Posts Tagged ‘Rolling Stone’
There’s no surer sign that a show is doing something very right than when even its most plot-heavy episodes leave you thinking not about what happened, but how it happened. Sure, you can recount where Mad Men‘s final episode left all its leading players — but the real magic lies in the way Don Draper’s climactic breakdown and breakthrough is presented. (You’re craving a Coke right…about…now.) Game of Thrones‘ Season Five finale similarly stranded nearly all its major characters in the direst of straits, but weeks later it’s the sound of the crowd surrounding Cersei Lannister’s walk of shame that sticks in your mind.
This is the enviable position in which Halt and Catch Fire finds itself with the latest installment in its season-long hot streak: “10BROAD36.” It’s an episode that bursting with big story beats: the Mutiny crew found out about Cameron and Tom’s romance; Donna hid both her pregnancy and abortion from her husband Gordon, who was busy cheating on her half a continent away; and Joe MacMillan used his “simple” plan to provide server space to Cam’s company as an entry point for taking it over entirely. (Bad Joe is back!) But it’s how these characters interacted, and how everything was shot and staged, that made for a fantastic hour of television.
…this isn’t the first time True Detective has lacked the courage of its convictions. Rust Cohle spent the first season spouting the bleakest arguments about life and death ever advanced by a primetime drama, only to see the light and put his pessimism aside in its final minutes. The show could have broken important ground, depicting a person who believes the worst about the world yet still does good in it, with neither feature canceling out the other. (Faith in humanity is not required to be a decent human being.) Instead, Rust played the hero and got a hero’s reward, psychologically anyway.
Reviving Ray leaves similarly challenging and exciting territory unexplored. The idea of a good-cop/bad-cop narrative forced to live on past the death of its bad cop is an intriguing one indeed. For starters, it would have shaken up the story’s seen-it-all-before structure. It could also have been an opportunity for Pizzolatto and company to examine the toxic masculinity the show alternately (and perhaps unwittingly) critiques and embodies. Dodging an entire seasons’ worth of comparisons between the Harrelson/McConaughey and Farrell/Vaughn stunt castings wouldn’t have hurt, either.
And while we’re playing the What If game: If Velcoro were gone, maybe there’d be room to signify the psychological hang-ups of the other characters outside of bedroom-related problems. Take the trio that rounds out the core cast: Ani Bezzerides’ sexual assertiveness, Frank Semyon’s failure to perform at the fertility clinic, and Paul Woodrugh’s physical rejection of a romantic overture are used to advertise their overall dysfunction like a neon sign. Pimps and prostitutes are everywhere, each one a more leering stereotype than the last. Hollywood types talk about risqué parties like middle-schoolers who just looked up the word “orgy” on wiktionary.com for the first time. The evil mayor has a house full of hustlers and harlots, including his son and wife. The murder victim himself is a garden-variety perv. Factor in Marty Hart’s philandering, his teen daughter’s promiscuity, and his wife’s weaponized seduction of Rust back in Season One, and it’s as if True Detective believes anything short of having seamless, zipless sexual experiences is a signal that your life is about to fall apart.
Halt’s got many strengths besides its characters, of course; its period pop-culture reference game has rarely if ever been as on point as it was tonight. Cameron and Tom’s rental of The Terminator, for example, takes on any number of roles within the narrative. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s voice gives them funny accents to flirt in. Renting the video provides Tom with a convenient excuse for one of his many sudden “I gotta go”s, which seems to suggest a secret at home. The film’s totally-Eighties nightclub-massacre scene is beautifully recreated in Gordon’s own visit to the local hotspot, with a zonked-out computer engineer substituting for the gun-toting cyborg. The Mutiny crew watches the scene featuring the famous line “And it will not stop, ever, until you are dead,” which echoes Clark’s understanding of his disease. And the first-person shooter the company wants to develop will, in all likelihood, owe a lot to the visceral violence and implacable antagonists of James Cameron’s classic.
Ditto the just-imported Nintendo Entertainment System that Gordon’s kids can’t wait to play. Like the Macintosh that appeared at the end of last season like one of 2001‘s monoliths, the NES will create a massive cultural explosion that Cameron and company will have to deal with. The children’s prophetically passionate response shows how important the characters’ family lives can be to their professional ones, if only they pay attention. The bemused way Donna’s mother describes the game they’re playing (“A bunch of little men fighting turtles”) illustrates how easy it is to ignore a Super Mario Bros–sized forest for the trees. It also indicates the weird alchemy required to create a world that gamers will want to immerse themselves in again and again, which is Cameron’s current quest for her theoretical online multiplayer game. Maybe it’s a coincidence that so many shots in this episode showed characters as small figures against big backgrounds, Mario-style — but if so it’s a coincidence that counts.
Let’s get a little Rust Cohle-ish for a second: There’s a theory among physicists that any event with multiple possible outcomes is essentially a root from which parallel universes grow. If you’re reading this recap, for example, you probably decided to watch True Detective tonight — instead of, say, playing World of Warcraft, or writing to your congressional representative about the cancellation of Hannibal. But according to the “many-worlds interpretation” of quantum mechanics, the timelines in which you leveled up your orc mage or explained the twisted relationship between Dr. Lecter and Special Agent Will Graham to a member of the House Ways and Means Committee are just as real as this one.
Tonight, True Detective 2.0 itself reached a multiversal branch point. Either it killed off its top-billed main character in its second episode, thus crafting the quickest course correction in TV history, or it didn’t, creating one of the most obnoxious bait-and-switch cliffhangers ever. This makes Colin Farrell the TV-antihero version of Schrödinger’s cat — simultaneously alive and dead, at least until next week. Time may be a flat circle, but it’s sure-as-shit better to be on one side of the interdimensional disc than the other.
Directed by Boys Don’t Cry’s Kimberly Peirce, this week’s Halt made extensive and ostentatious use of canted frames, handheld cameras, and most memorably a GoPro-filmed dart-gun battle. These immersive techniques made for a constructive contrast with the clean-machine opening titles. The credits and their accompanying theme music portray technology’s advance as orderly, antiseptic, and unstoppable; meanwhile, the camera work conveys just how haphazard, shaky, and human things really are beneath the surface.
Speaking of being human — hoo boy, do Cameron Howe and Tom Rendon have sexual chemistry to burn. Mark O’Brien has been dynamite in the role from the start, equally convincing as an arrogant hacker and an overworked, underpaid kid trying to make ends meet. He brings that same easy naturalism to his scenes with Mackenzie Davis, making their characters’ physical and romantic connection so convincing you feel like you’re watching a perfect-for-each-other couple make out at a party for the very first time.
The hour-long buildup to their first kiss is killer, too. First Cameron reprimands him for showing up late and half-asleep. Next, she goes out of her way not to make him feel embarrassed when she discovers him working a supermarket night shift to pay the bills. Then they share a platonic moment in a closet during the dart-gun war, and brainstorm the idea for multiplayer online gaming as a sort of sublimated seven-minutes-in-heaven. Finally, in the middle of cleaning up Mutiny’s beercan-strewn backyard, they stop for a giggly hookup that’s clumsy with passion and excitement. It’s super sexy stuff, and not an item of clothing is shed.
Vince Vaughn hands in some of the episode’s best work; watch his eyes, which radiate genuine unspoken concern over Velcoro’s sorry state when the two of them meet up near the end of the episode. Yet he’s also asked to deliver gangster dialogue that sounds cribbed from a video game cut scene: It’d take a Brando to make clunkers like “This filth hurt your woman” or “This place is based on a codependency of interests” or “A good woman mitigates our baser tendencies” sound halfway passable.
As two of those three examples indicate, True Detective’s woman trouble has hardly improved. McAdams’ character is introduced in her underwear, storming out of the bedroom after freaking out her boyfriend by apparently requesting something a bit too wild. Both she and Kitsch’s character experience sexual dysfunction as a shorthand for their psychological issues, but in his case he can’t get it up without Viagra; it’s telling how the worst problem a man can have in the series’ world is failure to perform, while for a woman it’s performing too aggressively.
Certainly that’s reflected in the women Woodrugh encounters: a speeding starlet who gets him suspended with false accusations of soliciting sexual favors, and a girlfriend (also introduced in her underwear) who we’ve barely seen for 30 seconds before she says “It’s been a week, Mr. Policeman — get that dick over here.” Can’t she see he’s suffering?! Well, no, because he saves that for his long solo night rides on his bike, the wind against his face making for the hour’s most unintentionally hilarious visual.
Worse still is the emotional contract the show asks us to sign regarding Velcoro and Semyon. A flashback shows the pair first connecting when the latter provides the former with information about the suspect in his wife’s rape — hence the “this filth hurt your woman” bit. Given what we’ve seen of Velcoro’s subsequent behavior, it’s easy to imagine what he did with this knowledge. It’s much harder to know how the actual victim felt, given that we never see his wife, hear her, or even learn her name in the episode. The show asks us to believe that a rape is fundamentally the story of the abusive man who avenges her (when he’s not menacing children himself), a repeat of Season One’s unfortunate white-knight theme. Why must we accept stories about violence in which its perpetrators are its heroes? Unless and until it answers that question, True Detective risks simply being a one-season wonder.
Take a look at the political game that gives the show its title. Things may be bad now, but the season began with the possibility of setting up something better, as a quartet of newly minted leaders took charge and tried to shape the system to suit their vision. The Night’s Watch elected good-hearted Jon Snow as their 998th Lord Commander. Daenerys Targaryen settled in as the monarch of Meereen, attempting to rule through diplomacy rather than dragons. Stannis Baratheon became the new King in the North, following up his daring rescue of the Wall from a wildling invasion with a plan to defeat the even more dangerous forces of House Bolton. And after a lifetime of playing second fiddle to the men in her life — her husband, her father, her son Joffrey, and her brothers Jaime and Tyrion — Cersei Lannister found herself in almost complete control of King’s Landing, ready to rule more or less openly on her own.
But as Lady Sarah of House Palin once put it, “How’s that hopey-changey thing workin’ out for ya?” Jon governed nobly, Cersei ruthlessly; Stannis and Dany somewhere in between. Yet all four fledgling regimes ended in roughly the same place — with their leaders dead, deposed, defeated, or stuck between a Dothraki and a hard place. In fact, each was undone by events they themselves had set in motion. Jon fell to the men who’d elected him after ignoring their concerns about the Free Folk in their midst. (Et tu, Olly?) Dany’s attempts to moderate and mollify her divided city by reopening its fighting pits led to a massacre that required a last-minute dragon-assisted exit. Stannis executed his own daughter to preserve his messianic image; he then lost his dignity, his army, his wife, his war, and quite likely his life in return. And Cersei empowered religious fundamentalists to eliminate her rivals, only to become their biggest victim.
…Each death was written and shot to feel unique, and uniquely awful.
Cersei Lannister’s walk of shame, however, felt even worse.
The Lannister lioness was shaven and shorn (much like another literary lion of note, Aslan from C.S. Lewis’ fantasy-classic Chronicles of Narnia), then forced to march naked through the streets of King’s Landing for a full five minutes of agonizing screen time. For critics of the series who believe that its repeated depiction of misogynistic sexual violence is, if not endorsement, then at least exploitation, Game of Thrones will have done itself no favors by preserving this punishment, drawn straight from Martin’s books. (Certainly, its track record with regards to female nudity is decidedly mixed.)
But too much art that purports to address uncomfortable topics does so by making them comfortable to encounter, leaving audiences feeling good about their own moral choices without ever asking them to confront anything deeper. This is not that kind of art. Terrible though her crimes might be, Cersei deserved this no more than Theon Greyjoy, murderer and traitor though he is, deserved to be tortured and mutilated. But as a male victim of sexualized violence, “Reek” is an exception; females, from the little girls purchased and abused by the late, unlamented Meryn Trant to the Queen Mother herself, are the rule. The gendered epithets hurled at her along rotten vegetables and buckets of shit demonstrate that as a woman, her fate was guaranteed to be worse than if she were a man. You certainly didn’t see her cousin Lancel, with whom she committed the crime, subjected to the same fate. Game showed us the screeching, leering face of patriarchy in all its ugliness and wouldn’t let us look away.
In doing so, it took one of its most unsympathetic characters and, in the space of five minutes, made her a person most of us would have bodily thrown ourselves in front of to protect. By the time the Queen started crying for her loss of basic human dignity, it’s likely viewers were crying too. Great art will do that to you. Maybe it must do that to you.
You know that old saying about how you can’t judge a book by its cover? Halt and Catch Fire seems hellbent on puncturing the proverb; it’s a show that’s always taken pride in how it communicates about its characters through their appearances. Tonight’s episode — “The Way In” — is a case in point: Success story Gordon Clark suits up and shaves to show he’s enjoying his current victory-lap life. Former silicon-prairie gunslinger Joe MacMillan dresses casual in a plain white tee to signify his simple new outlook. And, more subtly and perhaps most importantly, punk coder extraordinaire Cameron Howe is letting her chopped-off, bleached-blonde hair grow long and dark. The founder of Mutiny is, literally and figuratively, putting down roots.
This latest rock-solid installment is striking for doubling down on the stability of its leading ladies. That may be an odd thing to say when Cameron threatens to fire her partner/resident voice of reason Donna after a company-wide meltdown — and then has a panic attack that only the abrasive Tom Rendon can rescue her from. But think about it: The dynamic duo of Clark and Howe are building an pre-Internet powerhouse from the ground up, and all their arguments stem from how seriously they’re taking it. It’s the men who find themselves locked out of where they want to go, forced to devise workarounds to get back in.
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.
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.”
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 Hannibal, Hannibal binges back. Bon appétit.
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.
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.
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.