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Doctor Who Recap: Season 5, Episode 1, “The Eleventh Hour”

Welcome to the first of a series of weekly recaps for the latest season of Doctor Who, now being broadcast on Saturday nights by BBC America.

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Doctor Who Recap: Season 5, Episode 1, “The Eleventh Hour”
Photo: BBC

Welcome to the first of a series of weekly recaps for the latest season of Doctor Who, now being broadcast on Saturday nights by BBC America. This opening episode lives up to its title by being an hour long rather than the standard 45 minutes, and introduces our all-new regular cast line-up of Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor and Karen Gillan as his new companion Amy Pond.

Before we begin, I’ll note that BBC America are showing these episodes two weeks after they’ve been seen in the UK—this episode, for instance, premiered over there on Easter Saturday. So even if you’ve seen later episodes in the series, please keep spoilers out of the comments for episodes which have not yet aired in the USA. Also, there’s been a certain amount of confusion (some of it emanating from the BBC itself) over whether this batch of episodes should be called Season 5 at all—other designations like “Season 11.1,” “Season 31” etc. have been advanced for various reasons and argued over with the usual intensity you would expect from an Internet debate over any topic, no matter how unimportant. As it happens, I’m sticking to calling it Season 5 because: (a) it makes perfect sense to me to do so; and (b) that’s what the BBC America schedule page is calling it.

Whatever you call it, this is the first episode to be overseen by new showrunner Steven Moffat, taking over from Russell T Davies, the man behind Doctor Who’s incredibly successful resurrection over the last five years. Moffat contributed one story to each of the last four seasons, to great acclaim each time. He was the natural and popular choice to take over the top job, and this year he is writing six episodes, overseeing the other seven, and devising the season arc into which they all fit. Naturally, the change of showrunner brings with it one of Doctor Who’s periodic shifts in style and emphasis, which is apparent even in this first episode. The Davies era was concerned (particularly at the start) with embedding the essential strangeness of the Doctor within the context of normal urban life that the non-fan audience could relate to—as exemplified by the central character of Rose Tyler. Moffat seems more willing to embrace strangeness for its own sake; his episodes often seemed to stand apart from the overall narrative lines of Davies’ seasons (I’m thinking particularly of “The Girl in the Fireplace” and “Blink”). In terms of its basic plot, “The Eleventh Hour” parallels the 2007 season opener “Smith and Jones”—an escaped alien prisoner is hiding on Earth, other aliens pursuing it arrive trying to track it down, and the situation escalates into a threat to the entire planet—but the differences in tone are striking. Instead of taking place in London, the whole story is contained within a quiet English village, with almost no reference to the wider world at all.

We pick up just after “The End of Time” left off, with the wrecked, burning TARDIS tumbling down to Earth. What will be our last sight of the familiar control room has the Doctor dangling from the open doorway and hanging on for dear life, as the console succumbs to gigantic explosions in a “we’re never going to be needing this set again” manner. This sequence segues into what turned out to be my least favorite thing in the whole episode—the revamped title sequence. The visuals are mostly fine, with the TARDIS now being tossed around through a much stormier vortex than before, although the big metallic blue font in which our stars’ names zap into view (complete with lightning bolts) makes the Superman-style zooming in the previous title sequence look like a model of restraint. No, the real problem is the music. I’ve enjoyed the various orchestral arrangements of the Doctor Who theme used over the past five years, but I was hoping for a turn back towards the spooky original Delia Derbyshire version—still the best after nearly fifty years. Instead, Murray Gold has come up with a Hooked on Classics rendition which buries the actual theme under a pile of extraneous noise. Particularly unwelcome are the brass fanfares blaring over the opening bars, and the drum machine obscuring the melody line. It gets a little better towards the end, with an interesting choral bit, but it’s still one of the weakest versions of the theme I’ve heard. A pity, because I thought Gold’s incidental music for this episode was generally excellent.

Of course, the most important facet of this new-look Doctor Who is the new Doctor himself. Everyone was waiting to see how relative unknown Matt Smith would cope with the task of taking over the role from the incredibly popular David Tennant. Most of the misgivings were over his age—at 27, he is the most youthful Doctor ever. For all Moffat’s statements about how Smith had blown them away in his audition, instantly getting the character of the Doctor, the concerns remained—just how believable could this guy be playing a 900-and-something-year-old alien?

Well, after just this one episode, I’m prepared to deliver a verdict—Moffat and co. have got it spectacularly right. Matt Smith has absolutely grabbed the role of the Doctor and made it his own, with an assurance and confidence rivalling that in Tom Baker’s arrival 35 years ago. He certainly doesn’t play it as young in any way. In fact, he seems to me a quieter, more cerebral Doctor than either Eccleston or Tennant, with his mind constantly whirring away observing and making connections, staying one step ahead of everyone else; I had no trouble believing he could be the smartest guy in any room. Combined with this is an amusing eccentricity in his movements—an “elegant shambles,” to use Moffat’s own excellent description—that makes him continually watchable. It’s a truly impressive performance, and I’m genuinely looking forward now to seeing where he takes the Doctor over the course of this season.

One thing the producers did to help him was to employ the strategy also used back in 1982 when Peter Davison (at that time, the youngest Doctor ever) had the same challenge, following on from the iconic Tom Baker. Davison filmed three later stories, allowing him to fine-tune his characterisation and performance, before going back to tackle his debut adventure. In the same way, episodes 2 through 5 of this season were in the can before “The Eleventh Hour” started filming. It’ll be interesting to see over the next few weeks whether there’s any sign of tentativeness or indecision in Smith’s earlier episodes, because he seemed totally in command of his performance through every moment of this one.

He’s also helped by the structure of the script, which gives him the space to show off what he can do by starting with an uninterrupted fifteen-minute section where we see only his Doctor, interacting with one other character. The TARDIS ends up crashed on its side in the garden of a home-alone seven-year-old Scottish girl, Amelia Pond, who has been praying for someone to come and fix an odd crack in her bedroom wall. She’s initially wary of the strange man who climbs out of the box demanding apples and falls to the ground (“Who are you?” “I don’t know yet. I’m still cooking”), but his manner is so direct and child-like that they immediately connect, and he sets off to investigate the crack—though not before walking straight into a tree. (“Early days…steering’s a bit off.”)

In the kitchen, the physical comedy continues as the girl tries to keep up with his cravings for various foods—apples, yogurt, bacon (“You’re Scottish, fry something”), baked beans, bread and butter—with him deciding he hates each one and spitting them out or making disgusted faces. My favorite part was the flinging of the plate of bread and butter out into the night (“And stay out!”)—followed, naturally, by off-screen crash and yowling cat noises. He finally settles on a couple of quintessential childhood foods, fish fingers and custard—together. They sit down companionably to eat at the kitchen table, where we learn that Amelia is an orphan, living with her aunt. So far this scene might seem like a prolonged comic diversion, but now comes a great payoff:

The Doctor: “So, your aunt. Where’s she?”
Amelia: “She’s out.”
The Doctor: “And she left you all alone?”
Amelia: “I’m not scared.”
The Doctor: “Course you’re not, you’re not scared of anything. Box falls out of the sky, man falls out of a box, man eats fish custard…and look at you. Just sitting there. So you know what I think?”
Amelia: “What?”
The Doctor: “Must be a hell of a scary crack in your wall.”

The last line, suddenly pulling us back to the plot with a suitably ominous musical cue, is perfectly played by Smith. It was not long after this point that I realized any worries I’d had about whether he was up to the role had completely disappeared.

Steven Moffat is a master of using fears children can relate to to fuel his stories—in “The Girl in the Fireplace” it was monsters under the bed; here it’s a weird crack in a bedroom wall through which strange noises can be heard. The Doctor manages to repair the crack, but not before discovering that it’s a “crack in the skin of the universe” leading to another place entirely, and hearing an alien voice saying, “Prisoner Zero has escaped.” This leads to another creepy idea, of some presence lurking in your house unseen, never able to be glimpsed except out of the corner of your eye.

But before the Doctor can investigate further, the TARDIS cloister bell sounds, warning that the machine faces imminent destruction. The Doctor rushes back inside; Amelia asks to come with him, but he says it’s not safe yet, making a fateful promise to her that he’ll be back in five minutes. The TARDIS vanishes; Amelia rushes to pack a little suitcase, takes it down to the garden, and sits on it, waiting for her friend to return…

Doctor Who hasn’t always had the best fortune with child actors, but they really lucked out with Caitlin Blackwood as young Amelia. She gives a perfect natural, open performance—especially impressive considering she had no prior acting experience. (She’s also, coincidentally, a cousin of Karen Gillan, and the family resemblance really helps to sell the idea that they’re the same person.) I particularly loved her deadpan delivery of “What…a real one?” when the Doctor told her his box was actually a time machine.

The TARDIS returns, belching smoke and needing to shut down and rebuild itself. The Doctor manages to not notice that it’s now daylight outside as he runs into the house yelling for Amelia, having realized that this “Prisoner Zero” must have been hiding in there. Someone knocks him out from behind, and he wakes up to find himself handcuffed to a radiator by an attractive policewoman wearing a very non-regulation skirt. She is, of course, the now grown-up Amy Pond. Most of the Doctor’s female companions tend to get tagged with the description “feisty” (actually, is there any young female lead character who isn’t described as “feisty” these days?), but rather than just present that as a given, the story shows us how she got that way. This time, the Doctor has managed to change the course of his companion’s life even before she joins him.

The Doctor: “You’re Amelia!”
Amy: “You’re late.”
The Doctor: “Amelia Pond. You’re the little girl!”
Amy: “I’m Amelia, and you’re late!”
The Doctor: “What happened?”
Amy: “Twelve years.”
The Doctor: “You hit me with a cricket bat!”
Amy: “Ha! Twelve years.”
The Doctor: “A cricket bat!”
Amy: “Twelve years. And four psychiatrists.”
The Doctor: “Four?”
Amy: “I kept biting them.”
The Doctor: “Why?”
Amy: “They said you weren’t real.”

She eventually has to abandon the pretence of being a policewoman, crying “I’m a kissogram!” before pulling off her hat and letting loose a mass of ginger hair with a swish worthy of a shampoo advert. Karen Gillan and Matt Smith have a tremendous chemistry together, batting Moffat’s comic dialogue back and forth (“Why a policewoman?” “You broke into my house—it was this or a French maid!”) while showing how the initial spikiness between them slowly eases as the Doctor wins Amy’s trust. This culminates in a hilarious scene where Amy, still not quite believing that this man is her childhood friend come back, traps the Doctor’s tie in a car door in order to get him to talk sense. In a typical piece of Moffat cleverness, he wins her over by producing an apple which Amelia gave him earlier. It’s a lovely bonding moment between them, which works even in spite of the director resorting to slow motion and lens flares in a misguided attempt to make it “magical.”

Apart from the sheer enjoyability of Moffat’s dialogue (I’ve had to severely resist the temptation to quote more of my favorite moments, or this recap would end up twice as long), there are any number of places where lines will link up with or reflect others elsewhere—this script has clearly been polished to within an inch of its life. For example:

The Doctor: “Who’s Amy? You were Amelia.”
Amy: “Yeah, and now I’m Amy.”
The Doctor: “Amelia Pond. That was a great name!”
Amy: “Bit fairytale.”

This is an ironic reference back to the kitchen table scene, where the Doctor delightedly told young Amelia Pond her name was “like a name in a fairytale.” What an efficient way of showing how the disappointment of the Doctor’s failure to return for her would lead Amy to grow up burying her dreams beneath a brittle, somewhat cynical personality. Or there’s this, which will come back at the end:

Amy: “You told me you had a time machine.”
The Doctor: “And you believed me.”
Amy: “Then I grew up.”
The Doctor: “Oh, you never want to do that.”

Once Amy’s trust is regained, we get into the actual plot part of the story—the Doctor tracking down Prisoner Zero before the pursuing aliens, the Atraxi, lose patience and burn the planet. Although the plotting fizzes along with Moffat’s usual ingenuity, this stuff can’t help but be less interesting, partly because the only real characters in the story are the Doctor, Amy, and Amy’s “kind of” boyfriend, Rory (Arthur Darvill). Everyone else is strictly functional, even when they’re being played by Annette Crosbie, Nina Wadia, or Olivia Colman—and not forgetting a bonkers cameo from the great Patrick Moore. The Doctor quickly hacks into a worldwide videoconference call to release a computer virus which will reset all clocks and displays to zero in order to get the Atraxi’s attention. It’s interesting that neither Torchwood nor UNIT, which loomed so large in the previous era, are so much as mentioned—Moffat seems to be recalibrating the world of the show away from the situation that developed over the last five years, where pretty much everyone in the world was aware of both the existence of aliens and the organizations that deal with them.

Prisoner Zero itself makes for a somewhat underwhelming foe—rather like the skeletons in spacesuits in “Silence in the Library,” it tends to not actually do anything apart from look menacing. The concept of a shapechanging creature which can look like multiple creatures at once, e.g. a man and a dog, is very good, and it’s nicely unsettling when the man and dog keep moving their heads in sync. Later, it takes the form of a mother and her two girls, and it’s momentarily chilling when the mother’s voice comes out of one of the children’s mouths. And I liked the final twist where it takes the form of the Doctor, thanks to its link with Amy, and young Amelia peeks out from behind him (again, cleverly reflecting a shot from earlier). But the creature’s natural form is a rather unimpressive CGI snake, and the idea of having the human disguises suddenly open their mouths to reveal the alien’s fangs gets way overused. (While I’m on the subject of the CGI, the Atraxi ships themselves are one of the goofiest designs ever seen in Doctor Who—basically a giant eyeball inside a spinning snowflake. It almost works in spite of itself out of sheer oddness.)

The intricate plot mechanism finally works itself out as Prisoner Zero, tracked to a hospital where it has been using coma patients as sources for its disguises, is tricked into reverting to its natural form, when it is detected and recaptured by the Atraxi. Before it disappears, however, it provides some mysterious hints of something big to come. “The universe is cracked, Doctor. The Pandorica will open. Silence will fall.” What does that mean? At this stage, I’ve no idea…

Up until now, the Doctor has been borne along by the plot, but now, with his regeneration almost complete, he finally takes control. First, he orders the Atraxi to come back and face him because of their threat to burn “a fully established Level Five planet.” Then he casts off the persona of the “raggedy Doctor” as he finds some new clothes in the hospital lockers (following a precedent set by the third and eighth Doctors). Up on the roof of the hospital, he confronts the Atraxi.

Amy: “So this was a good idea, was it? They were leaving.”
The Doctor: “Leaving is good. Never coming back is better.”

Matt Smith is given an iconic moment, as he tells the Atraxi to check whether the Earth is protected, and they project holograms of the ten previous Doctors. He walks through the image of David Tennant to reveal the Eleventh Doctor, complete at last in his professorial costume with tweed jacket, braces and bow tie, ready to see off these aliens with one simple line:

The Doctor: “Hello. I’m the Doctor. Basically… run.”

With the threat over, the Doctor is delighted to discover that the TARDIS has finished repairing itself. Immediately forgetting everything else, he dashes off. Amy runs after him, but to her astonished dismay the box dematerializes in front of her.

In the next scene, Amy is woken in the night by the sound of the TARDIS arriving back in her garden. The Doctor apologizes for rushing off—he was only taking his brand new time machine on a “quick hop” to the moon and back. But—surprise!—erratic navigation has struck again…“That was two years ago!” As the saying goes, history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.

The Doctor: “Oops.”
Amy: “Yeah.”
The Doctor: “So that’s…”
Amy: “Fourteen years.”
The Doctor: “Fourteen years since fish custard. Amy Pond, the girl who waited. You’ve waited long enough.”

Finally, Amy gets her chance to enter the magic box. But she’s no longer sure she really wants to.

The Doctor: “So, coming?”
Amy: “No.”
The Doctor: “You wanted to come fourteen years ago.”
Amy: “I grew up.”
The Doctor: “Don’t worry. I’ll soon fix that.”

With a snap of the fingers, the Doctor opens the door (a nice callback to Moffat’s “Forest of the Dead”). The new interior is a warmer, more magical space than the single echoing chamber of the previous era. There are now multiple levels, stairways leading off to other areas, and a console full of strange objects—levers, gauges, hot and cold taps, a typewriter, even an old gramophone horn.

These last few scenes are played perfectly by Smith and Gillan. They already seem like a great Doctor/companion team, falling into an easy banter, and yet they are both keeping information from each other. Just as the Doctor is promising he had no ulterior motive for asking Amy along, the TARDIS scanner screen beside him is showing an image of a line in the exact same shape as the crack in the bedroom wall. Cue ominous music…

And Amy asks him to agree to get her back tomorrow morning, but won’t say why—“Just…you know, stuff.” After the TARDIS has left, we pan across Amy’s room to reveal…a wedding dress hanging in her wardrobe. She has run away on the night before her wedding…why? For one final childhood adventure before she has to finally grow up? Or for some other reason? I can’t wait to find out.

Next Week: The Doctor takes Amy on a trip centuries into the future; they find themselves in a space-going United Kingdom overseen by the sinister Smilers in “The Beast Below.”

Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: “Robot,” starring Tom Baker in his very first story as the Doctor. As I mentioned above, Baker’s performance in this story, where he just completely inhabits the role of the Doctor from the off, came strongly to mind when I saw Matt Smith’s debut.

For more Doctor Who recaps, click here.

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Game of Thrones Recap: Season 8, Episode 6, “The Iron Throne”

There’s no limit here to the narrative conveniences that exist only to conclude the series’s eight-season arc.

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Game of Thrones
Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO

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, “The Iron Throne,” then the episode’s lack of a unifying theme probably seemed intentional. But whereas the possibility of things yet to come and Miguel Sapochnik’s bold directorial choices in last week’s penultimate episode, “The Bells,” certainly allowed for some creative interpretations, “The Iron Throne” 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 that’s structurally broken apart into two distinct chunks. Not just visually, with the gray and ashy aftermath of the razing of King’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 there’s anything holding the pieces together, it’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? Tyrion’s not mentioned in its pages.)

If there’s any hint as to what the writers were thinking when they penned this send-off, it comes from what’s supposed to be a rallying, mid-episode speech from Tyrion (Peter Dinklage). In truth, his words sound exhausted, like those you’d hear from someone who hasn’t slept well for weeks on end, tasked with trying to pen a happy ending. “What unites people?” he asks the gathered lords and ladies. “Armies? Gold? Flags?” he continues, essentially just throwing out a word salad of disconnected thoughts, stalling for time. “Stories,” he suddenly suggests, out of the blue. “There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story,” he claims, already forgetting that destroying stories was pretty much the Night King’s whole deal (just three episodes ago, in “The Long Night”).

The essential gist, then, of Tyrion’s nomination of Bran “the Broken” as the new King of the Seven Kingdoms—well, six, actually, as the North is now its own independent realm, with Sansa (Sophie Turner) as its leader—is “Fuck it, it’ll make a good story.” This explains pretty much every choice Benioff and Weiss make—save for the part where any of it makes a good story. It also results in a surfeit of artifice, as there’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.

It’s telling that the 10 minutes of “The Iron Throne” 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 King’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 haven’t been together for 73 episodes. There’s a rich subtext in the first, brief exchange between Tyrion (“I’ll find you later”) and Kit Harington’s Jon Snow (“It’s not safe”), and you can hear the death of Tyrion’s optimism as he commits to it (“I’m going alone”). But things only get increasingly less subtle—more symbolically heavy-handed—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 show’s eight-season arc. For example, Arya (Maisie Williams), last seen riding out of King’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: “I know a killer when I see one,” Arya claims. A killer, sure, but also something like a child-god: all-powerful but naïve, willing to let Tyrion—who she’s just arrested for treason—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 week’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, it’s Tyrion who’s to find any chink in Jon’s loyal armor.)

Perhaps Jon really isn’t convinced by Tyrion after their powwow. Maybe he doesn’t actually know that he’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 what’s “good,” and that nobody else gets to determine what that is. It doesn’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 scene’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 Daenerys’s precious throne of swords instead of incinerating Jon. What perfect poetic justice: responding to Daenerys’s now-meaningless pursuit of power by reducing the Iron Throne to equally meaningless slag. But then again, this isn’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 Daenerys’s rise to tyranny: “Everywhere 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.” 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 “good,” it’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 episode’s second half, by contrast, has no deeper meaning whatsoever. It’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) hasn’t only become Highgarden’s lord—as Tyrion promised—but that he’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 Night’s Watch, alongside Tormund (Kristofer Hivju) and his direwolf, Ghost—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 Sansa’s final journeys. They’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 don’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 show’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.

For more Game of Thrones recaps, click here.

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Review: Hulu’s Catch-22 Lyrically Depicts a War’s Inanities and Horrors

Hulu’s adaptation of Joseph Heller’s novel invites our laughter, contemplation, and shock in equal measure.

3.5

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Catch-22
Photo: Hulu

Immediately following the opening credits of the first episode of Catch-22, Hulu’s adaptation of Joseph Heller’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, they’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. O’Connor) keep arbitrarily raising the mission requirement, all the way to 55, steadily increasing the body count as a result.

The expanding barrier to Yossarian’s discharge leads him to recognize that the gravest threat to his life isn’t enemy fire, but the bureaucratic machine that repeatedly exposes him to it. At one point, in reference to the map that indicates his unit’s bombing route, Yossarian says to a superior, “That’s what it’s come down to for us. We’re afraid of a line on a map. Do you know what that feels like? To be afraid of a piece of string?” It’s a haunting, lucid bit of dialogue. String, red tape, it’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 war’s inanity—best exemplified by the ineptitude of those in upper command—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 “syndicate” 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 latter’s operation and the single-mindedness of his aspirations. It turns out that Minderbinder isn’t just some lunatic peddling tomatoes and olive oil; he’s become, among other things, the mayor of Palermo, Sicily, thanks to his lucrative shuffling-around of scotch. As Minderbinder’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 Korn’s incompetence is as layered as Minderbinder’s ambition. After they mistake the rank of one recruit (Lewis Pullman)—his legal name is Major Major Major, so they think he’s a major—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 Cathcart’s doltishness with his furrowed brow alone. But Major’s promotion ultimately proves to be less funny than disquieting: He’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 war’s ultimate irrationality.

While Major hides out in his cushy office, Yossarian routinely embarks on bombing missions—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 war’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 jet’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 been—the flying, the missions, the paperwork, the war—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

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Game of Thrones Recap: Season 8, Episode 5, “The Bells”

As David Benioff and D.B. Weiss show with this masterful rebuttal of an episode, it’s never too late to choose a different narrative.

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Game of Thrones
Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO

“The Bells,” the penultimate episode of the eighth and final season of Game of Thrones, gives fans all the bloodshed they’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. There’s the crucial moment when Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) sits atop Drogon on the outer walls of King’s Landing, having just eradicated all those scorpion ballistas and shattered the Iron Fleet. The battle is essentially won, but she’s gripped by rage, and instead of respecting the ringing bells that signal surrender, she and Drogon proceed to methodically mass murder the city’s people.

Several plots are resolved anticlimactically, almost out of spite, and the heroes—those who don’t become villains, at least—don’t win so much as survive. Two episodes ago, Arya (Maisie Williams) stared down the existential threat of the Night King and said, “Not today.” But here there’s no room for quips in the face of so much needless violence. There’s no pretext of war to defend anyone’s actions, just 30 minutes’ worth of straight-up murder; this isn’t like the Red Wedding, where there was at least a tactical advantage gained by the heinous act.

The episode, so fixated on people’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 it’s then that the daughter pushes Arya away, running back to her mother, whereupon the two are instantly immolated—heroism be damned.

Even the scenes that seem safe to unapologetically applaud are turned on their heads. It’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, we’re left far more conflicted about the consequences of the war we asked for. Something similar is articulated in the showdown between Cersei’s (Lena Headey) two lovers, Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Euron (Pilou Asbæk). It’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 he’s delivered a fatal blow. Defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.

The battle between Sandor (Rory McCann) and his undead brother, Ser Gregor (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson), 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, it’s only with the satisfaction of knowing he may have saved Arya from a similar end.

Although “The Bells” is subversive, it isn’t written out of left field by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. For better and worse, this is what they’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 dragon’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. “Goodbye old friend,” Varys says, bravely staring down death, knowing that he at least tried to do the right thing. And that’s a sentiment that’s later echoed in the episode, when Tyrion frees his brother against Daenerys’s wishes, hoping that Jaime can succeed where he failed by convincing Cersei to surrender.

The seeds are sown for Jon Snow’s (Kit Harington) realization, too, that doing the right thing may mean turning against his loyalty to Daenerys, especially given their earlier conversation. “I don’t have love here, I only have fear,” says Daenerys, explaining why Jon’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: “All right then. Let it be fear.”

The episode’s story strands are certainly neatly braided together, but it’s easy to question Daenerys’s moment of decisiveness. Given how simple it was for her to force a surrender, which is to say without that much collateral damage, it’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 King’s Landing without so many innocent casualties, and that was when she had three of them, and Qyburn (Anton Lesser)—so quickly and obligatorily disposed of in this episode—hadn’t yet built an arsenal of ballistae. It’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, “The Bells” delivers. Daenerys’s line about fear or love is echoed by Sandor’s warning to Arya about moving past vengeance, and these two dichotomies are the ones that ring true throughout the episode. “Look at me,” bellows Sandor as the Red Keep begins to crumble around them, noting that Cersei’s already lost, whether Arya does the deed herself or not. “You want to be like me?” Shots of Sandor fighting his brother—a manifestation of death itself, which Sandor ultimately embraces—are juxtaposed with those of Arya choosing life, abandoning her kill list and attempting to flee the city. When Sandor gets knocked down, there’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 King’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 other’s arms, gazing at one another: “Nothing else matters.” As Benioff and Weiss show with this masterful rebuttal of an episode, a upending of so many expectations, it’s never too late to choose a different narrative.

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Review: Season Three of Joe Swanberg’s Easy Boasts a Subtle Urgency

The final season fulfills the possibilities of the show’s concept, informing it with humanist fury.

3.5

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Easy
Photo: Netflix

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 Swanberg’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 they’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 there’s a subtle urgency to it. Swanberg revisits characters from the prior seasons, and they’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 incomes—Kyle is a stay-at-home dad writing a play while Andi earns quite a bit of money as an executive—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 who’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 money—and his opportunity to get into business for himself—in a strip club, which culminates in this season’s most purely erotic sex scene: a neon-lit fuck that’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 “doing” limits him in a fashion that’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 that’s reminiscent of Swanberg’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. Swanberg’s direction really swings in this episode—his camera swirling back and forth between Skrap’s volleying of slangy propositions to his compatriots and business associates as he attempts to make a dollar and climb out of the hole he’s dug for himself.

Skrap’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 Easy’s characters are well-versed in pop psych, and Swanberg empathizes with their need for these clichés while maintaining a distance from them. Perpetually lonely Annie (Kate Micucci) experiments with the idea of being a “yes” person, saying yes to every date she’s asked on for 30 days, an endeavor that comes to seem as contrived and limiting as the timid tendencies she’s resisting. Malco is so eaten up with his career, and his feelings of persecution by women, that he’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 Swanberg’s characters confess to their loved ones, they often open up other vortexes of misunderstanding; he’s intensely attuned to the idea that we each live our own reality, especially in the realms of sex and romance, and that we’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 season’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 don’t have easily discernable and contrasting viewpoints, don’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 they’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. Kyle’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 season’s longest episode, Kyle and Andi talk exhaustingly in circles, puncturing illusions about themselves to ultimately little avail. It’s a mark of this narrative’s mystery that one can’t quite tell whether or not these two people are still in love.

Such a fractious, terrifying story of loneliness lived together complements Annie’s plight. She may be in danger of never finding “the one,” 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 we’re all in the same boat. Yet this assertion is anything but soothing, suggesting an emotional non-exit. Swanberg’s characters are trapped in their personalities—their drives, desires, baggage, and individual ways of reading and imparting cues.

In Easy’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, it’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 night’s pleasure, Drew moves backward a pace away from her, unmistakably changing the encounter’s tempo. Such swift revelations occur routinely throughout the season: When Kyle sleeps with women much fitter and younger than him, we’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 we’re always keyed into the tension, the work, of being with people, whether we’re sleeping with them, opening a business with them, or trying to keep a sibling relationship alive—work which pertains to accommodating our multiplicity of realities. Swanberg’s curt, hard, funny, poignant vignettes reveal the show’s title to be a perverse joke that’s believed by many of us, especially in youth. Life isn’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

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Review: In Season Two, Fleabag Remains Authentic in Its Messiness

Despite a more straightforward approach, the series still boasts Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s unmistakable voice.

3.5

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Fleabag 2
Photo: Amazon Prime

Three years ago, the first season of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag didn’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 café 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 season’s near-perfect balance of acerbic comedy and emotional devastation. But Waller-Bridge slides effortlessly back into Fleabag’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 Fleabag’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, “deflect from the screaming void inside my empty heart.” Her café is doing well, though she’s not on good terms with her sister, Claire (Sian Clifford), who’s still with her goon of a husband, Martin (Brett Gelman). Also at the table: the drinking, foxphobic, swearing Catholic priest (Andrew Scott) who’s to officiate the wedding; it’s “chic,” Fleabag’s godmother insists. He’s also, as the sisters later agree, hot.

In a departure from the show’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 season’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 comedy—“He’s in a bad relationship,” Fleabag vaguely says of the priest to her therapist (Fiona Shaw), who repeatedly insists there should be no jokes during the session—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, ain’t-I-a-stinker glances. In a particularly memorable scene, she’s in the middle of telling Martin off when she suddenly stops to admire how well she’s doing, only to bungle the whole thing seconds later. But Scott’s priest throws her amusingly off-balance. Their delightful chemistry buoys the show’s newfound focus, with the priest’s sweet optimism in flirtatious conflict with Fleabag’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 Fleabag’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 they’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-Bridge’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

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Game of Thrones Recap: Season 8, Episode 4, “The Last of the Starks”

There’s no shortage of empty gestures throughout the latest episode of the series.

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Game of Thrones
Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO

“The Last of the Starks” begins with an extreme close-up of Jorah Mormont’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 that’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, we’re offered a kind of performative shorthand: another of Jon Snow’s (Kit Harington) instantly forgettable speeches—this is the man they would make king?—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. There’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, Daenerys’s face as she kisses the forehead of her loyal protector.

The episode’s more intimate moments all lean into big, emotional gestures that exist above all else to get the ball rolling on wrapping up the characters’ 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: “I’m not a lady. That’s not me.” And it’s at that point that one feels that the book has been closed on Gendry’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 characters’ lives, as with the long-suppressed chemistry between Jaime and Brienne (Gwendoline Christie), there’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 Brienne’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, who’s still sworn to protect Sansa, than he’s sneaking out into the night to ride south to confront his “hateful” sister and to take account for the things he once did on her behalf. Jaime and Brienne share a plausibly teary goodbye, with Brienne—so not accustomed to happiness—begging him to stay and Jaime forced out of stubborn pride to drive her away like a too-loyal puppy, but we haven’t seen enough of what they’ve both found to understand what they’ve lost. Worse, it’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 Jon’s dragon-riding heroism while overlooking her own. She doesn’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 another’s claim to her throne.

That this claimant is Daenerys’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. She’s not wrong either: Jon tells Sansa, for some reason trusting that she’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 she’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 “The Last of the Starks” still doesn’t carve enough room for such quiet developments, because it must tend to bigger, more hastily assembled ones. There’s no time to focus on Daenerys’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 King’s Landing with, essentially, naïve refugees/hostages.

Instead, Varys jumps directly to talk of sedition when he hears his queen speak rather abstractly of destiny. We don’t get to see much of the battle between Daenerys’s naval forces and those of Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbæk). Ambushed, Daenerys abruptly loses one of her two remaining dragons (conveniently not the one she’s riding) to the scorpion ballistas seen in “The Spoils of War,” and the next thing we know, Missandrei (Nathalie Emmanuel) alone becomes Cersei’s captive, while Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson), Tyrion, and Varys are seen washing up ashore, otherwise unharmed and un-pursued.

It’s hard not to see this all as perfunctory, and the staging of the final scene’s attempt at diplomacy certainly doesn’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. It’s almost as if he’s speaking a different language when he earnestly says, “I don’t want to hear the screams of children burning alive,” to which Cersei’s hand, Qyburn (Anton Lesser), dispassionately agrees, “No, it is not a pleasant sound.” We’ve hardly seen Cersei in this final season, with so much of the focus on Winterfell, and so there’s nothing to indicate that she might now, suddenly, see reason, or that she’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 he’s actually Aegon Targaryen or to bury that secret. But does he actually have a choice? We have seen that Jon is too stupidly stubborn—and to the point of being stabbed to death—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, we’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

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Chernobyl
Photo: Liam Daniel/HBO

The first episode of HBO’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 what’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 they’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 miniseries’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. It’s a gripping concept that, considering the grave stakes and resulting devastation, needs little embellishment.

Though Chernobyl isn’t without the familiar, awkward elements of docudrama—strained exposition, summary speeches—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 Skarsgård), who quickly drops his prickly exterior to become a crucial ally in accessing the considerable resources needed to deal with the disaster.

The explosion’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 Chernobyl’s economical structure. This is less a miniseries as five-hour movie than episodic television, with new narrative wrinkles introduced each week. It’s unrelentingly grim material—one episode shows the men assigned to kill the irradiated pets that evacuees had left behind—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 it’s so riddled with radiation that no clean-up devices will function? What happens when sand is superheated by the very fire it’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 disaster’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 disaster’s response, Chernobyl finds empathy for the affected as well as outrage for the human failures that led to the explosion—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 doesn’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 Gudnadóttir’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 humankind’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 Skarsgård, Paul Ritter, Con O’Neill, Adrian Rawlins, Jessie Buckley, Adam Nagaitis Network: HBO

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Review: Dead to Me Is a Quietly Radical Depiction of Grief’s Emotional Haze

The series is at its strongest when using dissonance to reorient our understanding of loss.

3

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Dead to Me
Photo: Saeed Adyani/Netflix

The opening scene of Netflix’s Dead to Me immediately establishes the tone of creator Liz Feldman’s dark comedy. A kindly neighbor (Suzy Nakamura) has handed her interpretation of “Mexican lasagna” to Jen (Christina Applegate), a recently widowed real estate broker. The neighbor, standing outside Jen’s front door, says that she and her husband, Jeff, are available if Jen ever wants to talk. She can’t imagine what Jen’s going through. “Well,” Jen says, “it’s like if Jeff got hit by a car and died suddenly and violently.” The neighbor clears her throat, and when she starts to talk again, Jen slams the door, Dead to Me’s title smacks the screen, and the horns of Judy Garland’s “Get Happy” 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 police’s sluggish inquiry into the identity of the driver who killed Ted, she conducts her own investigation. And she’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. Jen’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 fiancé. The two become friends, and Judy practically joins Jen’s family, to the frustration of the latter’s teenage son, Charlie (Sam McCarthy), and the joy of her younger son, Henry (Luke Roessler).

Jen and Judy’s relationship is the show’s centerpiece. They’re the only characters who Dead to Me develops meaningfully and consistently, and only a small handful of scenes don’t include at least one of them. Their conversations believably explore the thorniness of loss—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 Charlie’s rudeness toward Judy, Jen says, “God, he’s been such a little dick since his dad died.” This isn’t a commonly presented reaction to grief, and the show abounds with similar surprises.

If grief is thoughtless, it’s awkward as well. The counseling sessions, led by the empathetic Pastor Wayne (Keong Sim), luxuriate in cringe, thanks to Jen’s outbursts and the meekness of her fellow mourners. But the awkwardness reaches its zenith—or its nadir—in one of the season’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 Jason’s physique. “Thanks,” he says, kissing her. “When my wife fell off the boat, I wasn’t strong enough to save her.” He goes on to explain that he vowed to “never be weak again,” and the shift from the promise of a sex scene to Jason’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 isn’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 she’s feeling, but the repetition of the sequence ends up diminishing rather than augmenting its power.

The treatment of Jen’s anger—the bedfellow of her impatience—is also underwhelming. Jen has a penchant for heavy metal, and she regularly blasts it in her car in pursuit of catharsis—or, at least, in an effort to drown out what keeps catharsis out of her reach. But Dead to Me doesn’t do much with Jen’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 it’s meant to convey. This and other familiar attempts at unexpected characterization hamstring the show’s worthwhile investment in dissonance—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. It’s funny and sad, often both and rarely neither, a compelling and quietly radical depiction of grief’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

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Game of Thrones Recap: Season 8, Episode 3, “The Long Night”

The episode gives the audience exactly what it expects, and absolutely nothing else.

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The Long Night
Photo: HBO

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, “The Long Night” 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 doesn’t evoke anything emotional so much as it suggests the clockwork of the show’s title sequence: Watch as all your favorite pieces take their places. There’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 there’s Ghost—the only time in this episode you’ll see Jon’s dog—and Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen).

Never has Game of Thrones felt so much like a game than it does in “The Long Night,” 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 you’d expect, and absolutely nothing else.

Every character who dies in “The Long Night” 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 enemy’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 there’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 he’s a good man. And it’s then—and only then—that Theon is killed in one stroke by the Night King (Vladimír Furdík).

If that’s not clockwork enough, there’s the return of Melisandre (Carice van Houten), who tells her sworn enemy, Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham), that there’s no need to execute her, as “I’ll be dead before the dawn.” (True to form, she abandons her age-defying necklace at episode’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 isn’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 show’s own present purpose: to protect Arya Stark (Maisie Williams).

“The Long Night” isn’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 Sapochnik’s previous battle-centric episodes, “Hardhome” and “Battle of the Bastards,” 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 CGI’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, “The Long Night” is a purposely long shell game. It aims to distract us with the chaos of warfare so that we don’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 it’s Arya. Though we’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 story’s way, is “the most heroic thing” 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 battle’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 there’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 Winterfell’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 episode’s shell game is intentionally empty—mere table setting for the battle to come with Cersei Lannister.

For more Game of Thrones recaps, click here.

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Review: Ramy Is a Poignant Dismantling of the Myth of the Self

The series derives its soulfulness from the myths that Ramy, his family, and his friends tell themselves and those around them.

3.5

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Ramy
Photo: Hulu

Ramy (Ramy Youssef), the twentysomething son of Egyptian immigrants living in North Jersey, is an observant Muslim who prays regularly and doesn’t drink or use drugs. He also has a lot of sex, despite being unmarried. And it’s the tension between Ramy’s secular and spiritual leanings that serves as the thrust of the Hulu series that bears his name, as he considers what kind of person—what kind of Muslim, son, and man—he wants to be.

Intensely critical of himself, Ramy recognizes that he’s done much self-mythologizing, mostly in regard to his religious observance, and acutely feels his lapses in judgment. But as Ramy deconstructs his self-mythology by confronting the contradictions of his religious practices—reconciling with them, sometimes capitulating to them—the series romanticizes his personal reckoning. We’re rarely, if ever, not charmed by Ramy, thanks to the genuineness of his self-reflection and the naturalism of Youssef’s performance. Gradually, though, the show’s treatment of Ramy renders him more than just charming: less a flawed human being than a self-flagellating martyr powerless against the competing pulls of God and earthly desire.

But Ramy is, first and foremost, a comedy, albeit one with a semi-bewildering sense of humor made all the more jarring by its aesthetic construction. A scene involving Ramy’s best friends, Mo (Mohammed Amer), Ahmed (Dave Merheje), and Steve (Steve Way), encapsulates that dynamic. Mo complains in Arabic about Steve’s grouchiness, saying, “This guy’s an evil spirit. Dark energy, fucking satanic. I should have never donated to his GoFundMe,” as the camera cuts back and forth between him looking at Steve, who doesn’t speak Arabic and suffers from muscular dystrophy, and Steve looking at him. The sequence moves slowly, relishing the awkwardness, undue vitriol, and hilarity that each cut adds to Mo’s venting.

A masterful flashback episode gives a hint of how Ramy was driven to this motley crew of friends. Elisha Henig, in one of the better child performances in recent memory, portrays the pubescent Ramy immediately before and after 9/11. Following the attacks, Ramy’s all-white friends not only absurdly suspect him of being a terrorist, they also doubt (correctly) that he’s ever masturbated. And to test his loyalty and honesty, they send him into the woods with a leaf, ordering him to masturbate onto it. There, alone among the trees, Ramy panics, the camera flinching and rapidly swiveling toward the animal noises that spook the boy.

It’s as if Ramy is suddenly in a horror film, and after emerging from the woods, not having orgasmed, he finds himself abandoned by his friends. But soon after, on another walk to school, a boy in a wheelchair, Steve, asks if he can accompany him. This is when the friendship between these othered kids—Ramy because of his faith and ethnicity, Steve because of his genetic condition—was born. It turns out that the leaf Ramy took with him into the woods was edifying, because trying to fit in is a masturbatory act—a message Ramy has clearly carried into his adulthood as he works to define the terms of his identity.

There are limits to Ramy’s self-awareness, however, and a clearer-eyed depiction of him appears in episodes that divert attention to other characters. Like Atlanta, Ramy spends a few episodes focused primarily on its supporting characters, namely Ramy’s sister, Dena (May Calamawy), and his mother, Maysa (Hiam Abbass), with Ramy making what amount to cameos in both stories. Maysa’s episode is a particular standout of the first season; it’s devastating to watch Ramy’s mother scroll through her like-less Facebook profile, to learn that she speaks French but has no one to speak it with. And Ramy’s brief appearance in the episode paints him not as the loveable smooth-talker that he’s been seen as up to that point in the series, but as an inattentive, ungrateful son. Which is to say that Maysa’s episode makes clear the degree to which the series builds aggrandizing myths of its own about Ramy’s growth.

The season ends in Egypt, where Ramy searches for his roots and spends time with his cousins, Shadi (Shadi Alfons) and Amani (Rosaline Elbay). Shadi seems straightforward enough: a happy-go-lucky, partygoing dude with a fondness for early-aughts American pop culture. But Ramy inadvertently cracks that veneer by asking Shadi about the Arab Spring and objecting to his cousin’s use of drugs and the n-word. Frustrated, Shadi explains that he and his friends don’t want to talk about the revolution because they saw people die—and questions why Ramy cares if he sniffs coke and says the n-word. “I see you being all spiritual and shit and trying to make meaning of all of this,” Shadi says. “I’m lost, man. Everybody’s lost.” In the moment, the show reveals that Ramy isn’t uniquely adrift. There are many strangers in many strange lands. Mythology, be it personal, national, or otherwise, is empty, everywhere.

The deeper explorations of Shadi and Maysa’s lives are welcome, but they’re too brief. The season might have had even greater impact had it focused more on developing its supporting characters, though one imagines Ramy will make room for that in its inevitable second season. But that’s a minor complaint, as the weight of Ramy’s journey is both significant and unforgettable. Consider the scene in which Shadi drives him past Giza. Ramy takes a picture of the pyramids with his phone, and then, with a quick cut, they’re gone. They disappear upon exiting the realm of abstraction and entering Ramy’s lived experience.

That night, at a party with Ramy, Amani nonchalantly points to the Nile off screen. “That’s the Nile?” Ramy asks, dumbstruck. “What else would it be?” she answers. No pharaohs, no reed boats, no babies in baskets. Later, we see the river in the background when Shadi shares his lostness with Ramy. The series derives its soulfulness from such moments of disillusionment, from the ruins of the myths that Ramy and his family and friends tell themselves and those around them. There’s profound pain to be found amid the rubble. And, maybe, peace.

Cast: Ramy Youssef, Hiam Abbass, Amr Waked, May Calamawy, Mohammed Amer, Dave Merheje, Steve Way, Laith Nakli, Shadi Alfons, Rosaline Elbay Network: Hulu

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