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Doctor Who Recap: Season 7, Episode 5, “The Angels Take Manhattan”

As often with Steven Moffat’s scripts, even just recapping what happens in the episode can be quite a challenge.

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Doctor Who Recap: Season 7, Episode 5, “The Angels Take Manhattan”
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Over the course of its original run, Doctor Who seldom used to make a big deal of the times when one or more of the Doctor’s companions departed the series. There were exceptions, of course, but the majority of companions would receive no more than a brief, bittersweet moment at the end of an otherwise unrelated story. Sometimes even less—Liz Shaw, the first companion to Jon Pertwee’s Doctor, simply vanished from the show after the 1970 season, with only a brief mention in the first story of the following year to cover her absence. Such a thing would be unthinkable in the new Who series, where the increased complexity of characterization and the central importance of the Doctor’s companions within the arc of the stories has meant that all of the episodes where a companion departs have been special, emotional high points. In “The Angels Take Manhattan,” the finale for Season 7’s first stretch of five episodes, showrunner Steven Moffat takes on the responsibility of providing a fitting and satisfying payoff for two and a half years of adventuring for Amy (Karen Gillan) and her husband Rory (Arthur Darvill), and succeeds brilliantly.

As often with Moffat’s scripts, even just recapping what happens in the episode can be quite a challenge because he is amazingly adept at making plot elements serve multiple purposes simultaneously, at linking lines of dialogue across the episode so that they contrast or reflect each other, and at introducing new twists that throw an entirely new light on what has gone before. The pre-credits teaser, a lovely noir pastiche from director Nick Hurran, provides a good example. We are in 1938 New York, where a private detective, Sam Garner (Rob David), is hired by a Mr. Grayle (Mike McShane), to investigate what he says are statues that move by themselves—but only when you’re not looking at them. Directed to an apartment block “where the statues live,” Garner finds something even more disturbing—a room containing a bedridden, dying old version of himself. Then the statues start coming after him, and pursue him up to the roof, where he is confronted by a Statue of Liberty whose face is disturbingly different from the version familiar to us…

The moving statues might be a mystery to Garner, but they certainly aren’t to any Doctor Who viewer of the past five years. The Weeping Angels, probably the greatest new monster created so far in the new series, have been a fan favorite ever since their sensational debut in Moffat’s 2007 episode “Blink”. With their combination of a brilliantly convincing design and (far more unusual) a wonderfully original concept, they are clearly one of Moffat’s greatest contributions to the show. I did think he mishandled them slightly when they were brought back for 2010’s two-parter “The Time of Angels” and “Flesh and Stone”, when they gained the ability to speak (at least, using others’ voices), and the clever idea that even the audience never sees them move was abandoned in favor of more conventional attempts at creepiness. Thankfully, no such lapses occur in this episode—the angels are back to their inscrutable, menacing best, with a few new developments thrown in for good measure.

But to return to my point about Moffat’s multi-layered plotting—after the opening titles, we get a whole new perspective on what we just saw as we join the Doctor (Matt Smith), Amy and Rory in the present day, enjoying a picnic in Central Park. The Doctor is happily reciting to them from a book, a hardboiled detective yarn called Melody Malone (“A Private Detective in Old New York Town”)—and it becomes obvious that we have been watching a dramatization of the fiction he has just been reading. A second viewing of the episode reveals that the director has signposted this in retrospect, so to speak—a great many of the shots and camera moves in the teaser are replicated later in the episode, in the “real” part of the story. That even includes the striking final moment, when Garner is framed so as to appear within the fanged mouth of the Statue of Liberty angel (an idea, incidentally, which Moffat has said people have been suggesting to him about twice a week ever since “Blink” aired)—the exact same sequence will later occur with Rory.

The early picnic scenes have some lovely, relaxed banter between the three leads. Beneath the surface, though, Moffat is busy establishing elements that will be significant later, such as the fact that Amy now uses reading glasses, or the Doctor ripping out the last page of the book because “I hate endings.” Hilariously, Amy and Rory start kissing and then riff on the fact that (as of the end of last season) the Doctor is actually their son-in-law (“We have company” “I’ll get a babysitter”). While Rory goes off to get coffee, the Doctor continues reading to Amy, but the line between fiction and reality starts blurring as the realization gradually strikes first the audience, then the Doctor and Amy, that the book isn’t just paralleling events on screen, but actually narrating them.

The Doctor: (reading) “He said, ’I just went to get coffees for the Doctor and Amy. Hello, River.’”

Rory has been transported back to 1938, where he encounters River Song (Alex Kingston), who is investigating the angels infesting New York, under the alias of Melody Malone. The first shot of River meeting Rory (“Hello, dad”) is the point where the fictional recounting gives way to real events. She and Rory are captured and taken to Mr. Grayle, who is now revealed to be a wealthy collector who thinks his house is under siege by the statues—with good reason, since he has a basement full of cherub-like baby angels and keeps another, full-sized one chained up and badly damaged (“I wanted to know if it could feel pain”). Grayle momentarily turns off the lights, and his prisoner angel grabs River’s wrist. Meanwhile, Rory is thrown into the basement, with only a box of matches for illumination. Moffat shows he hasn’t lost the ability to come up with scary new concepts—the cherubs, with their high-pitched giggling in the dark, are unnerving, and the moment when one is suddenly right there beside Rory, blowing out his lighted match, is memorable. Another clever idea is that the angels no longer just send people back in time as in “Blink”; they have taken over an entire apartment block where they can feed off the “time energy” from their victims, keeping them imprisoned until they die.

Back in 2012, the Doctor is still reading from the book (which, as is now obvious, River will eventually write), providing a real-time narration of events in 1938. River manages to use this slender thread of communication to provide the Doctor with a signal to home in on. The ingenious “conversation” via an inanimate object recalls the DVD easter egg recording in “Blink,” while the Doctor’s method of sending a message across time using Grayle’s Qing dynasty vases is reminiscent of River’s message to him at the start of “The Time of Angels.” (Unfortunately, I have to point out some faulty research on Moffat’s part here. We see a brief flash of the Doctor visiting ancient China, and the on-screen date of 221 B.C. is indeed the start of the Qin dynasty—but the Qing dynasty, the one associated with the vases, actually dates from nearly two thousand years later.)

The TARDIS arrives (knocking out Grayle in the process), and while Amy goes off in search of her husband, the Doctor greets his own spouse, as he and River immediately fall back into the comfortable teasing relationship that has developed over the past two-and-a-half years. The Doctor’s new determination to keep a low profile in the universe has affected River as well, resulting in her pardon and release from prison:

River: “Turns out the person I killed never existed in the first place… It’s almost as if someone’s gone around deleting himself from every database in the universe.”
The Doctor: “You said I got too big.”
River: “And now no one’s ever heard of you. Didn’t you used to be somebody?”
The Doctor: “Weren’t you the woman who killed the Doctor?”
River: “Doctor who?”

Now that Grayle has served his purpose of bringing everyone together in 1938, the plot quickly disposes of him via the angels, and the rest of the episode is devoted exclusively to the four principals. Just as in previous Moffat season finales “The Big Bang” and (to an extent) “The Wedding of River Song”, the outside universe barely impinges upon the story; there are periodic portentous warnings about New York or even the whole planet potentially being ripped apart, and so on, but the focus is very much on our four central characters negotiating Moffat’s maze of plot twists. The real enemy is not so much the angels as Time itself—or rather, predestination and foreknowledge. The idea that once you know any aspect of your personal future it’s locked in, unable to be avoided, has been used by Moffat for poignant effect as long ago as the end of “The Girl in the Fireplace” in 2006. Here it’s driven home several times in succession, as characters gain insight into their future and wish they hadn’t. As the Doctor says, “Once we know what’s coming, it’s written in stone”—with the camera ironically lingering on a shot of a gravestone with Rory’s name on it, foreshadowing his final fate.

When he finds Grayle’s angel is holding River’s arm in an unbreakable grip, the Doctor is upset because earlier Amy had read a couple of lines from the Melody Malone book before he could stop her, hinting that he would have to break something—which it’s now obvious refers to freeing River’s arm from the angel. Since they can’t simply read ahead in the book without spoilers, Amy cleverly suggests using the list of chapter titles as hints to find Rory. Unfortunately, they find that Rory has already been transported by the angels to their “battery farm” apartment block (which, amusingly, the script earlier noted is located in Battery Park). Far worse, the Doctor accidentally catches sight of the last chapter title—“Amelia’s Last Farewell.” Faced with evidence that he is about to lose Amy, he angrily tells River she has to change the future by getting her wrist away from the angel without breaking it, and leaves her to it. When he comes back with Amy from the basement, he is delighted to see that River has managed to free herself, but (somewhat implausibly) fails to notice the stiff way she is holding her arm, and when he grabs it she yelps with pain.

The Doctor: “Why did you lie to me?”
River: “When one’s in love with an ageless god, who insists on the face of a twelve-year-old, one does one’s best to hide the damage.”
The Doctor (gently taking her arm): “It must hurt… Come here.”
River: “Yes. The wrist is pretty bad, too.”

It’s always great to watch Matt Smith and Alex Kingston playing these two characters, especially with the material Moffat has given them here. Smith’s ability to convey a maturity that belies his youthful appearance (which it’s easy to take for granted, now that he’s demonstrated it so many times) makes the relationship entirely convincing as one between equals—two characters that have come to thoroughly understand and respect each other. That, in turn, means the twenty-year age difference between the actors does not need to be downplayed or obscured in any way; indeed, it’s deliberately used here to emphasize River’s pain at the inevitability of her aging while the Doctor does not.

Not that she’s looking for pity—when the Doctor gives up some of his regeneration energy to heal her arm, she berates him for being a sentimental fool, and storms out in embarrassment. Amy follows her, and we have a rare moment between these two—who are, after all, mother and daughter. It’s a pity that the relationship between River and her parents has ended up receiving little emphasis compared to that between her and the Doctor. (In this episode, even the Doctor is startled, after Amy and Rory are gone, when he recollects that River has just seen her parents disappear.) I suppose there would always have been the temptation to exploit the age reversal for comedy, but scenes like River’s quiet confession of her fears to Rory in “The Impossible Astronaut” worked very well (admittedly, though, he wasn’t aware of the relationship at that point). Here, too, Alex Kingston is touching as River passes on to Amy a piece of heartfelt advice: “Never let him see the damage, and never, ever let him see you age. He doesn’t like endings.”

Eventually, they track down Rory to the angel-controlled apartment block and catch up with him, but just a little too late. The Doctor is unable to prevent disaster when Rory encounters the aged, dying version of himself, a helpless victim of the angels. It’s a moving moment when the Doctor instantly understands that old Rory was so delighted to see Amy because he had been kept apart from her for so long. To Rory, it’s a fate literally worse than death, and so it’s totally believable when, after trying to escape the angels, he and Amy end up on the roof of the building facing the Statue of Liberty angel, and Rory realizes he can create a paradox by jumping from the roof, which will erase this entire timeline and wipe out the creatures.

Gillan and Darvill rise to the occasion with the unrestrained emotion of this intense scene, as Rory begs Amy to help him, and she eventually climbs up onto the ledge with him and decides they should jump together. I suppose some could see their all-encompassing devotion to each other (“If it was me, could you do it?” “To save you, I could do anything”) as being hopelessly sentimental or corny, but it felt fully sincere to me, earned and justified by the way we have seen these two come together over the last two-and-a-half years. There’s also an unexpected shaft of humor as Rory makes a joking reference to his repeated resurrections in previous stories. Set within what is actually a very dark scene, the line is all the more effective. (In fact, with the mutual suicide idea here, and the wrist-breaking earlier, this story has some unusually grim material for Doctor Who.)

Again, the Doctor arrives too late; he can only watch as Amy and Rory fall. Indeed, from the point where he realized Amy’s fate, he has been unusually passive, carried along by events. His only contribution to Rory’s plan to create a paradox by escaping the angels was to say how unlikely it was to work. However, despite his fears, everything seems to work out—the paradox is created, the timeline is reset, and they all end up in the same 2012 graveyard we saw earlier, with Amy and Rory still alive. It would be a happy ending—except for our memory of that gravestone shot from earlier. The twist in the tale comes when Rory catches sight of his own grave; his fate is sealed, as a solitary weak, surviving angel touches him and he vanishes into the past.

After all the twists of predestination, it’s ironic that Amy is left free to choose her own fate—and yet there is of course no choice to be made at all. The Doctor’s desperate exhortation, “Come along, Pond!” no longer works, as Amy Williams gives up her childhood friend for good and lets the angel take her to her husband. Karen Gillan sells this hugely emotional climax magnificently, culminating in a final heartfelt farewell to her “raggedy man” as Amy disappears forever. Her name appears on the gravestone below Rory’s, signalling that she too is now part of an unavoidably fixed timeline.

Matt Smith shows the Doctor bereft and grieving, in much the same way David Tennant’s Doctor was after Rose Tyler was lost to a parallel universe in “Doomsday”. It did somewhat surprise me that the Doctor seemed so unprepared, though—it doesn’t seem to square with the hints dropped in previous episodes (especially “The Power of Three” last week) that the Doctor was aware of Amy and Rory’s upcoming fate. The story also insists that Amy and Rory are now as inaccessible to the Doctor as Rose was—the timelines are apparently too scrambled now in that place and time period for the TARDIS to handle. (I suppose that could be seen as a justification for the New York setting, which otherwise played remarkably little part in the story. If the Doctor can never go there again, it couldn’t be a city that the show uses regularly, like London.) Considered in the cold light of day, it seems implausible that the Doctor can never even pay a visit to them—River’s vortex manipulator seemed to be able to cope with the time distortions, and if even that is ruled out now due to the creation of the paradox, surely he could always land in New Jersey and take a bus. In the final analysis, though, for me Amy and Rory’s separation from the Doctor may not be completely watertight plotwise, but emotionally it’s absolutely the right ending.

It’s a real wrench to see two major characters depart with such finality. They’ve been a huge part of the show over the past two-and-a-half years—the longest-serving companions of the new Who series; even over the entire almost-fifty-year run of the show, only a handful of characters have been around for longer. They were given a wider range of material to work with than any previous companion, as Steven Moffat wove the companions’ lives into the structure of the stories to a greater extent even than Russell T Davies before him. My favorite Karen Gillan performance is probably her tour de force double role in last year’s “The Girl Who Waited”, while Arthur Darvill deserves particular praise for the way in which he handled Rory’s steadily increasing importance in the stories, starting as a definitely subsidiary character and progressing to the point where Amy and Rory were fully convincing as a couple. After the work they’ve put in on Doctor Who, I hope both of them go on to even greater successes.

Meanwhile, the Doctor, as always, has to carry on even after the irrevocable loss of his two close friends. He still has River, who promises to travel with him “wherever and whenever you like,” but immediately qualifies that to mean not on a permanent basis (“One psychopath per TARDIS, don’t you think?”). She helps him to start moving on, matter-of-factly talking about the Melody Malone book which she now has to write, and promising to send it to Amy to be published—and to get her to write an afterword for him. I think this story shows that River still works well as a character even now that all the mysteries of her identity and origin have been revealed, but she is definitely more suited to being someone the Doctor’s life occasionally intersects with than a constant companion.

As she says, though, the Doctor shouldn’t travel alone. Fortunately, we’ve already had a taste of how well Matt Smith works with Jenna-Louise Coleman, who will be introduced as his new companion this Christmas, which makes the wait of three months until then one of pleasant anticipation. For now, Moffat brings the story of The Girl Who Waited and The Boy Who Waited For Her gracefully to a close, as the Doctor races back to their picnic spot in Central Park to find the last page he tore out from the book earlier. Matt Smith is superb in his non-verbal reactions as Amy’s last message sounds in voiceover (and it becomes an even more impressive feat if you watch the behind-the-scenes footage, which revealed that this intimate moment was actually recorded on location with several hundred fans nearby watching him).

Amy’s message asks the Doctor to do one last thing for her. In a perfect coda, Moffat brilliantly links the end of Amy’s story to the beginning, as he ties up a loose end from “The Eleventh Hour”, left hanging for two and a half years. Footage from that episode reminds us of how the seven-year-old Amelia (Caitlin Blackwood) packed her suitcase and waited in her backyard for her magic Doctor to return from a promised five-minute trip—only to end up waiting for twelve years. But the odd, isolated shot inserted into the climactic sequence, of the young girl suddenly looking up and smiling as she hears the TARDIS, could only previously be explained as a dream premonition of the now grown-up Amy, who was about to be awakened by the return of the Doctor into her life and the chance to finally join him. Now the truth is revealed—it was not a dream; at her future self’s urging, the Doctor did return to give the little girl hope during her long wait, telling her stories of the adventures to come.

Regardless of whether you believe that Moffat really did have all this planned from the start, it’s beautifully consistent with the theme of fairytale and storytelling that has permeated his entire era. “We’re all stories in the end,” the Doctor tells the sleeping Amelia in “The Big Bang”—and at the end of that episode Amy is able to bring him back from nonexistence by remembering the story he planted in her mind. Even in this, her last episode, she wanted the Doctor to read to her from the book that would soon blend into the story of her life. The freeze-frame ending (for long-time fans, a flawless evocation of our last sight of Sarah Jane Smith in 1976’s “The Hand of Fear”) is the perfect way to finish—the little girl smiling into the sky, waiting for her adventures to start.

“This is the story of Amelia Pond.” And this is how it ends—and ends well.

Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: The one occasion when the classic series did take the time to weave the departure of a companion through her entire final story was with 1973’s “The Green Death,” starring Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning. It was the culmination of a three-year stint on Doctor Who for Manning and her character Jo Grant, whose gradual turning away from the Doctor as she finds a new direction in her life was marvelously written and played. The final scene is an emotional high point of classic Who, well able to stand comparison with the similar moments in the new series.

For more Doctor Who recaps, click here.

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

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

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Game of Thrones
Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more Game of Thrones recaps, click here.

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Review: Chambers Liberally Borrows from Horror Tropes to Uneven Results

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

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Chambers
Photo: Ursula Coyote/Netflix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo: Helen Sloane/HBO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

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Native Son
Photo: Matthew Libatique/HBO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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Fosse/Verdon
Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/FX

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: The Sprawling Unspeakable Simmers with Rage But Lacks Resolve

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

2

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Unspeakable
Photo: SundanceTV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3

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Killing Eve
Photo: Aimee Spinks/BBC America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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Photo: Robert Falconer/CBS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Killing Eve
Photo: BBC America

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

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

See the trailer below:

Season two of Killing Eve premieres on April 7.

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

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

4

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Barry
Photo: HBO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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