrion sent his niece Myrcella as a goodwill gesture.) Queen Cersei handed the dying Gregor over to her creepy new pal, the Mengele-like ex-maester Qyburn, for experimentation. And the Imp himself was saved from execution by his brother Jaime, who ordered the spymaster Varys to help his fugitive sibling get the fuck outta Dodge. Unfortunately, Tyrion made a pit stop on the way, murdering his ex-girlfriend Shae and his all-powerful father Tywin Lannister for their involvement in his conviction. He and Varys were last seen aboard a ship, secretly sailing to parts unknown. That means no one’s left to keep Cersei and her son’s bride-to-be, ambitious beauty Margaery Tyrell, from each other’s throats.
The annual tradition continues: I wrote a Game of Thrones Cheat Sheet for Rolling Stone, perfect for anyone who wants to catch up or brush up before Season Five starts this Sunday.
20. “Winter Is Coming” (Season One, Episode One)
Here’s where it all begins. From the opening image of the Wall to the closing shot of Bran Stark’s fall, Game of Thrones‘ premiere episode confidently created the world we’d be inhabiting for five seasons and counting. Getting there wasn’t always pretty: The sprawling cast and complex fantasy setting required a heaping helping of exposition, while an earlier version of the pilot was replaced and reshot with a new director, new costumes, and even new cast members. But strong performances by Sean Bean as noble Eddard “Ned” Stark, Mark Addy as blustery King Robert Baratheon, and Emilia Clarke as tormented Daenerys Targaryen proved from the start that thisGame would be worth playing.
I listed the 20 Best Episodes of Game of Thrones, according to me and Rolling Stone. I am right about this.
When Jimmy finally confronted him with the truth, Chuck’s usual open-book of a face snapped shut, his mouth a tight grimace, his eyes narrow slits. Even before he delivered that final devastating monologue — “What a joke! I worked my ass off to get where I am, and you take these short cuts and you think suddenly you’re my peer?” — his feelings were clear: When he sees his brother, he feels nothing but resentment, fury and contempt. The work being done by both Bob Odenkirk and Michael McKean is absolute dynamite. Who’d have thought one of the most powerful dramatic scenes of the year would take place between two comedians?
“Slippin’ Jimmy with a law degree is like a chimp with a machine gun,” Chuck concludes, condemning his kid brother’s con-man past. “The law is sacred. If you abuse that power, people get hurt. This is not a game! You have to know, on some level I know you know I’m right. You know I’m right!” Thanks to Breaking Bad, so do we. The tragedy is that the older sibling had the opportunity to prevent that awful outcome by letting Jimmy go legit. By stabbing his brother in the back, he’s creating the very future he sought to avoid.
Better Call Saul: the feel-good hit of the season? It was tonight, anyway. This week’s episode, “Rico,” administered a mainline hit of happiness from the start. Hard work, brotherly love, sticking up for the downtrodden, sticking it to bullies in business suits — if you didn’t know better, you’d think you’d tuned in to Disney movie about an underdog sports team. But the cinematography, pacing, and performances kept this surprisingly sweet Saul from sliding into schmaltz. You get to watch characters you like do something good, and do it very well. If that doesn’t put a grin on your face the size of a James Morgan McGill Esq. billboard, your case is hopeless.
Though it helps humanize many current and former believers, Going Clear pulls no punches against Scientology’s biggest “celebrity megaphones” — especially its superstar public face, Tom Cruise. Both the book and film allege that Cruise, a close friend of Miscavige (who was the best man at the actor’s wedding), has benefited for years from a labor force of Sea Org clergy members. “I’m singling him out,” Wright says. “More people got interested in Scientology because of Tom Cruise than any other individual, and he knows what’s going on. He could effect change, and it’s on his shoulders that he should.”
Gibney is harsher still. “For [Cruise] not to denounce, or at least investigate, what’s going on seems appalling to me,” he says. “He gets a lot of money and a lot of privilege from a lot of fans, and the idea that allows the vulnerable to be preyed upon in his name seems reprehensible.” In fact, Going Clear claims that Cruise’s own ex-wife, Nicole Kidman, fell victim to Scientology’s excesses herself. According to high-ranking defector Marty Rathbun, the Church wiretapped Kidman as part of a multifaceted campaign to drive the couple apart when Miscavige felt she was pulling him away from his faith. Even to readers of Wright’s book, this is breaking news.
“That was something Marty told me in my interview,” Gibney says. “When he spoke to Larry for the book, emotionally, he still had one foot in the Church. [Rathbun] had been a key enforcer for them. To unravel those big lies takes years, and to undo the psychological damage that was done to him by the Church is a slow healing process. He was able to say things now about how aggressive the Church was, in terms of trying to get Cruise back, that he might not have been willing to say before.”
I interviewed Oscar and Emmy–winning director Alex Gibney, Pulitzer-winning journalist Lawrence Wright, and high-ranking Scientology defector Mike Rinder about thir upcoming HBO documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief for Rolling Stone. I’ve been working on this for a long time, and I hope you enjoy reading it.
Once again, Jimmy’s done the right thing at his own expense, robbing clients to save their bacon and then ordering them to re-hire Kim to save hers. But this unexpected career rebound makes her less likely than ever to leave the firm and partner with him, legally or otherwise. So he walks into the corner office he’d hoped she would one day occupy, closes the door, and flips out. Yelling, crying, punching the wall, venting years of personal and professional disappointment — who is this man, and what has he done with James Morgan McGill?
On Breaking Bad, Saul had three settings: greed, fear, and entertaining bullshit. The larval form we’ve come to know in BCS is a good deal more nuanced, yet he’s still been driven by a limited number of factors: frustration, finances, fraternal affection for his sick brother Chuck. But while we’ve seen him get bent over plenty of times, we’d never seen him break. Beneath the bluster is a human being in enough pain to make him literally lash out at the world. That’s the kind of hurt a person will radically remake their own life to avoid. It takes way more than a new name or a fancy new office, however, to leave yourself behind.
I reviewed last night’s Better Call Saul for Rolling Stone. The verdict: beautifully shot, way too much Kettleman.
The alchemists of Europe had a saying that’s still popular among mystics and spiritual seekers: “As above, so below.” The idea is that the macrocosm and microcosm are mirror images; by understanding the forces that animate mind and body, we can unravel the mysteries of the universe. It’s a concept not without its uses, art-wise: Style and substance are indivisible. Writers, musicians, and filmmakers make both large and small choices that are reflective of one another. Major themes can be glimpsed through minor details, visuals can echo dialogue, and the point of view of a character might hold the key to an entire TV show.
It’s this process that powers “Five-O,” tonight’s stunning episode of Better Call Saul. In shifting its focus almost entirely from hard-luck lawyer Jimmy McGill to aged ex-cop Mike Ehrmantraut, the show also alters its look, its sound and its feel — all of this a mere six episodes into its first season. Characters are bathed in darkness and immersed in long stretches of silence, while the editing fades from one scene to the next like a dream…or a nightmare. And we see a side of Mike himself — multiple sides, even — that we’d never come close to discovering before.
I reviewed tonight’s absolutely wondrous episode of Better Call Saul for Rolling Stone. I cannot overstate the power of Jonathan Banks’s performance.
But it’s the Mike material that sees the episode really come alive, though it does so with barely a whisper. After some 40 minutes of funny old folks, space blankets, and poop jokes, things suddenly get somber. Mike sits a lonely vigil in his toll booth, an illuminated island in a sea of parking-lot darkness. He eats alone, rubbing his furrowed brow. He parks outside a woman’s home (his daughter’s?), exchanging a drawn-out glance with her as she drives away. He returns to his own house, watching old movies and drinking a cold one by his lonesome. The stately pace, steady camera work, and lack of dialogue throughout the sequence create an atmosphere of tension and menace; when a shadow moves past Mike’s window, you half expect a cartel assassin to burst in, guns blazing.