Jenna-Louise Coleman, playing the Doctor’s new companion Clara, has certainly received the most protracted and complex introduction into the series of any regular cast member ever. She made a surprise appearance in the opening episode of this season, “Asylum of the Daleks”, portraying not Clara but a different character named Oswin Oswald, a crew member of a far-future spaceship who died after having been captured by the Daleks. This year’s Christmas special (like “Asylum,” written by showrunner Steven Moffat), was expected to be the episode that would see Clara introduced and begin her traveling with the Doctor. But Moffat, the master of unexpected plot twists, has faked us out again—apart from one brief glimpse, the Clara we see in this episode is not the companion-to-be. After the events of “The Snowmen,” while we can definitely welcome Jenna-Louise Coleman aboard Doctor Who, Clara remains, for both us and the Doctor, an enigma.
Coleman showed in “Asylum”—where she spent the whole story isolated from the rest of the cast – that she has a mesmerizing screen presence, even confined to sitting in a chair, communicating with other characters only over monitor screens. Given far more scope in this episode, she is even more impressive, right from Clara’s first appearance. A barmaid working in a London tavern of 1892, her attention is caught by an odd snowman that seems to have appeared instantaneously, just as her back was turned. The Doctor (Matt Smith), happening to pass by, takes a brief interest in the snowman, and there is an immediate spark between him and Clara. However, the Doctor has changed—he is no longer interested in solving mysteries, or in making new friends, and simply walks off. Intrigued, Clara impulsively pursues him, leaps onto his carriage, and an amusing shot of her upside-down face saying “Doctor who?” launches us into the titles.
The feeling of the show entering a new era is only increased by the unveiling of a new title sequence and theme music. During the five previous episodes, the production team experimented a little with the titles, fiddling with the colors and the texture of the logo, but now we have an entirely new sequence. On the whole I like the changes, particularly the toning down of the bombast of the previous titles—no thunderclaps or lightning flashes, and the blaring fanfares are also now not so prominent. The last part of the sequence (also utilized for the closing credits) is particularly effective, strongly evoking the vortex used in the title sequences of the 1970s. But the first half is a bit of a mess—it seems to be just a random assortment of images swirling around without much rhyme or reason. It is nice, though, to have a brief glimpse of the Doctor’s face in the titles for the first time since the show was brought back (something that was a fixture of the classic series for all the Doctors apart from the very first one). On the other hand, I could have done without the final gimmick, in which the TARDIS flies towards the camera and the doors open to reveal the opening shot of the first Act in exactly the same way the menus appear for the DVD releases of the classic series.
Later in the episode, we will discover that the interior of the TARDIS has also been completely revamped. Michael Pickwoad, the vastly talented production designer largely responsible for Doctor Who being one of the best-looking shows on television over the last two years, finally gets the chance to put his stamp on the show’s only standing set. In keeping with the changes in the Doctor’s character shown in this episode, the whimsy of the previous interior has been dialed back to something much more austere and streamlined. The feeling is once again of being at the control center of a machine, a vehicle, rather than entering a wizard’s home. The only part of the new interior I don’t like is the set of counter-rotating rings of lights at the top of the time rotor—an unnecessary embellishment that would be more at home on a game show. Hopefully, directors of future episodes will not feel the need to show these things spinning around madly every time the TARDIS takes off. Other than that minor complaint, though, I have nothing but praise for Saul Metzstein’s direction of this episode.
As I wrote in my piece on “Closing Time” last year, the idea of the Doctor going into retirement—becoming fed up with his unending life of travel, exploration and (usually) doing good deeds throughout the universe—dates back as far as Douglas Adams’ tenure as Doctor Who script editor in the late 1970s. Adams, advancing the idea in his characteristic comic manner, had the Doctor retiring more or less on a whim. Moffat, however, makes it a logical development of recent events. In the wake of the loss of his close friends Amy and Rory in “The Angels Take Manhattan”—a loss at least partly attributable to his inability to keep himself from dropping into their lives and dragging them into his adventures—it’s not at all surprising that the Doctor has become disillusioned and withdrawn. As he says, “Over a thousand years of saving the universe… Do you know the one thing I learned? The universe doesn’t care.”
It seems very appropriate that the Doctor creates a retreat for himself in the London of 1892. The Victorian era is a period that the show has always had an affinity for, with the classic series setting stories there several times—“The Evil of the Daleks” (1967), “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” (1977), and “Ghost Light” (1989) are all high points in Doctor Who’s run. In 2005, Victorian-era Cardiff provided the backdrop for the revived series’s first historical episode, “The Unquiet Dead.” The period is also the source of a lot of our standard Christmas imagery, making it particularly fitting for a Christmas special (as seen in 2008’s “The Next Doctor,” and even the ersatz Victoriana of 2010’s “A Christmas Carol”).
But the significance of the Victorian milieu goes beyond providing the opportunity for the show to present a sumptuously realized period background for the story (something at which the BBC costume and production design departments have always excelled). The Doctor himself has always borne the influence of this period in his manner of dress, especially the original Doctor, William Hartnell. His successors in the classic series tended to tone down or caricature the Victorian element in their costumes, but it returned in full force with Paul McGann’s short-lived Eighth Doctor in the telemovie that failed to lead to a revival of the series in 1996. When the show actually returned nine years later, it made a deliberate break with the past by putting Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor into a leather jacket. Only in the last year or so, with Matt Smith sporting a long green coat in some of the later episodes of the 2011 series, has the Victorian element slowly crept back into the Doctor’s silhouette.
In this episode, though, the Doctor is presented as fully Victorian, a rather grumpy figure in a dark frock coat and a tall hat that recalls one occasionally worn by Patrick Troughton. Sometimes in Doctor Who, it’s necessary to suspend one’s disbelief at how the people the Doctor encounters generally seem to cope with his odd outfits without comment, but not here. It’s disconcerting to see the Doctor, whose clothes usually set him apart from the times and places he finds himself in, fitting in so well. No better method could have been found to visually indicate how the Doctor is trying to suppress his usual nature. And, of course, there’s a lovely payoff later when he finally takes an active part in the story, and discovers he has unconsciously put on his normal bow-tie before doing so. As he turns back towards the Doctor we know, so too does his outward appearance.
With the Doctor initially refusing to get involved, Moffat needed someone else to take over his usual role of getting mixed up in strange events and setting the story into motion. For this purpose, he makes great use of three characters that he created for 2011’s mid-season finale “A Good Man Goes to War”. The pairing of the Silurian investigator, Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh) and her maid/lover, Jenny Flint (Catrin Stewart), had made a great impression on their first appearance and were a natural choice to bring back for this story, since they were already based in the correct time period. Adding the Sontaran warrior Strax (Dan Starkey) to serve as their butler was an inspired touch. Together, the three make a kind of steampunk Scooby Gang, no doubt already inspiring plenty of fan-fiction writers. It’s certainly easy to imagine a spinoff series being developed around these characters.
Vastra, in a very Doctor-like manner, confronts the villain of the piece, Dr. Walter Simeon (Richard E. Grant), who she has determined has some connection with the strange snowmen that have been appearing. The concept of snow (or rather, an alien intelligence distributed among snow-like flakes) that can mirror the thoughts and feelings of those near it is another neat idea of Moffat’s, and he develops it well. The snowmen, with their wide, grinning mouths full of shark-like teeth, are a quirky and memorable monster design, no doubt appropriately scary for Doctor Who’s younger viewers. It’s probably fortunate, though, that we never see them actually move—like many other Who monsters, they are at their best when looming menacingly, rather than lumbering slowly in pursuit of some luckless victim. In fact, apart from the implied massacre of a few nameless workers in the teaser, the snowmen have a fairly minor role in the story. The main focus is a contest of wills between the mysterious intelligence, Simeon, and the Doctor.
Richard E. Grant has had two previous, rather tangential brushes with Doctor Who—although both of them, oddly, involved playing the Doctor. Back in 1999, in Steven Moffat’s hilarious spoof of the show written for Comic Relief, The Curse of Fatal Death, he was one of a whole line of well-known actors playing later regenerations of the Doctor, being given about a minute of screen time. Then, in 2003, he created a putative Ninth Doctor for a web-based animation, Scream of the Shalka by Paul Cornell, which would have led to further adventures had the whole project not been derailed by the announcement of Doctor Who’s return to television under Russell T Davies, and relegated to a footnote in Who history. He certainly makes more of an impact playing a villain, giving Simeon an appropriately frozen intensity at all times that suggests this man hasn’t so much as smiled in decades. The flashback scene at the top of the show makes it clear that as a boy, the painfully shy, introverted Simeon avoided all other company, making him an easy target for the manipulations of the intelligence behind the snow. (Incidentally, while it’s great that the show managed to get such a high-profile actor as the wonderful Ian McKellen to provide the voice of the intelligence, hearing Gandalf’s distinctive tones emanating from a giant snowglobe wanting to rule the world was possibly the most unsettling aspect of the whole episode.)
The Doctor: “Don’t try to run away; stay where you are.”
Clara: “Why would I run? I know what’s going to happen next, and it’s funny.”
Meanwhile, the Doctor tries to deal with Clara, in a laugh-out-loud sequence involving Strax and a “memory worm”—a not very convincing alien which looks like an escapee from the late, lamented Sarah Jane Adventures. The scene is particularly admirable not only for the comedy, which Dan Starkey and Matt Smith execute with impeccable timing, but also because of the way that (in retrospect) Moffat uses it to hide in plain sight the method by which the Doctor will deal with Simeon. As always with Moffat episodes, the script is packed full of plot elements and lines of dialogue with multiple purposes.
The interaction between Smith and Coleman fizzes along, and they already feel like a well-practiced team as the Doctor and Clara face their first shared danger: the snow starts picking up thoughts from Clara and creates a horde of the menacing snowmen around them. After they escape, the Doctor still wants nothing to do with any possibility of companionship, but Clara easily evades Strax and follows the Doctor back to his hidden TARDIS. There’s some lovely imagery as she finds herself climbing a ladder and a huge, invisible spiral staircase leading to a cloud-like platform, and knocking on the door of the police box. At this point it’s easy to imagine this girl as the Doctor’s new companion, but Moffat has something more complex in mind. And so she reconsiders, and heads back down the staircase before the Doctor can find her.
The next day, we discover that Clara is leading a double life—in the course of a carriage ride, she transforms herself from Oliver Twist’s Nancy into a prim Mary Poppins. Both the character and the actress playing her get to show off their versatility as, with sculpted enunciation worthy of Julie Andrews, Clara resumes her role of governess to the two children of Captain Latimer (Tom Ward), a widower who is clearly smitten with her—when his house is later invaded by all manner of weirdness, the thing that most arrests his attention is the Doctor trying to pass himself off as Clara’s “gentleman friend.”
Clara learns that one of her young charges, Francesca (Ellie Darcey-Alden), has been having nightmares about their previous governess, who drowned some weeks ago in the ornamental pond in front of their house. When she notices that the pond is still frozen over even though the snow everywhere around it has thawed, Clara realizes she needs the Doctor’s help. But attempting to find the TARDIS again soon brings her to the notice of Jenny, who takes her to see Vastra. The Silurian tells Clara that she, Jenny and Strax act as the Doctor’s gatekeepers: “We assist him in his isolation, but that does not mean we approve of it.”
The scene between Vastra and Clara is an excellent one that gives Coleman her first chance to portray Clara as something deeper than cute and perky. Vastra demands that she restrict herself to one-word answers to her questions (“Truth is singular; lies are words, words, words”), and Coleman adroitly shows Clara carefully thinking through each response. She even sometimes gains the upper hand; when she suggests that the Doctor should help her out of kindness, Vastra is goaded into expressing her own disappointment with the Doctor’s inactivity (“The Doctor is not kind… He stands above this world and doesn’t interfere in the affairs of its inhabitants. He is not your salvation nor your protector. Do you understand what I am saying to you?”). Clara’s retort is simply: “Words.” Impressed, Vastra proposes a final test:
Vastra: “Give me a message for the Doctor. Tell him all about the snow and what fresh danger you believe it presents. And above all, explain why he should help you.” (As Clara starts to speak, Vastra stops her.) “But do it in one word.” (Off Clara’s expression:) “You’re thinking it’s impossible such a word exists, or that you could even find it. Let’s see if the gods are with you.”
This powerful scene is a great example of Moffat’s talent for adding depth to his plotting by seizing the chance to create resonances with earlier stories—resonances that can’t possibly have been planned in advance. Here, he must surely have started from the realization of the coincidence that Amy’s surname could also signify one of the crucial elements of this story. From there, the whole one-word-only thing must have been built up, so that the scene could reach its climax with Clara producing the only word that could break through the Doctor’s isolation: “Pond.” A costuming choice adds the final touch: up to this point we have seen the Doctor using the glasses he took from Amy in the previous episode—his only physical memento of her. After he hears the magic word, the glasses come off, and are not seen again.
With the turning point reached, the Doctor leaps into action, and almost immediately penetrates to the heart of Simeon’s scheme, running rings around the man with the sort of hyperactive wackiness (“Big globe-y thing!”) which normally sets my teeth on edge. Here, though, it works well, feeling like a release after the Doctor’s previous glum disposition. It’s also helped along by a very funny nod to Moffat’s other hit series, Sherlock. Accompanied by a music cue very reminiscent of that show, the Doctor enters dressed as the classic Sherlock Holmes, deerstalker and all, and starts throwing out deductions—all of them comically wrong—to keep Simeon off-balance. (Amusingly, earlier Simeon had told Vastra that Conan Doyle was “almost certainly” basing his Sherlock Holmes stories on her exploits.)
Finding a clue that leads him to the Latimer estate, the Doctor quickly works out that the drowned governess in the pond was being used by the alien intelligence to gain an understanding of the human form, so that it could create an army of minions more capable than the clumsy snowmen. Sure enough, Clara and the children are soon being menaced by a living ice sculpture in the shape of the woman (a beautiful effect, although unfortunately its movement can’t help betraying its CGI nature). The Doctor manages to temporarily disable it, but the house is surrounded by snowmen as Simeon arrives and demands that the creature be surrendered to him.
Another wonderful, extended two-hander scene between Smith and Coleman follows as the Doctor, followed by Clara, leads the ice creature up to the roof of the house to keep it isolated. Clara impresses the Doctor greatly with her quick-fire deduction that he has moved the cloud platform holding his TARDIS to hover over the house, and they escape up the ladder and staircase, drawing the creature after them. At the top, the Doctor quickly immobilizes the creature, and Clara finally gets to see inside the TARDIS. (And I must compliment director Metzstein here on showing the Doctor walking into the console room from outside the box, right up to the console and operating the controls, all in one seamless shot. I don’t remember that ever being achieved on the show before.)
The scene where someone gets introduced to the TARDIS is one of those fundamental Doctor Who sense-of-wonder moments that never gets old, and Smith and Coleman play this one perfectly. When the Doctor gives her a TARDIS key (“I never know why; I only know who”), the reappearance of the sweet, wistful theme we have already heard a couple of times in this episode (and also in “Asylum of the Daleks”)—clearly destined to be Clara’s personal theme—makes it a magic moment.
Clara: “What’s this?”
The Doctor: “Me, giving in.”
It’s a real moment of triumph for both of them, and it seems that now the Doctor has definitely acquired his new companion. But again, Moffat has something else in mind. In the most shockingly unexpected plot turn of the episode, the ice creature, having escaped its confinement, grabs Clara and drags the two of them off the cloud platform, falling to the ground far below. The creature is smashed, but Clara is also fatally injured. The Doctor uses the TARDIS to retrieve her and bring her back inside the house.
With the story we were expecting suddenly twisting into something darker and more tragic, a guilt-ridden Doctor coaxes Clara into agreeing to come away with him if he saves the world, the way “the green lady” told her he used to do. Vastra points out that he is trying to make a bargain with the uncaring universe—he’ll save the world if it lets Clara live—and “I don’t think the universe makes bargains.” The Doctor reacts angrily, but that’s at least partly because he knows that she is right, and they head off in the TARDIS to confront Simeon in his office. It has to be said that Simeon is probably not the most challenging role Richard E. Grant has ever had to play, but he makes the most of his final scene, when he shows the man almost visibly collapsing into himself as the Doctor reveals how the intelligence has been manipulating him since childhood.
It would be thematically appropriate for the controlling intelligence to be finally vanquished at this point. The Doctor has been prodded into action, breaking him out of his apathy; he has penetrated the lair of the villain and revealed its true nature; and he has found a way to defeat it by breaking its link with Simeon. It would take only a few trivial changes to the script to end the snowy menace once and for all here, leaving the remaining events of the episode unaltered. But Moffat has one more clever twist he wants to show off.
In late 1967, in the fifth season of the classic series, Patrick Troughton’s Doctor paid a visit to Tibet in the 1930s, where he faced a threat from monstrous Yeti controlled by a mysterious “Great Intelligence”—a strange, bodiless force that had the ability to mentally dominate its human servants, and wanted to generate a physical form for itself to enable it to take over the Earth. (In true Doctor Who style, underneath their furry exteriors the Yeti actually turned out to be robots.) “The Abominable Snowmen” was considered such a success by the production team that even before it was broadcast its writers, Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln, were commissioned to produce a sequel. And so, just three months later, Troughton faced the Yeti again in “The Web of Fear.” This time the story took place in London, in what was then the near-future year of 1975, and the Intelligence was using the Yeti and an ever-expanding flood of web-like fungus to attack the city through the tunnels of the London Underground system. “The Web of Fear” turned out to be one of the most memorable and important stories of that era, not least because it introduced a character—Colonel (later Brigadier) Lethbridge-Stewart, played by the late Nicholas Courtney—who would become one of the linchpins of the series in the 1970s.
Haisman and Lincoln left the origin of their “Great Intelligence” as a complete mystery, providing an opening for someone like Steven Moffat to come along and advance his own explanation. As a long-time fan, I loved the ingenious payoff signalled by these knowing lines:
Jenny: “Well, we can’t be in much danger from a disembodied intelligence that thinks it can invade the world with snowmen.”
Vastra: “Or that the London Underground is a key strategic weakness.”
The Doctor: (examining Simeon’s business card) “The Great Intelligence… rings a bell…”
Regrettably, this payoff does come at a cost. Giving the Intelligence the capacity to survive independently of Simeon—in fact, to take him over and control him, zombie-style, to provide a few moments of further menace—means that the Doctor doesn’t actually get to achieve the neutralization of the threat. Instead, we have an unwelcome intrusion from the kind of bathos that doomed last year’s Christmas special. Somehow Latimer and his family’s reaction to the dying Clara (“a whole family crying on Christmas Eve”) creates an emotional force which overwhelms the snow at the house, and somehow this gets fed back into the controlling Intelligence, which somehow leads to all the snow suddenly just melting away into salty rain… Not even Matt Smith’s best efforts can make this remotely convincing. Fortunately, unlike with “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe”, this bogus fairytale ending does not undo all the consequences of the story. Clara is still dying, and there is nothing the Doctor can do about it.
It’s Clara’s death that prevents her story being a simple duplication of what Moffat did with River Song. Her full name—revealed to be Clara Oswin Oswald—and her final words to the Doctor (“Run, you clever boy… and remember”), link her beyond doubt with the Oswin who died in “Asylum of the Daleks.” Before this episode aired, speculation was rife about what the connection could be between the two characters, with a favorite theory being that Clara would travel with the Doctor for a time, then eventually, under the name Oswin, join the crew of the starship Alaska and—just as with River—meet her end in the encounter which was their first meeting from the Doctor’s perspective. But it’s clear now that something much stranger is going on:
The Doctor: “Oswin… It was her… I never saw her face the first time, with the Daleks, but her voice… it was the same voice. The same woman, twice! And she died, both times. The same woman!”
A shot of Clara’s gravestone (which, incidentally, gives her birthdate as November 23—the same as Doctor Who itself) dissolves to the same shot of it, now overgrown and weathered, in the present day. Another Clara—finally, the real companion-to-be—pauses next to it, oblivious, as she is telling a friend, “I don’t believe in ghosts.” Meanwhile, the Doctor is back in his TARDIS, setting off on his mission to find Clara—no longer avoiding his future, but running toward it.
The trailer which aired after this episode for the second half of Season 7 (which will start showing around Easter 2013) makes it clear that the mystery of “the woman twice dead” will be an important component in the next story arc. It’s exactly the kind of puzzle that was needed to bring the Doctor back to himself, and in the final analysis that is the main accomplishment of this episode. Taken as a stand-alone story, “The Snowmen” would be well-made and entertaining but nothing more—a traditional ’romp’ of a Christmas special no more significant than, say, 2007’s “Voyage of the Damned.” It’s the connections to the past and the inescapable set-up for the future that are the real meat of the episode—as well as the demonstration that with the pairing of Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman, the Doctor Who producers have come up with another winning team. April can’t come soon enough.
Classic Who DVD Recommendation: Unfortunately, the Yeti stories of the 1960s mentioned above were victims of the BBC archive purges of decades ago—in both cases, just one episode out of six is all that remains. So instead I’m going to recommend another icy story with a (literally) cold-hearted villain—check out 1987’s “Dragonfire” starring Sylvester McCoy, with Bonnie Langford and Sophie Aldred.
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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.
“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.
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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.2
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
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.
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.
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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.2.5
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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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