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Review: Masters of Horror: Season One

Talented filmmakers working on material from genre aficionados, yielding uneven results.

2.5

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Masters of Horror: Season One

Haeckel’s Tale (John McNaughton). As the final episode of the first season of Masters of Horror, Haeckel’s Tale is representative of much of the series: talented filmmakers working on material from genre aficionados, yielding uneven results. Considering the creative team involved (adapted by series creator Mick Garris from a short story by Clive Barker, directed by John McNaughton) and that it climaxes with a corpse-fucking bride surrounded by a legion of horny zombies, not to mention a demented bloodsucking baby and some intestine ripping carnage, the most shocking thing about this Frankenstein riff is how utterly hackneyed the proceedings are. Set in a vague New England that seems lifted wholesale from Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations, Haeckel’s Tale follows medical student Ernest Haeckel (Derek Cecil) through his failed attempts at raising the dead Mary Shelley-style. Traveling home on foot to visit his ailing father, he encounters grave robbers, a mysterious street mountebank resurrection artist (Jon Polito), and an eccentric family in a cabin overlooking a cemetery, all of whom share purple prose-infused chitchat with our young hero about Life and Death. Corman’s films and the Hammer horror series depended on well-constructed atmosphere that went beyond the use of a smoke machine and fake gravestones. This episode looks so cheap it makes one think that by the time McNaughton (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) got to shoot, his fellow masters of horror had spent all the production money already. To make up for the highly mannered performances and stately bordering on somnambulant pacing, McNaughton makes frequent and jittery use of zooms to punch into people, places and things, whether it’s dramatically warranted or not. Despite the fact that Haeckel’s Tale is at best a mild curiosity for patient genre fans, it’s commendable that Masters of Horror has given work to some of the horror genre’s finest craftsmen, and if the final product wasn’t always the galvanizing return to form we’d hoped for, at least it keeps these directors in the game. We’d thought John Carpenter had caved in to cynicism and boredom, Dario Argento was coasting on his earlier masterpieces, and Joe Dante’s wonderfully eccentric point of view was being stifled by timid studio heads. These artists and others showed they still had guts and glory—and here’s hoping the second season will bring us more where that came from. That’s worth a few indifferent trifles like Haeckel’s Tale. Jeremiah Kipp

Pick Me Up (Larry Cohen). Pick Me Up, adapted by David J. Schow from his own short story of the same name, observes what happens when a very small group of people stranded on the side of the road after a bus accident are chased and hunted by not one but two serial killers. This isn’t new terrain for a horror film, except Larry Cohen’s new experiment in horror is outfitted with a unique and fascinatingly lacerating hook: its two killers work independently of each other. This may sound uncomplicated, except each man, one a snake-loving hitchhiker played by Warren Cole, the other a truck driver played by Michael Moriarty (doing some kind of twisted impersonation of Christopher Walken), seem metaphysically privy to the other’s work. With the help of editor Marshall Harvey, who was responsible for cutting two of the more acclaimed entries in the Masters of Horror series, Dario Argento’s Jenifer and Joe Dante’s Homecoming, Cohen works on an elemental level to evoke a doctrine of just equilibrium spread out across the film’s scenes. If the killers scarcely bother each other, it’s because their butchery is neatly locked in a balance of power—that is, until Fairuza Balk’s woman warrior comes between them. Because he who claims the woman for himself threatens to tip the scales, the boogeymen naturally butt heads. And just as they spar with each other, so does the film’s unique blend of improvisational fear and humor. It’s always been in the nexus of horror and comedy that Coehn’s films find a portal into strange, undiscovered zones of the American consciousness. Once again, Cohen straddles the line between the sparring sensations of terror and laughter like an expert logroller, summoning a subtly damning but fun commentary on New World Order capitalism. Ed Gonzalez

Sick Girl (Lucky McKee). Although I’m not sure two movie credits qualify Lucky McKee as a “master” of horror, the young director has managed to contribute by far the most compelling episode yet to Showtime’s hit-or-miss series. Like Masters of Horror’s other best segments, Don Coscarelli’s Incident On and Off a Mountain Road and Dario Argento’s Jenifer, Sick Girl pays campy tribute to our sexual baggage. “Connect? You’re into chicks, darling. That’s a scientific impossibility,” a co-worker kids the lesbian entomologist Ida (Angela Bettis) about her female troubles, but given the episode’s delirious final shot McKee probably sees the remark as a challenge. After Ida begins dating Misty (Erin Brown), a mysterious bug sent to her apartment escapes and eats a neighbor’s dog. Soon the bug impregnates Misty (by sticking its appendage into her orifices, no less) and causes her to periodically throw fits at Ida and the homophobic granny down the hall. An oblivious Ida suspects a rift in the relationship but as she’ll soon discover these are just the ups and downs of childbirth! This “gift” is a disapproving scientist’s idea of retribution for an unnatural lifestyle, yet Ida and Misty manage to subvert the right’s oppression and turn it into progress; Ida’s gay-bashing landlord is disposed of, and not only is her relationship with Misty literally consummated, but to the chagrin of anti-gay marriage activists, they also become fully domesticated. Bettis gives another startlingly moving performance after May, acting equally weird but completely different, and McKee works the story with his usual fetish for voyeuristic gazing; characters eye each other but stumble trying to articulate their desires and emotions. This complicated mix of camp and tender romantic feeling owes as much to any horror movie as it does to Douglas Sirk or Mommie Dearest. Paul Schrodt

Fair Haired Child (William Malone). Virginal Tara (Lindsay Pulsipher) leaves school after being taunted for being unable to complete an equation on her math teacher’s chalkboard. Guided by the breadcrumb chords of a remarkable Nicholas Pilke score, the downtrodden lass makes her way home through the woods (natch), followed unassumingly by a van that will suddenly and shockingly throw her to the side of the road like a Raggedy Anne doll. Waking up in the Vermont estate owned by her tormentors, an eccentric musician couple played by William Samples and Lori Petty, Tara appears to have stepped through a wormhole. House on Haunted Hill director William Malone’s talent is one for concocting an ominous mood of dislocation: the New England abode of the film suggests something out of V.C. Andrews or John Irving, with Petty’s fourth-wall-engaging boogeywoman sitting in front of a television displaying an Indian head test card. With time and place dutifully thrown out of whack, Tara is further tormented when she’s thrown inside the couple’s basement, where she encounters a living-dead boy named Johnny and a strange series of warnings on the wall. Malone mitigates the inherent silliness of the story’s plot (Tara is the 12th victim in the musician couple’s rite to bring their son back from the dead) with a series of nervy inventions. Or are they reinventions? A magpie on the surface, the director swipes ideas and rhythms from Jan Svankmajer, the Brothers Quay, Floria Sigismondi’s videos for Marilyn Manson, possibly even HBO’s Carnivale, to reveal backstory and scare the bejesus out of Tara—and his audience. One moment the film suggests a Carrie throwback, the next a Ringu riff, and while no scene feels particularly original, the overall pastiche never feels discordant. Pushed forward by ever-shifting tonal and emotional gears, the surface of the film itself evokes the story’s obsession with the metamorphosis of body, spirit and sexuality. EG

Cigarette Burns (John Carpenter). A cinephilic variation on 1994’s In the Mouth of Madness, John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns concerns itself with a legendary cult film called Le Fin Absolute du Monde (The Absolute End of the World) that was never shown again after its festival premiere 30 years ago because it drove the crowd to slaughter one another and burn the theater to the ground. A movie conceived of as “a weapon” by its Faustian director, the notorious work reputedly exerts a malevolent power over all those foolish or reckless enough to seek it out (much less watch it), and thus when struggling theater owner and procurer of rare films Kirby Sweetman (Norman Reedus) is hired by wealthy miscreant Bellinger (a sadistically suave Udo Kier) to locate Le Fin for a private viewing, he quickly finds himself haunted by disorienting psychic flashes of the titular reel change marks, which are accompanied by visions of the girlfriend he selfishly drove to smack and suicide. Carpenter’s first output in four years, Cigarette Burns may disappointingly lack the director’s trademark cinemascope cinematography and ultimately succumb to an ill-advised show-rather-than-imply mentality, but—scored by the director’s son Cody with familiar, Carpenter-style synthesized keyboards—it’s nonetheless something of an atmospheric semi-return to form, a chillingly sadomasochistic riff on film’s ability to violently tap into our most primal impulses. It’s a theme of particular relevance to the genre-obsessed auteur, whose career has been spent reveling in, expanding upon and deconstructing the exhilarating, escapist thrills of horror and sci-fi B-movies, and here Carpenter slyly implicates both himself and his audience as complicit partners in this gnawing desire to indulge in on-screen murder and mayhem. More than any preceding Masters of Horror episode, Carpenter’s creepy contribution—indebted to The Ring’s technophobia, the explicitly referenced Deep Red’s infatuation with sight, and The Ninth Gate’s plot—regularly colors its foreboding investigatory narrative with swathes of crimson-stained gore. And in a deliriously nasty climax of spiritual and corporeal union between man and celluloid, the film gruesomely captures the way truly potent cinema feels: as though it were ripped straight out of one’s own guts. Nick Schager

Deer Woman (John Landis). Frivolous and mostly unfunny, Deer Woman finds John Landis goofing off with a horror-comedy tale about a jaded detective’s (Brian Benben) investigation into a series of mutilation murders that may involve a mythical Indian spirit (Cinthia Moura) with the upper torso of a Playboy Playmate and the legs of a deer. Reminiscent of Larry Fessenden’s Wendigo (or punk-emo outfit Fallout Boy’s video for “Sugar, We’re Going Down,” but with more gore), Landis’s Masters of Horror contribution treats self-reflexivity as an end unto itself, delivering tongue-in-cheek references to its underlying ludicrousness as well as a wink-wink allusion to Landis’s An American Werewolf in London (the film that largely justifies the director’s inclusion in this anthology). As written by Landis’s son Max, the titular creature kills men not because of any specified historical or societal grievance but merely because their horniness makes them easy targets, and though the episode cannily fesses up to the misogyny of such a setup, what’s missing from its portrait of deadly animalistic sex is some direction or depth. For no apparent reason other than to adhere to (as well as playfully tweak) detective story conventions, Benben’s sleuth is saddled with a past professional trauma that’s relegated him to a desk job working animal attack cases (har har) and an African-American partner (Anthony Griffith) so dopey his demise is preordained the second he opens his mouth, all while Moura’s hoofed supernatural beast flashes, with silent seductiveness, both a few come-hither looks and her tits. The omnipresent jokiness, however, isn’t enough to overcome the nagging pointlessness of this lighthearted monster movie lark, nor the disappointment of Landis treating the Showtime series as simply a venue for throwaway bits about severed body limbs and snapped erections. NS

Homecoming (Joe Dante). Homecoming, Joe Dante’s entry in Showtime’s Masters of Horror series, comes across as something of a left-leaning wank job. Although the director has confessed his liberal bias in interviews, I sense his intention was for a more equivocal humanism to prevail, which it does in a handful of the episode’s best scenes. Tellingly these are the sequences that diverge most explicitly from the story’s ostensible inspiration (the 2000 and 2004 American presidential elections) and focus more on the homefront. At its heart, Homecoming is a subversive zombie story in which the living dead (all deceased veterans of an unnamed, though obvious war) arise from their graves and cast votes rather than eat flesh. Dante and teleplay writer Sam Hamm (adapting Dale Bailey’s short story Death & Suffrage) tell the tale through the eyes of two right-wing pundits—campaign manager David Murch (Jon Tenney), his Kennedy-like physicality a satirical blessing in disguise, and Jane Cleaver (Thea Gill), a sexed-up, Ann Coulter-esque rabble rouser possessed of a lecherous desire for political advancement. The duo’s performances are broad, but it is to Dante’s credit that the characters never seem less than recognizably human. Much like his cinema precursor Frank Tashlin, Dante knows how to create a vivid and heightened cartoon world that, at its best, profoundly comments on humankind’s various achievements and foibles. When the first wave of zombies awake, Dante sets the scene inside a massive airplane hanger, the dead soldiers rising from beneath a series of symmetrically arranged American flags. It’s a charged political image that adheres to no one party or point of view and there are several more like it, most notably during a heartbreaking, eventually bloody interrogation scene where Dante regular Robert Picardo, as a scheming and manipulative presidential adviser, asks one of the zombie servicemen why he won’t speak. “Hurts,” the soldier replies. These great moments unfortunately never coalesce, hindered as they are by the episode’s rather cheap looking HD-sourced visual aesthetic and weighed down by the Murch character’s discordant and contrived backstory, which hinges on a rather unbelievable repressed memory of bloodshed and so fails miserably as metaphor. Certainly the past, present and future of this country is written in blood (violently drawn in a variety of ways by all personal and political factions), but Dante tends to shy away from the gore in Homecoming when he should indulge it. As such, the episode’s climactic mass uprising of veterans (from beneath Arlington cemetery gravestones marked Jacques Tourneur and George A. Romero) is an unfortunate wash, falling far short of the transcendent call-to-arms it so clearly aims to be. Keith Uhlich

Chocolate (Mick Garris). Credit Mick Garris for creating Showtime’s Masters of Horror anthology, but not for successfully contributing to it. Stephen King’s preferred directorial collaborator when reworking his tales for TV (as well as for theatrical junk like Sleepwalkers and Ride the Bullet), Garris is an unabashed champion of the horror genre who nonetheless wouldn’t know how to stage something scary even if it crept up behind him and stabbed him in the back, and Chocolate (based on his own short story) finds him in typical fright-free form. Jamie (E.T.’s Henry Thomas) earns a living concocting artificial flavors for the fast food industry, yet despite his own incredibly heightened senses, the recent divorcee and frustrated dieter finds himself stuck in a bland bachelor’s life until he begins undergoing out-of-body experiences in which he can see (as well as smell, touch, and taste) through the eyes of a mysterious blond beauty (Lucie Laurier) with a fondness for gourmet chocolate. “It felt like growing up,” is how the lonely Jamie excitedly describes these unpredictable paranormal events. However, after enjoying, from the female perspective, the pleasures of shower head-aided masturbation and missionary sex with a hulking Asian stud (the latter of which hilariously occurs while Jamie’s frightened kid watches his dad uncontrollably writhe and groan on a bed), the incidents quickly begin to resemble transsexual virtual reality episodes. His growing “love” for the woman whose body he periodically inhabits a reflection of his latent desire to embrace his more feminine carnal impulses, Jamie seems to be a prime candidate for serious gender identity issues. Garris’s flat, made-for-TV aesthetic, unfortunately, drags his protagonist’s mental and emotional upheaval into a realm of uncomplicated insipidness, just as his narrative misguidedly ignores the ripe possibilities for probing the underlying anarchic confusion such a situation might produce. Whereas the psychosexual story craves some De Palma luridness or Miike grotesqueries, Chocolate instead plows toward its deflating murder-tinged finale without any hint of suspenseful sensual perversity. Though to be sure, the brief sight of King’s novel Desperation, soon to be a (likely crummy) Garris-helmed ABC miniseries in 2006, does generate a modest amount of anticipatory dread. NS

Jenifer (Dario Argento). Dario Argento’s films all address the varying levels of unease intrinsic in the way we look at the world. His hilariously grotesque Masters of Horror entry Jenifer essays the idea that what we see is not always what is there—that veil of uncertainty, discomfort, and denial that shrouds the director’s best films, most memorably in Deep Red and Tenebre. On the surface, Jenifer plays out as a rather rudimentary men-are-dogs provocation, but Argento interestingly sees the very graphic sex between a police officer (Steven Weber) and the hideously deformed woman he saves one day as an offshoot of the empathy that often develops between victims and their saviors. Argento’s work in the States brings out his more gothic sensibilities (for him, Poe was our founding father) and Jenifer’s auteurist stamp is most visibly felt in its frills and flourishes: the Claudio Simonetti score (part Goblin lullaby, part Bernard Hermann melodramatic ambience), the scary cat, and the lonely overhead from a second-floor window. It’s obvious Argento is not from our neck of the woods (Jenifer’s setting is not an actual place so much as it is a dislocation), but whatever alienation he may feel shooting films and directing actors in the United States gives films like Trauma, The Black Cat, and now Jenifer an interestingly perverse flavor. Argento may be lazily and hurriedly devoted to conveying how Jenifer—of a gene-splice between Laura Dern and Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive baby—will be passed like a baton to the next schmuck who comes to her rescue, but his latest experiment in terror is as grotesque as it is jaw-on-the-floor funny. Characters have absolutely no qualms talking about the hideous Jenifer as if she weren’t in the room, most amusingly when a fat psych ward orderly says, “How’d they get that head on that body?” EG

Dance of the Dead (Tobe Hooper). One would hope this post-apocalyptic bit of splatter-punk from Tobe Hooper, created for a cable series that allows for no-holds barred depictions of sex and violence, would be the long-awaited comeback for the maker of that infernal 1974 masterpiece The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Alas, you’ll have to keep waiting. After society has collapsed, Middle American communities try to preserve their apple-pie values. Virginal Peggy (Jessica Lowndes) works at a small town diner owned by her domineering mother. When a group of young punks resembling the leather-jacket wearing, pulp-talking thugs from a 1950s anti-drug film and their floozy girlfriends swing by the establishment, Peggy meets cute with brooding, mascara-wearing Jak (Jonathan Tucker, one of the victims from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake). Jak tempts Peggy to take a walk on the wild side, and they go out for a night of carousing that leads them to a club hybrid of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome and Cabaret’s music joints. Robert Englund plays the lecherous MC, who hosts an evening of punk rock lite featuring goth posturing, lesbians, and as a highlight, dancing zombies pushed onto the stage with cattle prods. What should be a ridiculously over-the-top scenario played for campy thrills never actually reaches the grotesque heights it aims for, mainly because the cast ranges from somnambulant (Tucker) to overcooked (Englund). The production design is strictly a B-grade rehash of the familiar, cobbled together on a TV budget. The gross-out effects are never truly repulsive. Much of Hooper’s career has been marked by compromise. One wonders if his taste for the macabre was knocked out of him; now he’s a hackneyed journeyman trying to make a living after being destroyed by the Hollywood factory. There’s the occasional moment in Dance of the Dead where Hooper still allows himself to indulge: two gasmask-wearing garbage men tossing zombie carcasses into a trash can and torching them with flamethrowers is topped by Englund getting an undead blowjob from a zombie mistress. But Hooper lacks the nerve to stand by his transgressions, and resorts to cheap effects like an over-used fluttering camera speed to imply a bad drug trip and sentimental theatrics like a third-act monologue where the villains spin monologues about their past sins that feel ripped from a dud soap opera. Better luck next time Tobe. JK

Dreams in the Witch House (Stuart Gordon). Dreams in the Witch House is a return to form for Stuart Gordon, whose adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft stories (most notably Re-Animator and From Beyond) took wild turns toward the otherworldly, arcane and comically perverse. Never a particularly cinematic storyteller in the league of his film brat contemporaries John Carpenter, Sam Raimi or Tobe Hooper, Gordon’s strength was using his banal, almost pedestrian approach to moviemaking as glue to hold together unforgettably carnal set pieces. Though the material here feels stretched thin even in the hour-long Masters of Horror format (30 minutes would have sufficed), Gordon is allowed the freedom to delve into his wet indulgences without having to concern himself with the MPAA breathing down his neck for an R rating. If Witch House falls short of Gordon’s Grand Guignol classics, we can’t chalk it up to the limitations of television. Showtime allows him to go whole-hog. This second episode of Masters of Horror offers a suitably likeable Miskatonic University grad student (Ezra Godden) staying at a decaying boarding house. As he works out his thesis on parallel universes, he befriends his neighbor, a single mom (Chelah Horsdal) who talks him into babysitting her infant child while she tries to find a blue-collar job. Gordon teases out the haunted house creakiness and rats that live in the walls, and while its wholly atmospheric we miss the presence of a wild-card character like Re-Animator’s manic Herbert West or From Beyond’s sick scientist Dr. Pretorious. But when Witch House finally kicks into gear, it’s worth the wait: rats scuttling around with human faces, nubile witches that shape-shift from voluptuous sex goddesses to rotting pediatrics during sex (in a clear nod to The Shining), and an uncompromised and crimson-soaked finale involving potential infanticide and the Book of the Dead. Needless to say, it all winds up resolved within the confines of a padded cell. Gordon may have mined this territory before to greater effect, sure, but in these days of PG-13 horror films too timid to alienate their audience, it’s nice to see he hasn’t lost his knack for macabre impropriety. JK

Incident On and Off a Mountain Road (Don Coscarelli). “Expect the unexpected,” someone intones early on in Incident On and Off a Mountain Road, though given that Don Coscarelli helmed this debut episode of Showtime’s Masters of Horror anthology, it’s hardly a shock to see the Phantasm filmmaker’s favorite boogeyman Angus Scrimm eventually show his gaunt, pasty countenance. More assuredly directed than any of Coscarelli’s prior features (thanks in large part to Jon Jaffin’s ominously moonlit storybook cinematography, filled with phallic blades and vaginal river canyons), the rapturously fiendish Incident, based on a short story by Joe R. Lansdale, plays out like a one-woman Texas Chainsaw Massacre set in Wrong Turn’s Southern backwoods. Ellen (Bree Turner) finds herself pursued through the tangled forest by a giant knife-wielding albino freak dubbed Moonface (John de Santis) who makes it a habit of removing his “naughty” female victims’ eyes with a power drill. Interspersed throughout this nocturnal chase are flashbacks to Ellen’s increasingly unstable marriage to lunatic militant Bruce (a balding Ethan Embry), whose survivalist teachings (essential for when urban civilization is overrun by “mud men”) come in handy once Ellen chooses to fight back against her monstrous pursuer via MacGyver-style booby traps. That the film distastefully mitigates Bruce’s vileness by having his abusive lessons ultimately prove useful for the feistier-than-she-appears Ellen is matched by its clever inversion of right-wing survivalist philosophy for proto-feminist ass-kicking. Yet such weightier concerns rarely hinder the ghoulish genre pleasures derived from Incident’s swift pacing, unnerving Edward Shearmur/Chris Stone score, and the sight of the always-sinister Scrimm performing a disturbing rendition of “Dixie.” NS

Cast: Derek Cecil, Jon Polito, Michael Moriarty, Warren Cole, Angela Bettis, Erin Brown, Lindsay Pulsipher, Norman Reedus, Udo Kier, Brian Benben, Cinthia Moura, Anthony Griffith, Jon Tenney, Thea Gill, Henry Thomas, Lucie Laurier, Steven Weber, Jessica Lowndes, Jonathan Tucker, Robert Englund, Ezra Godden, Chelah Horsdal, Bree Turner, John de Santis Network: Showtime, Fridays, 10 p.m. Buy: Amazon, Soundtrack

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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.

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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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