The following is a feature on Seth Bullock and actor Timothy Olyphant that originally ran in the Star-Ledger May 5, 2005. I wrote it early in the season, after having seen just the first two episodes of season two, which showcased Bullockâ€™s volcanic temper and showed the arrival of his wife Martha (Anna Gunn) and stepson William (Josh Eriksson) and the end of his affair with socialite Alma Garret (Molly Parker). For various reasons, the piece didnâ€™t run until later, after weeks of Bullockâ€™s being sidelined by domestic drama, and on the brink of an even more bleak, recessive period following his sonâ€™s death. However, Olyphant and creator David Milchâ€™s insights into Bullock remain relevant, and are highlighted again in the first five episodes of Season Three, so for what itâ€™s worth, Iâ€™m reprinting the piece here.
Let us now praise the law.
On HBOâ€™s western Deadwood, the law is Seth Bullock, a hardware store owner and sometime politician who somehow wound up wearing a badge in a Gold Rush mud-hole full of hustlers, killers and thieves.
But Bullock is not your standard Western goody-two-shoes. As written by series creator David Milch and played by Timothy Olyphant, heâ€™s Andy Sipowicz in a Stetson, a dark knight weighed down by invisible armor. His public mission to civilize a lawless town mirrors his private struggle to contain his own demons.
Bullock is a brave, righteous lawman, but also a sullen, hypocritical bully. He prizes loyalty and craves respect, but is rude to his friends and often takes their love and patience for granted. He cheats on his absent wife (Anna Gunn) with recently widowed Alma Garret (Molly Parker), yet still strides through Deadwood as if he has a lock on virtue, and thrashes any man who dares disagree.
He cracks down on common thugs and killers, yet forges a deep and curiously respectful relationship with the townâ€™s deadliest crime boss, saloon owner Al Swearengen (Ian McShane). He can spot a troublemaker from a block away, yet seems unable or unwilling to see his own flaws.
â€śWhat it comes down to is the burden of responsibility,â€ť said Olyphant, 37, during a visit to the Los Angeles set of Deadwood in January. â€śItâ€™s the burden you went out and took upon yourself. You regret that moment for every day you have to live it all out.â€ť
At this point, Olyphant has no regrets. As the leading man on TVâ€™s oddest, most dramatically complex series, he gets to explore powerfully contradictory feelings each week. But playing Bullock is still a challenge for Olyphant, a well-read, talkative fellow with a droll wit.
Born in Honolulu and raised in Modesto, Calif., Olyphant was a competitive swimmer at the University of Southern California. He has been married for 14 years and has two young children. Many of his film and TV credits have played on his slightly devilish charisma â€“ particularly his acclaimed turn as a funny-scary drug dealer in the 1999 cult film â€śGo.â€ť He was considered a potential star for years, most likely in Gary Oldman-type roles. So how, exactly, did he end up as Gary Cooper?
Some days, even Olyphant wonders.
â€śIâ€™m surrounded on this show by really funny people, and when the cameras arenâ€™t rolling, we crack each other up,â€ť he said, sitting in his trailer during a break from shooting. â€śThen weâ€™re rolling and I put the mask on. There are times when Iâ€™m playing a scene with Ian or Bill (William Sanderson, who plays hustling jester E.B Farnum) and I kind of look around and think, â€™When the fuck did I become the straight man?â€™â€ť
Olyphant still manages to be funny usually via delayed, incredulous reactions to other charactersâ€™ weirdness, but it isnâ€™t easy. Where Al Swearengen constantly analyzes his own motives in monologues and zings supporting players with wisecracks, Bullock is an instinctive, emotional, often withdrawn person who seems to possess little self- awareness. Where McShane tosses words like barroom darts, Olyphant must suggest comparable depths through minute adjustments of his eyes and voice.
Olyphantâ€™s colleagues know what heâ€™s up against.
â€śTim has an extraordinary sense of how to suggest Bullockâ€™s character with gestures, and heâ€™s obviously thought a lot about how to do that,â€ť said costar Stephen Tobolowsky, who plays political operative Hugo Jarry. â€śI was in a scene with him in a scene earlier in the season, and a big element with Bullock is where his gun is. We had to redo part of the blocking of the scene because Tim said, â€™No, I would have my gun hand free when I walked into this situation, because I have to move the coat back to get my gun.â€™â€ť
â€śDavid (Milch) has often said to me that he believes we are all mysteries to ourselves, some in more ways than others,â€ť says John Hawkes, who plays Bullockâ€™s best friend and business partner, Sol Star. â€śSol was described to me as a guy who could be in a situation and at the same time floating outside the situation, watching it from above, pragmatically. But Seth is much more emotional â€“ and brutal. Seth certainly has a capacity for a great deal of feeling, of kindness, but in this place, those are not necessarily qualities he would want to foster.â€ť
â€śBullock is trying to protect himself from his own deepest nature, because it frightens him,â€ť Milch said. â€śAt the core of his being is a rage so powerful that it supplanted what would have ordinarily been there, which is a consciousness.â€ť
While embellished by Milch for dramatic purposes, Bullock is based on a historical figure, the same- named sheriff of the real Deadwood. Key details differ; for example, where the historical Bullock married his childhood sweetheart, the showâ€™s Bullock marries the widow of his slain cavalryman brother and vows to raise her son (who appears to have been killed in last weekâ€™s episode by a runaway horse).
But the psychological details are accurate, Milch says, and they inform Olyphantâ€™s performance.
â€śBullock was the son of a retired sergeant major who used to beat his balls off every night, which is why Bullock started running away (from home) when he was 12 years old,â€ť Milch said. â€śHis dad would dress up in military garb because when he did that, he felt like he was under control.
â€śI think Bullock took upon himself this kind of military bearing as a protective mechanism,â€ť Milch continued. â€śIt protected him not only from his fatherâ€™s rage, but from his own rage in response to what his father did. When Bullock experiences uncontrolled emotion, he wants to answer it with violence, and that frightens him, because it reminds him of what he ran away from.â€ť
Olyphant says that in constructing Bullockâ€™s personality, he drew on some of his favorite screwed- up-hero performances, notably Russell Croweâ€™s and Guy Pearceâ€™s work in â€śL.A. Confidential.â€ť
â€śWhat I drew from Guy Pearce in that one movie was his willingness to be unliked,â€ť Olyphant said. â€śHeâ€™s a guy who wants to do the right thing so bad that it doesnâ€™t even matter how many people hate him for it. He sticks to his gun, and he doesnâ€™t flinch. Croweâ€™s character is more emotional, and heâ€™s got such a temper, he could easily have ended up one of the guys heâ€™s always arresting or beating up. If you put those two characters together, you kind of get the two halves of Bullock.â€ť
â€śHe is certainly a mystery to himself,â€ť Milch said of Bullock. â€śBut thatâ€™s true of anybody, and the way Tim universalizes that fact makes it easier to connect with this unreachable guy. Iâ€™m 60 years old and I understand about one-eighth of one percent of what I do. For so many of us, our lives live us.â€ť
This article was originally published on The House Next Door.
Review: When They See Us Is a Harrowing but Heavy-Handed Act of Protest
Ava DuVernayâ€™s series is a handsomely mounted dramatization, but it often veers into the trite, obvious, and maudlin.2
An indignant detective (William Sadler) stands up from his booth in a restaurant. Heâ€™s being questioned about inconsistencies in the case he worked on over a decade earlier: the vicious rape and beating of a jogger that led to the indictment of five Harlem boysâ€”all people of colorâ€”who would come to be known as the Central Park Five. None of the detectiveâ€™s conclusions seem to line up, and he doesnâ€™t appreciate the implication that he and his entire department were willing to cut corners. â€śJustice was fucking served,â€ť he says, framed with his back to a wall displaying an out-of-focus American flag. Then he walks out.
Such blunt-force imagery and dialogue is common in When They See Us. Ava DuVernayâ€™s third collaboration with Selma cinematographer Bradford Young, the four-part miniseries is impeccably framed and beautifully, sparingly lit, all in service of a supremely worthwhile cause: to educate viewers about what became of these five boys, from just before their 1990 conviction up through their eventual exoneration. Unfortunately, the relaying of that lesson often veers into the trite, obvious, and maudlin. Indeed, youâ€™re lucky if a scene goes by without the aid of some songâ€™s perfectly descriptive lyrics or an overpowering score that Netflixâ€™s subtitles describe for the hearing impaired with words such as â€śominousâ€ť or â€śpoignant.â€ť
When They See Us is a handsomely mounted dramatization of the plight of these boys, of what was taken away from them due to their being targets of systemic racism. The injustices they suffer are horrific and are communicated as such through emotionally rich performances by both promising newcomers and seasoned character actors. The aforementioned restaurant scene will likely stoke your outrage because DuVernay, who has teleplay and story credits on every episode, dedicates so much of the preceding hour to the plight of Korey Wise (Jharrel Jerome), who was the only one of the boys old enough to be locked up in an adult prison. He went in at 16, and his very public conviction didnâ€™t make his stint an easy one; he spent a lot of time in solitary by necessity, so that other inmates wouldnâ€™t kill him. By the time you see Sadlerâ€™s detective sputtering to justify the boysâ€™ coerced confessions, his lack of remorseâ€”for having taken so many years of their lives away from themâ€”is shocking.
Itâ€™ll probably make you mad, just the way itâ€™ll make you mad to see the first episodeâ€™s depiction of the boys down at the police station, shot so small in otherwise roomy frames as to seem both alone and trapped by officers who donâ€™t feed them and send their parents out of the room. The impact of the material speaks for itself, down to the simple fact that four of the boys are so young when theyâ€™re incarcerated that their release requires new, older actors to portray them. Only the 21-year-old Jerome plays his character all the way through the series, and heâ€™s a standout in part because heâ€™s so convincing at multiple ages. The younger Wise regards his situation with a disbelief thatâ€™s distinctly childlike; heâ€™s still a little uncertain that any of this is for real, and before you know it, time has wiped away his doubts, his face now weighed down by the memory of his lost youth and his hellish time in prison.
But with four episodes, all over an hour and one close to 90 minutes, DuVernay affords herself plenty of room to get lost in her most didactic tendencies as a storyteller, insistent on underlining, then circling, then highlighting each point for maximum impact. She cudgels the most upsetting scenes with slow motion and centers characters with on-the-nose imagery, whether theyâ€™re in front of flags or illuminated by backward-pointing neon arrows that signify their unwillingness to face their own guilt. Characters spontaneously state rape statistics or say things like, â€śSurvival at what cost?â€ť Even what should be the seriesâ€™s most damning moment, the fact that our dear future president took out full-page newspaper ads calling for the execution of these children, is weakened by DuVernayâ€™s propensity for amplification. At one point, one of the mothers says of Trump, â€śHis 15 minutes is almost up.â€ť
Though the seriesâ€™s flaws are present throughout, its earliest episodes are the strongest for their sense of momentum, detailing the boysâ€™ railroading by a broken justice system. The shift of its latter half toward interpersonal drama does no favors for the weak writing, which devolves into a series of wooden platitudes and hoary, solitary confinement-induced fantasy before rushing to a bizarrely tidy conclusion that does little to contextualize the menâ€™s ordeal as a larger systemic issue. Much of the denouement is dedicated to over-written verbal takedowns of some of the responsible parties, while the menâ€™s decade-long legal battle for restitution is relegated to a line of text before the credits.
You rarely hear and see the words â€śCentral Park Fiveâ€ť in When They See Us. Thatâ€™s because DuVernay rightfully works to dismantle it, for the way it reduces the boys to mere numbers at the scene of their alleged crime. The series shows us their lives and their struggles, asserting the individuality previously stripped from them by an overzealous press and a racist justice system. Perhaps on some level, thatâ€™s all it needs to do, to clarify that Antron McCray is not Kevin Richardson is not Yusef Salaam is not Raymond Santana is not Korey Wise. As a piece of narrative storytelling, though, the series hits its thematic targets with such repetition at such close range that you begin to question the point of dragging this exercise to over four hours.
Cast: Asante Blackk, Caleel Harris, Ethan Herisse, Jharrel Jerome, Marquis Rodriguez, Jovan Adepo, Chris Chalk, Justin Cunningham, Freddy Miyares, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Kylie Bunbury, Aunjanue Ellis, Vera Farmiga, Felicity Huffman, John Leguizamo, Niecy Nash, Michael Kenneth Williams, Len Cariou, Omar J. Dorsey, Joshua Jackson, Famke Janssen, Logan Marshall-Green, William Sadler, Blair Underwood Network: Netflix
Game of Thrones Recap: Season 8, Episode 6, â€śThe Iron Throneâ€ť
Thereâ€™s no limit here to the narrative conveniences that exist only to conclude the seriesâ€™s eight-season arc.
If you were still granting David Benioff and D. B. Weiss the benefit of the doubt heading into the series finale of Game of Thrones, â€śThe Iron Throne,â€ť then the episodeâ€™s lack of a unifying theme probably seemed intentional. But whereas the possibility of things yet to come and Miguel Sapochnikâ€™s bold directorial choices in last weekâ€™s penultimate episode, â€śThe Bells,â€ť certainly allowed for some creative interpretations, â€śThe Iron Throneâ€ť runs things into the ground and rejects them all in favor of the laziest and hastiest of resolutions.
This is an episode about post-war reconciliation thatâ€™s structurally broken apart into two distinct chunks. Not just visually, with the gray and ashy aftermath of the razing of Kingâ€™s Landing giving way, weeks later, to a sunny summit of lords, but also tonally. Whereas the first part is bleak and political, the second is comic to the point of nearly sitcomish levels. If thereâ€™s anything holding the pieces together, itâ€™s meta-commentary, first in the key framing and preternaturally poetic choices of two shots involving Drogon, and then, more literally, with an excitable Samwell (John Bradley-West) handing over the manuscript for a historical chronicle titled, wait for it, A Song of Ice and Fire. (The punchline? Tyrionâ€™s not mentioned in its pages.)
If thereâ€™s any hint as to what the writers were thinking when they penned this send-off, it comes from whatâ€™s supposed to be a rallying, mid-episode speech from Tyrion (Peter Dinklage). In truth, his words sound exhausted, like those youâ€™d hear from someone who hasnâ€™t slept well for weeks on end, tasked with trying to pen a happy ending. â€śWhat unites people?â€ť he asks the gathered lords and ladies. â€śArmies? Gold? Flags?â€ť he continues, essentially just throwing out a word salad of disconnected thoughts, stalling for time. â€śStories,â€ť he suddenly suggests, out of the blue. â€śThereâ€™s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story,â€ť he claims, already forgetting that destroying stories was pretty much the Night Kingâ€™s whole deal (just three episodes ago, in â€śThe Long Nightâ€ť).
The essential gist, then, of Tyrionâ€™s nomination of Bran â€śthe Brokenâ€ť as the new King of the Seven Kingdomsâ€”well, six, actually, as the North is now its own independent realm, with Sansa (Sophie Turner) as its leaderâ€”is â€śFuck it, itâ€™ll make a good story.â€ť This explains pretty much every choice Benioff and Weiss makeâ€”save for the part where any of it makes a good story. It also results in a surfeit of artifice, as thereâ€™s nothing organic about Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) striding into the foreground, with Drogon spreading his wings behind her so that it looks like the two are one and the same. Would that she had staged that moment herself, in order to awe her assembled Dothraki and Unsullied troops, but the juxtaposition, however awe-inspiring, is still a contrived visual shorthand of what Daenerys has become.
Itâ€™s telling that the 10 minutes of â€śThe Iron Throneâ€ť that do work are largely silent, and are squandered right at the very start, with a series of tracking shots that follow Tyrion as he walks through the ruins of Kingâ€™s Landing, ash still falling from the sky. We see a bloodied, half-naked man pass him by, and we see Tyrion pause to look back at the man. Nothing more could have been conveyed in this moment with dialogue, and yet from this moment on, the writers start increasingly spelling things out for us, as if we havenâ€™t been together for 73 episodes. Thereâ€™s a rich subtext in the first, brief exchange between Tyrion (â€śIâ€™ll find you laterâ€ť) and Kit Haringtonâ€™s Jon Snow (â€śItâ€™s not safeâ€ť), and you can hear the death of Tyrionâ€™s optimism as he commits to it (â€śIâ€™m going aloneâ€ť). But things only get increasingly less subtleâ€”more symbolically heavy-handedâ€”from there, beginning with Jon and Davos (Liam Cunningham) almost coming to blows with Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) over his merciless decision to execute the few surrendered soldiers who are still alive.
There would appear to be no limit to the explicitness of this episode, or to the number of narrative conveniences that exist only for Benioff and Weiss to neatly conclude the showâ€™s eight-season arc. For example, Arya (Maisie Williams), last seen riding out of Kingâ€™s Landing on a horse, slips past an entire imperial regiment of Unsullied to cozy up next to Jon and warn him that Daenerys knows who he is and sees him as a threat: â€śI know a killer when I see one,â€ť Arya claims. A killer, sure, but also something like a child-god: all-powerful but naĂŻve, willing to let Tyrionâ€”who sheâ€™s just arrested for treasonâ€”speak privately with Jon, and then open to meeting with Jon alone, and without a single guard within reach. (The former meeting feels like this weekâ€™s SNL parody of Meet the Press, in which the hosts ask Republican politicians what, if anything, it would take to get them to stop supporting Trump, only in this case, itâ€™s Tyrion whoâ€™s to find any chink in Jonâ€™s loyal armor.)
Perhaps Jon really isnâ€™t convinced by Tyrion after their powwow. Maybe he doesnâ€™t actually know that heâ€™s going to stab Daenerys until she looks him in the eyes, so childishly sincere, and promises that the world will be better because she knows whatâ€™s â€śgood,â€ť and that nobody else gets to determine what that is. It doesnâ€™t matter if the moment is earned or not, because as the scene plays out, it just feels like one more domino that has to fall. The same is true of the sceneâ€™s wrathful follow-up, in which Drogon shows up to avenge his fallen mother, only to demonstrate some kind of superior intellect and restraint, melting Daenerysâ€™s precious throne of swords instead of incinerating Jon. What perfect poetic justice: responding to Daenerysâ€™s now-meaningless pursuit of power by reducing the Iron Throne to equally meaningless slag. But then again, this isnâ€™t a dragon, but rather a puppet with which the writers can show that the Iron Throne was always, no more and no less, just the emptiest of symbols.
If such imagery at least speaks within the broader context of Game of Thrones, other parts of the series buckle under the weight of so many words that this episode expends on delivering a message about politics, and one with contemporary resonances. See how Tyrion explains Daenerysâ€™s rise to tyranny: â€śEverywhere she goes, evil men die, and we cheer her for it. And she grows more powerful and more sure that she is good and right.â€ť Instead of this serving as the lever that convinces Jon to bury that dagger in Daenerys, seeing how convinced she is of her own merciless â€śgood,â€ť itâ€™s one of a dozen equally potent arguments against violence, and you can practically hear the writers abandoning the books to yell through the screen at viewers when Tyrion tells Jon that his support, or lack thereof, does matter.
The episodeâ€™s second half, by contrast, has no deeper meaning whatsoever. Itâ€™s a series of disconnected sketches designed to check in with the surviving characters without affixing any real significance to any of them. We see that Bronn (Jerome Flynn) hasnâ€™t only become Highgardenâ€™s lordâ€”as Tyrion promisedâ€”but that heâ€™s joined the Small Council as Master of Coin alongside Grand Maester Sam, Master of Ships Davos, and Kingsguard Brienne (Gwendoline Christie). Grey Worm and the Unsullied, having fought for so much and settling for so little real justice, consign themselves to head back to Naath, presumably with the Dothraki, though who really knows or cares at this point? Jon, as punishment for murdering Daenerys, is once more stripped of name, claim, and title, and heads back to the Nightâ€™s Watch, alongside Tormund (Kristofer Hivju) and his direwolf, Ghostâ€”which is pretty fitting considering how dispensable and pet-like both of those characters have been for Jon.
All the complexities that have distinguished many a Game of Thrones episode over the years are absent here; in their place are easy, if at times quite cinematic, table-clearing gestures. This is especially true of the way in which one of the last scenes too-cleverly cuts between Arya, Jon, and Sansaâ€™s final journeys. Theyâ€™ve all gotten exactly what they want, with Arya charging to the west in relative anonymity aboard a ship, Jon comfortably integrated into a ragtag family of like-minded outcasts, and Sansa, as the Queen of the North, finally recognized for her unique strengths. You donâ€™t doubt that they all face difficult journeys, but the way the story of the Seven Kingdoms is reduced in the homestretch to the rising of four Starks feels pat, especially as a choral version of the showâ€™s theme song kicks in, unintentionally emphasizing how everything about Game of Thrones has grown so increasingly limited in scope aside from the cruelty of its violence.
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Review: Huluâ€™s Catch-22 Lyrically Depicts a Warâ€™s Inanities and Horrors
Huluâ€™s adaptation of Joseph Hellerâ€™s novel invites our laughter, contemplation, and shock in equal measure.3.5
Immediately following the opening credits of the first episode of Catch-22, Huluâ€™s adaptation of Joseph Hellerâ€™s satirical novel set during World War II, Lieutenant Scheisskopf (George Clooney) berates a pack of Air Force cadets for their imperfect marching form. As he hurls insults at them, a series of close-ups introduces some of the young men, one by one, as their names are displayed on screen. By the end of the six-episode miniseries, many of them will be dead, having been shot out of the sky or chopped to shreds by jet propellers. But for now, they must reckon with the fact that, in the process of marching, theyâ€™re unacceptably swinging their wrists more than four inches away from their thighs.
Following their training with Scheisskopf, bombardier John Yossarian (Christopher Abbott) and his fellow servicemen are deployed to the base on the island of Pianosa, Italy, to complete 25 missions before they can be discharged. But the bumbling Colonel Cathcart (Kyle Chandler) and Lieutenant Colonel Korn (Kevin J. Oâ€™Connor) keep arbitrarily raising the mission requirement, all the way to 55, steadily increasing the body count as a result.
The expanding barrier to Yossarianâ€™s discharge leads him to recognize that the gravest threat to his life isnâ€™t enemy fire, but the bureaucratic machine that repeatedly exposes him to it. At one point, in reference to the map that indicates his unitâ€™s bombing route, Yossarian says to a superior, â€śThatâ€™s what itâ€™s come down to for us. Weâ€™re afraid of a line on a map. Do you know what that feels like? To be afraid of a piece of string?â€ť Itâ€™s a haunting, lucid bit of dialogue. String, red tape, itâ€™s all the same: forces that doom more soldiers than they save.
Catch-22 rarely wastes a second as it cuts away from scenes mid-conversation or mid-word, zigzagging between satirical depictions of warâ€™s inanityâ€”best exemplified by the ineptitude of those in upper commandâ€”and sublime visions of its horror. The series invites our laughter, contemplation, and shock in equal measure. Often, mess officer turned war profiteer Milo Minderbinder (Daniel David Stewart) elicits all three. He spends much time off screen, gallivanting around the Mediterranean and Middle East theater with his miniature army of Italian boy-laborers, building up his international trade â€śsyndicateâ€ť by buying and selling eggs, goats, and other goods. The scenes in which he does show up can barely contain the blistering energy with which he explains his supply-and-demand magic tricks.
In one episode of the miniseries, Yossarian joins Minderbinder on one of his journeys to court world leaders and economic bigwigs, offering viewers a more leisurely look into the extent of the latterâ€™s operation and the single-mindedness of his aspirations. It turns out that Minderbinder isnâ€™t just some lunatic peddling tomatoes and olive oil; heâ€™s become, among other things, the mayor of Palermo, Sicily, thanks to his lucrative shuffling-around of scotch. As Minderbinderâ€™s success makes clear, the only people who benefit from war are those like him: the vultures who pick at the bones that bloodshed exposes.
Cathcart and Kornâ€™s incompetence is as layered as Minderbinderâ€™s ambition. After they mistake the rank of one recruit (Lewis Pullman)â€”his legal name is Major Major Major, so they think heâ€™s a majorâ€”they promote him in order to save themselves the work of revoking the access to higher-up meetings that the mix-up has granted him. In the moment, the exchange is absurdly comical; Chandler sells Cathcartâ€™s doltishness with his furrowed brow alone. But Majorâ€™s promotion ultimately proves to be less funny than disquieting: Heâ€™s spared from combat for no reason other than his name and the indolence of his commanders. For the rest of the series, his continued survival serves as a symbol of warâ€™s ultimate irrationality.
While Major hides out in his cushy office, Yossarian routinely embarks on bombing missionsâ€”beautifully depicted scenes that show balletically synchronized planes flying over Italian hills. Death seems all but assured as flak explodes in the air around the American planes and Yossarian centers churches and bridges in the crosshairs of his bombsight. But gradually, these sequences begin to blur together, diminishing both their visual splendor and the palpable sense of danger they seek to evoke. They become almost mundane, conveying how war can over time have a numbing effect. Yossarian flies, destroys something far below, narrowly evades death, and files a form to add the completed mission to his tally. But the tally never grows great enough to send Yossarian home. Neither valor nor paperwork will save him from the warâ€™s insatiable appetite for havoc.
The most riveting sequence of the series comes at its halfway point, as Yossarian and his friends are relaxing at the beach, just off-shore. A friendly plane flying low over the water accidentally rams one of the boyish soldiers at full speed, killing him. The young pilot goes into shock, steering his jet straight up into the sky, his windshield splattered with blood and the musical score making a rare appearance on the soundtrack. At the height of his climb, the pilot turns off the jetâ€™s ignition, leading to a strikingly composed shot: From the beach, we see the plane plummeting down the middle of the frame, bathing-suited witnesses standing at either side of its descending form like a sea parted. The moment expresses the calamitous stakes that the opening parade-marching sequence belied. Because what has all this beenâ€”the flying, the missions, the paperwork, the warâ€”if not an extraordinary act of self-destruction?
Cast: Christopher Abbott, Kyle Chandler, George Clooney, Rafi Gavron, Giancarlo Giannini, Gerran Howell, Hugh Laurie, Graham Patrick Martin, Kevin J. O'Connor, Daniel David Stewart, Tessa Ferrer, Jay Paulson, Jon Rudnitsky, Julie Ann Emery, Pico Alexander, Miranda Hennessy, Grant Heslov, Lewis Pullman, Martin Delaney Network: Hulu
Game of Thrones Recap: Season 8, Episode 5, â€śThe Bellsâ€ť
As David Benioff and D.B. Weiss show with this masterful rebuttal of an episode, itâ€™s never too late to choose a different narrative.
â€śThe Bells,â€ť the penultimate episode of the eighth and final season of Game of Thrones, gives fans all the bloodshed theyâ€™ve been clamoring for, especially with the realization of the Cleganebowl fan theory, but does so in a way that constantly chastises the audience for demanding it in the first place. At times, you may be justified in thinking that Michael Haneke was behind the camera. Thereâ€™s the crucial moment when Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) sits atop Drogon on the outer walls of Kingâ€™s Landing, having just eradicated all those scorpion ballistas and shattered the Iron Fleet. The battle is essentially won, but sheâ€™s gripped by rage, and instead of respecting the ringing bells that signal surrender, she and Drogon proceed to methodically mass murder the cityâ€™s people.
Several plots are resolved anticlimactically, almost out of spite, and the heroesâ€”those who donâ€™t become villains, at leastâ€”donâ€™t win so much as survive. Two episodes ago, Arya (Maisie Williams) stared down the existential threat of the Night King and said, â€śNot today.â€ť But here thereâ€™s no room for quips in the face of so much needless violence. Thereâ€™s no pretext of war to defend anyoneâ€™s actions, just 30 minutesâ€™ worth of straight-up murder; this isnâ€™t like the Red Wedding, where there was at least a tactical advantage gained by the heinous act.
The episode, so fixated on peopleâ€™s failed attempts at righteousness, is filled with haunting vignettes depicting mothers desperately trying to shelter their children. At one point, Arya attempts to pull a mother to safety, only for the woman to insist that she abandon her and take her daughter alone. And itâ€™s then that the daughter pushes Arya away, running back to her mother, whereupon the two are instantly immolatedâ€”heroism be damned.
Even the scenes that seem safe to unapologetically applaud are turned on their heads. Itâ€™s one thing when Harry Strickland (Marc Rissman), leader of the Golden Company, flees in vain from the Dothraki charging toward him. But when this same shot is mirrored later in the episode, only now with an ash-covered Arya running toward the camera, weâ€™re left far more conflicted about the consequences of the war we asked for. Something similar is articulated in the showdown between Cerseiâ€™s (Lena Headey) two lovers, Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Euron (Pilou AsbĂ¦k). Itâ€™s not an elegant fight between knights, but a desperate scrap between a one-armed man and a half-drowned pirate, and while Jaime technically survives, Euron dies knowing that heâ€™s delivered a fatal blow. Defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.
The battle between Sandor (Rory McCann) and his undead brother, Ser Gregor (HafĂľĂłr JĂşlĂus BjĂ¶rnsson), follows a similar script. Sandor hacks away at his brother, but to no avail. The fight is gorgeously staged, with Gregor at one point standing so tall on the staircase above his brother that he eclipses the sun, and it culminates in a haunting act of self-sacrifice. Knowing this battle is unwinnable, Sandor tackles his brother through a wall and the camera watches from afar as their tangled bodies fall down and into the fiery depths below. Battling for vengeance results only in death, and if Sandor chuckles at his fate, itâ€™s only with the satisfaction of knowing he may have saved Arya from a similar end.
Although â€śThe Bellsâ€ť is subversive, it isnâ€™t written out of left field by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. For better and worse, this is what theyâ€™ve been building to. In fact, they spend the quieter first third of the episode reminding viewers of that foundation. Varys (Conleth Hill) is executed by dragonâ€™s breath, and just as Daenerys promised if she ever learned of his insolence. Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) admits to turning Varys in, which the once-invaluable eunuch accepts with equanimity. â€śGoodbye old friend,â€ť Varys says, bravely staring down death, knowing that he at least tried to do the right thing. And thatâ€™s a sentiment thatâ€™s later echoed in the episode, when Tyrion frees his brother against Daenerysâ€™s wishes, hoping that Jaime can succeed where he failed by convincing Cersei to surrender.
The seeds are sown for Jon Snowâ€™s (Kit Harington) realization, too, that doing the right thing may mean turning against his loyalty to Daenerys, especially given their earlier conversation. â€śI donâ€™t have love here, I only have fear,â€ť says Daenerys, explaining why Jonâ€™s secret was so dangerous to share. Jon tries to convince her otherwise, but when he uncomfortably breaks off her kiss, she transforms before his eyes: â€śAll right then. Let it be fear.â€ť
The episodeâ€™s story strands are certainly neatly braided together, but itâ€™s easy to question Daenerysâ€™s moment of decisiveness. Given how simple it was for her to force a surrender, which is to say without that much collateral damage, itâ€™s odd that her council was so dead-set against it, and to the point of Varys committing treason. For three seasons, the writers have been stretching things out by suggesting that there was no way for the dragons to take Kingâ€™s Landing without so many innocent casualties, and that was when she had three of them, and Qyburn (Anton Lesser)â€”so quickly and obligatorily disposed of in this episodeâ€”hadnâ€™t yet built an arsenal of ballistae. Itâ€™s a rather convenient bit of writing that gets us to the tipping point where Daenerys, having won, essentially scores an own goal.
Where it matters, though, â€śThe Bellsâ€ť delivers. Daenerysâ€™s line about fear or love is echoed by Sandorâ€™s warning to Arya about moving past vengeance, and these two dichotomies are the ones that ring true throughout the episode. â€śLook at me,â€ť bellows Sandor as the Red Keep begins to crumble around them, noting that Cerseiâ€™s already lost, whether Arya does the deed herself or not. â€śYou want to be like me?â€ť Shots of Sandor fighting his brotherâ€”a manifestation of death itself, which Sandor ultimately embracesâ€”are juxtaposed with those of Arya choosing life, abandoning her kill list and attempting to flee the city. When Sandor gets knocked down, thereâ€™s nobody to pick him up, but when Arya falls, a kindly refugee comes to her aid.
Sandor has been rushing toward his inevitable death for some time, and the episode ends with Arya, however improbably, riding away from hers, out of the hallucinatory ruins of Kingâ€™s Landing atop a pale horse. And though Jaime and Cersei die futilely, the keep collapsing on top of them, they do so bittersweetly in each otherâ€™s arms, gazing at one another: â€śNothing else matters.â€ť As Benioff and Weiss show with this masterful rebuttal of an episode, a upending of so many expectations, itâ€™s never too late to choose a different narrative.
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Review: Season Three of Joe Swanbergâ€™s Easy Boasts a Subtle Urgency
The final season fulfills the possibilities of the showâ€™s concept, informing it with humanist fury.3.5
With Easy, Joe Swanberg utilizes an anthology series format to double down on the preoccupation that drives most of his films. Swanberg is obsessed with the transitory moments that occur in between big events in our lives, which he sees as the meat of existence. Set in his home city of Chicago, Easy mostly concerns the sort of people who are presumably in Swanbergâ€™s own orbit: middle-class artists and intellectuals who are self-conscious and given to chewing over potential decisions in elaborate conversations with friends and lovers. Such conversations compose the bulk of the series, and episodes end when characters are about to finally act on the issue theyâ€™ve been debating. For Swanberg, inciting incidents are climaxes, expressions of the inner turmoil engulfing his characters.
The third season of Easy is reportedly its last, and thereâ€™s a subtle urgency to it. Swanberg revisits characters from the prior seasons, and theyâ€™re a little older and even more panicked with the passing of time, and the gradual slipping away of their lives, than before. And like the earlier seasons, this one is primarily concerned with loneliness and alienation as expressed through sex or a lack thereof, as well as the intersection between sex, money, and technology.
Swanberg continues to forge a variety of contexts in which money and authority, as expressions of power, confuse sex. In the first season, Kyle (Michael Chernus) and Andi (Elizabeth Reaser) decided to experiment with an open marriage, implicitly as a reaction to the emasculating difference in their incomesâ€”Kyle is a stay-at-home dad writing a play while Andi earns quite a bit of money as an executiveâ€”which was bleeding over into the bedroom as a stale sex life. This season, Swanberg reveals that arrangement to have led to something of a role reversal, as Kyle is enjoying a series of encounters with a variety of attractive women, while Andi becomes obsessed with a former friend whoâ€™s in a monogamous marriage.
In another episode, graphic novelist Jacob Malco (Marc Maron) continues to wrestle with his self-absorption, particularly when a former student, Beth (Melanie Lynskey), accuses him of exploiting his position as a guest lecturer to sleep with her. In a new storyline, a street vendor named Skrap (Kali Skrap) blows his moneyâ€”and his opportunity to get into business for himselfâ€”in a strip club, which culminates in this seasonâ€™s most purely erotic sex scene: a neon-lit fuck thatâ€™s driven by the potentially exhilarating reduction of sex to a capitalist transaction, as the participants at least know where they stand.
Skrap is a doer, and his â€śdoingâ€ť limits him in a fashion thatâ€™s ironically similar to the self-pitying navel-gazing of the more prosperous and comfortable characters. He appears in the seventh episode of this season, at which point Easy suddenly adopts a lively and lurid tempo thatâ€™s reminiscent of Swanbergâ€™s 2017 film Win It All. Swanberg appears to be testing himself, seeing if he can extend his portrait of communal uncertainty and repression to include characters of other emotional temperatures and socio-economic landscapes. And he can. Swanbergâ€™s direction really swings in this episodeâ€”his camera swirling back and forth between Skrapâ€™s volleying of slangy propositions to his compatriots and business associates as he attempts to make a dollar and climb out of the hole heâ€™s dug for himself.
Skrapâ€™s interlude with a stripper offers a physical catharsis for the season, which is largely concerned with talk of sex rather than the act itself. Swanberg achieves a tricky balance, maintaining an aura of the unspoken among extended confessional outpourings. Most of Easyâ€™s characters are well-versed in pop psych, and Swanberg empathizes with their need for these clichĂ©s while maintaining a distance from them. Perpetually lonely Annie (Kate Micucci) experiments with the idea of being a â€śyesâ€ť person, saying yes to every date sheâ€™s asked on for 30 days, an endeavor that comes to seem as contrived and limiting as the timid tendencies sheâ€™s resisting. Malco is so eaten up with his career, and his feelings of persecution by women, that heâ€™s missing a love story that might be opening up right in front of him, and so on.
In conventional dramas, confessions often solve problems, tidying up narrative issues and leaving us with a sense of closure. By contrast, when Swanbergâ€™s characters confess to their loved ones, they often open up other vortexes of misunderstanding; heâ€™s intensely attuned to the idea that we each live our own reality, especially in the realms of sex and romance, and that weâ€™re each at the mercy of our demons, our private suspicions of inadequacy. These quandaries are dramatized with particular acuity in the narrative concerning Kyle and Andi, who are the backbone of the series, and who are accorded two of this seasonâ€™s nine episodes. Throughout the three seasons, Swanberg has fashioned a fulsome examination of a married couple in bits and pieces that, in the moment, often seem unceremonious.
Kyle and Andi, who donâ€™t have easily discernable and contrasting viewpoints, donâ€™t fight the way most couples in movies and television shows do. Swanberg imparts the sense that these are decent-enough people who are totally lost, who will never find what theyâ€™re looking for, perhaps because the greatest illusion of our lives is the idea that we are protagonists who exist to actualize, well, a narrative. Kyleâ€™s midlife sex fest loses its fantasy appeal, yet Kyle needs it, perhaps at the expense of his marriage. In a bravura conversation at a bar, which lasts roughly half of the seasonâ€™s longest episode, Kyle and Andi talk exhaustingly in circles, puncturing illusions about themselves to ultimately little avail. Itâ€™s a mark of this narrativeâ€™s mystery that one canâ€™t quite tell whether or not these two people are still in love.
Such a fractious, terrifying story of loneliness lived together complements Annieâ€™s plight. She may be in danger of never finding â€śthe one,â€ť but in many ways she seems better off than Kyle and Andi. Swanberg illustrates the similar bonds shared by both, giving convincing voice to the idea that weâ€™re all in the same boat. Yet this assertion is anything but soothing, suggesting an emotional non-exit. Swanbergâ€™s characters are trapped in their personalitiesâ€”their drives, desires, baggage, and individual ways of reading and imparting cues.
In Easyâ€™s third season, Swanberg informs his shaggy mosaic concept with humanist fury. Swanberg is a poet not only of conversation, but of gestures; for all the talk in this season, itâ€™s the physical moments, encapsulations of currents which words are inadequate to express, that truly haunt, illuminating the challenge and potential futility of communion.
When Drew (Jake Johnson) and Sophie (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who separated when the latter moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career, are on the verge of reconciling in a hotel room, their body language casually expresses the pleasure, and the torment, of profound desire and familiarity. When an old fissure threatens the nightâ€™s pleasure, Drew moves backward a pace away from her, unmistakably changing the encounterâ€™s tempo. Such swift revelations occur routinely throughout the season: When Kyle sleeps with women much fitter and younger than him, weâ€™re allowed to feel his knowledge of this discrepancy, and when Annie goes on an awkward date, we can feel her retreating into herself.
There are several reconciliations in this season of Easy, resolving plot threads that were left hanging by the first two seasons, yet weâ€™re always keyed into the tension, the work, of being with people, whether weâ€™re sleeping with them, opening a business with them, or trying to keep a sibling relationship aliveâ€”work which pertains to accommodating our multiplicity of realities. Swanbergâ€™s curt, hard, funny, poignant vignettes reveal the showâ€™s title to be a perverse joke thatâ€™s believed by many of us, especially in youth. Life isnâ€™t easy.
Cast: Michael Chernus, Elizabeth Reaser, Marc Maron, Jane Adams, Zazie Beetz, Dave Franco, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Jake Johnson, Melanie Lynskey, Kate Micucci, Kali Skrap, Kate Lyn Sheil Network: Netflix
Review: In Season Two, Fleabag Remains Authentic in Its Messiness
Despite a more straightforward approach, the series still boasts Phoebe Waller-Bridgeâ€™s unmistakable voice.3.5
Three years ago, the first season of Phoebe Waller-Bridgeâ€™s Fleabag didnâ€™t end neatly. Having alienated her family, the otherwise unnamed title character (Waller-Bridge) was broken down, left only with one bittersweet ray of hope: a loan to keep her floundering cafĂ© afloat, despite how much it reminded her of her recently deceased best friend. The audience was dropped randomly into this chaotic six-episode microcosm of her life and left it just as suddenly. Her characterization was so frank and vivid that it seemed like she had the capacity to go forward, not necessarily in a second season but beyond the bounds of the screen. Her future was uncertain, though she seemed to have one nonetheless. The danger of a belated sophomore season, then, is that it might upend the first seasonâ€™s near-perfect balance of acerbic comedy and emotional devastation. But Waller-Bridge slides effortlessly back into Fleabagâ€™s existence, having lost none of her dizzying spark as an actor and storyteller.
The first episode picks up over a year after the events of the last season, at an awkward family dinner celebrating the engagement of Fleabagâ€™s father (Bill Paterson) to her fabulously passive-aggressive godmother (Olivia Colman). Things have changed. Fleabag is no longer using sex to, as she puts it in a therapy session, â€śdeflect from the screaming void inside my empty heart.â€ť Her cafĂ© is doing well, though sheâ€™s not on good terms with her sister, Claire (Sian Clifford), whoâ€™s still with her goon of a husband, Martin (Brett Gelman). Also at the table: the drinking, foxphobic, swearing Catholic priest (Andrew Scott) whoâ€™s to officiate the wedding; itâ€™s â€śchic,â€ť Fleabagâ€™s godmother insists. Heâ€™s also, as the sisters later agree, hot.
In a departure from the showâ€™s previously more broad, disconnected nature, the second season is centered around the deepening relationship between Fleabag and the priest. The looming wedding marks a clear end point for the seasonâ€™s storyline, while the longing and tension between two ostensibly celibate people (both previously anything but) gives Waller-Bridge plenty of material to dredge up more comedyâ€”â€śHeâ€™s in a bad relationship,â€ť Fleabag vaguely says of the priest to her therapist (Fiona Shaw), who repeatedly insists there should be no jokes during the sessionâ€”and introspection about the nature of loss, love, and relationships. Waller-Bridge still has a huge swath of things on her mind, from the existential abyss that death leaves behind to what it means to rely on other people; jealousy and loneliness come with the territory, and family fits awkwardly into the middle of it all.
Fleabag still breaks the fourth wall with sly, perfectly timed asides and knowing, ainâ€™t-I-a-stinker glances. In a particularly memorable scene, sheâ€™s in the middle of telling Martin off when she suddenly stops to admire how well sheâ€™s doing, only to bungle the whole thing seconds later. But Scottâ€™s priest throws her amusingly off-balance. Their delightful chemistry buoys the showâ€™s newfound focus, with the priestâ€™s sweet optimism in flirtatious conflict with Fleabagâ€™s own quick, dry cynicism. He syncs up so well with her inner thoughts that he begins to outright invade them by noticing when she talks to the camera.
Given Fleabagâ€™s preoccupation with loss and the difficulty of facing the unknown, it feels natural for the show to take up questions of religion. And Waller-Bridge even uses those questions to analyze the very format of her show, with the fourth-wall-breaking paralleled to prayer. By positing comedy as a coping mechanism for the feelings Fleabag has yet to sort out, the series and the very camera the audience views it through come to represent a retreat inward, as well as a demonstration of control that its protagonist resents.
What makes Fleabag feel so authentic is its messiness. Its thematic questions are broad, its history is spooned out over time instead of at the most convenient expositional moments, and its characters are at once detailed and vague enough to suggest lives being lived, regardless of whether or not theyâ€™re lived on camera. Even the smallest roles are ascribed idiosyncrasies that allude to actual personhood, to say nothing of the depth and understanding displayed through main characters like Claire, Fleabag, their father, and the priest.
With the characters and their histories now mostly clear to the audience, the story moves along a somewhat less bold, more conventional path compared to last season, which constantly doubled back by recontextualizing and reexamining itself. Despite this more straightforward approach, though, the series still boasts Waller-Bridgeâ€™s unmistakable voice and her witty, resonant characterizations. For better or worse, the romantic through line and designated endpoint tie up threads left dangling last season, neatly boxing up some of the themes in the process rather than leaving them to hang in the air.
Cast: Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Olivia Colman, Andrew Scott, Sian Clifford, Bill Paterson, Brett Gelman, Jenny Rainsford, Hugh Skinner Network: Amazon Prime
Game of Thrones Recap: Season 8, Episode 4, â€śThe Last of the Starksâ€ť
Thereâ€™s no shortage of empty gestures throughout the latest episode of the series.
â€śThe Last of the Starksâ€ť begins with an extreme close-up of Jorah Mormontâ€™s (Iain Glen) corpse. Right away, the episode is a step back from the sweep of the Battle of Winterfell, homing in on a few casualties that are meant to synecdochally stand in for all of them. And thatâ€™s a misstep for not only reducing the scale of losses from the war against the undead, but also for doing so in the interest of narrative convenience.
We hear talk of how weary the survivors are but never glimpse their agony. Instead, weâ€™re offered a kind of performative shorthand: another of Jon Snowâ€™s (Kit Harington) instantly forgettable speechesâ€”this is the man they would make king?â€”and a disaffecting series of synchronized motions in which Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), Sansa (Sophie Turner), Arya (Maisie Williams), Samwell (John Bradley-West), and Jon step forward to burn the bodies of those who bravely died for them. Thereâ€™s no feeling behind these sequences because they suggest the fulfillment of a checklist, though that might not have been the case had the camera lingered just a while longer on, say, Daenerysâ€™s face as she kisses the forehead of her loyal protector.
The episodeâ€™s more intimate moments all lean into big, emotional gestures that exist above all else to get the ball rolling on wrapping up the charactersâ€™ stories. Take, for instance, Gendry (Joe Dempsie), the bastard son of Robert Baratheon. Formally recognized by Daenerys as a lord, Gendry immediately proposes to Arya upon almost being impaled by one of her arrows. She kisses him, then declines his offer: â€śIâ€™m not a lady. Thatâ€™s not me.â€ť And itâ€™s at that point that one feels that the book has been closed on Gendryâ€™s storyline.
Elsewhere, Bronn (Jerome Flynn) somehow manages to sneak into Winterfell and conveniently chances upon Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Tyrion (Peter Dinklage). Bronn is there to also conspicuously tie up loose ends, in this case to extort the two men for a better deal than the one their sister offered him for their heads. More frustrating, even when the episode focuses on more intimate facets of its charactersâ€™ lives, as with the long-suppressed chemistry between Jaime and Brienne (Gwendoline Christie), thereâ€™s an obligatory quality to the presentation that prevents the scenes from leaving a lasting impact.
It makes sense that Tyrion would push the sensitive topic of Brienneâ€™s virginity, giving his brother an opportunity to be her golden-armed knight, and in every sense of that phrase. But no sooner has Jaime chosen to remain in the North with Brienne, whoâ€™s still sworn to protect Sansa, than heâ€™s sneaking out into the night to ride south to confront his â€śhatefulâ€ť sister and to take account for the things he once did on her behalf. Jaime and Brienne share a plausibly teary goodbye, with Brienneâ€”so not accustomed to happinessâ€”begging him to stay and Jaime forced out of stubborn pride to drive her away like a too-loyal puppy, but we havenâ€™t seen enough of what theyâ€™ve both found to understand what theyâ€™ve lost. Worse, itâ€™s all so predictable. Jaime, like Arya and Sandor (Rory McCann), has a vengeful part to play elsewhere, meaning his happy ending with Brienne was never meant to be from the get-go.
The characters directly connected to the main plot are slightly better served, in particular Daenerys. The character grows in fascinating ways over the course of the episode, beginning with the way she quietly stews over the way the men praise Jonâ€™s dragon-riding heroism while overlooking her own. She doesnâ€™t pivot immediately to one extreme or another; she threads the needle between the unnecessary paranoia and wrath evinced by her Mad King father and the rightful concerns of a queen threatened by anotherâ€™s claim to her throne.
That this claimant is Daenerysâ€™s loyal lover makes her exchange with him all the more heartbreaking. She begs Jon to keep his heritage a secret, and as he honorably equivocates, she turns her breathless exhortation into a steely ultimatum. Sheâ€™s not wrong either: Jon tells Sansa, for some reason trusting that sheâ€™ll keep his secret, and she in turn tells Tyrion and, by extension, Varys (Conleth Hill). The more loyal allies that Daenerys loses, the more aware she is of how disliked she is by those sheâ€™s worked alongside, and how tenuous her position is with them. Indeed, she looks quite uneasy when others look first to Jon and not to her.
But â€śThe Last of the Starksâ€ť still doesnâ€™t carve enough room for such quiet developments, because it must tend to bigger, more hastily assembled ones. Thereâ€™s no time to focus on Daenerysâ€™s simmering anger, her losing faith in Jon. Nor does the episode care to underline the point that both she and Cersei (Lena Headey) as similar on account of the hard decisions they both make to remain in power: Daenerys cruelly pushing weary soldiers south and Cersei filling Kingâ€™s Landing with, essentially, naĂŻve refugees/hostages.
Instead, Varys jumps directly to talk of sedition when he hears his queen speak rather abstractly of destiny. We donâ€™t get to see much of the battle between Daenerysâ€™s naval forces and those of Euron Greyjoy (Pilou AsbĂ¦k). Ambushed, Daenerys abruptly loses one of her two remaining dragons (conveniently not the one sheâ€™s riding) to the scorpion ballistas seen in â€śThe Spoils of War,â€ť and the next thing we know, Missandrei (Nathalie Emmanuel) alone becomes Cerseiâ€™s captive, while Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson), Tyrion, and Varys are seen washing up ashore, otherwise unharmed and un-pursued.
Itâ€™s hard not to see this all as perfunctory, and the staging of the final sceneâ€™s attempt at diplomacy certainly doesnâ€™t help, with contingents from the two armies patiently staring one another down. Despite having been burned by Cersei twice before on the very subject of her unborn child, Tyrion begs her to surrender peacefully. Itâ€™s almost as if heâ€™s speaking a different language when he earnestly says, â€śI donâ€™t want to hear the screams of children burning alive,â€ť to which Cerseiâ€™s hand, Qyburn (Anton Lesser), dispassionately agrees, â€śNo, it is not a pleasant sound.â€ť Weâ€™ve hardly seen Cersei in this final season, with so much of the focus on Winterfell, and so thereâ€™s nothing to indicate that she might now, suddenly, see reason, or that sheâ€™s not the very monster that Jaime has acknowledged her to be. (The only question, perhaps, is why she stops only at having Missandrei beheaded, and not also Tyrion.)
Earlier in the episode, Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) tells Jon that he has a choice: to either tell Arya and Sansa that heâ€™s actually Aegon Targaryen or to bury that secret. But does he actually have a choice? We have seen that Jon is too stupidly stubbornâ€”and to the point of being stabbed to deathâ€”to do anything but what he thinks is right, just as we know that Cersei will never surrender the throne, not just because of her character, but because it would bring an end to the series at least an episode too early. Game of Thrones appears weakened the closer it draws to the end, for it no longer allows its characters to surprise us, and without that most human of traits, weâ€™re left with something closer to Game of Drones.
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Review: Chernobyl Is a Stark and Haunting Historical Drama
This is less a miniseries as five-hour movie than episodic television, with new narrative wrinkles introduced each week.3.5
The first episode of HBOâ€™s Chernobyl is devoted almost exclusively to the 1986 nuclear power plant explosion that occurred in Soviet Ukraine. No one at the plant is quite sure whatâ€™s going on, even as their faces redden from radiation. Firefighters arrive to find smoke and fire mingled into an unnatural yellow hue, an ethereal light that brings whole families out to watch from the bridge in nearby Pripyat, where theyâ€™re exposed to the harmful radiation. Bureaucrats insist nothing has gone wrong from the safety of a bunker. The imagery of this five-episode miniseries is stark and haunted, and the scope only expands outward for a far-reaching interrogation of Soviet values and human failures.
Though the miniseriesâ€™s eventual protagonists are largely absent from the first episode, it neatly outlines the conflicts they come to face: not only the disaster itself and the considerable task of mitigating further damage, but the obstinance of a government concerned with pride and secrecy to the point of outright denial. Itâ€™s a gripping concept that, considering the grave stakes and resulting devastation, needs little embellishment.
Though Chernobyl isnâ€™t without the familiar, awkward elements of docudramaâ€”strained exposition, summary speechesâ€”it successfully drowns out the clanging gears of historical reenactment through the sheer quality of its construction. It deploys a host of fantastic actors to lend desperate urgency to even the most potentially dry material. As Valery Legasov, the scientist who finds himself in charge of the cleanup, Jared Harris displays the sort of wounded dignity he brought to The Terror, while accessing new depths of emotion with cowering panic and fed-up snarls; no one seems willing to believe Valery when he says how bad the situation truly is. You can see the grueling process wear him down, as it does smug politician Boris Scherbina (Stellan SkarsgĂĄrd), who quickly drops his prickly exterior to become a crucial ally in accessing the considerable resources needed to deal with the disaster.
The explosionâ€™s aftermath is an interlocking series of tasks to perform, science to consider, and obstacles to navigate. Yet despite all the complicated moving parts, the series remains easy to follow and invest in, thanks not just to the strong turns by Harris and Emily Watson, who plays a composite of other scientists who worked with the real-life Legasov, but Chernobylâ€™s economical structure. This is less a miniseries as five-hour movie than episodic television, with new narrative wrinkles introduced each week. Itâ€™s unrelentingly grim materialâ€”one episode shows the men assigned to kill the irradiated pets that evacuees had left behindâ€”as well as totally engrossing, a deadly puzzle solved piece by piece with unorthodox solutions that give way to potentially ruinous complications. How can they clear a roof of reactor debris, for example, when itâ€™s so riddled with radiation that no clean-up devices will function? What happens when sand is superheated by the very fire itâ€™s meant to suppress?
For as easy as it would be to focus near-exclusively on the puzzle, however, screenwriter Craig Mazin takes care to foreground the disasterâ€™s human cost. We see a soon-to-be widow (Jessie Buckley) spend time with her dying husband (Adam Nagaitis, another alumni of The Terror), a fireman whose body gradually rots into a ghastly mass of sores and burns. Scenes are devoted to the surly coal miners who dig a tunnel beneath the reactor: their reluctant enlistment, a tense meeting with Legasov and Scherbina, and the sight of them all working in the nude to mitigate the heat. In exploring the context around the disasterâ€™s response, Chernobyl finds empathy for the affected as well as outrage for the human failures that led to the explosionâ€”the hubris, greed, the ignorance, and the clear preference for believing nothing is wrong.
Horrific sights are to be expected considering the subject matter, and director Johan Renck certainly doesnâ€™t shy away from people vomiting blood or the creepy emptiness of the space where the reactor core should be, lit with a yellow-green fire that makes it look like the mouth of hell. But he finds something else, too, in the emptiness and the destruction, aided by the gnarled beauty of Hildur GudnadĂłttirâ€™s spare, often distorted score. Huge plumes of smoke pour into the sky while a man gazes downward; he looks small against the scale of it all, and his face is a sickly red when he turns away. Power lines thread through transmission towers that linger uselessly around the plant, their metalwork built outward like the outstretched arms of scarecrows. With its twin focuses on humankindâ€™s ability to solve problems and its capacity for negligent destruction, Chernobyl arrives at an austere sort of grace.
Cast: Jared Harris, Emily Watson, Stellan SkarsgĂĄrd, Paul Ritter, Con Oâ€™Neill, Adrian Rawlins, Jessie Buckley, Adam Nagaitis Network: HBO
Review: Dead to Me Is a Quietly Radical Depiction of Griefâ€™s Emotional Haze
The series is at its strongest when using dissonance to reorient our understanding of loss.3
The opening scene of Netflixâ€™s Dead to Me immediately establishes the tone of creator Liz Feldmanâ€™s dark comedy. A kindly neighbor (Suzy Nakamura) has handed her interpretation of â€śMexican lasagnaâ€ť to Jen (Christina Applegate), a recently widowed real estate broker. The neighbor, standing outside Jenâ€™s front door, says that she and her husband, Jeff, are available if Jen ever wants to talk. She canâ€™t imagine what Jenâ€™s going through. â€śWell,â€ť Jen says, â€śitâ€™s like if Jeff got hit by a car and died suddenly and violently.â€ť The neighbor clears her throat, and when she starts to talk again, Jen slams the door, Dead to Meâ€™s title smacks the screen, and the horns of Judy Garlandâ€™s â€śGet Happyâ€ť erupt on the soundtrack.
Grief, as Dead to Me makes clear throughout its first season, is thoughtless. It progresses at its own pace and on its own terms, subjecting those who experience it to the volatility of its whims. Jen, whose husband, Ted, died in a hit-and-run accident a few months ago, lacks patience for grief. As a result, she tries to take matters into her own hands. Unsatisfied with the policeâ€™s sluggish inquiry into the identity of the driver who killed Ted, she conducts her own investigation. And sheâ€™s equally impatient with gestures of sympathy, like Mexican lasagna. One gets the sense that, to her, very little separates the caring from the cloying. Jenâ€™s anti-sentimentality, combined with her brashness and brutal honesty, leaves her with few people to lean on. But at a gathering of the Friends of Heaven grief support group, she meets Judy (Linda Cardellini), a jocular, talkative woman mourning the loss of her fiancĂ©. The two become friends, and Judy practically joins Jenâ€™s family, to the frustration of the latterâ€™s teenage son, Charlie (Sam McCarthy), and the joy of her younger son, Henry (Luke Roessler).
Jen and Judyâ€™s relationship is the showâ€™s centerpiece. Theyâ€™re the only characters who Dead to Me develops meaningfully and consistently, and only a small handful of scenes donâ€™t include at least one of them. Their conversations believably explore the thorniness of lossâ€”the way grief exhausts the bereaved, the self-reflection that loneliness prompts, the impossibility of filling certain voids. And Jen and Judy are funny to boot. Apologizing for Charlieâ€™s rudeness toward Judy, Jen says, â€śGod, heâ€™s been such a little dick since his dad died.â€ť This isnâ€™t a commonly presented reaction to grief, and the show abounds with similar surprises.
If grief is thoughtless, itâ€™s awkward as well. The counseling sessions, led by the empathetic Pastor Wayne (Keong Sim), luxuriate in cringe, thanks to Jenâ€™s outbursts and the meekness of her fellow mourners. But the awkwardness reaches its zenithâ€”or its nadirâ€”in one of the seasonâ€™s best episodes, which is set at a grief retreat that brings together various Friends of Heaven chapters. Jen gets drunk and meets the very handsome Jason (Steve Howey), a widower whose wife died in a sailing accident. They eventually hook up, in the process of which Jen compliments Jasonâ€™s physique. â€śThanks,â€ť he says, kissing her. â€śWhen my wife fell off the boat, I wasnâ€™t strong enough to save her.â€ť He goes on to explain that he vowed to â€śnever be weak again,â€ť and the shift from the promise of a sex scene to Jasonâ€™s narration is totally unexpected, simultaneously heartbreaking and intensely uncomfortable.
While its portrayal of grief tends to elicit the discomfort, pathos, and laughs it aims for, Dead to Me isnâ€™t without its misses. Over the course of the season, an image becomes increasingly familiar to the point of fatigue: Jen leaving a crowded room, or entering a private one, and breaking down in tears. We recognize what sheâ€™s feeling, but the repetition of the sequence ends up diminishing rather than augmenting its power.
The treatment of Jenâ€™s angerâ€”the bedfellow of her impatienceâ€”is also underwhelming. Jen has a penchant for heavy metal, and she regularly blasts it in her car in pursuit of catharsisâ€”or, at least, in an effort to drown out what keeps catharsis out of her reach. But Dead to Me doesnâ€™t do much with Jenâ€™s affinity for blistering guitars and screamed vocals. The series, it seems, is content to have us gawk at the upper-class blond white lady bobbing her head to heavy metal. Because the detail is tacked-on and purely performative, it undermines the interiority that itâ€™s meant to convey. This and other familiar attempts at unexpected characterization hamstring the showâ€™s worthwhile investment in dissonanceâ€”between the expected and the unexpected, happiness and misery, humor and pain.
In contrast, the depiction of an escalating argument between Jen and Judy at a restaurant succeeds in fleshing out the former, in part because it allows her sadness and anger to bleed into each other. In doing so, the mid-season scene achieves a complexity that skirts melodrama. Dead to Me is at its strongest when presenting such tangled psychological landscapes in order to reorient our understanding of loss. Itâ€™s funny and sad, often both and rarely neither, a compelling and quietly radical depiction of griefâ€™s emotional haze.
Cast: Christina Applegate, Linda Cardellini, James Marsden, Sam McCarthy, Luke Roessler, Keong Sim, Brandon Scott, Max Jenkins, Edward Asner, Suzy Nakamura Network: Netflix
Game of Thrones Recap: Season 8, Episode 3, â€śThe Long Nightâ€ť
The episode gives the audience exactly what it expects, and absolutely nothing else.
Despite the eighth and final season of Game of Thrones having already spent two full episodes watching its characters mentally and physically readying for the Battle of Winterfell, â€śThe Long Nightâ€ť opens with further preparations. We first track alongside Samwell Tarly (John Bradley-West), cold and quaking with fear, practically jumping out of his skin as fellow soldiers suddenly bark out orders in his periphery. The camera then follows Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) for a bit, long enough at least to show us the wheelchair-bound Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) being pushed into position in the Godswood.
This hustle and bustle doesnâ€™t evoke anything emotional so much as it suggests the clockwork of the showâ€™s title sequence: Watch as all your favorite pieces take their places. Thereâ€™s Podrick Payne (Daniel Portman), Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie), and Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). In front of them, Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) and the Unsullied. In another direction, we catch glimpses of Tormund (Kristofer Hivju), Beric Dondarrion (Richard Dormer), The Hound (Rory McCann), Gendry (Joe Dempsie), and Edd (Ben Crompton). And then thereâ€™s Ghostâ€”the only time in this episode youâ€™ll see Jonâ€™s dogâ€”and Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen).
Never has Game of Thrones felt so much like a game than it does in â€śThe Long Night,â€ť and never at a worse time, with the stakes so existentially high as a last stand between the living and the dead. The episode is entertaining in the way that Avengers: Infinity War is: It gives you exactly what youâ€™d expect, and absolutely nothing else.
Every character who dies in â€śThe Long Nightâ€ť goes out with some measure of glory, even Edd, who, despite getting stabbed in the back, still manages to save fan-favorite Samwell in the process. Lyanna Mormont (Bella Ramsey), the littlest of all the fighters at Winterfell, is crushed to death by a wight giant, but with her last breath delivers a death blow, piercing one of her enemyâ€™s ice-blue eyes. Jorah dies, of course, cradled in the arms of Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), as his only real purpose on the show has been to protect her. And then thereâ€™s Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), who predictably outlives all of the other Ironborn guarding Bran in the Godswood, and just long enough for Bran to tell him that heâ€™s a good man. And itâ€™s thenâ€”and only thenâ€”that Theon is killed in one stroke by the Night King (VladimĂr FurdĂk).
If thatâ€™s not clockwork enough, thereâ€™s the return of Melisandre (Carice van Houten), who tells her sworn enemy, Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham), that thereâ€™s no need to execute her, as â€śIâ€™ll be dead before the dawn.â€ť (True to form, she abandons her age-defying necklace at episodeâ€™s end and walks out into the rising sun to die, her final and convenient purpose having been fulfilled.) Like Bran, she embodies the worst, most prophetic, and rule-breaking portions of Game of Thrones. To her, Beric Dondarrion isnâ€™t a character worth mourning, but rather a device to be resurrected as many times as necessary so that he can now die serving the showâ€™s own present purpose: to protect Arya Stark (Maisie Williams).
â€śThe Long Nightâ€ť isnâ€™t only long, it tasks itself with accomplishing too much. In between the wonderful, minimally scored beginning to the battle and the powerfully elegiac ending, the episode sets about busily satisfying a checklist. Director Miguel Sapochnikâ€™s previous battle-centric episodes, â€śHardhomeâ€ť and â€śBattle of the Bastards,â€ť benefitted from sticking to the at-times hopeless point of view of Jon Snow (Kit Harington), but here the editing is spread too wide, jumping from character to character, often mid-action. Additionally, the nighttime setting effectively makes it hard to tell what, exactly, is even going on half of the time, especially during the terribly CGIâ€™d dragon fight between Jon and the Night King. The episode clearly knows how to make artful use of shadow, as in the stealthy sequence with Arya in the library. That so much of it still turns to indistinct chaos is a reflection more on the corner Game of Thrones has written itself into than on any directorial failure.
To be generous, â€śThe Long Nightâ€ť is a purposely long shell game. It aims to distract us with the chaos of warfare so that we donâ€™t guess the inevitable conclusion of the battle against the undead army, namely, who the hero has to be, even though Melisandre outright tells us itâ€™s Arya. Though weâ€™ve already seen Lyanna have a similarly heroic moment, Arya faces the Night King and pierces him with her dagger, severing his link to all the other White Walkers and ending the battle with perfect dramatic timing, as Jon was about to get burnt to a crisp.
All the other important story beats get shuffled out of the way, all the better to make room for big, distracting deaths. Sansa (Sophie Turner) has so little to do in this episode that she actually tells Tyrion that hiding down in the crypts, way outside the main storyâ€™s way, is â€śthe most heroic thingâ€ť they can do. When the Night King raises the dead, leaving the two surrounded by wights, each armed with a dagger and a prayer, the camera cuts away from them. It lingers on their heroism but not on their subsequent show of heroism, because it has to tend of the business of fulfilling a contractually obligated battle elsewhere.
The battleâ€™s start, in which the Dothraki charge into the darkness with their flaming arakh sickle-swords held aloft, is satisfying. The Dothraki resemble an arrow of light in the distance, and the moment their flames are swallowed up one by one until thereâ€™s nothing but darkness and quiet left is more terrifying than anything the rest of the episode delivers. Once that tsunami of wights appears, the show falls back on predictable terrain, summoning visions from everything from Army of Darkness, as the dead climb Winterfellâ€™s walls, to World War Z, as the monsters fall through a ceiling. Every action, even the brief glimpses of the brave quaking with fear as death looms over them, feels like an inevitability, and by and large unsurprising. With the exception, perhaps, of the realization that the episodeâ€™s shell game is intentionally emptyâ€”mere table setting for the battle to come with Cersei Lannister.
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