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A Fistful of Geek: A Look Back at The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.

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A Fistful of Geek: A Look Back at The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.

When it comes to geek entertainment, Westerns usually don’t rank high on the list. Unless you’re a film geek, the Western is a fossil, a symbol of a bygone era. But add a touch of science fiction, a dash of Steam Punk, the future co-creator of Lost, the future show runner of Warehouse 13 and a heaping portion of cult icon Bruce Campbell, and you don’t just have a Western, you have the geekiest Western this side of the Rio Grande: The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.

The basic premise of Brisco was classic Western. Brisco County Jr. was a bounty hunter, seeking justice for the murder of his father, a federal marshal. The chief villains were John Bly and his gang, who Brisco pursued for most the show’s only season. But Brisco wasn’t just another sage brush epic, it was the Wild West, Fox style.

The Adventure Begins

The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. was the brainchild of screenwriters Carlton Cuse and the late Jeffrey Boam. Bob Greenblat, an executive at the then relatively new Fox television network, approached the writing team with the idea of doing an old-fashioned serial. Cuse was looking to make his mark in television and leapt at the opportunity.

“I was very intrigued by this idea and actually went out and watched a lot of old serials and basically found that the serials fell into one of two categories which were Westerns and science fiction,” Cuse said. “So basically I had this idea, ’wouldn’t it be great to combine the two genres.’”
The task of writing the pilot fell to veteran feature writer David Simkins. Simkins began his career with New World Cinema, working on such movies as Adventures in Babysitting. While under contract with Warner Brothers, he developed an adventure serial set in the 1940s. The series didn’t get picked up, but it brought him to the attention of Boam and Cuse, who hired him as an executive producer and writer. Simkins wrote the first draft of the Brisco pilot.

“Because I was coming from features, the script was kind of unproducable,” Simkins said. “A lot of action set pieces, a lot of special effects. I didn’t really have a concept of television budgets and television schedules.” Simkins wasn’t alone. Many of the people working on Brisco came from a feature background.

“None of us had previously done much in the way of television,” Cuse said. “We approached it from the idea of trying to be incredibly cinematic about it. We wanted to make it more like we were doing a mini movie every week.”

It’s Every Actor’s Dream to Play a Cowboy

The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.When Bruce Campbell walked into the office of the casting director for a new Western series on Fox, he wasn’t everybody’s idea of a leading man. He was a relatively unknown actor, best remembered for staring in the Evil Dead series. He needed a way to stand out from the crowd.

“Actors all look for a way to leave an impression on casting directors to avoid getting lost in the shuffle,” Campbell said. “One audition piece for the show involved some fighting.” Campbell decided to fall back on a trick he and his old friend, director Sam Raimi, used to do in high school. He flipped himself head-over-heels.

“So I did that in his office, I flipped myself, and the casting director was like ’Oh, my God!.’ He leaped out of his chair. He thought I was going to destroy the place,” Campbell said. “It made an impression to the point where at each subsequent audition, the casting director would go, “Hey, you’re going to do that back flip again, right?”

“It was so unbelievable and cool,” Cuse said. “After seeing that, it was impossible to not imagine Brisco could be anyone but Bruce.” Cuse said Campbell deserves a lot of credit for the show’s success. “A lot of the credit has to go to Bruce Campbell. I don’t think any actor ever worked as hard on a series as Bruce did. From first call, which was usually at five in the morning Monday, until we finished shooting Friday, he was tireless. And then with his 36 hours off on the weekends, he would be doing publicity and promoting the show. He was so amazing. It was just a fantastic experience working with him. He kind of set the bar in many ways for what my expectations of what an actor could do were. We were so fortunate to have Bruce as the center of the show.”

Like many of the show’s creative staff, Campbell grew up with Westerns. His mother was a fan of author Zane Grey and took Campbell to see some of the last John Wayne Westerns. As a result, Campbell was instantly drawn to the material. “I thought it was a very unique idea, he was a Harvard educated lawyer as well as a cowboy,” Campbell said. “I also liked all the modern day references. It was old fashioned and new fashioned at the same time.”

In the role of sidekick was Lord Bowler, played by the late Julius Carry. Lord Bowler was a tracker and manhunter who started out as rival to Brisco. But as the show progressed, the two became allies. “The character dynamic between Bruce and Julius was so great, and their scenes were so funny and so charged with good humor as opposed to ill humor, that it just sort of told us as we were writing the show that we should bring them more together,” Cuse said. “It was just a natural organic evolution based in large part on the way the actors related to each other.”

Simkins also felt that the interaction between Campbell and Carry was a large part of the shows success. “I don’t think that Bruce’s character would have been half as fun or half as interesting without Julius, as Lord Bowler, palling around with him,” Simkins said.

Kelly Rutherford played Dixie Cousins, Brisco’s love interest. Rutherford worked out so well in auditions; her character was changed from a classic femme-fatale into one-half of a classic will-they, won’t-they TV love story.

“In the original pilot, Dixie was always a femme-fatale. She never made a turn to the good side. She basically became the super villain at the end of the pilot,” Simkins said. “But once Kelly got cast, and we began to see where the role was going and where it could go and the sparks for romance, we adjusted her character in a way that made their relationship more plausible.”

Also among the cast were Christian Clemenson as Brisco’s benefactor/boss, Socrates Pool, and Billy Drago as chief villain John Bly.

The Last Tango on Laramie Street

When Brisco began production in 1993, the Western was long past its prime. Most Western backlots were gone, forcing the crew to shot anywhere they could. The primary location for Brisco was Laramie Street, one of the last Western back lots. Blazing Saddles, Cheyenne and Maverick were just some of the Westerns filmed on Laramie Street. But by 1993 there wasn’t much left of the once grand location. “No one used Laramie Street, and they hadn’t for years,” Campbell said.

The lack of Western sets forced the crew to shoot anywhere they could. Locations included the Disney ranch in Santa Clarita, the Paramount ranch in Santa Monica and Vasquez Rocks. “It was a real sign of the times that as we were finishing our shoot, Warner Brothers was erecting a skyscraper that towered over Laramie Street,” Cuse said. “We had to shoot around it so you wouldn’t see it in the shots.”

Not long after Brisco wrapped, Laramie Street was torn down to make way for office space and a new suburban backlot.

The West Meets the Future

The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.

If Brisco had just been another straight up and elegiac Western, it might not have made such an impression. Instead, the show blended elements, creating a unique vision. “The great thing about Brisco was that it allowed me to combine two of my favorite genres of filmmaking, which were Westerns and science fiction,” Cuse said.

The science fiction elements were woven into the show in a two different ways. The most prominent science fiction aspect of the show was the Orb, a mysterious object that transferred supernatural powers to whomever used it, including Brisco and Bly. “The Orb was something that did not exist in my original draft of the pilot, in fact it wasn’t even discussed between Carlton and I,” Simkins said.

There was also “The Coming Thing,” a.k.a. the future. Brisco was set in 1894, a time when the west was ever-shrinking. An educated man, Brisco was always looking to the future. The show’s writers gave him the future in the form of motorcycles, diving bells, fingerprint technology, machine guns and the famous rocket car seen in the opening credits.

The future was also personified by Professor Wickwire, an eccentric inventor played by John Astin. According to Cuse, “The Coming Thing” was more than just a way to for the writers to have fun. It tied into some of the deeper themes of the show. “Thematically, a lot of Westerns are about the death of the west,” Cuse said. “This was a way to put a more positive spin on that thematic. Brisco was a guy who was excited about what the future was going to bring.”

As the series played out, the heavier science fiction elements were dropped. The Orb was gone by episode 20 and “The Coming Thing” took on less significance as Brisco took on the feel of a more traditional Western. This switch was the result of both internal and network tinkering. “It was kind of a challenge and the network sort of vacillated back and forth on how much of the show should be Western, how much should be science fiction, how much should be comedic, how much should be dramatic,” Cuse said. “Over time we became much more enamored of the straight up Western elements of it.”

Brisco Rides Into the Sunset

The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.Brisco debuted in August of 1993 as the lead in for Fox’s Friday night lineup. The network had high hopes for the show. Fox executive Sandy Grushow famously remarked that if Brisco didn’t make a star out of Bruce Campbell, he would eat his desk. Fox’s other Friday night show was a paranormal police procedural considered a long shot for success. But while The X-Files would become one of Fox’s biggest hits and run for nine seasons, Brisco never found much of an audience.

“When a show is a hit, everyone’s a genius. When a show drops in ratings, the analysis begins,” Campbell said. “Should the scripts be funnier, maybe they were too funny. Maybe we need more action, but the show’s already expensive.” In the end, Brisco left the air after just one season of 27 episodes.

The show’s failure wasn’t just felt by fans. Those who worked on Brisco were also sorry to see it go. A few years after the show was canceled, Simkins approached Grushow with another idea for a Western. “It was very well received by everybody under Sandy, and then when it landed on Sandy’s desk he said, ’I’m never doing another Western again,’” Simkins said. “I think Brisco is a sore spot for him.”

While the show may have dampened network enthusiasm for Westerns, the people who made Brisco are eager to hope back into the saddle. “I would love to do another Western, I think they are just a great arena,” Simkins said. “The kinds of stories you can tell are just timeless. You can throw almost any kind of world into a Western formula.”

While Cuse said he would love to do another Western series, he isn’t so sure it would find a receptive audience at today’s networks. “I fear that networks and the cable channels are kind of fearful of Westerns. It’s been so long since there’s been a successful Western. I think everyone is kind of afraid of the genre,” Cuse said. “I don’t think revisiting Brisco is the right idea. It had its time. But I certainly hope there is another Western in my writing future.”

For Campbell, making the show was long and difficult, but ultimately rewarding, both creatively and personally. “I got a high school tassel in the mail from a kid who was going to commit suicide. But he saw an episode of Brisco and it made him feel so good he decided not to kill himself. So I guess the show did have a positive effect,” Campbell said. “If it saved one person’s life, it was worth doing a whole damn show.”

Andrew Orillion is a former U.S. Army journalist turned screenwriter. He is currently working on a sitcom pilot about life as an Army journalist stationed in Germany.

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Game of Thrones Recap: Season 8, Episode 2, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms”

The episode is, above all else, a resolute detailing of the final calm before a spectacular storm and what it means to be human.

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Game of Thrones
Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO

“A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” the second episode of Game of Thrones’s eighth season, begins with Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) recounting to her captive, Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a “bedtime story,” about what her brother once told her of the Kingslayer, the man who killed her father. And toward the end of the episode, Jon Snow (Kit Harington) offers Daenerys a history lesson: that he’s actually Aegon Targaryen. Between those two points, the episode stitches an interwoven tapestry of life—stories of redemption and benediction, of tactical choices and overestimations, of reunion and potential farewell. By and large, it doesn’t incline itself toward easy morals, or engage in a complicated interpreting of bloodlines. The episode is, above all else, a resolute detailing of the final calm before a spectacular storm and what it means to be human, flaws and all.

In Winterfell’s war room, Jon Snow and his allies discuss a final strategy against the army of the dead, knowing that they can’t win a straight fight, and that they’ll have to bait out the Night King. Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) insists that he must be the one to do so, claiming that the Night King will come, at all costs, for the Three-Eyed Raven, the holder of humanity’s memories. As Samwell Tarly (John Bradley-West) puts it, summing up the Night King’s plot, “If we forget where we’ve been and what we’ve done, we’re not men anymore.” In this context, Game of Thrones recontextualizes the stakes for the entire series, making them not just about the physical winning of a “throne,” but about protecting the very stories behind it, the things that make us human. This, in turn, justifies the meticulous pace of what turns out to be a grimdark “Twas the Night Before Christmas”-like episode.

The episode opens with an impromptu trial of Jaime, as Daenerys tries to figure out what to do with him. There’s a powerful weight to the relationships in this room, and director David Nutter deftly focuses more on those who are listening than those who are talking. At one point, the camera lingers on Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) when Jaime is asked why he’s finally abandoned his house and family: “Because this goes beyond loyalty,” he responds. “This is about survival.” There are no easy answers or clever quips in this interrogation, and when Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) asks Brienne if she would fight alongside Jaime, the camera shows her mulling the thought, almost digesting it. The answer she finally gives is expected—“I would”—but the pause before implies a consideration that makes the whole conversation feel more earned than if it had simply rushed to Jaime’s inevitable pardon.

Only occasionally does the episode resort to over-explanation. Bran makes it very clear to Jaime that he remembers what he said to him right before being pushed out of a very high Winterfell window: “The things we do for love.” That Bran chooses not to tell anyone else is a sort of acceptance, though one born out of the understanding that Jaime, visibly remorseful, will be needed in the fight against the undead. But rather than leave this implicit, Bran clarifies that, had Jaime not pushed him out the window, neither of the two would be who they are—who they need to be—today. Likewise, Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) and The Hound (Rory McCann) rehash the brief conversation they had in last week’s “Winterfell,” as if their motivations for fighting weren’t already as clear as they’re ever going to get.

The rest of “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” lives firmly, and vividly, in the present. There’s a miniature two-act romance between Gendry (Joe Dempsie) and Arya, in which the former tries to protect the latter, only for her to unflinchingly prove herself to be more than his equal. Childish memories dispensed of, she returns to him later that night, wanting to share a moment of tenderness before they both have to look death in the eye. There are hints of a similar but longer-term love kindling between Sansa and Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), who has made a choice to put himself directly in danger for the woman he’s sworn himself to. The same goes for Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson), who makes clear in no uncertain terms that he will continue to protect the pacificistic Missandrei (Nathalie Emmanuel) long after the war ends.

These moments are celebrations of life, about seizing opportunities while you can. It’s in Tormund (Kristofer Hivju) wrapping Jon up in a surprise bear hug, before then checking in on Brienne: “The big woman still here?” It’s in Jon and Sam and Lord Commander Edd (Ben Crompton), the last survivors of their Night’s Watch unit, once more standing at the ramparts, fatalistically ribbing one another. And from beginning to end, these moments are less about the dread and doom of war and more about all the open-ended possibilities of life itself, as seen in the efforts of a soup-dispensing Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) and refugee-sheltering Gilly (Hannah Murray), to ensure that a young girl remains safely in the crypts instead of recklessly throwing herself into battle like her dead brothers.

At the heart of “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms”—or rather, at Winterfell’s hearth—is the scene from which the episode takes its name. Davos, Podrick Payne (Daniel Portman), Brienne, Tormund, Jaime, and Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) have come in before the fire for some warmth and some company. As Tyrion puts it with his inestimable gallows humor, it’s “someplace warm to contemplate your imminent death.” But in that, too, it’s also a place to celebrate one’s life. And it’s something Game of Thrones conveys through both the comic story of how Tormund came to be known as “Giantsbane” and the long-last realized knighting of Brienne. The original song that Podrick begins singing here and which carries more melodiously over the credits oft-repeats the lyrics “Never wanted to leave,” and it’s to the show’s credit that despite the excitement promised by an all-out battle against the undead, we’d all be more than happy to stay for just a moment longer with all of these characters.

For more Game of Thrones recaps, click here.

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Review: Chambers Liberally Borrows from Horror Tropes to Uneven Results

Netflix’s latest horror offering only rarely assumes a form greater than its individual elements and references.

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Chambers
Photo: Ursula Coyote/Netflix

Among the centerpieces of Netflix’s Chambers is the terrain of the American Southwest. Featuring wide shots of desert topography, blue-pink sunrise horizons, and cracks of lightning in the gray distance, the series is set in Arizona but was actually shot in neighboring New Mexico. It’s thus built on a doppelgänger of a landscape, a fitting geography given its premise: After high-schooler Sasha Yazzie (Sivan Alyra Rose) undergoes a heart transplant, she gradually absorbs the memories, traumas, and impulses of her organ donor, Becky Lefevre (Lilliya Scarlett Reid), until the line separating the two teens vanishes.

As Becky exerts increasing control over Sasha’s body, thoughts, and dreams, Sasha ropes her best friend, Yvonne (Kyanna Simone Simpson), into an investigation of Becky’s supposedly accidental death. Their sleuthing initially targets Nancy and Ben Lefevre (Uma Thurman and Tony Goldwyn), Becky’s wealthy and creepy parents. Meanwhile, Big Frank (Marcus LaVoi), Sasha’s uncle and sole guardian, doubts that anything otherworldly is afoot. Skeptical of the supernatural but worried about Sasha’s apparent hallucinations, he seeks aid from doctors instead of the spiritual healers in the Navajo community from which he has distanced himself and his niece. But medicine doesn’t help Sasha, and she’s too far removed from her tribe to consider turning to it for guidance, so she keeps digging into the Lefevre family’s secrets.

Beyond suspicious deaths and ghostly doubles, Chambers is waist-deep in the tropes and fixations of so many horror films and TV shows: stalkers; demonic possession; the linking of sex with hellish fates; a wise old man; an arguably wiser, inarguably more disturbing old woman; and so on. Photos of Becky regularly worm their way into scenes, and you can feel the series straining to conjure its own Laura Palmer. This speaks to the predominant problem with Chambers: It only rarely assumes a form greater than its individual elements and references. There are moments late in the season that demonstrate the kind of gravitational pull that good horror can generate, but for the most part, the series claws at its inspirations, making confused and superficial gestures toward the works it imitates.

The show’s messiness is on full display in its wildly inconsistent characterizations of Nancy, Ben, and their son, Elliott (Nicholas Galitzine), all of whom are suspects in Becky’s death. Chambers aims to create mystery and suspense, of course, but it feels gratuitously manipulative to give selective glimpses of characters that paint them a certain way prior to a big reveal, only to offer vastly more fleshed-out depictions later. It’s not a sin of which Chambers is uniquely guilty, nor is it especially damning. But combined with the fact that emotional climaxes and important character developments are frequently rushed or too easily achieved, it diminishes the payoff. Instead of amplifying momentum and adding thoughtful layers to the narrative, the season’s various revelations undercut what came before them.

Chambers is often more graceful in its depiction of interpersonal drama. As Nancy, Thurman exquisitely vacillates between unsettling and heartbreaking. Rose, too, impresses with her measured depiction of Sasha. Almost everything involving Yvonne, a computer prodigy who cares for her dementia-struck mother, is poignant, funny, or both. “I’m glad you have my back,” Sasha tells Yvonne at one point, to which Yvonne replies, “Front, back, both sides, and the middle, girl.” And when Sasha’s boyfriend, TJ (Griffin Powell-Arcand), consults a medicine man about her plight, the scene lends real depth to the two characters’ releationship.

It’s worth noting, particularly in the context of novelty, the show’s focus on the experiences of indigenous and black people. It’s remarkably satisfying to watch a series in which every single white character must actively earn the audience’s trust—as opposed to its non-white characters, who receive the benefit of the doubt that whiteness usually affords. Unfortunately, Chambers’s fresh perspective and more organic moments serve to amplify the contrasting artificiality of much of the dialogue, as well as how rote the horror is.

By the end of the season, many questions remain unanswered—and the writers deserve credit for refusing to tie too neat a bow on everything. But the conclusion ends up over-explaining some things and under-explaining others, leaving the show’s unsettled dust to read as less intentional than haphazard. The medicine man, when speaking about Sasha, tells TJ that there’s “somethin’ bad there. Really out of balance, but…it’s not from here. I don’t think our medicine can take care of all of it.” He may as well be diagnosing Chambers itself: admitting to its unevenness, surrendering to the not-from-here ghost trapped between the show’s bones.

Cast: Sivan Alyra Rose, Lilliaya Scarlett Reid, Uma Thurman, Marcus LaVoi, Tony Goldwyn, Nicholas Galitzine, Griffin Powell-Arcand Airtime: Netflix

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Game of Thrones Recap: Season 8, Episode 1, “Winterfell”

The episode has the good sense to respect our familiarity with these characters, and as such it doesn’t beat around the bush.

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Photo: Helen Sloane/HBO

Given the sheer number of still-living characters that remain caught in the tangled web of plot lines that Game of Thrones has delighted in spinning across its first seven seasons, the show’s final six episodes have a lot of wrapping up to do. And the eighth season’s premiere episode, “Winterfell,” suggests that will occur at a reliably steady clip.

Take Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), who doesn’t waste words when he sees his ex-wife, Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner): “Last time we spoke was at Joffrey’s wedding. Miserable affair.” Her response is even more to the point: “It had its moments,” conveying her satisfaction at the poisoning of Tyrion’s nephew, Joffrey. The episode has the good sense to respect our familiarity with these characters, and as such it doesn’t beat around the bush.

This approach, though, isn’t always successful, as in the clipped depiction of Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) effortlessly infiltrating his uncle Euron’s ship in order to free Yara (Gemma Whelan) from captivity. The scene is conspicuous as much for its compressed nature as it is for closing a plot thread and allowing Theon to finally return to the North, where almost every other character on has converged, and where most of the episode’s action takes place.

Speaking of which, Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) badly needs an excuse to head North; her scenes, so isolated from the rest of the show’s stakes, feel as if they’ve been beamed in from an entirely different show. Headey is given little to do at the start beyond smirking and telegraphing her character’s evil, but in Cersei’s interactions with Euron (Pilou Asbæk) we’re reminded of the complexity of this woman’s nature. It’s in the way she scoffs at, then indulges Euron’s sexual demands, and never without ever relinquishing her power.

Fan service also occasionally gets the better of “Winterfell.” Little is accomplished by having Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) exchange grim pleasantries with The Hound (Rory McCann), her one-time captor. The scene serves only to emphasize the obvious: “You’re a cold little bitch, aren’t you? Guess that’s why you’re still alive.” Far richer is just about every other reunion, especially Arya’s with Jon Snow (Kit Harington). The Hound’s words exist to underline who Arya has become, while Jon, who hasn’t seen Arya since the first season, offers her the rare opportunity to be the mischievous little girl she once was. Arya’s brutally honest with everyone she meets, but when Jon asks if she’s had to use the sword Needle he gifted her, she lies, so as to stay that little girl just a little while longer in his eyes: “Once or twice.”

Both the opening and closing scenes of the episode depict two very different returns to Winterfell, and they intentionally echo those of the very first episode of Game of Thrones. This time, however, it’s not a king arriving in the North at the start of the episode, but rather a new and suspicious queen, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke). Her darkly attired retinue doesn’t approach Winterfell neither in festive nor raucous fashion, marching instead in fixed and rigid columns. It’s important for a sense of scale (and spectacle) that we see just how many troops are present, but in mirroring this earlier episode, director David Nutter achieves more than just a dutiful tally: He evokes the funereal mood of how things have changed now that winter has finally arrived in Westeros. And right at the end of the episode, we see Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) staring down Jaimie Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) as the latter attempts to sneak back into Winterfell. It’s a kind of flip on the moment from the show’s pilot where Jaimie pushed Bran out a window for catching him and Cersei having sex.

Game of Thrones excels when it puts weight behind its words and artifacts, because without such history—George R. R. Martin’s imprimatur—the show would be a tawdrier fantasy: pomp, sans circumstances. Yes, there’s a bit of gratuitous nudity in the scene where the mercenary Bronn (Jerome Flynn) at last receives a three-prostitute reward for his loyalty to Cersei. But the scene is swiftly, mercifully interrupted, so as to focus on the significance of the crossbow that Qyburn (Anton Lesser) gives to Bronn. Though it’s only implied by Qyburn’s mention of “poetic justice,” eagle-eyed fans will certainly recognize that this is the weapon Tyrion used to slay his father. Now it’s the one that Bronn is being hired to use in the event that either of Cersei’s “traitorous” brothers somehow survive the war in the North.

Consider, too, the weight carried by the crypt in which Jon at last learns the truth of his parentage, as well as the blood-brother connection he shares with Samwell Tarly (John Bradley), his best friend and the bearer of this news. Jon isn’t just a man learning that he’s been lied to his entire life—that he’s actually Aegon Targaryen, the rightful heir to the throne—or that the woman he’s fallen in love with is actually his aunt. In that tomb, he’s once again a boy—a bastard—trying to live up to the legacy of the dead statues that surround him. This isn’t some M. Night Shyamalan-like twist-for-twist’s-sake, but a genuine revelation that’s been years in the making. That viewers have known this since last season, or predicted it for even longer, takes nothing away from the moment at which Jon at last knows something.

If it seems at all odd that the series lingers on Jon and Daenerys’s courtship—they kiss in exhilaration after taking her dragons for a ride—it’s to better set up not only the confirmation of Jon’s dragon-riding heritage, but the likelihood of this love being doomed by the whole incest thing. (That may be a Targaryen thing, but Jon’s got a pretty sturdy moral compass.) Likewise, it’s no mistake that moments before Sam tells Jon what he and Bran have discovered, Sam is turned against Daenerys as he learns—from her own mouth—that she murdered his father and loyal-to-a-fault brother. Earlier conversations with Sansa and the young spitfire Lyanna Mormont (Bella Ramsey), who at first just seemed resentful or distrustful of Jon’s abdication of his title of “King of the North,” now take on an entirely new light.

What’s most remarkable about all this squabbling over lineage is just how much it actually matters, given that an army of the dead is only days away, seemingly determined to kill everyone in its path. And as if we need another reminder of this existential threat, Beric Dondarrion (Richard Dormer) and Tormund (Kristofer Hivju), trapped behind enemy lines, encounter a gruesome sigil hewn of human flesh in the recently ruined Castle Umber, a taunting (and still partially alive) message from the Night’s King. It remains to be seen just how far Game of Thrones will bend the knee to full-on body horror and fantasy in its remaining five episodes. But something that’s as true now after this premiere episode as it was throughout any that have come before it is that the show is at its most frightening when it grapples with the political realities that connect its characters’ lives.

For more Game of Thrones recaps, click here.

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Review: Native Son’s Anguished Howl Lacks the Rage of Richard Wright’s Novel

Once an accidental act of violence sends the main character’s life into a spiral, the film unfortunately spirals with him.

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Native Son
Photo: Matthew Libatique/HBO

This modernized adaptation of Richard Wright’s iconic 1940 novel Native Son is full of people who believe they understand the story’s African-American protagonist, Bigger Thomas (Ashton Sanders). They assume that he marches for some unnamed cause because he’s outraged, and that he’s outraged because he’s black. They believe he’s desperate for a “respectable” job opportunity, and that he’s into hip-hop.

As adapted by Pulitzer-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and directed by conceptual artist Rashid Johnson, Native Son makes a number of changes to its source material, many of which dilute the story’s power. The most successful tweak is how Bigger, who goes by “Big” and pointedly not “Biggie,” is conceived as a listless punk-rock type. At a record store, he asks for a Bad Brains album. He cuts a wiry, towering figure topped with dyed green hair. He wears a jacket stuck through with pins and sprayed with words that might be lyrics or slogans that, though they mean something to him, don’t mean the world understands him any better.

He’s less angry than he is lost, pulled in every direction. A friend wants him to help rob a convenience store, but Big opts for another job: as the driver for the wealthy Dalton family, whose daughter, Mary (Margaret Qualley), is an activist—the kind of white liberal who would certainly have voted for Obama a third time if she could have. The awkward exchanges between Big and Mary quickly become the discomforting heart of the film, a suffocating performative wokeness on her part worsened by fumbling attempts at solidarity. “You’re outraged, aren’t you? He’s outraged,” she says at one point. She doesn’t mean any harm, of course. She’d probably consider him a friend. Her boyfriend (Nick Robinson) certainly does.

Nobody in the film truly “sees” Big for anything other than a concept, the dehumanized stereotype of a young black man, and Native Son builds that point from a subtle hum to an anguished howl through Big’s striking appearance. Sanders plays Big with the easygoing confidence of someone who knows that confidence is a performance to some degree, a mask for inner turmoil. You see the confidence drain from Big’s body when he’s dragged into uncomfortable situations; his body language goes rigid, like someone who’s gritting his or her teeth and praying for the end. As if in response to James Baldwin’s noted critique of the character as a stereotype, this version of Bigger Thomas is tormented as much by casual racism as by how it drowns out his constant assertions of individuality.

Eventually, an accidental act of violence sends Big’s life into a spiral, and Johnson’s Native Son unfortunately spirals with him. The film’s initial confidence at examining the weight of stereotypes falls away, as if such self-assurance were a mask of its own. Ominous whirs and drones on the soundtrack stand in for the fact that we never truly get inside Big’s head. So much of his character is only defined by situations he’s thrown into, and Matthew Libatique’s camera shoots all of them at a sort of neutral, objective remove. That pivotal act of violence cries out for some subjectivity to seem plausible, but despite being true to the source material, it feels outrageous and contrived because it’s filmed with the same clinical distance.

When Big subsequently acts out, his actions feel incongruous because this version of Native Son hasn’t shown us the thought process that fuels them. The Bigger Thomas of Johnson’s film lacks the rage of his literary counterpart, but because the novel climaxes in explosive violence and terror, the film seems obligated to replicate it (albeit to a much less extreme degree), despite so many other changes. As a result, what understanding we have of the character seems to slip through our fingers, as if the filmmakers and viewers alike are the next in a long line of people who don’t truly understand Bigger Thomas.

Cast: Ashton Sanders, Margaret Qualley, KiKi Layne, Bill Camp, Nick Robinson, Lamar Johnson, Sanaa Lathan, David Alan Grier Airtime: HBO

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Review: Fosse/Verdon Struggles to Capture the Sensual Fanaticism of Its Subjects’ Art

The miniseries at least gives ample space for Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams to richly inhabit their characters.

2.5

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Fosse/Verdon
Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/FX

The FX miniseries Fosse/Verdon comes with more than a bit of baggage. First, it has to compete with the electrifying work of its legendary protagonists: choreographer, theater director, and filmmaker Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell) and dancer and choreographer Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams), who collaborated on stage in Damn Yankees, Sweet Charity, and Chicago, among others, while living out a volatile love affair and marriage that would inspire each artist’s career. But Fosse/Verdon is particularly haunted by the legacy of Fosse’s monumental and similarly plotted 1979 film All That Jazz, in which he fictionally recreated his efforts to stage his iconic Chicago production while editing his third film, Lenny.

All That Jazz mixes mythmaking with an intoxicatingly, and disturbingly, sensual study of addiction, as Fosse fashioned an editing syntax that remains influential, especially to films about drug use. All That Jazz’s quick, repetitive, exhilarating montages suggest the rigid schedule of uppers that are ingested by Fosse’s stand-in, played by Roy Scheider, so that he may work for days at a time while seeking late-night solace in women and alcohol. This editing comes to suggest a cinematic equivalent to the jagged movements that Fosse favors as a choreographer to express the exertion of power for the sake of satiating erotic hunger. Fosse’s characters, like the man himself, always wanted more. Like Fosse’s Cabaret, All That Jazz informs the musical genre with a modern, free-associative cynicism and luridness.

Fosse/Verdon emulates All That Jazz’s freneticism, as the series is constantly hopping around in time so that we may experience only the highs and lows of these lives. It opens in the late 1960s, when Gwen is helping Bob fine-tune the film version of Sweet Charity, which would become a financial and critical disaster. A lovely scene makes a point that theater and film buffs will already know: that Gwen wasn’t allowed to reprise her role for the film, which went to Shirley MacLaine, who bears a striking resemblance to the dancer. Bob reads the New York Times review, which asks “Where’s Gwen?” and Gwen is put in the weird position of having to comfort her husband for his complicity in not hiring her. Meanwhile, Gwen is trying to get Chicago off the ground while also reinventing herself as a dramatic actress for straight plays.

All That Jazz played Chicago and Lenny off of one another, suggesting how Fosse derived his creative energy from working in multiple mediums at once while deliberately spreading himself thin, courting physical and mental collapse as an implicit declaration of his integrity, as well as a way of servicing his addiction to the various substances necessary to sustain such a lifestyle. Similarly, Fosse/Verdon is driven by various comparisons of productions that are being simultaneously considered or created. One such pairing is Children! Children!, a doomed play Gwen takes out of desperation to prove her acting chops, and the film version of Cabaret, which appears to be the nail in the coffin of Bob’s languishing film career. Cabaret’s producer, Cy Feuer (Paul Reiser), thinks that Bob is all style and no substance, fighting the filmmaker’s taste for darkness and decay. Later, Bob looks at a four-hour rough cut that he describes as “unwatchable,” leaving him to save the film in the editing room—a process in which he discovers how to use cutting to adjust his aesthetic for cinema. Learning to cut both with and against the movements of the dancers, depending on the mood he wishes to evoke, Bob outgrows the stagey sluggishness of the Sweet Charity film.

Fosse/Verdon could’ve spent more time in the Cabaret editing room, as Bob nearly loses his mind on booze, pills, and women while trying to save the film that would eventually win him a best director Oscar. It’s also a pity that a series about dancers doesn’t have more dancing. (There’s a sexy sequence in which Bob and Gwen meet over a discussion of Damn Yankees, their rehearsal of “Whatever Lola Wants” coming to represent their own attraction.) And a touching point is conventionally over-emphasized: Gwen is “always there” for Bob, apparently inventing the sexy black outfit that Liza Minelli wears in Cabaret on the fly, while Bob fails to give her notes on Children! Children!, coddling her with banalities that are meant to disguise his distraction and self-absorption. Such threads risk reducing Gwen, a colossal figure in her own right, to “Bob Fosse’s wife, lover, and champion.”

Fosse/Verdon is boxed in by a “have-it-both-ways” quandary. Cinephiles will probably want something more dynamic and less sentimental, with more formalist fireworks and nuts-and-bolts texture about Bob and Gwen’s modes of creation, while others may prefer a simpler and talkier melodrama about a couple torn between their ambitions, vices, and respect and love for one another. Despite its showy flashback structure, the series leans more toward the latter mode, with romantic pop psychology and jokey cameos by Bob and Gwen’s friends and fellow legends-in-the making such as Neil Simon (Nate Corddry) and Paddy Chayefsky (Norbert Leo Butz). (In fairness, there’s also plenty of pop psychology in All That Jazz, as the narrative is another of those Great Self-Destructive Genius numbers that Hollywood pumps out on a regular basis, but Fosse’s formal audacity transcends such gimmickry.)

If Fosse/Verdon lacks the obsessiveness and sensual fanaticism of Fosse and Verdon’s art, though, it nevertheless gives ample space for Rockwell and Williams to inhabit their characters. Rockwell conjures Fosse’s almost paradoxical sexiness, emulating the man’s stooped posture, which somehow conveyed power, and speaking in a voice that’s fey and raspy working-class masculine at the same time—a combination that suggests confidence and years spent hustling. Rockwell also reprises one of Fosse’s signature moves, in which he would crouch near the bottom of the dance floor and look up at the dancers, seemingly drinking them in on a molecular level, which is an act of submission as domination. Most importantly, Rockwell captures Fosse’s general bonhomie—the sense the man gave of taking pleasure in everything—which fuses with Rockwell’s own infectious energy as a performer.

Williams is subtle and heartbreaking in a role that’s often more thankless than Rockwell’s, as Verdon’s artistry is given short shrift here compared to Fosse’s. That very sense of being overlooked is built into Williams’s performance, however, as her voice contains multitudes of insinuation that communicate Gwen’s desires to men on nearly subliminal levels, so they can hear her without them knowing it, especially as Gwen fights to keep Chicago alive. Throughout the miniseries, Williams merges Verdon’s voice with her own, grounding an impression in behavioral curlicues, switching from humor to rage with musical fluidity.

Williams is given the finest scene of Fosse/Verdon’s first five episodes. Rehearsing Children! Children!, trying to give a stodgy monologue juice, Gwen accesses one of the most painful moments of her life, turning exposition into confessional poetry. Gwen fillets herself for the rehearsal, and Williams allows you to see the toll this takes, as well as the transcendence of being able and willing to pay that toll. Williams doesn’t foreground the pain, but the surprise of rediscovering an emotional wound that has never healed, the sort of wound the drives artists—and people of other trades as well—to keep working, consuming, screwing, all in the hope of feeling as if they’ve satisfied their inner demon, the harshest and least satiable critic.

Cast: Sam Rockwell, Michelle Williams, Paul Reiser, Aya Cash, Nate Corddry, Norbert Leo Butz, Blake Baumgartner, Juliet Brett, Susan Misner, Margaret Qualley, Evan Handler Airtime: FX, Tuesdays, 10 p.m.

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Review: The Sprawling Unspeakable Simmers with Rage But Lacks Resolve

The miniseries fails to tackle the unseen forces which enable and encourage the institutional rot that wrecks people’s lives.

2

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Unspeakable
Photo: SundanceTV

With a title like Unspeakable, one might imagine that Sundance’s miniseries about Canada’s contaminated blood scandal, in which thousands of hemophiliacs were infected with HIV and hepatitis after receiving tainted blood, is concerned primarily with the stigma surrounding those diseases. Yet the series, which attempts to narrativize two separate books about the scandal, as well as creator Robert C. Cooper’s own experience contracting hepatitis from hemophilia treatments, resists homing in on any one aspect of its sprawling story. The result is an untidy and cursory overview of a 40-year saga.

Unspeakable certainly simmers with rage, and Cooper’s disgust is palpable. Throughout, the series solemnly depicts each negligent decision made by parliamentary politicians and Canadian Red Cross bureaucrats, who ignored warnings from United States health officials and distributed potentially infected blood in order to save money. But while this staggering malfeasance provides an opportunity to interrogate a complex example of institutional failure, Unspeakable’s point of view is more incredulous than curious: The series is packed with characters who are consistently shocked and angry, yet it fails to tackle the unseen forces which enable and encourage the institutional rot that wrecks people’s lives.

Unspeakable attempts to underscore the tragedy of the scandal by offering its broad historical account through an intimate lens, following five separate Canadian families effected by the tainted blood supply. Yet because of the sheer breadth of the saga and the multitude of perspectives, the series often feels like nothing more than a dry historical outline. As the breakneck narrative breezes over entire years, we aren’t afforded the opportunity to connect with any one character. A pattern emerges, with short successions of scenes that dutifully lead to a consequential event, before action shifts to a new year, and the cycle is repeated. The effect is distancing, and made even more so by unceasing title cards that clumsily herald new locations with information that should ostensibly be provided by the scenes themselves. (One such mouthful reads “Heat-Treated Factor Concentrates Consensus Conference, Ottawa.”)

Because Unspeakable moves so rapidly through its timeline, much of the dialogue is composed of stilted exposition. Lines like “The way the two of you still don’t speak is fucked up!” and countless instances of characters announcing the parameters of their professions are jarring reminders of the constantly shifting landscape. In other instances, the series glosses over seemingly important developments, leaving the viewer without context. Ex-reporter Ben Landry (Shawn Doyle), the father of an HIV-positive, hemophiliac son, at one point resolves to take action, declaring, “There’s only one thing I’m good at.” Years pass by in the narrative before it becomes clear that he wrote a book about the scandal, which, ironically, seems based on one of the books which provided the inspiration for Unspeakable.

Unspeakable’s subject matter is self-evidently grave, but the series is filmed in a procedural style that lacks distinctiveness. The lighting is creamy and omnidirectional, and episodes are edited with a utilitarian devotion to plot. The quick pace does result in a sense of urgency, if only because the series never fully resolves one narrative tangle before it introduces another. Ben, still working as a reporter, attempts to expose the scandal in its early stages, while Will Sanders (Michael Shanks), the father of another hemophiliac, tries to convince the Red Cross of the impending crisis. Their efforts are portrayed as the kind of earnest journalistic persistence seen in films like Spotlight, but while Unspeakable’s emphasizes the failure of public institutions, it ultimately stops short of interrogating exactly why they failed.

Cast: Sarah Wayne Callies, Michael Shanks, Ricardo Ortiz, Spencer Drever, Shawn Doyle, Camille Sullivan, Levi Meaden, Aaron Douglas, David Lewis, Caroline Cave Airtime: SundanceTV

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Review: In Season Two, Killing Eve Still Thrills Even When Spinning Its Wheels

The show’s greatest strength is still the way it upends our expectations via tonal shifts and amusing personal details.

3

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Killing Eve
Photo: Aimee Spinks/BBC America

The second season of Killing Eve commences immediately after last season’s conclusion, during which MI6 agent Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) unceremoniously shanked the object of her (mutual) obsession, the flamboyant assassin Villanelle (Jodie Comer). It’s a disorienting and totally engaging starting point for the new season, a confirmation that the two women are still very much entangled in the web of desperation and lies that led them to one another in the first place. But for how much the season focuses on the show’s obvious strengths, it also gets off to something of an uncharacteristically slow start.

Much of the two episodes provided to critics is devoted to the fallout of Eve and Villanelle’s actions: the firings, the confessions, the stabbings, the shootings. Thankfully, the acts of violence that capped last season’s finale do nothing to flatten and clarify the complexity of their relationship. Instead, they only deepen their infatuation, each one still enraptured with the other’s intellect and style and incongruity within their respective personal spheres. “Sometimes when you love someone, you will do crazy things,” Villanelle says at one point. Though the first date (of sorts) may have gone bad, it hardly closes the door on a second.

The knife wound, however, is quite serious and, hand clutched to her side, Villanelle stumbles to a hospital. It’s a continuation of the shift in the pair’s power dynamic, with Villanelle as elusive and inscrutable as ever yet now quite literally vulnerable. The first two episodes of the season are keen on reinforcing her newfound weakness while Eve deals with feelings of her own, a wide spectrum of emotion that manifests in manic cooking, vacant moisturizing, and stress-eating. Eve’s emotions have practically exploded in every direction, and the debris is strewn all over Oh’s terrific expressions, an equal spread of thrill, regret, and confusion.

Killing Eve’s greatest strength continues to be its dark comedy, and the way it upends our expectations via tonal shifts and amusing personal details. “How do you always look so good?” an exasperated Eve asks her unflappable MI6 boss, Carolyn Martens (Fiona Shaw). The series never undercuts its drama, instead using such specificity to humanize characters thrown into worlds they scarcely understand at the behest of truly thankless jobs.

Comer again embodies the bulk of Killing Eve’s wicked sense of humor, conveying Villanelle’s cheerful but irritable psychopathy through a combination of simmering rage, an eat-your-peas level of childlike disgust, and a still-shocking capacity for violence. And the new season gives Villanelle a host of oblivious characters to play off of who are nevertheless not so easily taken in: One woman at a grocery store shoos the cut-and-bruised hitwoman away, protesting that she doesn’t have the change that Villanelle didn’t even ask for.

The thrilling cat-and-mouse suspense of the show’s best moments, however, is largely absent from these initial episodes. Rather than build on many of the developments from the end of last season, Killing Eve cobbles back together some approximation of its status quo, and quite slowly at that. It’s perhaps an expected, if disappointing, development, and there are some tweaks to the formula—chief among them the ongoing suspicion of Carolyn’s true colors. But the start of the second season eventually begins to spin its wheels, lingering a little too long on Villanelle’s weakness while providing various sounding boards for emotions that Oh is perfectly capable of conveying with no more than a furrowed brow.

Cast: Sandra Oh, Jodie Comer, Fiona Shaw, Owen McDonnell, Sean Delaney, Nina Sosanya, Edward Bluemel Airtime: BBC America, Sundays, 8 p.m.

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Review: The New Twilight Zone Is Stuck Chasing Rod Serling’s Shadow

There’s an unsteadiness to this return to that certain dimension of sight, sound, and, of course, mind that dulls whatever impact it intends.

2.5

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Photo: Robert Falconer/CBS

Despite occasional successes, no incarnation of The Twilight Zone has quite stood up to Rod Serling’s iconic original. Two revivals on television and one feature film are more footnotes than notable successors. But Jordan Peele seemingly has the artistic credibility to ensure that this third TV revival is more than just a brand-exploiting ploy.

Peele certainly slides right into the besuited presenter’s persona once occupied by Serling, delivering verbose narration at the beginning and end of each episode in an impassive drone that suggests inevitability yet ends in a slight, mischievous half-smirk. But like previous versions of The Twilight Zone, there’s an unsteadiness to this return to that certain dimension of sight, sound, and, of course, mind that dulls whatever impact it intends.

The four episodes screened for press have a variety of supernatural focal points: a comedian’s stand-up routine that makes people disappear; a future-predicting true-crime podcast that anchors a reimagining of the classic “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”; a man (Steven Yeun) who mysteriously appears in an Alaskan holding cell; and a camcorder that turns back time. The best of these episodes is the last one, “Replay,” which finds a black woman (Sanaa Lathan) using the camcorder’s unique powers in a desperate attempt to evade a racist police officer (Glenn Fleshler) while she drives her son (Damson Idris) to college.

It’s the most overtly political episode of the bunch, though every moment of the series is placed in a cultural context. “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” plays on anxieties about terrorism, while the stand-up conceit of “The Comedian,” which parallels an episode in the original series, alludes to the performative, confessional nature of social media and influencer culture.

The elements that make “Replay” such a standout, however, reveal a distressing void in other episodes—that is, a firm grasp of the intended social commentary, as well as an ability to build that commentary into the episode’s hook without compromising drama. Each rewind of the camcorder creates a distinct, suspenseful scenario in its own right. “The Comedian,” on the other hand, fails to use its multiple stand-up performances to forge new insight into its protagonist (a credibly unraveled Kumail Nanjiani). Though it features an outstanding turn from a sinister Tracy Morgan, the episode merely belabors an obvious, simplistic point that hardly justifies the outrageous 50-plus-minute runtime.

Other episodes lose sight of their themes altogether: “A Traveler” and even the relatively brisk 35-minute “Nightmare” trail off on tangents with multiple characters. As if to acknowledge that they muddy their intended messages, each episode concludes in excruciatingly didactic fashion. Characters say things straight into the camera even before they’ve ceded the stage to Peele’s final narration, which somehow seems subtler than much of the actual dialogue.

The rebooted Twilight Zone suggests a larger problem than mere inconsistency. This version lacks the original’s storytelling economy and, in the process, loses the direct impact of whatever themes it means to convey. It often looks good, with fantastic performances by Lathan, Yeun, and others framed in oblique close-ups to augment the paranoid, aberrant atmosphere, but the muddled, on-the-nose writing is stuck chasing Rod Serling’s shadow.

Cast: Jordan Peele, Adam Scott, Chris Diamantopoulos, Kumail Nanjiani, Amara Karan, Tracy Morgan, Sanaa Lathan, Damson Idris, Glenn Fleshler, Steven Yeun, Marika Sila, Greg Kinnear Airtime: CBS All Access

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Watch: Hold on to Your Obsessions with the Final Trailer for Season Two of Killing Eve

The new season may just give you nightmares, though none that Sean Delaney’s accent can’t soothe.

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Killing Eve
Photo: BBC America

We’ve already seen the first two episodes of the new season of Killing Eve, and since the embargo on reviews has now lifted, we can tell you that the series embraces a formal adventurousness in its second season that blows the first season out of the water. Season two picks up at the exact moment that the first left off, with Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) escaping in tense and almost balletic fashion from the bloody clutches of Villanelle (Jodie Comer)—or is it vice versa?—before the two are once again caught in a prolonged game of cat and mouse that plays out throughout much of Britain and, presumably, beyond.

Today, BBC America has released the final trailer for the new season. Titled “Obsession,” the clip begins with Villanelle, healing from her injuries sustained from being stabbed by Eve last season, sneaking out from a hospital. I won’t tell you where she ends up, only that it may just give you nightmares, though none that Sean Delaney’s accent can’t soothe.

See the trailer below:

Season two of Killing Eve premieres on April 7.

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Review: In Season Two, Barry Draws Dark, Heartfelt Comedy from a Man’s Trauma

The season’s storylines cohere around the myriad factors which comprise the masks people present to the world.

4

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Barry
Photo: HBO

Right out the gate, the stakes are high in the second season of HBO’s Barry, which begins with Barry (Bill Hader) desperate to maintain normalcy after having murdered Paula Newsome’s Detective Moss in last season’s finale. As soon as police begin to suspect Barry’s involvement in the crime, the new season settles into a propulsive narrative that, similar to the first season, unfolds as a comedy of errors. And while the new episodes maintain the show’s satiric view of self-interested Hollywood types, a poignant theme emerges which represents an evolution for the series. As an introspective Barry takes inventory of his past misdeeds, the show’s storylines cohere around the reflexive lies people tell themselves, and the myriad factors which comprise the masks they present to the world.

Barry’s world is in flux as he attempts to avoid the police, dodge the Chechen mob, and abstain from violence. He even offers to train soldiers for the Chechen mob’s new leader, Noho Hank (Anthony Carrigan), rather than carry out another hit himself. The conceit leads to a scene that derives much humor from the Chechen trainees’ ineptitude at shooting, and while similar comedy abounds in Barry’s attempts to extricate himself from the crime world, the series is ultimately more interested in why Barry is so desperate for change. Though in the first season the character strove to mimic the people whom he viewed as good, this season finds him grappling with, and motivated by, the idea that he’s inherently evil.

In one of the new season’s central storylines, Barry must craft a one-man performance based on his first kill in Afghanistan as a member of the Marine Corps. While he resolves to portray the event as a moral reckoning, flashbacks reveal that it was actually one of the happiest moments of his life—a fact which places an upsettingly irreconcilable paradox at the heart of Barry. In an inspired bit of absurdism, the series underlines the extent of the man’s denial when his acting coach, Gene (Henry Winkler), appears in one of Barry’s war flashbacks, offering notes on his student’s recollection. Hilariously, the other soldiers in the flashback chime in as well—a chorus chiding Barry for his attempt to whitewash reality.

Such surreal flourishes lace the show’s new season, conveying in exacting but moving fashion how Barry’s trauma has caused him to live in a fugue state. But the show’s dark comedy is still largely derived from stark juxtapositions of violence and humor. When Barry finds himself in a shootout with a Burmese gang disguised as monks, the incongruity of the gang’s costumes adds a dash of farce to the proceedings. And when Barry declines a job offer from the bald and tattooed Hank, the spurned mobster asks in his characteristically fragmented English, “What do you want me to do, walk into John Wick assassin hotel with ‘Help Wanted’ sign?”

While the series portrays its underworld as the province of bumbling and affable lords, its directors frame violence with a matter-of-fact sensibility, emphasizing the yawning gap between whimsy and outright danger in Barry’s world. When Barry flees a shootout in the season’s second episode, director Hiro Murai embeds his camera in the car alongside Barry, eschewing adrenalized, eye-catching flourishes in favor of stark naturalism. Relatively peaceful moments pass before the first bullets come, and then, without fanfare, they arrive in a hail. The effect is startling and gripping. The discord in Barry’s life similarly informs the way Barry captures Los Angeles, with wide shots that juxtapose the city’s beckoning blue sky and towering palm trees with the generic, nondescript buildings that ensconce Barry. In such moments, the gap between his reality and his ambitions is rendered literal.

As Barry reaches for and clings to a sense of normalcy, Hader portrays the character with a mixture of fear and shame. During one monologue, in which Barry’s girlfriend, Sally (Sarah Goldberg), triumphantly declares that she’ll never date another violent man, the camera lingers poignantly on Barry’s quietly downcast reaction. The crux of this season isn’t whether Barry can find happiness from acting, or whether he’ll outsmart the cops, but whether he’s inherently broken and capable of repair. As he strives to bridge the gap between the person he is and the one he wants to be, the show’s central source of pathos is his (and our) dawning understanding that it may not be possible, and that he may not even deserve it.

Cast: Bill Hader, Henry Winkler, Sarah Goldberg, Stephen Root, Anthony Carrigan, D’Arcy Carden, Darrell Britt-Gibson Airtime: HBO

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